Introduction

Late last year Ellen Parker wrote an article for The Washington Thoroughbred titled "The Softening of the Thoroughbred Runner."

It was suggested that she submit it for Eclipse Award consideration in the media category, but of course it had no chance given that media Eclipse Awards tend towards sensationalism and/or sentimentality.  An article commenting on today's sad state of unsound breeding practices is certainly not going to be welcomed by those who have contributed so mightily (with the accordant profit) to the deterioration of the breed.

But the message is important, and we present the article here in the hope that there are those who will take it to heart and in whatever small way make a contribution to the strength of the Thoroughbred breed before it is, if it is not already, too late.

--Ron Parker

 

THE SOFTENING OF THE THOROUGHBRED RUNNER

By Ellen Parker

 

“One of the primary goals of those great (racing) families was to breed a better horse.  They bought all of the best blood that was available in the world and brought it to the United States, intermingled that with our best blood, and produced the best racehorses in the world.  We were breeding for soundness and improvement.

“Most of your racing stock now is ‘hothouse’ raised by people that are going to sell commercially, so they want them sleek and prepped up.  Today you can’t let a horse go out in the field with 15 other horses and fight and get bloody with knots and bruises all over them – things that are superficial, but things that make them tough.  A commercial product can’t be raised that way.”…………….John Veitch, Hall of Fame trainer, Chief Steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

 

Foreseeing the Problem

          Twenty-four years ago, I wrote a two-part story for The Texas Thoroughbred called “The Choice Is Yours”, which won an American Horse Publications third-place award for feature article.  One question I posed in that long-ago story was “Are we allowing the commercial selling market to dictate our pedigrees?” 

          In this story, I quoted New York Post turf writer Ray Kerrison:  “Breeders don’t breed to race anymore.  They breed to breed, because that’s where the money is.

          “The result is that the tracks have nothing to promote, the public nothing to excite their interest.”

          Hall of Fame trainer P. G. Johnson agreed.  “They’re breeding catalogue page to catalogue page.  We’ve had a lot of brilliant horses retire.  These horses sometimes sire unsound brilliant daughters who are bred to still more brilliance. 

          “We should breed to soundness and outcross, but that is not what’s best commercially.”

          All that long while ago, I actually saw Eight Belles coming; I just didn’t know her name yet.  And I have never in my life been so sorry to be right about something as I am about that.  The problem now, however, is exacerbated by a total lack of diversity with which to affect outcrosses (actually, no true outcrosses are possible, but there was a time when we could come much closer).

A Moment In Time

          I have a lifetime of wonderful memories associated with racing and its star athletes, but none more than the visits I paid to Round Table in his prime.  Claiborne in those days was a wonderland of diversity, and I literally basked in the glory of its very unique and special residents.

          From the St. Simon line came my beloved Round Table and his son Tell as well as the elegant *Le Fabuleux (Wild Risk) and the troubled Tulyar (via Bois Roussel).  Domino was represented by Double Jay and his Arab-like son Bagdad, and later by the wondrous Ack Ack.  Hyperion got into the act with the mischievous *Forli.  Teddy was put on the map by the great Damascus and *Pharamond II by his rival Buckpasser, once called “the perfect physical specimen”. 

          Fairway was present via *Pago Pago and *Tatan; Son-In-Law via *Herbager and *Ribot via the comical little Tom Rolfe.  *Nasrullah and his great son Bold Ruler (and his sons Secretariat, Reviewer, and Jacinto) were vital aspects of the farm.  And *Turn-to lines were present in Sir Gaylord, Drone, Sir Ivor and Riva Ridge.  *Ambiorix was Tourbillon’s standard-bearer and earlier lines like *Blenheim II (Swynford) and Gallant Fox held sway.

