The Sport of Kings is the sport of the super-rich, and also of those who really can’t afford it but sometimes are granted miracles. They all want terribly much to win, and keep winning, and will try almost anything to do it. That greed for victory has produced the routine abuses of breeding, a kind of black art through which these inbred animals are plagued by a variety of ailments that natural selection tends to eliminate. It is especially true of mares, whose sexual parts are displaced by the overdeveloped hindquarters, and routinely require special surgical procedures and repair. It brings old Chinese foot-binding practices to mind.
Horses avoid incest by instinct. Left to their own devices, they avoid it. But today’s thoroughbred horse is a creature bred in most cases for one purpose: about two minutes of competition over distances in the vicinity of a mile. It is a powerful and fragile creation of very calculated breeding in which everything is secondary to speed. Horse sense is the first thing bred out of them because a demented obsession with finishing first is essential. This win-or-die-trying mentality is bred into thoroughbreds, and an intelligent exercise boy once told me that “class” was simply the refusal to lose. (Think pit-bull.) Most horse people go into more complicated and exotic explanations involving the Dosage Index and other arcana. This purist mentality, reminiscent of what Hitler had in mind for his Master Race (along with other characteristics), creates delicate, flawed animals willing to run themselves to death. Some call it ‘improving the breed.’
Thoroughbreds are descended almost entirely from three Arab studs, the Darley (top dog), the Byerly, and the Godolphin, all bred with a variety of English mares. Often it was beauty and the beast: English racing stock was puny, but the basic English horse was larger, slower, and sturdier, adapted to hauling weight, whether on wheels or clad in armor. Both were tried. The Arab was a beautiful, sensitive animal, vastly respected in its culture, graceful, spirited, elegant, and with great endurance. When these studs began servicing English mares, inbreeding and direct incest were common; this is clear from records.
Over time, the thoroughbred, like the purebred dog, became a perfect example of the human desire to control other species. On learning that a new foal was missing an eye, a famous American breeder went into a huge tantrum. It was the sort of flaw inbreeding causes, as he had to know. Like the frail and often unstable European aristocracy, determined to consolidate power through blood, thoroughbreds, pedigree dogs (and any mammals routinely incested) produce many of defective specimens. The cure is an outcross, fresh blood from a source not closely related.
Secretariat is the best known of super-horses, but some horse people with no reason to lie have said that the mare Ruffian was the greater horse. It’s startling until you see her races and consider that all but one of her major records still stands. She was a very big (17 hands) horse, resting on delicate legs. This is true of thoroughbreds generally, but in her case both sire and dam had problems. Reviewer (her sire) broke down no less than three times in his career and Shenanigans (dam) broke two legs during hers. Her sire, Native Dancer, is generally assumed to have passed along bad leg-bone genetics.
Given Ruffian’s size and strength, it’s very arguable that her tragedy was fated. Having destroyed all female competition, she was put in a match race with Foolish Pleasure, best male horse of the day. (Even his trainer did not expect him to win.) What followed was a grim demonstration of what inbreeding can do. Leading the race, Ruffian snapped a foreleg. The jockey tried to pull her up but she kept running, destroying the leg, and went down, still trying to run. She was all class. When she woke up from sedation, she tried to keep running, and had to be destroyed. She’d done what she was bred to do.
It’s a race I wish I’d never seen, and a reminder of man’s demented inhumanity to other species, including those we claim to love. Her career cut short, Ruffian is still ranked 35th all time among thoroughbreds.