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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Mark Berner and John Pricci —

The team of managing editor Mark Berner and John Pricci, founder and executive editor of, have done a series of researched reports like this before; a synopsis follows. While at Newsday, a lifetime and a half ago, they won awards doing so.

Times have changed but many of the issues have not. If you advocate for horses, care about the welfare of animals, love Thoroughbreds, and the sport of horseracing, you need information about the current progress of equine safety.

As a result of the referenced HRI series, scientist contact, Dr. Nena Winand, received a cease and desist order for making public her genetic research on pedigrees. The previous day, The Jockey Club notified HorseRaceInsider authors via email that we were indulging in junk science.

Last week, an announcement regarding a proposed policy change in the area of equine genetics relating to matings came with the following headline: “The Jockey Club Considers Rule Regarding Breeding Stallions.”

The Jockey Club declared that its board of stewards, concerned with the narrowing of the diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool, is considering a rule to limit the annual breeding of individual stallions starting in 2021. 

The statement informed in part: “Established in 1894, [The Jockey Club] is the keeper of the American Stud Book and maintains the Principal Rules and Requirements of the American Stud Book in order to ensure the welfare of the Thoroughbred breed.”

Maybe some testing has already been conducted.

American Stud Book Vol I-VII
photo CollectorsNet

In Lexington, where arguably the most comprehensive horse auction in the world, aka the Keeneland Fall Sale, commenced Monday, horse excrement already was visible on air-conditioning ducts in Kentucky and perhaps every other sales ring in this U.S.

The following is an excerpt from a report posted at April 3, 2019, edited for brevity and context:

“HRI EXCLUSIVE: Mutant Gene Causes Horse Bleeding and Breakdowns

By Mark Berner and John Pricci

“Everyone at Santa Anita Park looked for a silver bullet, that one thing that caused the recent cluster of catastrophic breakdowns at the Arcadia track. Officials of The Stronach Group, owners of Santa Anita, said it is multifactorial, but they are wrong.

The single uniting factor is Warmblood Fragile Foal Syndrome (WFFS), a genetic mutation first discovered in Warmblood horses…

Nena Winand, DMV PhD., a genetic scientist, identified WFFS at Cornell University in April 2011. She believes the mutant gene is present in at least 15% of all Thoroughbreds and may be as high as 30% or more in the US, where lines of bleeders have been highly selected…  

Read full story here:

WFFS prevents collagen–the body’s most abundant protein and the glue that holds together all living things–from forming properly, thus keeping the protein from doing its job.

Collagen is necessary to form strong cell walls like those that keep blood vessels from bursting under pressure. Collagen also is involved with the creation of strong bones, helping to keep them from shattering under stress. Collagen also forms connective tissue that keeps muscles attached to bone.

Some Warmbloods with this affliction have bones too weak to stand on, skin that falls off upon contact, and vessels too weak to hold blood. Such animals are euthanized at birth.

Thoroughbreds do not suffer to the extent Warmbloods do, but they do suffer enough to bleed through underdeveloped blood vessels and suffer broken bones that have not formed properly…”

Read full story here:

The Jockey Club is the only Thoroughbred industry organization that can be likened to a central authority, which makes last week’s announcement so significant. It is a measure that could at long last begin to address root causes of injury and disease in the Thoroughbred.

In short, soundness can be bred back into the Thoroughbred. Of course, it’s a process that will not bear fruit overnight. Perhaps a half-century needs to pass before Thoroughbreds would be significantly healthier at birth. But TJC announcement is a proper start.

The Jockey Club pronouncement went on to explain, quoting from their stats:

“As has been widely reported, the size of the North American foal crop has diminished significantly, from 37,499 in 2007 to the 20,500 estimated for 2020.

“In 2007, 37 stallions reported in excess of 140 mares bred each from a total of 3,865 stallions. By 2010, that number had declined to 24.

“Since then, the number has nearly doubled to 43 stallions reporting 140 or more mares bred from a population of stallions that now stands at less than one-half that of 2007.

“On the mare side, in 2007, 5,894 mares (9.5% of the total) were bred by stallions that covered more than 140 mares. By 2019, 7,415 mares (27% of the total) were covered by stallions with books of more than 140, a threefold increase.  

