Up until approximately 40 years ago, horses were not even considered for racing until they had reached at least three years of age. Even then, many were considered too young. As horseracing became more professional, two year old racing was introduced under a cloud of controversy. Despite much opposition from within the industry itself, it continues today.
Horses are not skeletally mature until around five years of age. Young horses risk serious injury each time they are made to run at high speeds.
As a result, most two-year-olds will sustain injuries in their first year of racing and many of them will not race in the subsequent year. In Australia, a study of two and three-year-old thoroughbred racehorses reported that 85 per cent suffered from at least one episode of illness or injury. (1)
The benefit of racing two-year-olds is simply economic. It means that owners can hopefully see a return on their investment twelve months earlier, therefore making it cheaper to prepare a horse for its first race. To further encourage investment in racehorse ownership, races for two-year-olds offer some of the highest prize money. The Magic Millions Classic held in Queensland, Australia boasts a prize purse of $2,000,000.
“Two-year-olds, as we know, can be here today and gone tomorrow.”
- Gai Waterhouse, leading racehorse trainer (2)
Unfortunately, the prize money for two year old racing, and the already high stud value placed on winners of feature races, continues to climb along with the rate of wastage due to breakdown. One Australian study of two-year-old thoroughbreds indicated that 40 per cent of horses were unsound at the end of the season. (3)
A survey of veterinarians and trainers estimated that shin soreness or dorsal metacarpal disease (DMD) affected 80 per cent of two-year-olds in Australia. (4)
“I think there’s probably a much stronger tendency to have two year old racing nowadays than there used to be...and the lure of prize money. There’s a great incentive to race their horses too young too immature. In the old days, you bought your yearlings, you broke them in, you castrated them, you turned them out. You didn’t think about them until late two year old and mostly three year olds. The big money came with three-year-old racing. The current owners want two-year-old racing and I think it’s a pity. I think it’s a pity because it certainly does cause the breakdown of a lot of two year olds.”
- Percy Sykes, leading horse racing industry vet. (5)
Industry Supported Studies
CPR reviewed the most recent study being referenced by Racing Victoria on 2-year-old racing.
The association of age at first start with career length in the Australian Thoroughbred racehorse population
B. D. Velie P. K. Knight P. C. Thomson C. M. Wade N. A. Hamilton
First published: 28 August 2012
What we found...
1. Source of funding for the study has been stated as being ‘in-kind’ however provides no further details. To ensure impartiality and transparency, details of the ‘in kind’ funding needs to be provided otherwise there may be a perception that the results may have been unduly influenced.
2. The population in the study was quite significant in number though excluded a select group of horses that is likely to significantly prejudice the findings of the study. The study claims that it included the ‘entire’ population of racehorses over a decade however excluded horses that had started training but never made it to the racetrack. These horses are not only the horses most vulnerable to injury but also likely to have ceased training as a result of injuries sustained in training. Considering this, we support the studies recommendation in that "it would be useful in future studies to account for horses that were introduced to race training but failed to reach the racetrack.”
3. The study cautions the findings stating that they don’t have data on horses that don’t make it to the racetrack. It does, however, know the numbers that have raced from any particular year but does not bother to compare it to the total number of horses bred in that same year. With approximately one-third of horses bred for racing never making it to the racetrack, this number is likely to be significant and affect the end results of the study.
4. The study states, “There is also evidence that fractures occur more often in younger horses and continue to decrease in frequency as age increases.” This seems to contradict their findings.
5. The report states, “It is critical to be aware that even though appropriate exercise has been shown to be necessary for optimal development, horses may be more easily injured during this time if the exercise is excessive” Preparing a racehorse for 2YO racing can only be described as excessive that involves making horses race at high speed over distances horses are not physically designed to do. The comment above is in complete contradiction of the findings of the study.
(1) (Bailey 1998).
(2) Chris Roots 2013, Waterhouse gets in Diamond swing. Sydney Morning Herald.
(3) Mason and Bourke (1973) .
(4) Buckingham S.H.W., Jeffcott, L.B. (1990) Shin soreness: a survey of thoroughbred trainers and racetrack veterinarians. Aust Equine Vet 8.
(5) Buckingham & Jeffcoat (1990)
(6) Mike Hayes 2000, The Track: The story of Good Breeding and Bad Behaviour. Australian Broadcasting Commission Sydney, NSW