Deteriorating Toward Speed

A friend of mine, a small-output breeder of Thoroughbreds and a bloodline expert, once made a startling statement to me in a conversation we were having about aptitude in racing greyhounds and horses…and I quote:

“The Thoroughbred naturally deteriorates toward speed”.

Stop reading, and think about that statement for a minute. It is an astounding remark.

Now this man has a doctorate degree in literature, he chooses his words very carefully and with the precision of an archer. He’s also a former Hollywood screenwriter who dated starlets and hung out with stars in the heyday of his youth. He’s a clever enough horseman to have once purchased as a 2-year old, a colt who ran in the Belmont Stakes and who won multiple other stakes. He’s a first-rate mind. I was out of my league.

I couldn’t quite wrap my cut-rate mind around the proposition he had challenged me with. I thought about it for a long while. I obsessed over it. For me, at the time, it was like trying to comprehend infinity. I knew he had planted the seed of that statement to get me to grow my wits and to figure it out for myself, but it was just too vexing.

I had always presumed just the opposite of what I felt he was saying to have been the case. Being a student of the obvious, I had always figured that a Thoroughbred (or a Greyhound) would seem to “naturally deteriorate” towards the lack of speed.

Years later, by the simple accumulation of my observations and experiences, it all became much clearer to me.

When we view it in its simplest terms, the process of selectivity in the breeding of performance animals for the purpose of racing is the process of accelerating natural adaptation, if not evolution. The breeder whose bloodstock can “out-adapt”, or if you prefer for conversational purposes, “out-evolve” the bloodstock of others, is the breeder who has the best chance of success, all other things being about equal.

The basic maxim of breeding that has always been true, and remains true to this day, is that “like tends to beget like”. The operative word is “tends”. Selective breeding is mostly about tendencies and much less about absolutes.

Another truth of breeding, and of adaptation, is that form follows function. Function dictates form. The feedback we receive from racing is what impels and influences the inputs that are germane to the process of selectivity as well as the management of a colony of greyhounds.

The “inputs” encompass all aspects of a greyhound’s genetics, environment, raising, training and handling, designed to produce more specific and positive feedback. A successful breeder, whether he realizes it or not, constantly reacts to feedback from racing competition. What he ends up with is a phenotype.

The phenotype is the physical manifestation of inputs and feedback, the embodiment of the “form” that has emerged purely as a result of the “function” and the breeder’s perception and inputs.

In the Darwinian epic, organisms adapt by random genetic mutations that engender specific physical manifestations which are the result of the organism’s natural drive to survive, and which help it to deal with challenges to its survival. This, Darwin called “natural selection”. The best-adapted phenotypes are those that have the best chance at survival.

In selective breeding for a specific function, the challenge is to adapt to either a variety of feedbacks, or to a singular feedback. The more varied are the types of feedback, the more variable are the phenotypes.

In any event, all adaptations that influence selectivity from the feedback racing engenders, are focused on the eventual ability of the phenotype to express speed.

Where there is an imbalance in feedback, there is an imbalance in phenotype. As it applies to racing greyhounds, it simply means that when we focus on one aspect of the entire range of speed expression of which the greyhound is capable, sooner or later the phenotype that emerges becomes self-limiting. There is a finite limit to what a phenotype can bear under race-induced stress, in its expression of speed.

What my friend had told me was true. What he was saying to me, was that speed expression by a phenotype that has been selectively bred to express speed, sooner or later reaches a tipping point in that phenotype.

Simply put, what basically happens is that the elementary physical manifestations or adaptations which impel speed in the phenotype—higher muscle to bone ratios–at some stage of adaptation, will cancel one another out.

In greyhounds, and in Thoroughbreds, as my friend had told me in not so many words, the lighter skeleton and its connective networks are eventually “cancelled out” by the heavier, denser muscle masses (and vice versa) that initiate and enable the expression of speed, and along with the racing surface and configuration, exert force on the phenotype.

The phenotype becomes somewhat, if not completely “dysfunctional”. It has over-adapted to the inputs and feedback.

It has naturally deteriorated toward speed.

It’s important for racing departments to offer and for trainers to support longer distance racing at the tracks. From everyday, overnight races to stakes events. This tends to ensure that there is an even population distribution of racing aptitude, and that the Racing Greyhound remains the versatile and remarkable athlete he is

Enjoy the American Derby. It just might be more important now than it ever was in the past.

copyright 2012 by Dennis McKeon