“The combination of these changes has resulted in a substantial increase in the percentage of foals produced by a discreet segment of stallions — signaling a worrisome concentration of the gene pool. 

“The board of stewards of The Jockey Club is considering a cap of 140 mares bred per individual stallion per calendar year in North America…”

Query from Bloodhorse: “Can you share any research done on the degree of inbreeding?”

TJC: “The stewards believe it is premature to consider releasing its research, but they may do so if they conclude it would materially benefit discussion of the proposed rule. However, some of the data include recent trends in large-book-size stallions that can be found online.” also reported “EARLY OPINIONS MIXED ON TJC PROPOSAL TO LIMIT BOOK SIZE”

Breeders responded thusly:”We would like to see the data. I think there is no question that there is an economic factor here. Is it about the gene pool or about competition?

“As a significant player in the stallion market, it would have been nice if this had been brought to us. It has never been discussed with us,” said one leading breeder.

Said another: “[We] support the phased-in approach to be fair to farms that have already bought new stallions” [explaining] “he couldn’t commit 100% to the proposal without seeing the details.” He added “there is always concern about unanticipated consequences.

BH: “Are you concerned about challenges regarding restraint of trade?”

TJC: “The short answer is no. We are neither concerned about nor see any basis for such a challenge. This proposal is aimed at the welfare and integrity of the Thoroughbred breed, which has been TJC’s primary mission for 125 years. The diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool is an important factor in the health and characteristics of succeeding generations of Thoroughbred horses, and that diversity has been declining at an accelerated rate. The purpose of the proposed rule is to preserve the Thoroughbred horse, without which there would be no Thoroughbred industry.

The HRI report continued: “Cornell patented a simple DNA test for WFFS in 2011. In March 2018, research at the University of California Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory identified a low carrier frequency of the WFFS mutation in Thoroughbreds, and appropriately communicated its findings to The Jockey Club.”

[Explained Dr. Winand]: “In reality, there was enough evidence that this was [an] inherited [trait] a year ago to warrant [the] addition of testing to the necropsy protocol that would have shown whether or not [equine deaths at Santa Anita] was caused by the WFFS mutation.

“[The Jockey Club has] had every opportunity to educate themselves and haven’t bothered, and there is no mention of any strategy to deal with it in the white paper (The Jockey Club’s recent white paper on its vison for 2050).”

TJC President Jim Gagliano and Executive Director Matt Iuliano said they were unaware of any notification and that it is something not routinely tested for, though Iuliano admitted to seeing a reference to it on the UC Davis VGL website. “We have no authority over the necropsy program,” said Iuliano.

Subsequent to the previous statement, Iuliano later recalled that his memory was incorrect and that he did receive notification from UC Davis as per contract. A test to identify WFFS has been available since May 2018 at the UC Davis VGL at a reasonable cost of $40.

In the March 26 HRI report, “Bleeders: It’s All in the Families” it was noted that a root cause “goes back to the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed imported to England from the Middle-East in the late 17th and early 18th centuries: the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729), also from the desert Arabians that preceded them.

“Bartlet’s Childers, nicknamed Bleeding Childers, was one of the earliest champion sires of the breed. A descendent of the Darley Arabian, he sired Squirt, who begat Maske, the sire of the great Eclipse, the dominant sire line of today’s Thoroughbreds. He has a presence in the male-line of about 95% of the breed. He has also sired several foundation mares.

“What was not known before and has been discovered by Winand in research since 2011 is that it only takes one copy to be present for the horse to exhibit signs of what seems to be a recessive defect, however, WFFS appears to be an unusual dominant mutation. The weak foal phenotype mimics a recessive but there are for the most part sub-clinical abnormalities in horses with one mutant gene copy…

“…Significantly, breeding horses with this genetic defect is a death sentence. When combined with bisphosphonates, the horses’ whose bones are exposed to stress are ready to implode at any time.

“I think you have to see what the injuries have in common and what the injuries tell you [to examine], said Dr. Larry Bramlage, renowned veterinary orthopedic surgeon. “We now have that information to make those determinations’.”

Read full story here:

The sport has been under siege since 30 horses suffered catastrophic injuries at Santa Anita this past winter and the sport held its collective breath through the 2019 Triple Crown series. It dodged a major bullet when the Kentucky Derby headstretch incident resulted “only” in disqualification, not disaster.

