Truth and Lies In Thoroughbred Breeding – Part 3

The themes of my first two articles in this series have been that, firstly, luck is the central component to breeding success and, secondly, that inbreeding, for all the theories that abound and the thousands of column inches which have been written extolling its virtues, is very much a two-edged sword.

I’m not arguing that inbreeding is doomed to fail – or that it has no place in the thoroughbred breeder’s arsenal. All I’m saying is that it’s a technique that needs to be used with caution – especially as there is some extraordinarily dodgy science referenced in the most reputable publications, “science” which seems to suggest that sex-balancing stallions or mares in a pedigree is the recipe for success.

For the life of me, I just can’t see how this works. To begin with, when you’re breeding anything – humans, horses or hamsters – you do get some quite unexpected results. I’m not trying to be offensive, but just think of your own relatives. Sure, they are highly unlikely to be the result of inbreeding but there will be some surprises out there. If you are inbreeding, and I’m not writing about humans here, there’s still an awful lot of variability involved.

One reason why inbreeding enthusiasts sometimes are disappointed by the results of their efforts is that they have made one fundamentally incorrect assumption – that when a name appears more than once on a pedigree printout it means the same thing – in terms of genetic inheritance – on both occasions. As an example, let’s look at Zabeel and a couple of his sire sons, Savabeel and Zed. Even a cursory inspection of these two animals will show that there is a significant difference in their physical make up. Now let’s fast forward 15 years and assume we have a grand-daughter of Zed and we’re thinking of sending her to a grandson of Savabeel because we’re rather keen on Zabeel blood. Are we really increasing our chances of a significant number of those magic Zabeel genes ending up in our foal?

I think not.

Truth And Lies In Thoroughbred Breeding – Part 2

When I first became interested in breeding thoroughbreds back in the late 1960’s, I read everything I could find on the subject. It quickly became apparent that there were two main schools of thought as to how one could produce superior animals. One established opinion recommended inbreeding to “desirable” ancestors; the opposing group to theorists thought that outcrossing as far as possible was the way to go. This latter group even went to the extent of using emotive terms such as “incestuous” to describe what they considered to be excessively close inbreeding.

As we all know, the way the breed has developed means that every thoroughbred is inbred to some extent but the question is, should we try to make this occur as distantly as possible or should we do the opposite? Or, as is so true in other areas of life, does the truth exist somewhere in the middle?

The first point to consider is that inbreeding clearly improves our chances of breeding a good horse. The catch is that it also improves our chances of breeding a bad one. If you reduce the gene pool, it all depends which combination of genes comes through as to whether your pride and joy gains black type or struggles to keep up in a maiden event at Hokitika. (I once owned an Oregon filly with the most beautifully balanced pedigree you could imagine; unfortunately she found West Coast competition far too hot). The more inbred your racehorse is, the more likely it is to be very good or very bad.

Advocates of inbreeding often use the adjective “judicious” to qualify either “inbreeding” or “linebreeding”. I would argue that we don’t really know whether it’s judicious or not until the horse in question is well into its racing career. To be fair, those who use the term often mean that a little inbreeding is no bad thing, but let’s not overdo it. However, the plain truth is that it’s impossible to ascertain whether or not an example of inbreeding in a particular horse’s pedigree has any influence at all in its level of performance. Any attempt to over-simplify a remarkably complex process is always doomed to fail.

Putting that argument to the side, there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that duplicating some stallions or mares may coincide with a good level of racing performance in general. For example, there are many very useful racehorses which are inbred to Northern Dancer, Somethingroyal and Lalun.

However, the converse is equally true (also in general). A few decades ago I bred several horses with the great mare Eulogy duplicated in their pedigrees. The best of them was a maiden winner at Woodville. Similarly, inbreeding to Danehill appears to be fraught with danger at the moment.

All in all, inbreeding can be spectacularly successful but you’ve got to be (a) lucky and (b) careful. Beware complicated theories because theories are just that.

Nashville Dominant in CJC Winter Cup

It’s always a thrill to be associated with a Group winner, but it’s a special feeling when the horse concerned can win a Group event at nine years of age, giving weight to much younger rivals.

The son of Darci Brahma and the Royal Academy mare Royal Kiss was a real enigma earlier in his career, losing several major races which he could well have won, but now he seems to be much more consistent in his approach to racing. Apprentice Kate Cowan rides him superbly and showed no signs of panic when he was well out of his ground with 800 to run.

