In 2008 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.
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.”…………….Hall of Fame trainer John Veitch.
Foreseeing the Problem
More than 30 years ago, I wrote a two-
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).
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-
Fairway was present via *Pago Pago and *Tatan; Son-
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 narrower still via Tapit), and Blushing Groom, which is narrowing by the season, 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, though Grey Sovereign shows a continued rebirth via In Excess-
Today we find only a handful of horses descending from those long-
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-
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. K One King, the last G1 winner from the Round Table sire line, nearly fell into this trap until Gunpowder Farms acquired him and gave him new life. 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)-
There is more: Hanging by a thread as we write this is Broad Brush/Ack Ack, who has Include as his sole important 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. His best chance as of this writing is Redeemed, who stands at Northview Farm in Maryland. A not terribly attractive individual who unfortunately resembles his broodmare sire, Pleasant Tap, he is strongly made though he made only 13 starts. A G2 winner, Redeemed is from Alydar’s family and should do well in the regional market that gave us Not For Love, who had two strikes against him as a full brother to failure Rhythm.
Include’s daughters have no representatives at stud despite his female runners being better than most of his colts. Broad Brush himself has three living representatives, but all are in regional markets: Fort Larned (FL), Lewis Michael (LA) and Richard’s Kid (CA).
The Holy Bull (Himyar) line has the good stallion Macho Uno and his Breeders’ Cup Classic winning son Mucho Macho Man at Adena Springs, but another good son, Flashy Bull, was sold to Korea. Saddest of all is Holy Bull’s Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, a lovely horse, which has been moved from Kentucky to Pennsylvania to California and now to Oregon. And despite this prejudice, Giacomo gets 6% stakes winners, better than most!
And while it does not help the sire line, Holy Bull daughters are represented by such good or promising sires as Munnings and Cairo Prince.
And do note that Adena Springs has helped both Holy Bull and Fort Larned along, though both have Mr. Prospector blood. At least Stronach and company are not afraid to stand something a bit different, and originally had Musketier (GER) who is now at Calumet along with Daylami (Mill Reef-
We could give you the one-
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-
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, every effort is being made in Europe by major players Coolmore and Darley to acquire some of the old Bahram (Koenigsstuhl); and Son-
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-
Then there is the whole craziness of two-
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 it took 38 years to get another Triple Crown winner! When it did finally happen, it was the perfect storm of a (Zayat Stable) homebred trained by ultra-
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 for 38 years was whether or not they were even possible. America had not had a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 when American Pharoah appeared on the scene. But England has gone even 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.
America finally broke its jinx, making one wonder if 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 -
A horse is far more valuable at stud if he wins the English Two Thousand Guineas at a flat mile and the 12-
The reasons why we had not had a Triple Crown winner in the U. S. were 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 to it.)
In all probability, our lack of Triple Crown winners had to do with the fact that our horses simply were 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-
The Triple Crown is a tough test. It requires an athlete to have a great foundation (i.e. a strong two-
Thus, as stated above, it took a ‘perfect storm’ – a horse with enough outcrossed blood to go with the classic speed of an Empire Maker top line and a trainer who had already come within a nose of a Triple Crown with Real Quiet. These things must all intersect at the proper moment – and it doesn’t happen very often. Just ask Coolmore who thought they had just the horse to pull it off in England with Montjeu’s son Camelot in 2012 but could not quite get the job done, coming in second to Darley-
But the luck-
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-
American Pharoah had all these things and will perhaps serve as a model for future attempts at the Triple. But we do not think a horse like this will come along with any regularity. The spaces between define them, as Round Table defined his time in the 1950’s.
Round Table’s sire line is in K One King’s hands 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 and Dahlia were punished, consider a far more recent horse, Skip Away, one of our true tough guys with 38 starts. He couldn’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. And his line is all but dead.
How about an even tougher fellow, Say Florida Sandy (98 starts) – his yearlings averaged $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 farms in Kentucky and turning away mares by the truckload.
Instead, he was buried in upstate New York where he was pensioned in 2013 in large part due to simple lack of interest. This tough fellow got a “huge” book of 37 mares in his first crop despite being a son of Personal Ensign’s full brother, Personal Flag. That’s about what Tapit sees in the first three or four days of a breeding season.
Is It Too Late?