When Del Mar concluded its recent summer meet, it was deemed an unqualified success because no horse suffered a catastrophic racing injury throughout the entire session.

Much of that was the result of protocols put in place at Santa Anita in response to the tragedies suffered there. Remaining credit goes to California authorities that formed an expert panel of disparate stakeholders to insist new protocols were followed to the letter.

By comparison, four horses died from injuries suffered during Saratoga’s almost eight-week long 2019 race meet, which had 3,154 starters in 403 races. While the only acceptable but highly unattainable number of equine deaths is zero, the NYRA figure is well below the national average and represents significant progress in the area of safety.

The Thoroughbred industry is highly fractured, aligned by organization, with each group protecting its share of the spoils, so it is extremely encouraging to see TJC engage in a plan that will benefit the entire industry by doing what is best for the breed.

Horse Race Insider is pleased to be tangentially involved in this process. As lovers of the Thoroughbred, we should all share the same goal.

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10 Responses

  1. Exactly:

    We didn’t get into this mess overnight and won’t get out of it overnight.

    What to me accelerated much of this in hindsight was the Tax Reform Act of 1986. That act removed many tax shelters that included horses that led to many of the “class” stables leaving the sport. I remember around the time of the 1990 Brooklyn Handicap (the last that was part of the old Handicap Triple Crown as we knew it at 1 1/2 Miles in July at Belmont before Saratoga) how many were lamenting how the “class” stables were leaving the sport or already had and how the breed was already changing in some ways. To me, (as unrealistic as it is) reversing that act and going back to having such tax shelters might bring back in people who can do it without the greed there is in the sport.

    That said, one thing I have been advocating is the Graded States Committee to have the guts to pass new rules that mandate that progeny of stallions who were five years old or younger when conceived are ineligible for ALL Grade 1 & Grade 2 stakes until said stallion turns 13 years old. Making top horses race through their five year old season would go a long way to change the breeding to stamina, soundness and durability over speed, precociousness and the quick buck. Though not immediately, we would over time see a sharp improvement in the breed and maybe also in the process bring back more “old school” horsemen who have in more recent years been forced out, with that being one reason we only have half the number of trainers we did 20+ years ago.

  2. While our point and yours take the same path for racing down the road, we stressed soundness in the pedigree must be valued over all.

    But clearly we’re all wet; seven-figure yearlings are flying off the shelves in Lexington.

    For too many high profile, deep-pocketed buyers, the only dates that matter is what happens in the 3YO male division from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in June…

  3. This is fantastic work. I was fully ignorant to WFFS prior to reading this. It’s funny, because common sense would tell you that the more narrow the field of desired sires gets, the more genetic ‘issues’ with a given desirable bloodline would be reinforced in the breeding back to it. But it’s still something the average serious horseplayer never really thinks about – myself included.

  4. Thanks Doc, need to credit my managing editor who did a lot of the research heavy lifting and made contacts such as Dr Winand in the process. As we concluded Doc, everyone has a job to do, to save racing from destroying itself by considering only bottom line issues.

  5. UC Davis, and other labs, offer DNA testing to dog breeders and zoo keepers to understand each breed’s current state of affairs with an eye to identifying potential genetic bottlenecks, breed-wide relatedness, internal relatedness, improving immunity, and understanding where each animal fits into the big picture for it’s breed in terms of heterosis and homozygosity, and identifying animals or regions of the world that offer rare outlier genes that are being lost in the population centers. It’s very interesting. It is not meant to replace assessing phenotype, movement, health screening tests, etc. .. but it is another tool that can be employed to understand what an individual lacks and offers .. and which mate will be the best compliment in a way that pedigrees alone just can not do. Information is power. I hope that TJC will organize a move in that direction to understand the big picture genetically. It starts with selecting a lab, getting their guidance, and people sending in DNA samples.

  6. Mary, thanks for you comment. While some of it, on its face, is above my pay grade to understand, your point that information is power is a very well made understatement. And I do believe TJC is working toward that end; the idea of limiting the number of sire covers last week as stated last week is a step in that direction.

    Beyond that, it is transparency that will bring about better understanding, not only from industry stakeholders but from the public at large, whose support is crucial to the sport’s future.

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