          What a long way we have come from this wide path of choices.  How often are Americans called a melting pot?  Well, we have melted down the pot in the Thoroughbred horse to pretty much all Northern Dancer and Raise a Native lines (which have in common the unsoundness of Native Dancer) while the majority of those lines deemed ‘different’ are all but gone.  *Nasrullah via Seattle Slew (but getting narrower via just A. P. Indy with Mr. Prospector crosses), and Blushing Groom, which is holding his own, are still with us and Man o’ War lines via In Reality continue to prosper, most recently via Tiznow.  Nearly everything else is down to a trickle, if that:

          Today we find only a handful of horses descending from those long-ago Claiborne sires I remember so well and while, yes, there are some Pleasant Colonies and some Hail to Reasons and tiny bits and pieces of Buckpasser and Damascus, there are not great masses of them, nor are they popular shuttle animals or horses who receive the ridiculously large books some of these sires get.

Natural vs. “Shuttle” Selection

          One of the oldest sayings in the Thoroughbred world is that sire lines rise and fall.  Of course they do.  When a saturation point is reached, as with St. Simon, another comes along which complements it (Bend Or in this case) adding speed to St. Simon’s great galloping/staying ability.

          That is a natural thing and as it should be.  But today it has nothing to do with ability.  Instead of 30 or 40 mares in a sire’s book, many top commercial stallions get 100-175 mares per book in not just one but two hemispheres.  That means that in a single season they can sire as many foals as Round Table or Bold Ruler did in a lifetime.

          The result is that the older, less precocious lines – those who do not look like Quarter horses and start out winning stakes in June of their juvenile years – are allowed to grow fallow and die out.  Consider K One King, the last G1 winner from the Round Table sire line.  This observer saw him at Gainesway on a day when he was the only horse shown to visitors which had not been given a bath!

          When we complained about this, the groom said, “He’s a $3500 horse.”  All we could think of to counter with was that he might not be a $3500 horse if he had had a bath.

          But this is not just about Round Table.  In another instance not long ago, a client was trying to breed to Fairway (*Pago Pago)-line Island Whirl.  Both she and I made compelling cases for why her mare fit him.  The farm conceded that he was still fertile and that it was a good match but refused to book any mares to him, trying instead to ‘force’ a match with a newer young horse they had just acquired!  With policies like this, no wonder we are in trouble.

          There is more:  Hanging by a thread as we write this is Broad Brush/Ack Ack, who has Include as almost his sole representative.  And while this sire line is known as one which “only takes one”, Include will soon be absorbed into the Mr. Prospector/Northern Dancer chasm if he, too, does not get a son to carry on which has neither of these lines.  The same is true of Holy Bull, and we sincerely hope he pulls out the other part of this grand old sire line (Himyar) with his ‘outcrossed’ son, Giacomo, winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby.

How Did This Happen?

          We could give you the one-word version:  Greed.  Or the three-pronged version:  Syndications (starting with $5.4 million for Nijinsky II and followed shortly thereafter by $6.8 for Secretariat – both were Triple Crown winners and both of their sire lines are threatened as we write this); over-booking (30-35 mares per sire per season used to be the norm, now it is an insult); and dual-hemisphere shuttling (this almost never used to occur).

          And whether you want to slap the commercial market with the ‘original’ Raise a Native madness for Majestic Prince and his brothers or blame the Coolmore/Ashford conglomerate for the proliferation of Northern Dancer blood, we did little to stanch the flow of our best bloodlines to foreign interests.

          In what amounted to self-defense, major racing jurisdictions in the Southern Hemisphere went from important horses like Badger Land and Darby Fair (South Africa) to ‘business as usual’ Northern Dancer/Raise a Native crosses.  Where once Star Kingdom seemed the brightest and best of Hyperion’s tribe ‘down under’ in Australia and New Zealand, he has now been swamped, along with his wondrous successor Sir Tristram (*Turn-to) with Danehill blood.  South America, once a great place to find counterbalances to all those Nashua daughters with a nice horse like Good Manners are now saturated with Native Dancer blood as well.

