Disappearing Sire Lines

The breeding industry in past twenty-five years has seen significant changes in stallion promotion and availability. The resounding success of Coolmore’s super sire Danehill standing in Ireland for the northern breeding season and in Australia for the southern breeding season, kicking open the door to shuttle sires between the northern and southern hemispheres during the nineteen nineties, has led to the use of stallions covering mares for two breeding seasons.

Many of the biggest breeding operations around the world are now shuttling sires back and forth between their north and south operations, covering unlimited books of mares in each hemisphere. Smaller breeding farms are entering into stallion sharing or leasing with breeding farms in the opposite hemisphere to keep pace with the big players.

While this is perceived as a positive for breeders on both sides of the equator to have access to popular bloodlines, there are long term side effects that are now beginning to surface within the breeding industry.

The first side effect is the diminishing variety of tail male sire lines currently in use. I have been reading on various web-sites, such as The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Racing Commentary to name a couple of first class publications, reports of the phasing out and eventual demise of some esteemed and notable sire lines. This was bound to happen. The variety of bloodlines will diminish because of a single stallion’s use in excess.

The second side effect is that a very large percentage of the horses bred today will be sold by the breeder at auction for a quick return on investment. These breeders are looking for the glittering names within a pedigree to promote their yearling, or weanling if the case may be, to sell.

By having access to popular stallions, which buyers are looking for, the breeder who breeds for consignment can accommodate. Unlimited books for stallions, unheard of a quarter of a century ago, gives the popular stallions most of the top broodmares available. These stallions are essentially “hogging” all the good mares, leaving mares of lesser quality to stallions that are perceived as being not fashionable.

Buyers of yearlings are also looking for quick returns on their investments as well. To this end, they are looking for horses that are genetically known to have ancestors with early stakes winning ability in their pedigree. The quicker the money comes in, the better. When the new owners have a successful two year old that also won top early three year old races, they can now cash in by selling the colt or filly for a substantial profit. The sale is generally to a top commercial breeder, so the cycle will repeat.

Is this sport or is this commodity investment?

Side effect number three. The popular sires of today are mainly speed oriented horses. Such types tend to come to hand quicker than horses bred to cover a distance of ground. Impatience on the part of many has dictated this. Consequently, the soundness required for a horse to carry his or her speed to a longer distance is essentially being bred out, replaced by what was referred to back in the day as “cheap speed”. The powers to be in racing has allowed, and even acquiesced, for such horses to be bred on such a large scale.

The shift in the racing world to breed such horses has been coming for quite some time. Purse monies and available races for two year old colts and fillies has gradually increased, thus raising the prestige for such races, while purses and available races for older horses (four year olds and up) has declined. The incentive to keep a horse in training is diminished. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has become rampant. The need to breed for speed has created the need to breed for greed.

I am not here to say that all breeders and owners submit to this way of breeding and racing. There are many who are breeding horses to win classics and major weight for age races around the world. Many of these horsemen and horsewomen are in the sport for the love of the sport and thrill of being associated with a champion Thoroughbred. However, they appear to be few and far between when compared to the breeders and owners who are in it for the chance to make a profit.

This seems to currently be more of a North American issue, as opposed to a worldwide issue. There are signs however that this trend to breed for sale is becoming troublesome in other racing countries.

I applaud the owners of California Chrome and Bayern for retaining these horses in training as four year olds. By keeping them in training and offer the possibility for them to face each other and the gelding Shared Belief again, we as racing fans can look forward to such events. These three were the top three year olds last year and their popularity will only benefit the sport.

What all this boils down to is the fact that the Thoroughbred as a breed, especially in North America, is stagnating. The domination of popularity from three male lines in North America, Northern Dancer, primarily through Storm Cat and to a lesser extent El Prado, Mr. Prospector and A.P. Indy account for approximately 70% of the covering sires in use. These sire lines are also attaining the higher yearling sales prices.

There are other sire lines that are achieving some notable success. From the Hail To Reason line his sons Roberto and Halo have sired sons that have established success. Roberto’s sons Dynaformer and Kris S and Halo’s sons Sunday Silence, Saint Ballado and Southern Halo have been fantastic sires.

