Up until approximately 40 years ago, horses were not even considered for racing until they had reached at least three years of age. Even then, many were considered too young. As horseracing became more professional, two year old racing was introduced under a cloud of controversy. Despite much opposition from within the industry itself, it continues today.
Feel The Moment competing in a two-year-old race. She won her last race as a 3-year-old and though she raced for almost another two years, never came close to winning again. After winning three races from 14 starts, she was retired having earned only $24,000. Source: racingvictoria.net.au
Horses are not skeletally mature until around five years of age. Young horses risk serious injury each time they are made to run at high speeds.
As a result, most two-year-olds will sustain injuries in their first year of racing and many of them will not race in the subsequent year. In Australia, a study of two and three-year-old thoroughbred racehorses reported that 85 per cent suffered from at least one episode of illness or injury. (1)
The benefit of racing two-year-olds is simply economic. It means that owners can hopefully see a return on their investment twelve months earlier, therefore making it cheaper to prepare a horse for its first race. To further encourage investment in racehorse ownership, races for two-year-olds offer some of the highest prize money. The Magic Millions Classic held in Queensland, Australia boasts a prize purse of $2,000,000.
“Two-year-olds, as we know, can be here today and gone tomorrow.”
– Gai Waterhouse, leading racehorse trainer (2)
Unfortunately, the prize money for two year old racing, and the already high stud value placed on winners of feature races, continues to climb along with the rate of wastage due to breakdown. One Australian study of two-year-old thoroughbreds indicated that 40 per cent of horses were unsound at the end of the season. (3)
A survey of veterinarians and trainers estimated that shin soreness or dorsal metacarpal disease (DMD) affected 80 per cent of two-year-olds in Australia. (4)
“I think there’s probably a much stronger tendency to have two year old racing nowadays than there used to be…and the lure of prize money. There’s a great incentive to race their horses too young too immature. In the old days, you bought your yearlings, you broke them in, you castrated them, you turned them out. You didn’t think about them until late two year old and mostly three year olds. The big money came with three-year-old racing. The current owners want two-year-old racing and I think it’s a pity. I think it’s a pity because it certainly does cause the breakdown of a lot of two year olds.”
– Percy Sykes, leading horse racing industry vet. (5)
References: (1) (Bailey 1998). (2) Chris Roots 2013, Waterhouse gets in Diamond swing. Sydney Morning Herald. (3) Mason and Bourke (1973) . (4) Buckingham S.H.W., Jeffcott, L.B. (1990) Shin soreness: a survey of thoroughbred trainers and racetrack veterinarians. Aust Equine Vet 8. (5) Buckingham & Jeffcoat (1990) (6) Mike Hayes 2000, The Track: The story of Good Breeding and Bad Behaviour. Australian Broadcasting Commission Sydney, NSW