Friday is New Years Day and with the turn of the calendar, all horses turn a year older. As a result of the universal birthday, any fourteen year old horses still racing turn fifteen and are forced into retirement (they may continue to race in matinees and at fairs). The question is why do we automatically force these horses into retirement?
In the perfect worl, a horse that turns fifteen would be sent to a farm to either live out the rest of their life in leisure or to begin their second careers. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. For the horse that spent all or most of their life with one owner, retirement is almost a certainty. But for the horse that has been changing owners multiple times, especially in their later years through claiming races, a future as a retiree is less certain. As well intentioned as we are with setting a mandatory retirement age, are we putting capable horses at risk needlessly?
Speaking in general terms, we know our equine senior citizens are not as competitive on the track as our younger horses. With years of wear and tear taking its toll, these horses have likely lost a step or two; not able to race at the speeds they once were able to go. They tend to race in the bottom tiers of conditioned and claiming races, often at our smaller tracks. The fact we are retiring these horses has as much to do with the fact they tend to be unable to be competitive more than anything else. This can be addressed.
Rather than forcing a horse that turns fifteen into retirement, why don't we allow them to continue racing in semi-retirement if sound enough? We can mandate that once a horse turns fifteen, it may continue racing provided a vet annually certifies a horse is sound enough to stand the rigors of racing. In addition, a rule could be instituted that a horse over the age of fourteen may race a limited number of starts and must have a certain number of days between starts; such as twenty-six starts per year and ten days between starts which will allow more time for a horse to recover between races.
What about the problem that they may not be fast enough to compete? The answer may be to change the way we write our races. Most tracks will card races for two year olds, three year olds, four year olds (during the early part of the year) and without age restrictions. What if races were written for horses aged ten and under and then for eleven year olds and up? This way, the older horses would be racing against similar aged horses and be able to be competitive in slower races. Not only would this cause less strain on our older athletes, it would provide for better racing. Who cares if a field of eleven year olds and up race two or three seconds slower than the younger horses? As long as a field is evenly matched and competitive, a race will be attractive to the racing and gambling public.
Let's rethink mandatory retirement. With the proper protections in place, our equine senior citizens can continue their racing careers and in some cases, have a more secure future.