Talkin' Horses - Live Discussions

Avalyn Hunter Pedigree Analyst

Wednesday March 29, 2006

One of the first pedigree books Avalyn Hunter can recall reading as a fifteen-year-old is Sir Charles Leicester’s classic work Bloodstock Breeding, which twenty-five years later served as a model and inspiration for Hunter’s first book, American Classic Pedigrees 1914–2002. Covering the race records, antecedents, and descendants of the winners of the American Triple Crown races plus the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks for fillies, the massive work took some two years to write and was released in May 2003 by Eclipse Press. Hunter has also published the award-winning fiction stories “The Passing of the Torch” and “The Foundation,” both prizewinners in the Thoroughbred Times Biennial Fiction Contest, and writes pedigree articles regularly for The Blood-Horse, MarketWatch, and Owner-Breeder International.

In American Classic Pedigrees, Hunter examines the pedigrees of the winners of the five American Classic races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Oaks, and Coaching Club American Oaks) from 1914 to 2002.

Her new release, The Kingmaker: How Northern Dancer Founded a Racing Dynasty, explores how Northern Dancer and his sons have established a royal dynasty that has profoundly dominated the international bloodstock market.

A former Air Force officer, Hunter is a graduate of Vanderbilt University (BA, psychology) and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (MA, clinical psychology) and has worked as a mental health professional since 1993. She lives in Florida with her husband and two children.

Kokomo, IN:
What is your personal feeling on the large books of mares stallions are servicing today?

Hunter:
It's good for stallion owners' profits -- at least for the owners of popular stallions -- but not so good for the breed. There are two reasons for this.

First, while it's quite possible to put together a book of 50-60 mares that suit a stallion well by both pedigree and conformation, it's nearly impossible to put together a book of 200 mares that will all suit the stallion as well. This means that a lot of the foals produced will be the result of a less than optimum match of stallion and mare, and I feel is one reason why many of the leading sires are nowhere near the old benchmarks of 60% winners and 10% stakes winners from foals that used to be considered the hallmark of a good sire.

The other problem is that it tends to reduce the number of stallions getting used. There are only so many mares out there, and for every stallion serving 150-200 mares or more, there are plenty of others being starved for mares. In fairness, many deserve no better, but some are good horses whose main fault is that they don't belong to the "hot" sire line of the moment. Given a reasonable chance, some of these horses might turn out decent sires and provide a little more genetic diversity within the breed.  

Springfield, OH:
What made Northern Dancer such a good sire?

Hunter:
He was certainly a very well-bred horse and a fine racehorse, but there are many horses that go to stud with equally good or better credentials and flunk out as sires. Why a Herod, a St. Simon, or a Northern Dancer will emerge and not only succeed beyond anyone's wildest expectations but become one of the great pillars of the Thoroughbred is one of the mysteries of breeding. Northern Dancer was strongly line bred to St. Simon, but your guess is as good as mine as to whether this was the source of his prepotence; one could also look at the fact that his sire, grandsires, and great-grandsires were all high-class stallions. The important thing is that Northern Dancer was able to consistently pass on his own excellent physical balance and something of his drive to win as well.

Miami, FL:
Why do pedigrees fascinate you so much?

Hunter:
Because a pedigree is more to me than a mere recitation of who begat whom; it's a collection of stories about individual horses. For instance, in Northern Dancer's pedigree, you can find Nearctic, in whom great physical talent collided with a high-strung nature and the conflicts between his human connections; you have Nearco, the Italian wonder-horse; you have Selene, whose trainer considered her "too small" to be more than a second-stringer, yet turned out the best race filly of her crop and a great broodmare; you have Native Dancer, racing's first television idol. The more I learn about the individuals that make up a pedigree, the more I can see where a particular physical trait or a personality type may have come from. It's a never-ending story and a never-ending puzzle; there's always something new to discover.

Lexington, KY:
Northern Dancer and Hartack; Hill Rise and Shoemaker. Do you think it was one of the great Kentucky Derbys?

