Sunday, January 17, 2010

About Pedigree Matching

Did you ever wonder why even the best of sires have so many "ordinary" performers or why a mare of modest breeding can suddenly produce a champion? The answer may well be in the "match" of the bloodlines of the sire to those of the dam. The concept of matching bloodlines as a way to develop champions has proven it's worth over the years and serious breeders would do well to study the theory and results to see if they can improve their chances of coming up with the right match for their mares. The success of a particular mating does not have to be subject more to luck than good management.

With the growing acceptance of semen transport small breeders can aspire to breed to any active sire listed in the United States Trotting Association publication The USTA Sires and Dams. Gone are the days when breeding to the stallion up the road, because he had a couple of good ones to the races last year, was a convenient way to handle your breeding requirements. Breeders cannot afford to take a chance that such an impromptu mating will succeed. They must make informed decisions based on pedigree and like any decision the chances of being right can be greatly improved with good research and a study of past statistics.

Successful breeders will spend time to research the best matches for their mares and can get most of the information they want through computer reports from the USTA or CTA (Canadian Trotting Association). The information they receive, though, is based on established sires and may be of little help if the boundaries of time, distance and cost make the "perfect" match unavailable or if the sire of interest is a new and unproven sire.

Among small breeders who stand their own stallion there is the tendency to breed all the farm mares to that one stud regardless of the pedigree match. Such matings will, in the long run, result in low success rates and lower prices for yearlings that far offset the short term savings involved. Smart stud owners will trade breedings with other farms to get the match that gives their mares the best chance of success.

Articles on breeding tend to focus on individual sires that have played a dominant role in recent breeding history. Matings are commonly described in terms of being Meadow Skipper 3 x 4 x 3, or Speedy Crown 5 x 4 x 4 x 5, a nomenclature which serves as much to confuse as it does to edify. The numbers relate to generations in the pedigree in which the sire of note appears. We must also contend with classifications such as line bred, inbred and incestuously bred as well as the much sought after outcross.

James C Harrison in his authoritative chapter on bloodlines and breeding in the USTA's book Care And Training Of The Trotter and Pacer, noted that " All the foundation sires of the breed were relatively short bred maternally in the sense that none of the female families that produced them ever established lasting maternal lines of their own". This would seem to infer that if you want to improve on something you must focus on the weaknesses, real or perceived, and that is where "Pedigree Matching" comes into play.

Pedigree matching presents an opportunity to improve on the bloodlines of a sire where he may be perceived to be deficient, that is in his maternal line, by returning to him bloodlines from a mare of similar lineage that have shown themselves to be genetically stronger through performance.

The goal of Pedigree Matching then is to find a way to match up the bloodlines in the maternal lines of the sire with the lineage in the bloodlines of the dam. In the words of the experts this is called "Returning to the sire the best blood of his dam". Pedigree matching is not to be confused with "line breeding" which occurs when the top line of the sire matches the top line of the broodmare sire. This is a simple concept that ignores, however, the impact of the maternal line of both the sire and the dam on the mating.

Pedigree matching is new in name only as the original basis for the theory is to be found in Wallace’s American Trotting Register published in 1871, a publication that was the first attempt of its kind to document the history of the trotter in North America. Wallace was of the opinion that "like begets like" and that breeders would be wise to seek "to unite again two streams that originate in the same fountain, but that had been separated for a few generations." His theories have stood the test of time and are as valid today as they were over 130 years ago.

Successful breeders in the thoroughbred industry such as the Aga Khan and the legendary Federico Tesio derived their success from practising "balanced breeding", a concept that evolved from evidence that inbreeding and line breeding to selected ancestors through sons and daughters was far more successful than through sons alone or daughters alone. This finding confirms in a general way the basis for Wallace’s "two streams from the same fountain" theory.

The practice of Pedigree Matching or balanced breeding or whatever name you may want to give it would automatically provide the opportunity for the right genes to express themselves and result in top performers.

Breeding Or Buying the Best

The horse racing world is full of pedigree theories, beliefs, old wives tales and opinions when it comes to making the most important decisions that breeders or buyers must make – What to breed and what to buy with respect to pedigree. The success or failure of an investment in a race-horse hinges on these crucial decisions and a wrong decision can be, at the least, very expensive.

