Races horses competing on the race track.

Leo Powell,
Irish Field. 22nd May 2013

Dear Sir,

Further to your publication of an article on 18th May 2013 entitled “Robert Hall discusses the decline of the American Thoroughbred due to medication”, I wish to take issue with some of the information disseminated in this article that has been postulated as fact.

According to US Jockey Club statistics US/Canadian Thoroughbreds in the 1950’s and 1960’s raced 11.3 times per year. Today they race 6 times per year. This represented a 50% decline in 50 years (see attached graph). This is not just a North American problem but a worldwide one – for the same reason. Of 6,530 British Thoroughbred foals born in 1975 eligible for training,:

  • 47% trained at 2 years of age
  • 51% at 3 years of age
  • 38% at 4 years of age
  • The percentage of horses that raced were lower:
  • 2 year olds 43%
  • 3 year olds 41%
  • 4 year olds 22%

The above information from “Racehorses at Risk” by Krook & Maylin, Chapter 5, pg.77.

In 2013 are the above statistics any better?

Feeding practices have altered radically from the 1950’s and 1960’s when horses were fed low starch / high fibre diets (oats) to today’s feeding practices where they are fed high starch / low fibre diets (maize, corn, barley, beet pulp, molasses, corn fructose syrup, etc). In 1957 the Benedictine Monks in Gethsemene, Kentucky formulated the first equine pelleted feed.

Researchers at Rutgers University, NJ (Dr. Sarah Ralston, “The Effect of Diet on Acid-Base Status & Mineral Excretion in Horses”, Equine Practice, July / Aug 1994, Vol. 16, No. 7) indicate that high starch diets under bacterial fermentation in the hind gut cause lactic acid production, which is absorbed three hours after ingestion into the blood stream, causing a decline in blood Ph. This results in elevated calcium, phosphorous and other trace minerals being excreted one hour later in the urine. Such calcium loss activates the parathyroid gland to release a hormone which causes demineralisation of the bones leading to subsequent fractures.

Having successfully litigated a case of Osteochondrosis (O.C.D.) in a thoroughbred yearling (McCormick -V- Collinstown Stud, 1990-1993) I believe that I am uniquely placed to comment on the current unsoundness of the Thoroughbred. My scientific advisor at that time was the late Professor Lennart Krook of Cornell University who in his brilliant book “Racehorses at Risk” by Krook & Maylin unequivocally blames the National Research Council (NRC) for recommending excessive levels of calcium in equine diets – pre 1978 they recommended 10g per day, post 1978 based on research done on ponies they recommended 30g per day. This led to Hypercalcitonism and Osteochondrosis in the developing foetus according to Professor Krook.

In his opinion horses should be fed hay, oats and correct levels of minerals (personal communication 1992). The NRC levels of some of the other minerals are historical and even inaccurate, a fact based on my own ten year research based at racetracks in Ireland, Saudi Arabia and the United States. As a result of this research I formulated and patented a feed additive for use in oat based equine diets.

In September 2002 Delaware trainer Mark Shuman, principal trainer to owner Mike Gill (information by kind permission) acquired the product. Their Strike Rate at that time was 13% (April-Oct 2002, 428 Starters, 57 Winners) – average Strike Rate of US trainer is 12%. Within one month they were operating at 26% Strike Rate. Two months later they moved to Gulfstream Park for the 2003 meet, where over the next 64 racing days they had 88 winners with a Strike Rate of 26% beating Hall of Fame Trainer William Mott’s previous record of 34 winners out of sight.

Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post in a celebrated interview with Mike Gill in February 2003 during the Gulfstream Park meet said Team Shuman / Gill “had more miracles in two weeks than William Mott, arguably the best trainer in America, had in his entire career”. In February 2003 Daily Racing Form stated that in a heading entitled “Team Shuman / Gill Sizzles” stated that both Shuman and Gill had been around for several years “but never with this level of success”. Notwithstanding the fact that Gulfstream Park decided midway through the meet to ban Mike Gill’s two resident veterinarians, his Strike Rate of 26% remained unaffected for the duration of the meet.

Northern Dancer won the 1964 Kentucky Derby over 1¼ miles in record time of 2 mins flat and he became the most pre-imminent stallion worldwide over the last 50 years. According to his Veterinarian, Dr. Alex Harthill he raced on Lasix.

In conclusion, notwithstanding the advances in veterinary science and training surfaces over the last 30 years the decline in racetrack appearances of the modern Thoroughbred continues unabated. It can be arrested with proper nutritional practices as the above statistics have shown.

For further information on the patho physiology of the effects of high starch diets in equine diet please visit my website www.belmontequineproducts.com/dickmccormickmemoriallecture.

Richard McCormick is an Equine Veterinarian based in Dunboyne, Co. Meath, Ireland.

Richard McCormick, M.V.B., M.R.C.V.S.

Woodville, Dunboyne, Co. Meath.