The German breeding program has produced Konigsstuhl and Surumu. These two have successfully created sire lines that are beginning to take hold around the world through Monsun and Acatenango, who are making significant advances. These bloodlines are strong for soundness and staying ability, while not compromising the need for speed.

The male line descending from Nasrullah through Grey Sovereign/Zeddaan/Kalamoun/Kenmare, as well as the branch which led to Caro had great success, but has never been patronized or appreciated in North America fully.

Northern Dancer’s descendants Galileo, Cape Cross, Pivotal, Danehill, and Deputy Minister are viable lines that are at least three generations removed from their common ancestor. Mr. Prospector has enough branches of his male lines in existence to carry on further without excessive inbreeding.

All of these male lines and many more are thriving in markets other than North America. Why is that?

Buckpasser and Damascus were two of the most acclaimed horses in North American history, bred from established American bloodlines. However because of the trend toward breeding for early developing race horses, the sire lines of these two were ignored by breeders who owned top producing broodmares, whose offspring were designated for commercial value. Another line that has been shunned by such breeders is the Princequillo line. These lines tended toward later developing longer distance types, definitely not the kind of horse that the impatient owner would be interested in.

Do I, as an avid fan of racing, have any ideas for a solution, you bet I do. The need for a central governing body to oversee the industry has never been more needed. I would like to see the Jockey Club, or some other national organization, given the power to mandate and enforce certain criteria and rules.

There are some potentially excellent stallions, from other sire lines, currently available to North American breeders which are being ignored simply because breeders can obtain a season from a commercially popular sire. These sires are courting one-hundred mares or more each breeding season. Subsequently, commercial breeders can now have a yearling for the sales containing the glamorous names most buyers are looking for with in a pedigree, when they stock their racing stables.

I would like to see a cap, much like the salary caps used in major team sports, to level the playing field within the breeding industry. This cap would not be based on money, but on availability to sires. I believe that such a cap would diversify the breed and help to establish a wider variety of available blood. I also believe that this program would help to strengthen the breed since many of the ignored lines are more soundness/later developing based as opposed to speed/quick return on investment based horses.

A further incentive to breed such Thoroughbreds would be to increase the prize money and the amount of available longer distance races for older horses in training. This prize money could come from reducing and diverting some of the purses allotted for two year old races and some sprint races for three year olds and up. By keeping horses in training longer, fans can attach themselves to new favourites, thus creating a broader and more enthusiastic following of the sport.

I am sure that some people would consider these ideas as radical, but just let it sink in a little and think of the long term advantages.

4 comments

  • Well stated. One might consider the regional example of Chop Chop – Victoria Park – Kennedy Road, just found in tail-male lineage.

  • Otto Brito (Oldach)

    Great Article, has anything been done about saving the other lines since it was written?
    We talk about it once in a while, the war relic line carried by Tiznow, the Princequillo etc etc…

  • Good article, thought I was the only one who was very worried about the genetic bottleneck that is being created by the current commercial breeding of Thoroughbreds. The unfortunate truth is that this is not a sound breeding model for the long term survival of our beloved sport or the Thoroughbred breed itself. We need only look at the troubles that some dog breeds are having to see what over breeding for a narrow set of characteristics will cause, and I feel we might already have begin to see some of these problems in Thoroughbreds today.

  • Great work, as always. A subject dear to my heart. A few encouraging news items include the success of Win Win Win for his sire Hat Trick. Hat Trick is one of few sons of Sunday Silence that has stood in the U.S. and is free of inbreeding through five generations. His pedigree is studded with “unfashionable” lines and is a great source of genetic diversity. Brilliant 2 yr old Shancelot destroyed the field in the Amsterdam Stakes at The Spa and ran faster than the 6 furlong track record en route to a win at 6.5 furlongs. He also is free from inbreeding through 5 generations. An idea that I’ve read relating to the establishment of a National Stud for the purpose of preserving as many sire lines as possible and offering real incentives to attract better mares is intruiging.

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