From a pedigree point of view, it’s worth nothing that he’s bred on the same Danehill – Royal Academy cross that features in the genetic make-up of the brilliant Fastnet Rock, this being an extension of the highly successful Danzig-Nijinsky nick. When I recommended the mating which produced him, I was also well aware of the affinity between Danehill and Sharpen Up (as evidenced in Danehill Dancer).

Sure, the pedigree features inbreeding to Northern Dancer, Natalma, Native Dancer, Menow, Buckpasser and Rockefella and it could be argued by linebreeding enthusiasts that it’s these duplications which make Nashville as good as he is. Nevertheless, it’s unarguable that close relatives have a greater influence on genetic make-up than do distant ones and I’ve always been a fan of not ignoring the obvious. Darci Brahma clearly passes on what we would agree are identifiable Danehill traits. When finding a stallion to suit a mare with Royal Academy and Sharpen Up close up, why would you not start with by looking for a well-credentialed son of Danehill, given the evidence we have that the Danehill – Royal Academy – Sharpen Up blend has a good chance of success.

Yes, as you will suspect, my next article on the truth and lies in thoroughbred breeding will focus on inbreeding and some of the myths that surround it.

Truth and Lies In Thoroughbred Breeding – Part 1

Quite some time ago now I recall making the point that although it’s understandable that we breeders, especially those relatively new to the industry, can spend much time looking for the silver bullet, the theory that will lead to an avalanche of black-type winners, such a search is doomed to fail. Firstly, there have been so many smart people engaged on this quest that you’d think that one of them would have found the magic formula long since; secondly, no-one’s found it for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist.

This not to denigrate the remarkable level of success that some breeders have experienced but you’d have to take into account other factors when evaluating their success – apart from any magic genetic formula they may or may not have had. For example, some have been fabulously wealthy: Nelson Bunker Hunt did pretty well as a breeder before his ill-judged attempt to corner the global market in silver. Others have been expert horsemen and ruthless cullers of animals which didn’t turn out to be up to the standard expected – think Federico Tesio, the legendary Italian breeder.

My argument is that there’s one factor that supersedes all others and that’s sheer blind luck. Some of us will have bred a good horse early in our breeding careers and drawn the totally erroneous conclusion that this business is easy. In a sense that’s the worst luck of all because it leads to blind faith in our own brilliance leading to unwarranted expense and ultimate failure. We always need to remember that however clever we think we are, it’s chance that dictates which sperm gets to that egg first.

However, that’s not to say that we’re all doomed and that if we are not fortune’s darlings we have no hope of success. There are certainly some tactics we can use to nudge the odds just a little in our favour. Just one of these is to acquire a working knowledge of equine genetics.

In the remainder of this series of articles I’m going to focus on some of the myths and legends of genetics which, if we put our faith in them, will certainly lead to unjustified expense, if not abject failure.

Foretelling The Future Of Second Year Stallions

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make an intelligent assessment of a stallion’s likelihood of success until his first crop hits the yearling sales – and it’s challenging enough to do so then.

Sure, there are some of us who are really good judges of foals but the old adage of “fools and foals go together” has more than an element of truth about it. Nonetheless, breeders always look forward to the first crop of a stallion’s foals just in case the progeny of their favourite horse really do catch the eye. Leading the charge are, of course, the studmasters who have sweated blood to obtain the best possible book of mares for their new stallion the previous Spring.

In spite of the above comments, there is one prophecy I can make with the absolute certainty of being correct. No studmaster is going to be quoted as saying, “Well, I have to say that if this is the best that Bob’s Revenge can do in terms of siring foals, I might as well sell up now and move to Fiji.” What we do hear are comments like, “Bob’s Revenge has left a striking line of foals with excellent bone and amazing natural muscle.” Because breeders just have to be positive people in order to survive in the industry, we do tend to lap up this sort of report. We forget that judging bone in a foal is virtually impossible and that there’s no alternative to ”natural “ muscle. We also forget that published photographs of foals won’t be random. No-one is going to display an undersized foal with crooked legs. Besides, most foals are pretty cute anyway.

Now I’m not suggesting that studmasters are chronic liars. Anything but. When you’re running a business you’ve got to be positive about what you produce. However, what I am suggesting that if you are thinking of using a second-season sire, it’s really worthwhile to see as many of the horse’s early foals as you possibly can. If you have an empty mare or an early-foaling one, that’s going to be more than a tricky proposition. On the other hand, if you are thinking of breeding a later-foaling mare, then it does pay to get in the car and do your homework. You’ll need to remember that your research will be anything but conclusive but you will be able to make some sort of assessment about such variables as size, correctness and attitude.

