Kentucky Derby

The landmark German law that has the future of horse racing at stake

The landmark German law that has the future of horse racing at stake

The two-year-old racing could effectively be wiped out putting the Epsom Derby at risk – Getty Images/Alan Crowhurst

Two-year-old racing in Germany faces an existential threat which could have implications across Europe. If it proves to be the thin end of the wedge, there would be a knock-on effect for the key three-year-old races, including the biggest one of all: Saturday’s Betfred Derby at Epsom.

Racing in Germany has been caught up in a new animal welfare directive from Germany’s federal parliament, forbidding the breaking-in or competing of horses under 30 months from the day they are born. It was introduced in 2020 ostensibly to cover its warmblood breeding sector – continental horses bred for competition – and waved through by racing authorities.

If the law was applied fully to thoroughbreds in Germany and beyond – there is a three-year exemption while tests are ongoing over animal welfare – two-year-old racing would effectively be wiped out. This is despite overwhelming scientific proof as the younger thoroughbreds gallop and race, the more robust and resilient to injury they are likely to be in later life and the greater the benefits for bones, tendons, cartilage and the immune system.

German rules of racing are already further down the welfare road than most of the rest of Europe. Jump racing is all but finished, juveniles restricted to a maximum six starts and only able to commence racing in June while the whip rules permit a maximum three hits with one over incurring a 14-day ban for the jockey.

German trainers also have to comply with regulations regarding size of stable, the amount of light in that stable, the provision of windows so it can see other horses and turn out capacity for a minimum two hours a day with at least one other horse. These are regulations which would rule out many of Newmarket’s old Victorian yards.

However, if the new directive on young horses proves successful, it will be incumbent on the German government to try and roll the law out across the European Union which would include Ireland and France: two of the world’s great racing superpowers.

‘A lot of the directive is good practice’

Much of the directive is good animal welfare practice and no-one appears to be disputing the physical advantages of increasing bone density in young horses by training them at two but there is little in the way of research on the age of mental maturity and the stresses of training horses under 30 months.

During the exemption period, the German parliament is paying for research – called the Horsewatch Project – into the behavioural effects of training on young thoroughbreds and warmbloods.

As it stands any horse entering training in Germany has to be given a half-hour physical and psychometric assessment when arriving at a racing yard and, again, within a fortnight of its first run by an independent vet.

So far no racehorses have failed these assessments which are a 10-step observational evaluation carried out by a vet. German racing insists this is because the trainers are invested and that they only present horses which, they feel, are physically and mentally ready to be trained.

“A lot of the directive is good practice” explained former champion German trainer Christian Von Der Recke. “But now when a horse comes into my yard I have to get an outside vet, not my own, to check it is not mentally unfit before I put a saddle on it. The next test is whether he is sound before he runs.”

‘A horse will tell you when it’s ready to run’

Speaking to an international conference in Newmarket on Friday to raise awareness among other racing jurisdictions of the situation in Germany, John Gosden said he thought it would be an impossible task for anyone to come in cold and assess a horse’s mental wellbeing in half an hour and that it is important the trainer’s views are taken into account.

“They would need to live with a young horse for months,” he explained. “They change daily. It’s a box ticking exercise which cannot be watertight. A horse will tell you when it is ready to run.”

Likening training juveniles to an old-fashioned tape recorder with ‘play,’ fast forward’ and ‘rewind’ buttons, he said the one he used the most with his two-year-olds was the ‘pause’ button.

Nick de Meric, a successful breeze-up consignor based in Florida, said there was a lot of evidence to prove that two-year-old sales graduates race for longer and win more races than those that started at three. He pointed out that Justify was the only horse to have won the Kentucky Derby having not raced at two.

“Racehorses have been selectively bred to do this [gallop],” he explained. “Within weeks of foaling it can canter five miles to avoid predators and, over the centuries, it has been genetically engineered and designed to perform at two. There has been a lot of research in the USA and elsewhere that categorically confirms that it creates more durable horses and that a delay to training is counter-productive.”

In a sport which finds itself under pressure from many directions, racing will hope that what is currently a small bonfire in the backyard does not spread to the main building.


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