Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Breeding observations from a wise guy

I'm engrossed in study of the catalog for the upcoming Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Sale of 2-year-olds in training, which prompted this realization.

Both from horses in this catalog and from their elder siblings, I can see the influence commercial breeding has on the sales market, and on the breed.

There are countless examples of foals that were bred (seemingly) not for winning races or surviving long careers at the track, but merely to cash in on a hot sire or "fashionable" breeding. Foals out of mares who were good, stakes-producers with what some would consider marginal sires, suddenly sent to the biggest names in the book. And, to a degree, it makes sense: If she can produce a statebred stakes winner with a regional sire, shouldn't she produce better when sent to a Storm Cat or Unbridled's Song?

Perhaps, but breeders in the process seem to forget what got them there; a nick that worked repeatedly among her earlier foals, particularly, or the type of racemare she was or sort of runner she'd previously produced. The commercial name as sire of the forthcoming offspring becomes more important than actually building upon the racing success of that foal's elder siblings.

Another trend I've noticed repeatedly in breeding for the American market is a measure of disdain for good turf horses. In all financial spectrums of the market, time and again, stakes-class grass mares are bred to decidedly "dirt" sires. And I'm not talking about sires who were raced on dirt themselves but have proved they can get you a turf horse now and again -- like Tale of the Cat, whose progeny earnings are nearly one-third on turf and who has sired the likes of last year's champion grass horse, Gio Ponti. Rather, the mare is sent to a horse whose get don't even seem to like grass for rolling or snacking.

Some of that phenomenon also is attributable to the sales. In the States, a splendid-looking colt by a dirt-oriented young sire (let's say Bernardini) has "Kentucky Derby" written all over him in the eyes of prospective buyers at a yearling sale. A colt of that same visual quality, sired by Kitten's Joy or English Channel, instead reads "Hollywood Derby." And while they're both Grade 1 races, Hollywood's race ain't "America's Race," and thus far fewer folks are lined up to pay the price of admission for the dream of having a horse in the starting gate on the first Saturday of each May at Churchill Downs.

Another market force in the dirt-over-turf breeding decision is the horse's usefulness at all levels of racing. While Virginia's Colonial Downs cards even bottom-level maiden and claiming races on the lawn -- the most beautiful lawn at any racecourse in America, I might add -- you can't get that everywhere. In fact, almost nowhere. And some tracks (ranging in quality from backwater bullrings to Oaklawn Park) don't have a turf course at all. Some buyers -- and thus breeders -- might be concerned that a horse methodically bred for turf will have nowhere to run if he isn't good enough to compete in allowance- or stakes-class races. So breeders put that good turf mare to a good dirt sire just in case the foal ends up needing to run for a $5,000 tag. Well, congratulations: You quite likely just bred a $5,000 plater.

I understand that at this stage, I have no street -- or, let's say, "back side" -- cred as a critic. My first foal in this game is a yearling; his 2009 stablemate already dead. (One of the harsh realities of the horse business; accidents happen.) And, being among the masses who can't afford a five-digit stud fee, let alone six, I sure haven't jumped into the deep end of the gene pool to start my breeding program.

But before getting involved, I watched this game from the sidelines for a decade, both the races and the sales. And soon enough, we'll be finding out whether that has made me wise, or just a wise guy.

1 comment:

  1. Backside cred is overrated in regards to breeding. There is far more randomness to successful mating than most experts will ever admit. I went from being a pedigree geek to thinking pedigree is completely overrated. Some of the greatest thoroughbreds ever were produced by unplanned, or whim types of matings, see Northern Dancer, for example.


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