In my opinion, it’s attitude that’s the crucial variable. A foal that has the confidence to cruise up to a stranger and say gidday is always preferable to one that uses its mother as a shield against a frightening world.

Social Media Is Killing Us?

Every so often something pops up in the media that really makes us think. The linked article which appeared in the Thoroughbred Daily News on 4 July was written by New Zealand – bred Vicki Leonard and deals with the falling interest in racing over the ditch. But you have to wonder whether her findings are equally applicable to Godzone.

One observation that occurred to me recently as I was stuck on the couch diligently following instructions to deal with the inconvenience of a ruptured tendon was how stunningly boring winter racing appears to be. There’s nothing on mainstream TV or the front page of Stuff and there’s precious little on the racing page of the daily newspaper. Ms Leonard’s key point is that young people don’t do mainstream TV or Stuff or daily newspapers and so that racing enthusiasts of a certain age have no idea how racing is being portrayed to the twenty- and thirty-somethings who constitute the future of our industry. Good point. All I can add to the issue is that racing isn’t being portrayed with any vibrancy to current enthusiasts either.

As far as Australia is concerned, animal rights activists appear to have hijacked social media with a view to pushing their ill-informed agendas. Is this happening here too? I have no idea but it would be really interesting to find out.

However, even assuming that social media is indeed having the effect of turning large numbers of young people off racing, there is something that we can do. If we really love something, whether it’s Whittaker’s chocolate or the best romantic film of all time – Brief Encounter(1945)- or the joy of owning a winner, then we talk about it. Or do we? I reckon that we racing enthusiasts could do a much better job of promoting our love of thoroughbred racing. Just imagine if each of us made a point of speaking to just three racing novices over the next week and explained how much fun racing is and informed them when the next local meeting was scheduled…

Food for thought?

Off the Pace: How Our Industry Must Change

Some Thoughts On First-Season Stallions

It’s difficult enough to choose the right stallion for your mare but it’s even more challenging when you are shooting entirely blindfolded. I’ve always has a strong preference for third or fourth season stallions as by that stage breeders have some idea what a stallion’s progeny look like. In particular, if the horse throws conformational or temperament problems, it’s always nice to know about these before one invests the hard-earned.

Nevertheless, it is one of the mysteries of the universe that yearling buyers seem to have a mystical affinity with the untried and unproven. And, as we all know, it’s nice to be able to get good money for a yearling so the temptation to humour buyers and give them what they want is very hard to resist. We may end up by devaluing our mares but fashion and short-term gain seems to win every time. Beats me.

Anyway, having got that off my chest and admitting that, up to a point, I have no idea what I am commencing to write about, this year’s new stallions don’t seem to be a bad lot at all.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for Turn Me Loose. Strength, speed and class are attributes we broodmare owners are always strongly attracted by and the son of Iffraaj had all three qualities in abundance. Sure, you wouldn’t want to risk sending a Danehill- line mare to him but there are no other leading bloodlines that we would have reservations about. His fee also appears very reasonable.

A second horse which really appeals is Wrote. If you win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and are by High Chaparral from a mare descending from Special, you must have a decent chance of making it as a stallion. If you stand at the bargain fee of $5000 you start to look very attractive indeed.

And then there’s Vadamos. Any stallion with an annual Timeform of 126 is a pretty handy animal and you’ve got to be a very high-class racehorse indeed to win the Chantilly Prix du Moulin de Longchamp, often referred to as the mile championship of Europe. As a bonus, he’s bred on the same cross as Melbourne Cup winner Protectionist. $15,000 seems very fair value.

Please do not draw the conclusion that the other seven newcomers have little to recommend them. All in all, they are a highly promising group of stallions and let’s hope they all leave stunning progeny

The Stallion Register is Shrinking!!

Many of us will recently have received a copy of the NZTBA’s excellent “Register of Thoroughbred Stallions of New Zealand 2017”. It’s a great reference volume but it’s certainly a concern that the range of stallions available to Kiwi breeders reduces on an annual basis.

This is not a complaint about our stallion owners. It takes a significant degree of financial courage to stand a horse at stud and there are very few stallions in the Register which are overpriced. In fact, the reverse is true. Darci Brahma is an absolute steal, as are Pentire and Keeper. Of the up and coming types, Shocking, Showcasing, Zacinto and Highly Recommended are examples of stallions which are well worth their advertised fees.

