Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Breeding The Best

This is an article I wrote three years ago that I came across while cleaning up my files. It pretty much sums up my thoughts on pedigree.

Breeding or Buying The Best

It seems to make sense that breeding the best to the best should result in producing the best. Not everyone, however, probably 99.9% of us, is able to own the “best” mares or can either access or afford the “best” sires. Such a proposal then is not only impractical it is also not grounded in fact. Now everyone is entitled to their opinion but opinion alone is not sufficient. It is fact that counts.

The best two year old trotter last year in North America was Deweycheatemandhow, by Muscles Yankee (certainly one of the best NA trot sires), from a mare by Speedy Somolli that had 8 previous foals of little consequence (certainly not one of the best mares in the land) and has a maternal family with only two $100,000 plus performers in three generations. From a pedigree standpoint, however, he is a classic example of a good pedigree match. Muscles Yankee is Speedy Crown – Noble Victory maternally. Deweys dam is by a son of Speedy Crown and the second dam is by Noble Victory. A coincidence ? – I think not.

The best two year old filly in North America last year was A And Gsconfusion by Allamerican Native, a sire that has surprised many with his first crop. He did stand at Hanover so he certainly had some respect coming to him but he had one of the lowest fees of the studs at that farm. A And Gsconfusion’s dam is by the Ontario sire Dexter Nukes and maternally has Kawartha Skipper and Stephan Smith as sires of the 2nd and 3rd dams, not exactly world renowned stallions. From a pedigree standpoint, however, the filly is inbred maternally to Gene Abbe and Albatross, just the way you want to match them up. Another coincidence ? – Again I think not.

Perhaps the hottest stallion in North America last season was the trotting sire Kadabra. He is by the world famous ? Primrose Lane from a mare by equally famous ? Trotting Happy.

The best two year old colt in 2007 in North America, Somebeachsomewhere is by the Ontario sire Mach Three, a son of Matts Scooter, and therefore not deemed “commercial” enough by the big farms. Somebeach’s dam is by Beach Towel, a broodmare sire that up till now has been the butt of jokes and whose success percentage as a broodmare sire in producing $100,000 winners is less than 9% when the “best” broodmares sires are at 15% or better.

The results of breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best are reflected in the overall lack of success by the breeders in North America in producing fewer than 5% of their foals to make enough money to pay for themselves over their racing life. We can do better. We must do better if we want to still have people interested in buying and racing horses. 5% is not an attractive return on investment in todays world.

I am a great fan of Tesio and also of Marg Neal, a famous Canadian pedigree researcher, who was quoted in Hoofbeats as follows –

“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 thoroughly 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.”

If you look at the pedigrees of the best performers you will see just what Marg means and if you read up on Tesio you will find he shared the same approach, as do I.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus but it looks a lot like a lottery when it comes to producing a million dollar winner, even a $500,000 winner. Albatross was the first of 13 foals from Voodoo Hanover and was the best by far of the 9 foals by Meadow Skipper. He is not alone, however, in being the only million dollar winner from any particular mare. In all of North American standardbred history there have been only 6 mares that have two or more in that category.

The first million dollar winner was the trotter Fresh Yankee, bought for $900 as a yearling by Duncan Macdonald of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and who was driven to her record by Joe O'Brien of Prince Edward Island. The most recent millionaire and the youngest ever to reach that status is Snow White, the 2 year old filly trotter of 2007. In between these two there have been 388 other millionaires. The first mare to produce two such individuals was Spiked Byrdie with Division Street in 1980 and Silver Almahurst in 1988. She also has the record of being the first mare to produce two $500,000 winners. The others on the more than one million dollar list are Cathedra (2), Classic Wish (2), Lady Hathaway (2) and Rich N Elegant (3). Lady Hathaway is the only one in history to produce two full siblings that won $1 million. Three of these great mares are Canadian bred. Albatross was the fourth millionaire in history following Fresh Yankee, Rum Customer and Savoir.

There have been only 96 mares that have produced multiple $500,000 winners and Rich N Elegant, who was foaled at Armstrong Brothers in Ontario, leads this list also with 5. Others of note are Cathedra (4), Lismore (4), Flirtin Victory (4) and nine others with 3 credits.

Production of million dollar winners took a jump to 16 in the 1982 foal crop from the previous year's record of 6. It would be ten more years before the 1991 crop managed 18 and another 8 years till the current high for any one crop year was set in 1999 with 26.

What does all this mean? Clearly the odds of getting one of these superior performers appears lottery like although the odds at 1 in 1235 (390 millionaires from 482,000 horses of racing age since 1960) are much better than the one in 30 million chance of typical large lottery wins here in Canada.

Many have speculated on the reasons why we have horses like Albatross and the failure of full siblings. Clearly we are not dealing with absolutes when breeding horses. As correctly noted by others there is too much opportunity for "luck" to intervene in the long road from conception to racing success or failure. Tesio was convinced that if you had the perfect match you would get, at best, one in four such breedings to result in a champion. Albatross was one of nine. On the other hand Lady Hathaway was 2 for 7 with full siblings, Rich N Elegant was 1 in 5 with Western Hanover and 3 in 5 when you consider $500,000 winners.

My own pet theory on the failure of siblings is what I call "Murphys Law of Great Expectations" which seems to apply to situations where the first one of a series of full siblings is the best one. Then the trainers take over and train the subsequent ones with great expectations and run them into the ground trying to meet those expectations.

Whatever the reason, we are dealing with a percentage game as in all sports and whoever plays the percentages best wins the prize in the long run. Doing your homework on sire or yearling selection is one way to improve the percentages in your favour - 25% is much more attractive than the 4-5% that luck gives you and I'd happily take 1 in 9 if there was another Albatross among them.

A friend of mine has won several decent sized lottery prizes while I have seldom won more than a free ticket and the occasional $5. The difference? He researches the frequency and patterns of successful numbers and buys his tickets accordingly. Even in a lottery you can improve your odds if you want to take the time to do your homework. The same applies to handicapping the horse races. Then again you can sit back, play the guessing game and get what fate allows.

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