In the Dallas Cowboys game against the New York Giants on October 11, 2020, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury in which his bone protruded through his skin.  Bill Barnwell of ESPN wrote: “If you were watching the play, you are not going to forget what you saw for a long time.  If you didn’t see the play, consider yourself lucky.”  Tears running down Prescott’s face as he was carted off the field are seared into my memory.

The Prescott injury is the most recent in a long history of horrific physical and mental maladies incurred by football players.  The National Football League has acknowledged the brain trauma that its violent sport can cause and has instituted stricter rules and procedures to protect players.  Moreover, the most lucrative professional league in the United States, by far, must be concerned that parents of boys are increasingly discouraging them from participating in football. 

Had a racehorse incurred the same kind of ankle injury that the All-Pro Prescott did, the horse would surely have been euthanized.  Horses cannot be convinced to cooperate in their own recovery and rehabilitation. In the words of the 1969 movie, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

When a serious breakdown occurs in a high-profile race like the Kentucky Derby, the outcry to outlaw horse racing is swift, unrelenting, and emotionally charged.  The sad breakdown requiring euthanasia of Eight Belles immediately after the finish of the 2008 Derby is an unforgettable case in point.

Going back to the early 20th century, there have been pleas and attempts to ban football.  President Theodore Roosevelt even threatened to abolish the sport for its “brutality and foul play.”  Twenty-five players died from football injuries in 1903 and another 18 in 1905.  However, a strong movement to abolish organized football has never gained much steam.

By contrast, some prominent animal-rights groups and zealous individuals habitually work to stop horse racing, employing hyperbole as well as breakdown statistics to persuade people to their point of view.  They proffer that, unlike human athletes, racehorses don’t have a choice. The radical extension of this perspective is that animals should not be used by humans for any purpose.

The degree of risk to participants in football and horse racing can be mitigated but cannot be reduced to zero.  Both are inherently dangerous.  A sport, however, can endure a heart-rending Dak Prescott or Eight Belles incident, as long as the larger society does not see the sport, through its actions or lack thereof, as having a callous disregard for its athletes, both while they are competing and afterwards in retirement.

What the American racing enterprise must do to have a sustainable future is to stay in step with modern-day sensibilities, in particular pertaining to humane treatment for its human and equine athletes, just as the NFL has done with concussion protocols and penalizing late hits to the quarterback, helmet-to-helmet targeting, and blindside blocking.  Fortunately, significant progress is being made in this respect, such as the likely passage into law of the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act, whip-usage limitations, advancements in track surfaces, and improved aftercare for racehorses. Some measures are controversial in racing circles, but there is no choice except to move forward if horse racing is to have lots of tomorrows.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business


“My wife Mary Ryan-Hirsch and I have been hosting ‘Horsemen Dinners’ in south Florida the past several years. Once a month, we gather up a crowd of horsemen and meet at a restaurant near Gulfstream Park and have one of these get togethers. We usually get a crowd of 60-75 guests.

One of the highlights of the evening takes place after dinner when we ask anyone in attendance to get up and tell their favorite racing story. On such a night at the Surf Club on Miami Beach we had one of these dinners and future Hall of Fame jockey Jacinto Vasquez told this story. It brought the house down!

Jacinto was the regular rider of Eclipse Award turf horse Noble Dancer trained by Hall of Famer T. J. ‘Tommy’ Kelly. Tommy was there that night along with another Hall of Fame jockey Don Brumfield and a few stewards who were in the stewards stand the day Noble Dancer was running in the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City. Noble Dancer was the top-weighted horse in the race and the 3-5 favorite.

After the break Jacinto wound up on the rail in the 1 1/2 mile turf race. Around the far turn he was still trapped on the rail with Brumfield on a longshot lapped alongside Noble Dancer. Jacinto yelled to Brumfield, ‘Let me out, you’re on a dead horse.’ Jacinto offered him $500. Brumfield replied back to Jacinto, ‘I can’t hear you.’

After turning down the initial $500 offer and then another for $1,000, Brumfield began to ease his tiring longshot out when Jacinto raised the offer to $1,500. At $1,500, Brumfield yelled back to Jacinto, ‘Ok, I hear you, now come on through!’

Jacinto and Noble Dancer went on to win the race; our dining room roared with laughter with all the horsemen clapping their hands wildly, even Tommy Kelly and the two stewards. After that, several horsemen asked Brumfield if Vasquez paid him and Don replied, ‘Absolutely, the very next morning.’”


Bill Hirsch is a retired racehorse trainer and the son and grandson of Hall of Fame trainers William Hirsch and Max Hirsch.

