Horsemen, Pedigree Expert and My Friend Gary Bouchard Speaks Out for the Small Breeder

The "SPORT OF KINGS" ?

Is there room for the small breeder?

Chicago is commonly referred to as "The Windy City"; not because of nature’s persistent air flows as many people might think; but because it was a phrase coined by a newspaper reporter when referring to all of the political rhetoric during a robust political convention around the turn of the 20th century. The thoroughbred industry also has it’s often misunderstood aphorisms; such as being labeled as "The Sport of Kings"; or "breed the best to the best, and hope for the best".

Like "the windy city", "the sport of kings" was merely a phrase coined by a tabloid of the day in 18th century England. Match racing of prized horses was a favorite pastime of the population surrounding the Newmarket heath. On one particular occasion, the field consisted of horses belonging exclusively to members of the ruling Royal families that frequented the area. Hence, that race was dubbed "the sport of kings" by the local sporting press.

The other precept, "breeding the best to the best" does not literally mean taking the best race mares to the best stallions and hoping for the best results. Thoroughbred crops would be very small indeed if that were the norm. The message intended is that breeders must identify the "best" genetic qualities of key ancestral components contained within the ENTIRE pedigrees of both individuals which when mated will hopefully enhance the chances for superior results.

These expressions would seem to imply that one might actually have to possess a "king’s ransom" in order to participate. It’s no secret that the thoroughbred business can be very cash intensive as evidenced by the prices seen for the more fashionable stock promoted in the past twenty years. This can be frustrating for many breeders with limited resources since they too offer the same support, share the same passions, and account for a much higher percentile of the overall thoroughbred economy than one might think.

A small breeder may often become discouraged and perceive that their chances of ever gaining access to the "best stock" are slim. They may harbor preconceived ideas that it is unlikely they could ever be involved with superior racing or breeding prospects; particularly among breeders who opt to concentrate their activities within state bred programs that are not considered breeding centers of the industry.

This need not be the case! Although forced to concede patronization of the less fashionable, more affordable breeding prospects than the more highly capitalized operations; a small breeder actually can be competitive! However, one must be prepared to do some homework.

One must attempt to discern which individuals who are within one’s budget and who are most likely to offer excellent chances for extracting the "best of the best" genetic qualities in order for one to reasonably expect gaining a competitive edge. There are innumerable opportunities who are often overlooked "sleepers" which are available at modest price levels to appeal to even the most budget conscious breeder.

You’ve seen any number of press releases or hype extolling the virtues of leading fashionable sires, citing high yearling sale examples or averages, and references to the respective "money players" who chase them. Just remember this! Aside from the exceptional individuals selected among hundreds offered, MILLIONS of dollars more are spent every year for high priced, fashionable horses who fail to show any racing class whatsoever. More millions are spent on hyped, newly retiring sire prospects that sport a terrific race record, or may be a son of high fashion "so and so", yet are unlikely to become important progenitors of the breed.

For example, racing enthusiasts and their respected bloodstock advisors who routinely practice these strategies are the same ones, who for various reasons, chose to ignore or reject sale horses such as Sunday Silence who went begging for a buyer at multiple public sales for all to see, but found no takers for around the asking price of $50,000. No one wanted him; forcing his noted connections to enter him in training whereby his trainer was then given the task of helping the existing owners "offload" the individual by recruiting a new racing partner. Other examples include Spectacular Bid ($37,000), Breeder’s Cup winner Princess Rooney ($5000) and John Henry (for a paltry $1,100 Michigan bred) among a host of others. Even Northern Dancer ($25,000) and Seattle Slew ($17,500) found no takers and not only were among the best race horses of the century, they went on to found extraordinary paternal dynasties of their own.

Typical examples also evolved within the breeding environment. Breeders readily opt to patronize the more trendy or fashionable sire prospects regardless of cost, whether newly retired or established, yet never would consider sending mares to support the books of young, inexpensive stallions such as Mr. Prospector ($7,500); Sovereign Dancer ($5,000); or Exclusive Native ($1,500). The message is, that if you expect to search out these sleepers before they happen, it’s critical to understand pedigrees and what is contained within them!

A pedigree is much more than a simple genealogical progression of ancestors organized into a graphical illustration. A pedigree actually represents a complex array of a number of individuals and their commensurate families who introduce genetic material that is ultimately responsible for delivering hereditary strengths and weaknesses, dominant and recessive characteristics, aptitudes, etc.

Most horsemen normally pay little attention to the wealth of genealogical data contained deep within the recesses of a pedigree. They tend to focus on only one or two components; usually the direct male line representatives appearing close up. The truth is, the strongest influences can actually come from anywhere within a pedigree! How often do you hear someone ask only one question, "who’s the sire?"; expressing little or no interest in other key components which may prove to be the real sources of potential greatness.

People tend to completely overlook pedigree "patterns" of exemplary individuals and families from generations past which may offer clues for successful matings. Breeders often fail to recognize latent or dominant strains; or give little credence to certain prolific female branches. They ignore possible effects of "sex balanced" links between certain male and female elements; all of which may impose controlling influences upon any individual considered for mating.

Pedigree interpretation may also be subjected to certain prejudices of the examiner. For example, a breeder might be motivated by economics or geographical factors; or have an inclination to be swept into following fashionable breeding trends. Others may simply express a personal preference and be content to patronize a specific individual, sire, or family.

Breeders should acknowledge that the thoroughbred is a hybrid species; a heterogeneous mix of various hereditary traits whose combinations are responsible for the "geno/phenotypes" of all individuals. The breed is much too young and genetically kaleidoscopic for one to even suggest that the thoroughbred is in its final phases of evolutionary refinement. As such, it would be a fallacy to imply that the furthest removed ancestors may be "too diluted" to have any influence on contemporary individuals. A mating can actually receive its most controlling attributes from deep within a pedigree; even from several generations distant!

