Only 66% of Thoroughbred foals entered training in Australia and 5% were exported to other countries. What happened to the other the other 28%?
You see the ones that win. You even see the ones that lose. But if you’ve ever wondered where the rest of the racehorses are—the ones born into the industry but missing from the tracks—you’re not alone.
Australian researchers recently completed a five-year study tracking down the foals born in the racing Thoroughbred industry in 2014. Of those foals, only 66% entered training in Australia, and 5% were exported to other countries. What happened to the other 28%?
“Many of them died, mainly due to injury or illness,” said veterinarian and researcher, Meredith Flash of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Animal Health at the University of Melbourne in Parkville, Victoria, Australia1 Asia-Pacific Centre for Animal Health, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia
Specifically, 38% of the group of horses that never trained didn’t live long enough to enter training, Flash said. “That seems like a lot, that 38%,” she said. “But it’s important to keep in mind that that’s only 11% of the whole foal crop, including those that did enter racing.”
With more than a third of the non-racing Thoroughbreds removed from the industry due to death, where did the other two-thirds go?
That’s what Flash and her fellow researchers set out to discover when they took on a sweeping evaluation of foaling records and racing records across the country in a single foaling year and surveyed breeders.
“There are a lot of horses that are born, and we have a reasonable idea of the proportion of those that end up training and racing,” she said. “But prior to officially registering with Racing Australia they are like ghosts in the system. There’s not a lot of visibility of those horses, particularly, what they’re doing, where they’re going, or what happens to them. This leads to a lot of speculation. We just wanted to put some data around that speculation.”
Their work represents a nationwide image of the Australian Thoroughbred racing industry, she said. The researchers examined official records of the Australian Stud Book to determine how many Thoroughbreds were born in each postal code of Australia in 2014. They then looked at how many of those horses had raced or trained in Australia by 2018, four years later, according to records provided by Racing Australia.
Racing records indicated that about 9000 of the nearly 14,000 Thoroughbreds born in 2014 entered training in Australia, she said. About 700 were exported outside the country (with unknown outcomes).
Meanwhile, 3880 horses (28%) from that entire 2014 foal crop had no record of entering training in Australia in those first four years of life, Flash said. Because they didn’t have records for those horses, the researchers decided to go directly to the breeders to ask them what became of their horses.
Instead of contacting the breeders of all 3880 horses, though, the scientists chose to create a representative sample based on geographical location. They surveyed more than 500 breeders, responding to the whereabouts of 633 horses born in 2014 that weren’t exported and never officially trained for racing. (Only 5% of the breeders contacted opted not to participate in the survey, she added.)
Surprisingly, 24% of these horses were actually training (or “spelling”—on break from training), despite not having official training records, their breeders reported.
Twenty of the horses (3%) were still going to be trained later to race, they said. About 25% of the horses had been sold on, rehomed, or retired outside of the racing industry, with no follow-up. Another 3% were being used as breeding stock, and for 6% of the horses, their situation was unknown, Flash said.
Lack of traceability, she said, is an important issue.
“I would think that the general public would expect that horses being sold at a Thoroughbred industry sale could be traced,” she said. “But these foals were born before traceability rules were introduced so, there wasn’t any requirement for the details of the change of ownership for horses being sold at a yearling or weanling sale to be registered with either the stud book or racing. There was just this assumption that if they were sold at these sales, they were sold for the purpose of racing and so they were going to just keep going on. But unfortunately, we just don’t have any more information on them.”
The new traceability rules will, hopefully, “close the gap” on these missing horses, said Flash. “What would be lovely is to redo this study afterwards and see if we can get some greater visibility,” she explained.
The majority of the horses discussed in these surveys, however, had died, according to their breeders. Twenty percent had died in the first year of life, and 18% had died between one and four years of age. “Most were due to injuries (not related to training) or illness, but some of the deaths, especially those in the first year of life, were due to congenital malformations or conformational issues,” Flash said.
Deaths in the first year of life represented about 6% of the full foal crop, she said. That’s comparable to studies in other countries that show early death rates of 5% in their Thoroughbreds. “It’s indicative of the general fragility of the young animal,” Flash explained. “Just like we have human babies in ICU and challenges around that, these horses have similar problems when they’re born, in that there is a certain proportion of those that are just not going to be successful in their lives. And that’s through no fault of anyone.”
Even so, knowledge about these death rates could be helpful, Flash added. “I think it would be useful for the industry to better understand the level of those congenital malformations and conformational defects that seriously derail horses’ life and career and get a better understanding of how prevalent they are in this Thoroughbred population,” she said.
There are no death rates published for other domestic breeds for comparison, she added.
The study results should provide people with a clearer view about the number of horses that the industry needs to produce in order to keep the sport active, according to Flash.
“There’s quite a lot of commentary about that they breed too many horses,” she said. “We need to have a better understanding of exactly how many horses are needed to maintain racing, and we need to understand that all the horses that are born are not necessarily available for that. As long as we take into consideration all those things, I think we can arrive at an appropriate breeding requirement for the Thoroughbred industry.”
This research article was published in PlosOne. You can find it here. It is titled: Barriers to entering race training before 4 years of age for Thoroughbred horses born in the 2014 Australian foal crop by Meredith L. Flash, Adelene S. M. Wong, Mark A. Stevenson, James R. Gilkerson