Horse Racing Business 2020


Had there have been a formal debate among equine geneticists on the Jockey Club’s proposal to limit the book size of Thoroughbred stallions, geneticists would likely have formed “selective breeding” and “mutational load” camps.  Selective breeding occurs when a stallion is chosen for a mare with the goal of producing a foal with an advantageous combination of genes.

But equine geneticists agree that mutational load has the potential to counter the positive effects of selective breeding.  Mutational load refers to the accumulation of gene mutations in populations over time, increasing the risk that succeeding generations show decreased vigor.  The negative effects of mutational load are more likely to occur when horses are inbred, as serious negative traits can appear when two mutations pair up, which occurs more frequently in inbred foals. The Jockey Club’s public statement that it was “…concerned with the narrowing of the diversity of the Thoroughbred gene pool….” implies that they are especially sympathetic to this “mutational load” argument. 

The Jockey Club proposal motivated the authors of this note (1) to research the Jockey Club’s contention that genetic diversity had decreased, and (2) to review recent scholarly analyses regarding the merits of the Jockey Club’s concerns. We analyzed degrees of incremental inbreeding for mid- and upper-tier stallions by comparing pedigrees from the 2000 and 2020 BloodHorse Stallion Registers.  Based on analyses of five-cross pedigrees, the average stallion in our 2020 sample was more inbred.  The average stallion in 2020 was slightly less inbred than Maclean’s Music, whose only inbreeding arises from the appearance of Mr. Prospector in his third, fourth, and fifth generations (a 3 by 4 by 5 cross). 

We doubt that a veterinarian would view this degree of inbreeding with trepidation, though we expect that many observers would be somewhat concerned about the smaller group of stallions that exhibited significantly higher degrees of incremental inbreeding.  But increased incremental inbreeding does not necessarily mean that modern Thoroughbreds are at increased risk genetically.  To shed light on this question, we reviewed recent scholarly publications regarding the genetics of selective breeding and mutational load.

One of the earliest genomic analyses of inbreeding in Thoroughbreds was Binns et al’sInbreeding in the Thoroughbred Horse” (2011).  These researchers focused on the “big book” era beginning in 1996.  Their results regarding incremental inbreeding mirror our own findings.  The authors label the inbreeding trend as “…not excessive, (but) worrisome.”  They temper this concern by pointing out that the Thoroughbred breed has been highly inbred from its founding.

Evelyn Todd et al’sFounder Specific Inbreeding Depression…”  analyzed a large sample of Australian Thoroughbred runners using pedigree analysis and was among the earliest research to analyze (a much smaller sample) using genomic analysis.  They contributed useful discussions pertaining to “gene purging” (using selective breeding to rid a population of unwanted genes), but their findings did not definitively support either the selective breeding or mutational load camps.

More recent analyses of geneticists provide the most cogent discussions of trends in inbreeding in Thoroughbreds.  In February of 2020, a genome-based study authored by McGivney et al reported results on trends in inbreeding complementary to our and Binns’ analyses.  The McGivney paper is more reliable than either our paper or the Binns’ analysis for three reasons.

  • It uses a much larger sample.
  • It is based solely on genomic analysis. Because gene transmission is somewhat random and pedigree-based analysis cannot adequately assess random transmission, genome-based analysis of inbreeding better measures degrees of inbreeding.
  • Genome-based analysis considers the cumulative effects of inbreeding rather than focusing only on recent incremental inbreeding.

The McGivney study was especially interesting because most of its authors had connections to PlusVital, the equine genetics firm commissioned in 2019 to provide “expert genomics advice” to the Jockey Cub.  The McGivney paper definitively confirmed the consensus of industry observers that inbreeding has been increasing in the Thoroughbred breed and expressed concern about that trend.  However, the Jockey Club’s decision to impose a 140-mare limit on stallions was almost certainly viewed by PlusVital as a “blunt instrument” solution not at the top of PlusVital’s recommendations.

While the McGivney paper can perhaps be characterized as viewing selective breeding uninformed by genomic analysis and as a “blunt instrument” in trying to guide breeding decisions, the contributions of Dr. Ernest Bailey and his co-authors are more optimistic that selective breeding can lead to good breeding decisions.  Bailey says that “…inbreeding is actually the process of selective breeding…for good genes…and against bad genes, and so the process results in a steady increase in inbreeding and a steady decrease in genetic diversity.  That’s how you end up with an improved population.”

For a detailed discussion of this topic, access

Robert L. Losey can be contacted at

Horse Racing Business 2020