Dr. E.E. Watson was a veterinarian of some repute for many years in the Midwest during the middle decades of the 20th Century. He not only treated racehorses, but he bred them, owned them, and trained them. One year in the late 1950s, he had a barn full of coughing, snotting, bucking 2-year-olds. He decided that he wouldn’t even break that year’s yearling crop; he’d wait and train them as 3-year-olds. Two years passed and you guessed it -- he had a barn full of coughing, snotting, bucking 3-year-olds from the crop of yearlings he had decided to wait on. So much for patience and Mother Nature.

Jim Keefer was a favorite client for many years. He was given the job of training an 8-year-old mare which had been tied up in legal squabbles her entire life. When the litigation was completed, the happy owner fulfilled his dream of seeing his horse compete at the races. She did indeed, and the first time she raced, she bucked her shins.

This reminiscence is proffered now to present my reasoning in favor of 2-year-old training, racing, and sales. Equine research, little by little (and it has to be so because funding for our favorite quadruped is grossly neglected compared to food and companion animals), is giving us much-needed scientific information about training and developing the equine athlete. It’s telling us that exercising sooner is probably better than later; that a regular, steady regimen of exercise starting at about 16-18 months of age, following a life of at least some "roughing it," will benefit that individual and possibly help it attain its potential as an athlete.

Easier said than done.

Obviously, we have all sorts of yearlings awaiting their preparation for racing -- yearlings of all sizes, conformations, and attitudes. That’s where horsemanship comes in. The successful, life-long horseman does in fact have a sense about most horses he has in his care after a "breaking in" period. That big, country, long drink of water horse is not going to be ready for Keeneland’s Headley chute in April (for those four-furlong baby races), but that short-coupled, precocious little filly might have that race and the WHAS Stakes on Derby Day written all over her.

Science tells us that regular training and brief "bursts" of speed will produce a racehorse with bone molded to accommodate his abilities. The other vital component is "intelligence." The horse is a creature of habit, almost to a fault in some cases. But a successful horse must learn to adapt to a changing environment. Differences in track surfaces, barns, riders, grooms, hot walkers, feed, travel -- all must be confronted and handled before you can consider that individual a professional.

The emergence of 2-year-olds in training sales began with the explosive growth of the Florida Thoroughbred market in the 1960s and 1970s. For some horses, the lack of an acceptable pedigree to stand out at the yearling sales resulted in developing ready-to-race or almost-ready-to-race animals. What a success it was! Of course, it was done on a risk/ reward basis. But isn’t that all part of the racing industry? The candidates for sales must be screened just as racing prospects are screened. In recent years, the exaggerated emphasis on time trials has lessened the enthusiasm of some prospective buyers. That could be a mistake. A slower-developing individual should not be severely pushed in a 2-year-old sale. What should be emphasized and scrutinized is the action of the individual, and its demeanor before, during, and after exercise.

Pedigree should always be a major influence. It can tell you what has been accomplished and should certainly help in forecasting future promise. Which would you prefer? A speed-dizzy 2-year-old all out to do an eighth of a mile in 00:10:2, or a nice-sized, somewhat immature colt with flawless action well under control doing an eighth of a mile in 11 seconds flat? Either can be found, you just have to know where to look, and what to look for, then know how to train that individual to give him the bone and tendon strength to match his abilities.

About the Author

Gary Lavin, DVM

Gary Lavin, DVM, is a private Throughbred practitioner and breeder based in Kentucky who now is retired from a racetrack practice. He is a former president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association.

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