If ‘outcrossing’ is indeed the answer, we first need to determine if it’s even possible. Horses like Giacomo, Hat Trick and Redeemed 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-
For certain, they did not go to horses like Include, K One King, Slew City Slew or Say Florida Sandy. How about Brigadier Gerard-
Seattle Fitz (ARG) represented *Blenheim II, but went home to Argentina where he is most likely best appreciated. Still, we would surely love to see a *Mahmoud-
Blushing Groom has Rahy, whose flagship son Lewis Michael has been given a ‘Giacomo’ – which is to say he started out at Three Chimneys, was sent to New York and is now in Louisiana. At present Cherokee Colony and Mt. Livermore still have sons at stud, but the most famous member of the Blushing Groom line is no doubt international superstar Animal Kingdom. His sire, Leroidesanimaux died in England at age 16. We don’t get why he was dumped, but we’re not surprised. You see, Leroidesanimaux was from Giant’s Causeway’s family but Animal Kingdom has a German bottom line. Which do you think might be easier to breed? Finally, we were pleasantly surprised to see that *Gallant Man’s line is still in play with Demon Warlock who now stands in Oregon.
Cormorant has taken *Ribot another generation farther with Albert the Great and Albertus Maximus. 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 Monsun and the offspring of Indian Ridge (Tourbillon line) are but a few of the choices. Hyperion is very hard to find in tail-
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. And sadly, so much shuttling has taken place since we originally wrote this story, it is really probably too late.
Lest We Forget
We cannot leave the topic of bloodlines without talking females. And no females have been more important in recent years than Betty Derr, Toussaud, Beadah, Feola, Papila, Uvira II, Urban Sea, Lalun, Rough Shod II, Frizette and La Troienne. Remove them from any significant pedigree – Tapit for example -
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-
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-
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 has probably 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-
What we need is a two-
Not long after, outstanding English trainer John Gosden was quoted on this same subject, “The staying races are so important. With a four or five year old stayer, you dream of Ascot Gold Cups, the Doncaster and Goodwood Cups. What would you think if you went to Royal Ascot and all you had was sprints and a few races on the Old Mile?
“What a lot of people don’t realize is how hard and expensive it is to breed the staying horses. Most of them are so slow and not quick enough for the jumps boys. If this breed dies out, we are in big trouble because we would lose a third of our program and would be left with the American way – homogenous, boring one-
NYRA Senior VP of Racing Operations seemed to be ahead of Gosden when he said of the new American marathon series, “the additions of these staying races are very important to American racing in general. In the early days of American racing, stamina meant a great deal and we want to give owners, breeders and trainers a chance in a small effort to bring back the importance of stamina to the breed. We believe there are horses who may excel or prosper if given the opportunity at these longer distances.”
We have always loved Santa Anita’s San Juan Capistrano, thinking it the most beautiful race to watch in the country, going the entire route of this gorgeous track’s hillside turf course. Dating back to 1935 with just a few ‘skips’, it has been run from nine furlongs to its present 15 furlongs, but most often at 1 ¾ miles when won by such stalwarts as John Henry, Cougar II, Exceller and La Zanzara. Sad to say, it has been downgraded from a G1 to a G3 with a current purse of ‘only’ $100,000, which is a commentary on what American breeders seem to think about distance races. (You can’t blame racing secretaries for writing races for the inventory they possess!)
We should also mention a new favorite race of ours – the 1 11/16 mi. (2700 meters) American St. Leger, now a G3 that was won by our beloved Dandino in 2013. (He ran second to The Pizza Man the following year.) It is a young race, having been inaugurated in 2012, and its 2016 purse was $300,000. With a little luck, we might even get to keep it!
Of course, we still think we should have a $5 million Breeders’ Cup Marathon, too. Then maybe somebody would breed for a St. Leger runner and we’d actually get another English Triple Crown winner.
And by the way, why doesn’t Budweiser or Grey Goose or whatever put together a stayer’s bonus for a Capistrano/Leger/Marathon sweep? Say up the purse to $1 million for each, and $5 million for a sweep. Then make it sweeter for the breeding world with an extra $1 million for an ‘entire’ (stallion) who sweeps.
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 30 odd 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.
A few years ago we took some Dutch visitors out to see Giacomo when he was just starting out at Adena Springs. Always a favorite, this was the Giacomo I was so very certain would win the Kentucky Derby for his Plaudit-
When I looked into the eyes of this horse – the perfect outcross for the future – and I had thought that I would 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. Or so I thought at the time – that of course was before he was sent to California and Pennsylvania and back to Kentucky and on to Oregon, even as Too Much Bling in Texas emerged from his family to be a top regional sire.
Such things make it harder and harder to hope. Instead, we are left to wade through a morass of horses inbred to Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer hoping that the good will overcome the bad. That some of the sounder ones of these lines will prevail and make a better end product. California Chrome and American Pharoah have proven it possible.
And after all, hope at least is free.