          And as for the Fairway lines which marched proudly through Europe and all the other continents via horses like Brigadier Gerard, they are all but absorbed and if one wishes to use them, he can do so only by adding still more Northern Dancer blood to a horse already inbred to him.  Further, as this is being written, some effort is being made in Europe by major players Coolmore and Darley to acquire some of the old Bahram (Koenigsstuhl); Teddy (Monsun) and Son-In-Law (Acatenango/Lando) lines in Germany.  Before long, they will no longer be absent the Native Dancer stain either.

Of Babies and Bottles

            As we consider the problem of soundness in the modern Thoroughbred, it is often difficult to discern what is a symptom and that which is a cause.  Take the case of drugs:  Do horses need medication because they are not sound or are they not sound because their parents ran on medication?  Try figuring that one out sometime.

          And woe is the poor breeder who does his homework and goes to farm after farm looking for a nice physical match for his mare, only to discover that the ‘perfect’ stallion had surgical intervention to fix this problem or that before he ran.  Surgery used to be rather obvious, but due to newer arthroscopic techniques, little ‘tweaks’ are no longer so easily spotted.  So if the mare happens to have the same problem that the sire had ‘fixed’, the breeder ends up with a crooked foal and isn’t sure if it’s entirely his mare’s fault or not.  Some major breeders have even suggested that it be stamped on a horse’s papers if he had periosteal stripping or other such ‘work’, but commercial breeders kept that from happening.

          And while we’re on the subject of coming clean about young horses, how do you know whose x-ray you are really looking at when you go to a sale’s repository?  Can you tell Hip #231’s ankles from Hip #772’s?  Didn’t think so.

          Then there is the whole craziness of two-year-old-in-training sales.  Who on earth that really loves horses and cares about the future of this sport and this breed wants to take these poor babies, buzz them up (if on nothing more than their own adrenaline) and send them out to work a mere furlong?  Would someone please tell us how on earth this does anything but harm?

          Time was we worried about yearlings on steroids.  Now we have to worry about horses who are barely more than yearlings racing down the stretch like wild mustangs.  This is utter insanity and has no bearing on breeding a classic horse.  No wonder we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner in 30 years; nobody’s really trying to breed one!

Triple Crowns

          Of course, we’ve never had a lot of Triple Crowns (15 in England since 1853), and if one considers this, he comes to the conclusion that we really aren’t supposed to have too many of them.  If they were more common, it would somehow cheapen them.

          But the question now is whether or not they are even possible. America has not had a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, but England has gone eight years longer, since Nijinsky II won in 1970.  Prior to his victory in the marathon St. Leger, the last English Triple Crown winner was Bahram in 1935.  Such gaps are to be honored; they make for historical achievements.

          So can we have other Triple Crowns?  Perhaps.  In England, we only believe this is possible if a private breeder – say the Aga Khan, or someone like the late Gerald Leigh who bred classic winner and Breeders’ Cup victor Barathea - decides that he values the quest.  The reason? 

          A horse is far more valuable at stud if he wins the English Two Thousand Guineas at a flat mile and the 12-furlong Epsom Derby, then follows that with a win in France’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the same distance against his elders.  Animals who win the marathon 1 ¾ mile plus St. Leger are considered ‘plodders’ and shunned by most breeders, or relegated to siring ‘chasers in the provinces.  Freely translated, it is not commercial to win the Leger, thus the Triple Crown has lost its luster – at least in England.

          The reasons why we have not had a Triple Crown winner in the U. S. are more complex.  (In other words, there may actually have been a horse in England who could have won the Triple Crown but was never actually pointed for it.)

          In all probability, our lack of Triple Crown winners has to do with the fact that our horses simply are no longer tough enough to withstand the challenge.  And no, it won’t help if we don’t start them until they are five on artificial surfaces, PETA.  Or worse if we ‘adjust’ the series in either distance or spacing; all that would do is cheapen the whole thing –rather like making the once two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup into just another fall Belmont stake where once it was something unique and special.