Expressed as "prepotent qualities," dominant genetic contributions are likely established and preserved through planned, "sex balanced" inbreeding and line breeding to superior strains. Certain traits of even the most remote ancestors can be so dominant, that they will (and often do) have a lasting and profound influence upon modern pedigrees. A breeder’s job is to determine which contemporary individuals are likely to offer the best chances of accessing the most desirable traits of noted past ancestors.

If you plan to progress as a breeder, you must acquire a basic knowledge of pedigree patterns. You should also be able to readily recognize powerful ancestral traits exhibited by key individuals and of their respective families. Identify the "elite" foundation female families and know who the outstanding members are which represent those families. Be prepared to study structural and conformational tendencies; and try to discern the likely sources of evident traits. You’ll need to recognize the clues which reveal sources of dominant or "fixed" genetic characteristics as well as understand how the best breeding potentials may actually be extracted from individuals who tend to be "yielding" in their genetic makeup. This is an important point because you need not expect a sire to be completely dominant in order to extract the best qualities you’re looking for. A sire’s most important contribution might actually be in his genetic ability to consistently "yield" to outside influences contained in his selected mates. A hint is to recognize a stallion’s characteristics as being latent, and note how much a difference there exists between himself and his get.

For example, consider the male succession of Mr. Prospector, Raise A Native, and Native Dancer. Arguably they are considered three of the most important sires of this century; yet they all exhibit completely different phenotypes from each other even though they are in direct male progression. Also, note that their full siblings have contributed little, if anything to the breed. You would think that some lessons may be evident here; especially to those who limit their search by only asking "who is the sire?" Remember, the most powerful influence may actually come from individuals who appear completely different than their immediate paternal heritage.

Where Does a Breeder Begin?

A good study of the past century’s leading influences at stud, both male and female, may be the best place to begin the educational process. Learn which are the most prolific producing families and examine the pedigrees of several important individuals from each family. Supplement those efforts with further studies of their respective physical traits and characteristics noticing the dominant and recessive tendencies whether from remote ancestors or contemporary stock. Then, take a good honest look at your present program. Try to determine which individuals are truly justified as keepers, and which ones should be culled.

Next, it might be best to begin selecting stock by focusing on the "key" female families as organized into numbered groups by Bruce Lowe, and later revised by Bobinsky who further segregated Lowe’s work into the female family branches that we know today. Examples are the (1s) branch of La Troienne, or the (23b) family branch of Mannie Grey and Gallopade before her, and so on. Studies indicate that nearly 100% of all stake horses ever produced descended from about 180 family branches. Of those, about a dozen are considered to be the "very elite", or most prolific producing families, accounting for better than 50% of all stake horses ever registered. Combine this elite group with yet another dozen or so families noted as the supporting or secondary group, and you have identified the genetic pool accountable for about 75% of all stake horses ever recorded. That doesn’t mean that lesser, "obscure" branches cannot yield standout individuals, because they have. Prime examples are Phalaris (1i) or St. Simon (11c)! It also helps to try recognizing certain families who appear to be newly emerging, showing signs of exuding "hybrid vigor" with a current consistency of high class individuals such as the (10a) family branch. This family produced Exclusive Native, Deputy Minister, American Chance, and the recently retired stallion prospects, Out Of Place and Gold Fever. It would only seem logical that if one were to go fishing, it would be wise to begin in a pond where the fish populations are known to be plentiful!

Where Do We Find These Prospects?

There are a number of overlooked breeding prospects available that qualify as excellent candidates which are easily within the budgets of small breeders. You may want to begin by examining daughters of certain stallions who were initially promoted as highly fashionable, yet may have waned from fashion. These mares are usually sired by stallions representing leading sire lines, possess superior race credentials, and are from strong families. Secondly, the mares themselves would likely have been from strong families in order to justify their mothers being selected for mating with these fashionable stallion prospects early in their stud career. These prospects may contain many of the important elements that we discussed earlier. They may be full of key genetic material just waiting for the right influence which will unlock their productive potentials.

Excellent sources for mare prospects worth considering might be descendants of some of the most prominent sire lines of the breed, such as Northern Dancer, Secretariat, Buckpasser, and Raise A Native. Although these mares may be by sons and grandsons who’s current status at stud is less fashionable today, they may still contain all the right ingredients

to achieve breeding success. Mares by contemporary stallions such as Saratoga Six, Spectacular Bid, Spend A Buck, Manila, Chiefs Crown, Dayjur, may all be good examples.

This same approach can also be applied to your selection of stallion prospects. There are several inexpensive stallions begging for a chance at the right mares. Some are new and unproven while others have been showing signs of siring good, useful stock for years, yet remain ignored for various reasons. If possible, examine as many of their foals as possible. Make note of a general consistency (or lack thereof) in their overall physical make up. Notice clues of any apparent dominant or recessive tendencies. Examine their families and try to identify the likely sources of possible powerful influences. Plan your matings! Make sure they suit the mares you have in mind for them. Remember, they need not dominate the mare. Sometimes the best results can be attained by "allowing" the mare to dominate the sire; to contribute her best attributes to a stallion’s powerful yet latent genetic qualities.

In later issues, we’ll explore probable mare lines and stallions that might make excellent candidates for the horseman with limited resources. We’ll also examine some of the more prolific female families, discuss likely sources of genetic traits, and study some of the most influential components who helped shape the breed. There is no need to become complacent or succumb to the pressures of the high end marketplace! There is a place for the small breeder where the mysteries of "the best of the best" can certainly be unraveled in order to participate in "The Sport of Kings"!