This being the annual statistical edition of the Canadian Thoroughbred, I thought I’d throw a few numbers at you, from the past and present.
• 22.8 per cent. That’s the percentage of black type stakes winners to foals recorded by Canadian and U.S. champion Northern Dancer, the Ontario-bred son of Nearctic who became the most influential thoroughbred sire of the 20th century. Of course, Northern Dancer only sired 646 foals during a stud career that ran from 1965 until he was pensioned in April 1987 at the age of 26.
Only a handful of active contemporary sires reach double-digits in percentage of black type winners to foals. The current leader, according to Bloodhorse.com, is War Front, at 11 per cent. A son of the Northern Dancer stallion Danzig, War Front has smaller foal crops on average than his peers. While Claiborne Farm has followed the trend to breed more mares to its stallions than were bred during the Northern Dancer era, its management has tended to be more conservative than other Kentucky stallion farms, emphasizing quality over quantity.
One last note about Northern Dancer. It’s amazing to think this horse never stood in Kentucky. Such was his influence on the breed and his attraction to thoroughbred breeders, the best mares in the world were sent to him at owner E.P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm in Maryland after moving him there from Ontario. Would any stallion owner or syndicate manager have the resolve to stand a horse of that quality outside of Kentucky today? Doubtful.
• 131 pounds. That’s how much weight Skip Away carried in the Grade 2 Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park in 1998. The gray horse conceded between 17 and 20 pounds to his rivals and barely hung on to win the Iselin by a nose at 1-20 odds. Zenyatta carried as much as 129 pounds in an almost perfect career that ended in 2010, but the days of our best horses getting weight assignments in the vicinity of 130 pounds are probably gone forever.
What we now refer to as the “older male” or “older female” division used to be called the “handicap” division because of the prevalence of handicap races. On the one hand, when racing secretaries were piling the weight on good horses, it seemed strange, almost sadistic, to try and get them beat. On the other hand, successfully carrying weight used to be a tool to help measure the quality of a horse.
When I first became a fan of the sport, I witnessed a performance in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup by Triple Crown winner Affirmed that is etched in my memory because of how fast he ran and how much weight he carried. Under 132 pounds and pressured on the lead throughout the mile and quarter distance, the flashy chestnut 4-year-old stopped the timer in 1:58.2, just one-fifth of a second slower than the track record.
That could never happen today. First of all, unless a Triple Crown winner is a gelding, it’s highly unlikely his connections would take the sporting route and race such a valuable commodity as a 4-year-old. And in the outside chance a horse that good wasn’t retired at 3, no racing secretary would have the audacity to put anything close to that kind of weight on his back.
Racing still has handicap races, but they are handicaps in name only.
• 1.61 per 1,000 starts. That’s how many racing fatalities were recorded by the Equine Injury Database in North America in 2017, the most recent year available at the industry initiative’s website. While one racing fatality is too many, it is gratifying to see the number has dropped by 20 per cent from 2.00 per 1,000 starts in 2009, when the Equine Injury Database was launched.
This is an immensely important subject and one the horse racing industry can ill-afford to ignore as more and more people become concerned with animal welfare. Everything must be done to make racing as safe as humanly possible for our equine and human athletes.
It should be noted that Woodbine has consistently scored well below the North American average. In 2017, six starters from 10,392 Woodbine starts suffered injuries that required euthanasia while racing on turf or the synthetic Tapeta track. That’s 0.58 per thousand compared to 1.61 per thousand for all of North America.
But please don’t sit on your laurels. Keep showing us how to make racing safe.