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Paddy Finlason looks at the future of the Thoroughbred through the prism of the sales ring and reaches some uncomfortable conclusions.
In a recent article published in the excellent Bloodstock Notebook on the increasing fashion for breeding for speed and precocity in the thoroughbred, Joe Foley of Ballyhane Stud came up with some very salient points.
The main thrust of his argument was that a well-bred, good-looking horse will sell no matter what its pedigree, and that a stoutly-bred animal can garner as much interest as a precocious sprint type. However, he qualified this by pointing out that the “end user” is the one who has to pay the bills and that many owners don’t want to shell out for a middle distance horse which is unlikely to show it’s ability (or lack of it) until it’s turned three.
Add to this the undeniable fact that a successful sprinter-miler can potentially be sold on to America for big money and it’s easy to see why the market for late-maturing animals has less strength in depth than its counterpart.
Joe went on to suggest that, although this may be of concern to “breeding and genetic purists”, this preference is a fact of modern-day life. But is the trend immutable?
It seems to me that we are in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. The raison d’etre behind the development of the thoroughbred was to produce a new breed of horse with unrivalled speed and stamina who could be thoroughly tested on the racecourse over a variety of distances. Those that excelled were then retired to stud in order to further improve the breed.
We’re now in a situation where what happens in the sales ring has become at least as important, if not more so, than what happens on the racecourse. This is both skewing the market and, in my opinion, damaging the fabric of the breed itself.
The great strength of British and Irish racing has always been it diversity. There are over 50 racecourses in the UK alone and every one of them is unique in its conformation. What’s more, up until relatively recently, we had resisted taking the American route of reducing the distance of major races so that the vast majority of them are contested over ten furlongs or less. This maintained an important level of diversity in our breeding stock, but modern-day pressures on breeders have changed all that, leading to a shortfall in the numbers of quality horses being produced to contest races at a mile and a half and beyond. It’s therefore hard to blame racecourses for not wanting to stage them.
Another disturbing aspect of the current trend is the way that a select few stallions cover massive books, whilst the remainder are lucky to attract enough mares to earn their keep. A fair amount of this bias is down to sales ring ‘fashion’ rather than what happens on the racecourse, so sires that have achieved a decent percentage of winners or Black Type horses to foals from relatively moderate books are often shunned in the ring in favour of others which have produced more individual winners and Stakes horses, but from a far larger cohort of better quality mares.
This imbalance then impacts on the number of mares the stallions receive in their following seasons, further exacerbating the problem and creating a false template. It makes one wonder how many potentially good sires have been deemed not up to scratch before they’ve had a chance to prove their worth – and at what cost to the breed?
The table below demonstrates the market’s preference for speed over endurance. The top half is fairly evenly balanced and is headed by Galileo, an exceptional sire who showed top class form over middle distances, but who can nevertheless be relied upon to produce high quality winners over a variety of trips, including as two year olds.
However, once you get past the top ten in the list, the pendulum swings decisively towards the sprinter milers who dominate the middle market.
So how can the market be influenced to redress this imbalance and ensure that the gene pool recovers to being as strong and diverse as possible? As I said at the start of this article, Joe’s points are all valid given the current state of the industry, but this doesn’t mean we should simply sit back and watch the sport we love become a glorified form of dog racing.
First and foremost, there must be a fundamental shift in the schedule of races for two year olds in the UK, reducing the number of early sprints, increasing the number of seven-furlong plus races after mid season and restricting several of these to juveniles who are by stallions who won over at least one and a quarter miles. To their credit, the TBA and EBF have already set the ball rolling in this respect with some of their sponsored races, but the scale of their intervention needs to be extended in order to have the necessary impact. The Plus 10 scheme, or its successor, could also be adapted to further boost the attractiveness of these races.
Secondly, there should be a gradual increase in the number and value of suitable races scheduled at everyday meetings throughout the season to cater for the anticipated expansion in the number of stoutly-bred horses coming through the system. This would depend on the racecourses themselves buying into the concept and, in some cases, being financially encouraged to do so.
Middle distance and staying horses are already well catered at the top end of the spectrum and last year’s introduction of the WH Stayers Million series should act as a further incentive to owners. Some of the races involved were also upgraded in status, but this will make no difference in the short term, as buyers (and therefore breeders) will still value the form less highly than that of a sprinter or a miler.
Hopefully, the changes proposed above would be sufficient to alter the behaviour of buyers, tempering their addiction to precocious speed and encouraging them to cast their nets wider at the yearling sales. The renewed interest in the progeny of what are now loosely regarded as ‘stamina’ stallions would then provide a much needed fillip to their prospects in the breeding shed.
None of this can be done “at a stroke” but must be planned well in advance and introduced over several years to give stallion owners and breeders a chance to adjust to the changes before they come into operation. It took years for us to arrive where we are today, and it’s going to take generations of breeding to claw our way back into some kind of balance.
Many stallion owners who have based their business model on current trends will find these suggestions hard to swallow, but, given time, they’ll adapt to the new regime which will hopefully restore vigour and diversity to what has, in my opinion, become a dangerous narrowing of the breed.
|TOP 20 ACTIVE UK & IRISH SIRES BY 2018 YEARLING AVERAGE|
|Stallion||Average £||2018 mares||2019 fee|
|Invincible Spirit||201,535||104||€ 120,000|
|Sea The Stars||165,361||161||€ 135,000|
|Lope de Vega||140,995||177||€ 80,000|
|Dark Angel||139,152||218||€ 85,000|
|Fastnet Rock||136,091||97||€ 70,000|
|No Nay Never||121,785||140||€ 100,000|
|Exceed And Excel||90,878||91||€ 50,000|
|Winners over 8f or less in red (total of 1902 mares covered)|
|Winners above 8f in blue (total of 797 mares covered)|
|* Indicates first crop yearlings|
Professor Emmeline Hill, writing recently in The Irish Field, had to the following to say about the subject:
“Since there is just one gene that is a major player in the sprinting versus staying stakes, it is extremely vulnerable to selection pressures...…the staying type is at serious threat of extinction.”
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