The Times newspaper, in the days when it truly thundered, and missed no opportunity to saddle horse racing with all sorts of misdeeds and social evils, wrote about ‘the monstrous development of two-year-old races’. Their stance won a supporter in Sir Joseph Hawley, a man who owned no fewer than 4 Derby winners, who was convinced the racing of immature horses was detrimental to the health of the individual and future development of the thoroughbred in general. He proposed severe restrictions on two-year-old races, suggesting no two-year-old racing be permitted earlier than July and that no money should be added from the funds of the Jockey Club for any race which two-year-olds might be entered.
Personally I think they should raise a statue to honour Sir Joseph.
At the time, Admiral Rous, the inventor of the weight for age scale, held sway in matters of the turf and in public he disagreed with Hawley. Some sort of compromise was reached however as two-year-old races were banned until May, though once the dust had settled this restriction was quietly forgotten about and two-year-olds were racing from the start of the season, as is the case today.
In private the Admiral was not quite so wholeheartedly opposed to Hawley’s proposal. He wrote: ‘It is much regretted that the old system of not training horses till their powers are fully developed is abolished.’
He continued: ‘Many two-year-olds are trained to the highest point of perfection in the month of May; consequently few horses retain their racing powers after five years of age. This system unfortunately cannot now be altered.”
It is interesting that the subject, quite enlightened for its time, was being debated in a period we must now think of as organised racing’s infancy.
I am uneasy about the racing of two-year-olds. If I had my way I would go further than Hawley’s proposals and have no two-year-old races until September, and there certainly would be no Group races for two-year-olds. I have written before about the indifference of the breeding industry when it comes to helping the sport attract interest from outside its natural demographic. A breeding industry dominated by the need for precocity, for producing stock to race as juveniles in March and April, is bad for both the image of the sport and the health and future of these early season two-year-olds. It is almost as if precocious two-year-olds are viewed as throwaway versions of the later developing horse; the blue-bloods bred with classics and Royal Ascot in mind. How many, I wonder, of the two-year-olds raced in March, April, May, are still in a racing stable as four or five-year-olds? The thought of these horses lined up in a slaughterhouse to be made into dog food appals me. I suspect, though, that this is the fate of many of those horses.
If we were to restrict the racing of two-year-olds until, as Hawley proposed, July, the money saved could be given over to handicaps and three-year-old races, boosting prize money, a great benefit to the owner who has paid training fees for a horse he had perhaps not seen race as a two-year-old.
This could not be achieved overnight. But a long-term programme of restricting two-year-old racing incrementally over a period of ten years would give the breeding industry time to adjust and plan accordingly.
I may be naïve, though I hope I am not stupid; I know this proposal will never come to fruition, as was the situation in the 1870’s. For one thing, too many people with too much influence have too much of their money tied up in the breeding of precocious bloodstock for the topic to even be discussed. My argument is this: horses live till they are twenty or more; as two-year-olds they are babies. It does the image of racing no good to see immature horses too weak to finish a five furlong race with any degree of gusto being slapped along by a jockey who believes he is tutor to a student when schooling is the least appropriate need for the physical welfare of such a young horse.
It is ridiculous to describe a five-year-old in a flat race as an ‘old boy’ when a horse of a similar age in a hurdle race is thought of as a ‘baby’. A horse is a horse is a horse. They all start life in exactly the same way. Though I suspect the five-year-old in the hurdle race will, luck be with it, have a longer life than the five-year-old in the flat race.
There is, I believe, an excess of two-year-old races, especially in the early months of the season. It is commonplace and has become accepted, with breeders targeting the production of the precocious type of horse. This acceptance does not make it morally acceptable. When analysing the effect of racing the immature horse the spotlight should not shine on the winners of these races but on those who flounder out the back. What is their fate? What are the injuries they incur for being raced when two-year-olds destined for a different sphere of racing are still in the field maturing? How many of these throwaway horses might have gone on to be stars if given time to grow into ‘their full racing powers’?
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.