Clearly, the annual exodus of mares over the Tasman to visit Australian-based stallions makes a lot of sense for our breeders. We operate in an increasingly global industry and it’s unfair to blame breeders for making informed financial decisions, especially as some Australian operations offer significant inducements to attract New Zealand mares. However, it is equally true that every dollar spent by our breeders over there is one dollar less available to our stallion owners for re-investment.

Having said that, this year offers nine first-season stallions, compared to seven last year and five in 2014. In both 2013 and 2015 we also had nine new horses. So, in my view, our studs are doing their very best to maintain a supply of fresh bloodlines. The reason why fewer mares are being mated every year is the staggering level of production costs. I’m sure there are many small breeders like myself who structure their activities around their own small landholding; moving to town would mean the end of our breeding activities.

Anyway, from a personal point of view, the number of enquiries I’ve had for mating advice is very heartening. Clients are understandably motivated by getting value for money and it’s really important that the industry supports its members by offering a range of payment plans for service fees. Breeders have long memories and a good deal offered in one year will often lead to that wonderful phenomenon of repeat business.

La Nouvelle Vague Sets New Figures For 2600 Metres

Invercargill’s Ascot Park may have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years but there is no doubt that the Southland Racing Club Committee deserve great credit for fixing their distinctively-shaped piece of real estate.

It’s hard to believe that a 17.1 hand thoroughbred could navigate his way around such a tight course in record time but that’s exactly what happened on Saturday. The giant son of St Reims La Nouvelle Vague outfinished the gallant Oor Wullie by three-quarters of a length in an impressive 2:39.67, beating Sea Swift’s 1986 mark of 2:40.51 by some 0.84 seconds. It’s also worth noting that La Nouvelle Vague’s impost of 57 kg was 6kg more than the weight carried by the previous record holder.

What’s really remarkable is that I can find no record of any other thoroughbred in Australia or New Zealand breaking the 2:40 barrier. The distance is not uncommon at Randwick in Sydney; the record there was set by Balciano in the Group 1 Metropolitan H. in 1987 when he carried 50.5 kg to finish in 2:40.8.

La Nouvelle Vague doesn’t look very fast but he has a huge stride and considerable reserves of stamina. He also has that wonderful quality in a racehorse – an aversion to getting beaten. Leah Hemi again rode him superbly, ensuring that he never lost momentum and getting him into a position to win the $40,000 feature. The grandson of Zabeel has not always been the easiest horse to train but Graham and Michael Eade must be well pleased that their efforts have been well rewarded over the last fortnight.

Now we have a problem which many owners would envy. What do we aim at now? Do we chase the New Zealand two-mile Cups or do we have a crack over the Tasman?

Karaka Sale Series A Buyers’ Benefit

Most predictions concerning this year’s yearling sales were that there would be a “readjustment” in values and those predictions turned out to be pretty much spot on. However, one could argue that this year’s catalogues were clearly inferior to the 2016 versions and that therefore the results weren’t that bad at all. Things can always get worse.

Anyway, in the lead-up to sales week I had found it extraordinarily difficult to sell copies of my Buyers’ Guide – an analysis which identified yearlings which could well be undervalued, given the strength of their pedigrees. Most long-standing clients had the same “I don’t think we’ll be buying this year” message. Some did end up staying at home or keeping their hands in their pockets but others nonetheless helped me equal my record of seven yearlings bought by proud owners of the Buyers’ Guide.

The honour roll was as follows:


Darci Brahma – Surreptitiously colt (Lot 437) $105,000


Reliable Man – Run to the Bank filly (987) $40,000

Pins – Seven Schillings filly (1012) $55,000

Super Easy – The Quarewan filly (1090) $20,000


Super Easy – Arctic Heights colt (1128) $10,000

Super Easy – Astrogal colt (1132) $90,000

Iffraaj – Designacat colt (1180) $14,000

Our Cloughmore Racing Partnership has bought a minority share in both 1128 and 1180. The former is an absolute stunner who had the misfortune to be a mid-November foal. To be more accurate, this misfortune was for his breeder as it certainly won’t stop him running. As you will deduce, I am very positive about Super Easy at this stage of his career – provided that the individual isn’t inbred to Danehill. Given the number of times this inbreeding appears in Australian sales catalogues and the number of times it is absent from the pedigrees of Group winners, there is only one conclusion which can safely be drawn.