Commissioned by Bart Rice Racing Stables, South Korea
The benchmark for racing excellence in Asia is Hong Kong. Their international meeting in December attracts the best horses from around the globe to compete on an even footing. And if you examine the type of horse that races in Hong Kong, one thing sticks out. In 2014-15, there have been 1,029 horses race in Hong Kong. Only 4 are female, and another 32 are entires (colts or stallions). The remaining 990 (or 96%) are geldings.
If the best racing nation in the world is dominated by geldings, there must be a benefit to the process. And in fact, there are five excellent reasons why you should geld almost every colt.
Reason One: Improvement in racing focus
There are thousands of examples of horses who were intractable colts, but who improved out of sight with gelding. The most recent case is World Champion Sprinter Lankan Rupee. The superbly well bred colt (by Champion Sire Redoute's Choice) was a decent sort of racehorse, but wasn't up to group class. Being so well bred, he wasn't gelded until he was a late 3YO, but the change made a huge difference. Regular jockey Craig Newitt told journalists at the time "I've not seen a horse improve like it. He's always shown group ability but he wanted to run his first half quicker than his second half and no horse can win doing that. He was too aggressive and was never going to realise his potential. He was just a pig, always trying to bolt on the track ... there was only one option. He must have been hurting himself or not concentrating. He wasn't out for a long time after he was gelded but he just went bang." Only a few months later, Lankan Rupee had won seven of his next eight starts, including three at Gr1 level and had propelled himself out of middle class to the best rated sprinter in the world. Other examples include Boban, who went from a decent sort of horse that mixed his form into a gelding that won five in a row including two Gr1 races and over A$1.6m. Brew, a superbly bred son of Champion Sire Sir Tristram and world record holding racemare Horlicks had such a bad attitude that he risked being retired without racing. His owners bravely gelded their expensive colt, and he rewarded them with a Melbourne Cup win. Now retired, he resides at Living Legends in Melbourne.
Reason Two: competitive drive and attitude
The main reason that owners are against gelding a horse is because they falsely believe that it will reduce their competitive drive. In reality, what actually happens is that the removal of testosterone allows the horse to concentrate on the task at hand. Entires are hyperactive horses who expend a lot of energy concerned with mating, which means they are often not focused on racing and this means they mix their form. Ask any punter, and they'll warn you away from betting on a colt because they are so inconsistent. Gelding a horse improves their attitude to racing by removing the reasons to think about anything else. A gelding is loyal and consistent. They are also easier for trainers to work with and produce more focused results. In many ways, a gelding is better to have around the track than a mare, as they never suffer from any hormonal problems. No wonder Hong Kong love geldings so much. They are easier to work with, more focused on winning and give punters more consistent form lines to follow.
Reason Three: Growth and soundness
Between 18 months and 2 years old, a colt gets a surge of hormones that close up the growth plates and stops their bones growing. They start to produce muscle mass and fill out. By contrast, a gelding continues to grow, thus becoming taller with a long stride length. In addition, without the hormones producing excess muscle, they keep that extra weight off their front legs and remain sounder. Trainer Alan Bell said of his champion sprinter Schillaci; "We gelded Schillaci purely because he was becoming too heavy in front. He is a heavy, muscular horse in any case and the extra weight carried in front by an entire can make the difference to whether a horse stays sound." In summary, a colt has a shorter, more inconsistent racing career than a gelding. While a horse can be gelded at any age, the timing of being gelded is often chosen in order to gain the advantage of early muscle growth as a colt, but also to prevent too much muscle and to gain extra height.
Reason Four: Social Welfare
A horse is a social animal, living best in herds with constant contact with other horses. These social connections keep a horse happy, and a happy horse is a loyal, hardworking companion who will try their hardest for you. The best stables are designed so that each horse has its own space to keep it safe, while still fostering the social needs of the horses. By contrast, a stallion's life is lonely, as their sexual drive means they have to be kept separate from other horses in order to keep them safe. Entires are more likely to fight other horses to protect their sense of sexual domination. This desire to fight reduces their focus on racing, and increases their chances of hurting themselves and other horses nearby. This separation is expensive for the owners, but it is also lonely for the horse. As a gelding has no interest in breeding, they can be housed with other horses without fear of injury.
Reason Five: Improving the gene pool
American owner Alfred G Vanderbilt once said "If I had gelded every horse in my stable, I would have made only one mistake". His colt, Native Dancer, won 21 from 22 starts and went on to found a great dynasty, but Vanderbilt's sentiment remains. The chances of a colt becoming a great stallion are so minimal, that the vast majority should be gelded. Owners should examine their colts with a truly critical eye. Does this horse possess a superior pedigree? Has he got excellent conformation and is he sound? Has he got a tractable personality allowing him to be worked with safely? Is he focused on the task at hand? And finally, has he passed the ultimate racetrack test? Only a horse that has proven himself as a racehorse, the task that he was bred for, should be allowed to stand at stud. The German breeding industry is streaks ahead of the rest of world in terms of the ratio of excellent horses produced, and it is no coincidence that they have a stricter standard for stallions standing at stud than anywhere else in the world. If Korea wants to compete with the rest of the world, especially with their homebred horses, they need to geld everything except the very best, most sound horses. To breed from horses that are not world class will reduce the strength of the gene pool.