          The Triple Crown is a tough test.  It requires an athlete to have a great foundation (i.e. a strong two-year-old season); a productive early spring (three or four prep races) and then come into the Derby at slightly below his best, then on to the Preakness, dialed up a notch, then peaking in the Belmont.  This series of tests demands exceptional talent, a level disposition, and a strong constitution.  But along with these necessities comes the obvious:  He must also be sound.  If he is not, he will not have a strong juvenile campaign (something both Big Brown and Sunday Silence lacked), a solid spring campaign (something also lacking in those two) and luck (both had foot problems).  These are just two examples of horses who could not pull off the hat trick.

          But the luck-soundness balance is an integral part of this process and we believe that while some things to do with soundness like stumbling coming out of the gate, are unavoidable, basic soundness is for keeps.  Again, Round Table comes to mind:  The great horse won 14 of his 16 starts on turf, and ran second in another.  In his only off-the-board effort, he grabbed a quarter at the start of the 1959 Washington Birthday Handicap. Doctor John Peters (who purchased the colt from Claiborne Farm for the Kerr family and later was the track veterinarian for Santa Anita) said he had never before seen a horse heal so quickly. 

          Round Table was out of action with the resultant quarter crack from Feb. 23 to June 13, the only time he was sidelined in his 66-race career.  In his first start back, he carried 130 pounds to equal Citation’s mile track record of 1:33 2/5 at Arlington Park in Chicago.  Because he was intrinsically sound, he had no problem healing quickly and returning to full strength, winning another handicap championship and becoming the world’s leading money winner.  For a Triple Crown winner, such inborn strength is not an option; it is an utter ground rule.

Punishing Toughness

          Round Table’s sire line is almost gone as this is being written.  We use him so often as an example not just because he was our favorite but because perhaps more than any other horse besides his female counterpart, Dahlia, his was a toughness that seemed to be punished more than it was honored, something that makes no sense at all to us. 

          If you think it’s unfortunate that Round Table or Dahlia are punished, consider a far more recent horse, Skip Away, one of our true tough guys with 38 starts.  He can’t buy the kind of mares routinely seen by the Northern Dancer/Mr. Prospector crosses.  His yearling average?  A little over $11,000 – with a stud fee of $10,000. 

          How about an even tougher fellow, Say Florida Sandy (98 starts) – his yearlings average $6,050.  Why must we turn our backs on such horses?  This is exactly the kind of horse we should be standing at the best farm in Kentucky and turning away mares by the truckload.  Instead, he’s buried in upstate New York where he got 37 foals in his first crop.  That’s about what Giant’s Causeway sees in his first week of the breeding season.

Is It Too Late?

          If ‘outcrossing’ is indeed the answer, we first need to determine if it’s even possible.  Horses like Holy Bull, Hat Trick and Skip Away give one hope, but they cannot do it alone, nor can they do it with books of 30 mares when every single Northern Dancer and Raise a Native-line sire gets 150 mates in two hemispheres.  There are only so many good mares out there after all.  Where do you suppose they are going?

          For certain, they are not going to horses like Include, K One King, Ferrara or Say Florida Sandy.  How about Brigadier Gerard-line Patton in Pennsylvania for a rarity?  That’s why he’s in Pennsylvania.  Then there is Beautiful Pleasure’s grand full brother Mecke in Florida who stands alongside another viable ‘outcross’ – the Montbrook tribe.  Local breeders, at least, seem to like the latter.  Mecke?  Not so much.

          Seattle Fitz represents *Blenheim II, though we’d surely like to see some *Mahmoud on the top, too, and Siphon represents Prince Bio, though we see some soundness problems with him.  Caro is pretty well carried by Cozzene, since we were stupid enough to sell off the lovely With Approval, and of course there is In Excess and his son Indian Charlie, but neither is particularly sound.

          Blushing Groom has Rahy, who needs a flagship son.  At present Cherokee Colony and Mt. Livermore are keeping the line on track.  And of course Washington is to be congratulated for keeping courageous little *Gallant Man’s line in play with Demon Warlock.

