Have you ever wondered who your great, great grandfather is? Where did he come from? Who were his parents? Do you have any resemblance to him? What was his name? You would be surprised how many of us cannot answer these questions. With the popularity of various on-line web sites devoted to the research of such inquiries, many people are interested in finding their “Ancestry”.
If we were thoroughbred equines, we would not have this dilemma. The records of pedigrees for thoroughbreds have been meticulously kept for over three centuries. However since the horse, though very intelligent in their own right, cannot read, they do not know who or where they come from. Nor do they care. But we do. It is for this reason that we keep bloodline records of these most beautiful of animals not only because it is required, but to also further the development of the breed by introducing top stallions to the top mares.
The bloodlines of the horses you cheer for, bet on, admire as champions, or favourite thoroughbreds you simply fall in love with can all be traced back to their origins. Their immediate pedigrees (sire – dam – dam’s sire) are listed in the program you read at the race track. The comprehensive statistics of thoroughbreds and their families list a Who’s Who of champions and influential stallions and mares in the pedigrees of today’s track heroes and heroines. We can trace the ancestry of every thoroughbred born in every year dating back to the dawn of the breed.
As humans we select our own mates, but thoroughbred mating is selected for them by humans based on many factors. Conformation, speed, stamina, bloodlines, temperament, stud fees, etc. are all taken into account when a stallion is selected for breeding to a mare. The old saying in breeding is “breed the best to the best and hope for the best” will always ring true. However many breeders have taken to pattern breeding or “nicks”. In theory this means that if you have a mare by one particular sire and another stallion has many winners from mares by the same sire as your mare, then breed her to him. This is a method of selection that has been practised throughout the evolution of the thoroughbred.
While this is a noble method to try to breed a racing champion, it can quickly lead to too much close inbreeding. Inbreeding is unavoidable since all thoroughbreds trace back to three founding sires, The Darley Arabian, The Byerley Turk, and The Godolphin Arabian. There were other stallions in service at the dawn of the breed, which were less influential as time passed on, but still contributed nonetheless. Alcock’s Arabian and the Brownlow Turk were both greys which has lead to many conclusions from breeders and equine geneticists as to where this particular colour in modern thoroughbreds originate.
Throughout the history of the thoroughbred, certain stallions have become more prolific than others in siring winners and champions. These horses are frequently inbred to, in order to obtain their characteristics desired by the breeder. Also, certain mares who have been either a champion on the track or produced exceptional runners as broodmares or both are inbred to by many breeders for the same reason.
Now this is not to say that inbreeding is necessarily wrong or damaging. However, it is not a fool proof method of raising champions either since there are no certainties when breeding thoroughbreds. Many stallions are selected for breeding because they have absolutely no similarity in bloodline (within 6 or 7 generations at least) of the mare to be bred. This is to introduce different blood to “the family”. These selections are based more on conformation and the speed/stamina equation. Also, if a certain stallion seems to be quite prolific and is siring good horses regardless of the mare’s pedigree then these stallions are keenly sought after.
Not all champion horses become exceptional sires or broodmares. Many have bred on with progeny that has equalled or surpassed their track accomplishments, while others, because of their supreme track records did not get an heir to their throne. Some were not fertile enough to breed. Generally however, champions on the track will pass on some quality in their offspring, though it may not be evident in the immediate progeny but in some future offspring by their progeny.
High expectations are placed on dominating champion thoroughbreds when they are retired from the track and enter the breeding arena. Huge amounts of money are spent by top breeders the world over to try to breed their own version of said champion.
Consequently, some sires and broodmares who were just below the top flight of racers have become exceptional and influential in pedigrees of future champions on the track. Most of these thoroughbreds didn’t get a chance to shine in racing due to injury, while some never ran in a race. However, because of their pedigrees, they were given the chance to become stallions or broodmares.
Generally these horses enter the breeding arena at a lesser value than say a champion by the same sire or dam or both, because of their lack of race track accomplishments. This opens the possibility to breeders of lesser financial means to breed to the bloodlines, which can result in a more diverse book of mares. The diversity can open the possibilities of discovering certain “nicks” that work with the bloodlines of such horses.
Breeding thoroughbreds is far from an exact science. In fact, there have been quite a few exceptional champions on the track that were not considered as “fashionably bred”. The sire and dam may have been ordinary and consequently did not breed many other winners, other than the one exceptional individual. Some refer to these horses as freaks of nature, which is a very unfair denouncement of them.
Genetics is still an inexact science we do not fully understand. It is this reason that the unexpected will occur. Many factors play in the part of training and racing a champion. Breeding is definitely very high, but so is environment, training methods, jockey selection, track conditions, etc.
On this web-site, we can look into the history of the most influential bloodlines that have become dominant in thoroughbred breeding. The major sires of the breed and the most influential broodmares consistently pop up in pedigrees of recent champions. From the origins of the thoroughbred in England, to the importation of top stallions to the U.S., to the breeding of world class horses everywhere, let us examine why these horses are what they are.
Also within the articles on this web-site we can discover some of the top breeders of thoroughbreds who, like the horses they bred, have left an indelible legacy to the sport. The stories of the great champions during their racing careers are significant as well, as it is in these moments that we can learn of the individual personalities of the thoroughbred themselves and the various setbacks and personal hardships that they had to overcome.
I will cover the significant stallions in pedigrees where, through direct male line descent, important branches of the lines were created that lead to the present day top sires, and consequently the top stakes winning thoroughbreds. By following the thoroughbred pedigrees in this manner, definitive patterns will emerge.
There are also stallions through the influence of their daughters, whose names frequently arise in pedigrees of top runners and sires. A pattern will show as to the stallions most frequently emerging in these pedigrees.
Categories on the great breed defining broodmares will highlight many of the great female thoroughbreds from the past. These Magical Matriarchs and Queens of the Turf are just as responsible for the champions and great sires as much as the heralded sires were. Sometimes I think that with the preponderance of acclaiming the great males of the thoroughbred, not enough credit is given to their partners in foal making. Many notable broodmares have been exceptional producers of sires that became prominent in breeding, thus are consistently seen within the pedigrees of some of the best thoroughbreds of today.
Now only if we can find out the origins of our own personal blood lines to be just as comprehensive in nature. But that is for another web-site.
(First photo courtesy of Michael Burns and Woodbine Race Track. Second photo courtesy of the author)