Jenny - Clean


ACCORDING to the pundits, the chances of an Australian-bred horse winning this year’s Melbourne Cup are near to none.

The apparent dominance of internationally bred and trained horses suggests that our horses will be also-rans.

The two reasons most proffered for the lack of competitiveness of Australian stayers relate to Australia’s penchant for breeding sprinters and the belief that Australian trainers can’t train stayers. These reasons warrant further discussion.

The assumption that underpins the failure of Australia’s breeding program to produce competitive stayers is based on the flawed belief that breeding, as determined by the racing performances of parents and close siblings, is a reliable predictor of both, its racing performances, and its optimal racing distance.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Gaffney and Cunningham (1988) argue that breeding explains less than 35% of the variance in a horse’s racing ability. However, that study failed to consider the strongly-held, industry-wide belief that breeding is a reliable predictor of performance. As such, it assumes that so-called, poorly-bred horses are given the same opportunities as their better-bred counterparts.

This is not the case. Invariably, the first question asked by a competitive trainer when being offered a horse is: “What’s it by?” If the breeding is not deemed fashionable enough, the horse isn’t taken on. If it is and doesn’t perform well in its first preparation, the horse is prematurely “sacked”, in keeping with the trainer’s prejudice.

Well-bred horses on the other hand are given significantly more chances. They are given more time to mature and different techniques are engaged because the trainer’s expectations are that it should perform better given its breeding. Also, trainers are more keen to impress owners of expensive horses because the likelihood is that they can better pay their bills, and that more well-bred horses may come their way as a consequence. In contrast, if they reach the racetrack at all, poorly-bred horses are placed with less competent trainers and may never race to their potential.  

As stated, breeding is also a very poor predictor of a horse’s optimal distance. Whilst there have been a number of horses that were bred to sprint but end up winning the Melbourne Cup, such as Subzero, most horses are never tried over distance because they are deemed to be sprinters. As it stands, unless a horse that is trained on a sprinter’s preparation can finish strongly in a race over 1,600 m, it never has the chance to perform over longer journeys where it can demonstrate its staying prowess. A far more reliable determinant of a horse’s optimal racing distance is its body mass index (BMI). Successful sprinters have a greater body weight to height ratio than stayers, and this can be explained by the relative abundance of the fast-twitch fibres, which are essential for explosive speed.

However this, by itself, does not fully explain the lack of competitiveness of Australia’s stayers. Australian trainers are considered to be more adept at training sprinters than stayers because of the different constraints under which they train. In Australia, trainers invariably rely on training facilities, which are located within racetracks.

Galloping around tight corners is a significant contributor to lower-leg injuries because the centrifugal forces generated when a horse corners at speed cause the horse to “lean” into the corner; much the same as a cyclist going rounding a corner. Under such conditions, the fetlock of the lead-leg, which is under extreme pressure (approx. 15,000 psi), becomes is misshaped resulting in compression on one side, and tension on the other (Fig. 1). The opposite knee is also at risk as tiring horses attempt to “change leads”. 

As such, the predominant leg injuries in NSW and Queensland are the off-side fetlock and the near-side knee, whereas in Victoria and South Australia, where they race and train in the opposite direction, the near-side fetlock and off-side knee are most at risk. In contrast, English and French trainers at Newmarket and Chantilly, avail long straight runs of over two miles, where they can prepare stayers more safely. Further, their horses are able to be conditioned to race first-up over 3,200m, such as Vintage Crop, where Australian trainers rely on numerous races over shorter distances to achieve that same level of fitness.

Figure 1. The impact on the fetlock joint of training on turning tracks


Galloping in a straight line (upright)

Galloping on a turning track

It is argued that, without perhaps even realizing it, Australian trainers have come to understand the limitations of training on turning tracks in that the long, fast, pace work, required by stayers, is likely to result in injury and have modified their training methods accordingly. As a result, all Australian horses are trained to be sprinters by default.

The forces of mimetic isomorphism dictate that trainers tend to copy what other trainers do, so over time, this method of training has adopted rule-like status. An added problem is that when horses are trained to be sprinters, they are urged to maintain faster speeds than is comfortable. When tried over longer distances, they often fail to stay because they become prematurely exhausted from “pulling” as they fight their riders’ attempts to make them go slower.

Both of these factors are a major cause of lost value to all concerned. To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to appreciate how the asymmetrical power relations between administrators (almost invariably breeders) and trainers have shaped and institutionalized thoroughbred racing to the extent that it is incapable of endogenous change. As licensees, trainers are precluded from the strategic decision-making processes by virtue of statute. In their absence, breeders have shaped the industry to privilege their contribution (genetics), whilst simultaneously relegating the contribution of trainers. Trainers lack the autonomy to add value by adopting innovations. As such, trainers continue to rely on traditional (naturalistic) methods to condition their horses. Science is yet to happen in this area.

  • Gaffney, B., & Cunningham, E. P. (1988). Estimation of genetic trend in racing performance of thoroughbred horses. Nature, 332, 722-724.



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