One fact that the reader should be aware of is that the pedigree of the horse, once chosen and delivered in the form of a foal, cannot be changed. The breeder can change the environment within which the foal is raised using best practices, the buyer can retain the best trainer available and protect his investment in other ways. The end result, however, if the pedigree is incorrect, is that best practices in breeding and ownership cannot reverse a bad stallion choice, making that decision the most important one a breeder can make, and the buyer recognize.

A breeder has limited opportunity to make correct stallion decisions for each mare since after several failed matings the damage to the mare and to the breeders reputation is essentially done and the future success of both is compromised. Success is the result of all of the confident decisions you make. Confidence comes from knowing the facts and being able to sort out fact from fiction.

Another fact that is indisputable is that less than 5% of the foals produced in North America will pay for themselves over their lifetime based on the ability to earn $100,000 or more. Such a return on investment is clearly inadequate to sustain the interest in both breeding and buying standardbreds. It is little wonder that we see that the number of industry participants is shrinking.

If, as someone once said, the pedigree is only 18% of what makes a great horse is true, then also consider the fact that it is the first 18% and if it is incorrect the other 82% is a waste of everyone’s time, effort and money. The most important percentage in the purchase or breeding of a top performer is the first 18%, the correct pedigree.

There are many horses that have high speed but make little or no money. Similarly there are many horses that judging by their parents should be world champions but are complete failures on the track and in the breeding shed. An examination of the pedigree will allow you to avoid such horses and focus on the ones with true earnings potential. Pedigrees can be presented in several ways and indeed can also be interpreted in different ways. Most people who attend harness racing are probably familiar with wagering on the races and the variety of ways there are to handicap the horses and try to pick the winners. Evaluating pedigrees is much the same process. Numbers, statistics and patterns are what you look at and the relative importance you put on these in combination is a very individual thing.

Patterns Of Success and Percentages

A Pattern of Success can be as simple as the position in the pedigree tree of certain ancestors or as complicated as counting up the number of times the pedigree traces back to some obscure ancestor that you consider important. In fact when you get familiar with pedigrees you will find that, just as in handicapping the races, the patterns of success inevitably have exceptions. It is important to remember, however, that success in owning Standardbreds, like all other sports, is a game of percentages and those who play the percentages in their favour will be the ones to succeed.

To play the percentages you have to know them. One key measuring stick to use in assessing pedigrees is the percentage of performers by a sire that earn $100,000 or more. Typically a successful sire or broodmare sire will average 15% or better. A yearling is clearly much more than just a combination of a sire and a broodmare sire and indeed every sire has a profile, or pattern, in relation to the mares with which he has most success.

Doing Your Homework

Like any other serious investment your chances of success are greatly improved when you understand the fundamentals of the business and make use of all the tools and information at your disposal to make the confident decisions needed to improve your percentages. The most important percentage in my mind, however, is the first 18%, the right pedigree.

The only factor that can be used with confidence is the correctness of the pedigree – does it fit the stallion’s profile - the proven or predicted pattern of success?

It is a relatively easy process to find out once you have learned how to do your homework. In today’s world of computers, high-speed communications and the Internet, we have a wealth of information upon which to make better, smarter, more confident decisions. Homework has never been easier and failing to do yours guarantees failed decisions.
I am a great fan of the great thoroughbred breeder Tesio and also of Marg Neal, a famous Canadian pedigree researcher, who was quoted in Hoofbeats as follows –

“The purpose of doing the paperwork is to produce the individual. Once the individual is on the racetrack, it doesn’t matter what the pedigree is. I’ve always talked about breeding for dominance – finding the individual that is the strongest aspect of the mare’s pedigree, then finding the stallion that has that individual in a certain place in his pedigree.”

“We have been conditioned by the restriction of catalogues and advertising to view our horses, at most, as three generation animals.There are a great many people out there today that will tell you there is no reason to look beyond the grandparents of any animal. I disagree. It is, however, a handy position to take for those unwilling to do their homework. There is a model of breeding that is like a pattern, and the pattern persists over generations, although, of course, the names change. I like to see a mare that is inbred, and a sire that is not.”
A friend of mine has won several lottery prizes while I have seldom won more than a free ticket and the occasional $5. The difference? He checks the frequency and patterns of successful numbers and buys his tickets accordingly. Even in a lottery you can improve your odds if you take the time to do your homework. The same applies to breeding and buying Standardbred horses. Then again you can sit back, play the guessing game and get what fate allows.

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