          Pleasant Colony still has a bit of a say in things and Go For Gin has taken Cormorant another generation farther with Albert the Great.  But Tom Rolfe, our favorite *Ribot, is not even a strong presence via his best son Alleged and we did not support Lost Code enough to continue Arts and Letters – plus we let Badger Land get away to South Africa.

          In Europe, horses like Lahib (Riverman), Lando (Son-In-Law) and the offspring of Indian Ridge (Tourbillon line) are but a few of the choices.  Hyperion is very hard to find in tail-male - *Forli is represented by a touch of Thatch blood, *Alibhai by Deputed Testamony’s line and there is a smidgen of Nodouble in regional markets: This is all that is left from a once hale and hearty line, though we find many horses inbred to Hyperion.

          Perhaps the only thing to do is to take a group of expert horsemen and travel the far reaches of the planet, from England to South Africa to India to New Zealand to Japan and on to South America is search of some lines we have allowed to go fallow.  It would take time and money and real effort, not to mention a true commitment on the part of the searchers, for once the animals were found, they must also be supported.

Some Options

          There are three other ideas which come to mind that might make a difference.  One – opening up the stud book to a different breed or breeds – we are certain will never be adopted.  We once read that if a Thoroughbred and a Standardbred were to be mated that the Standardbred would be improved in the first generation but the Thoroughbred would not be improved for a dozen generations.  Whether or not we believe this, it is likely true that the younger the breed, the more improvement would show up immediately.  Thus something older like pure Arab blood might make more sense than a warmblood sire, or even using a combination of the pair – say a good-boned Anglo-Arab might be the ticket.  Still, we know the Jockey Club would balk at any such suggestion.

          Another idea I believe not only has merit, but is one that we should adopt immediately, and that is a National Stud.  Within that National Stud should be as many variety of sire lines as can possibly be found, with no Native Dancer inbreeding whenever humanly possible.  And, since we are going to have to do something about supporting these horses, they will have to be subsidized with sizeable incentives to breed to them.  In other words, stud fees in reverse.  “Bring us your G1-winning mare from family 1-S (*La Troienne) and we’ll pay you to do so.”

          If that does not work, the only other option is for the National Stud to develop its own broodmare band, but the clock is ticking and time may already have run out.  Breeding outcrossed sires to a series of Raise a Native inbred mares is not going to help much of anything if they are crossed back to more Native Dancer in the next generation.

          Finally, and this goes hand-in-hand with breeding ‘different’ horses, we need to up the purses on our longer races, not insult them (as with the new Breeders’ Cup Marathon with a purse of only $500,000 when everything else is at least $1 million.)  We should have a $5 million marathon, too.  Then maybe somebody would breed for a St. Leger runner and we’d actually get another English Triple Crown winner.

The Only House On Easy Street is The Poor House

          Which brings us to the bottom line:  Thinking outside the box and doing the right thing takes courage and a willingness to ride out the storm.  Taking short cuts has all but ruined this wondrous creature born of desert sires and mares who carried knights into battle.

          The breed has not evolved, it has devolved.  Those who care about more than the sale price of their yearlings had better get moving because by the time you are ready, there will be nothing left to use…we are nearly there now.

          What I had foreseen twenty-four years ago is happening every day before my eyes and I do not care for the landscape.  I do not know what to say to people who ask me how I can support such a sport, how I as a horse lover can even watch it anymore.  It is getting harder and harder to find answers to those questions.

          Then just last month I took some Dutch visitors out to see Giacomo, the Giacomo I was so very certain would win the Kentucky Derby for his Plaudit-line sire, Holy Bull.  He is entirely absent Northern Dancer and Raise a Native lines and he is from a French classic family (Mistress Ford) just named a Reine-de-Course.  I look into the eyes of this horse – the perfect outcross for the future – and I know that I will never give up hope entirely.  Not so long as horses like this win classic races and go places like Adena Springs to stand at stud.   As long as there are Giacomos there is hope.