Hunter:
It certainly had all the ingredients of high drama. Shoemaker and Hartack were the hottest riders out there, and the Shoe had taken off Northern Dancer to ride Hill Rise, which really got the press going. The two horses were a tremendous contrast in physical types, and their riders were just as great a contrast -- Shoe generally depended on great hands plus a strong rapport with his mounts while Hartack was all over his horses, scrubbing and driving. And of course it was such a great finish, with Northern Dancer hanging on gamely to just stand off the much larger Hill Rise by a neck. I've seen the video of the race and the finish looks like something right out of Hollywood.

Tipperary, Ireland:
What would the breed be like had Northern Dancer not come along?

Hunter:
It would certainly be different, especially in Europe -- It's hard to imagine what things would be like without the progeny and descendants of Sadler's Wells, Nijinsky II, Nureyev, and Danzig! In some ways, I think Northern Dancer's influence on both sides of the Atlantic may have kept the European and North American types of Thoroughbred a little closer than they might otherwise have been, barring the emergence of another supersire of international stature -- the other dominant North American line of the 1980s and 1990s, that of Raise a Native, has had its successes in Europe but has generally been more dirt-oriented. One certainly can't imagine Coolmore ever having become the breeding power it became without the descendants of Northern Dancer.

Toronto, Canada:
Was it Robert Sangster who first realized how great the Northern Dancer blood was to be?

Hunter:
I don't know if he was the first to realize how important Northern Dancer's sons would be -- I think Nijinsky II and Lyphard were already giving evidence that they would be highly successful sires by the time Sangster started buying up promising Northern Dancer colts -- but he was certainly the key to the incredible escalation in the value of Northern Dancer yearlings.

Ontario, Canada:
We know no one bought Northern Dancer when he was offered for sale by E.P. Taylor. Was that because of his size?

Hunter:
That, combined with his high price tag ($25,000), seems to have been the primary reason. Not that many people even gave him a serious look. Larkin Maloney and the brothers Phil and Jim Boylen showed some interest in the colt; in fact, the Boylen brothers went so far as to have the colt pulled from his stall three times for inspection. But both the Boylens and Maloney were discouraged from buying Northern Dancer by their trainers, who both said the colt was too small. Ironically, one trainer -- Horatio Luro, who eventually wound up training the Dancer for E. P. Taylor -- strongly encouraged his client to buy Northern Dancer, but the client, Morris Fleming, decided he'd rather buy a filly.

Ellinger, TX:
What advice do you have for a young person wanting to get into anything in the Thoroughbred Racing industry?

Hunter:
Read everything about Thoroughbreds you can get your hands on and ask lots of questions. Most horse people are absolutely delighted to share information about their favorite topic, and there are some great forums on the Internet where you'll find people in all aspects of the horse business glad to share their knowledge with a newbie.

Alpharetta, GA:
I know there are a lot of great jockeys riding today, but do you see any young jockeys on the horizon with the heart of such greats as Bill Shoemaker, Pat Day, and Gary Stevens? I'm finding it hard to choose a favorite these days.

Hunter:
I'm not really up on the jockeys, but I was extremely impressed with the maturity and poise shown by Jeremy Rose aboard Afleet Alex during last year's Triple Crown series. If he continues to improve with increased experience, he'll be right up there with the best.

Rochester, NY:
Ever meet the Dancer and, if so, what was your personal experience with the legendary sire? What was he like?

Hunter:
Unfortunately, I never met the Dancer in person -- he died some ten years before I started getting serious about writing about Thoroughbreds. I have seen a number of his descendants here in Florida and you can really pick out the Northern Dancer type in a lot of them -- they have the same balance and muscling, and most of them seem as though they have almost more energy than they know what to do with. Sligo Bay, now at Adena Springs South near Ocala, is a really classic Northern Dancer type (he's a grandson, by the Dancer's son Sadler's Wells) and is my personal picture of what Northern Dancer might have been like as a young stallion: feisty, active, imperious, a real "look-at-me-and-admire" presence. Definitely not a horse that one could ignore!

Lexington, KY:
I am a pedigree consultant and have had numerous conversations with other pedigree enthusiasts (and prominent industry advisors). I believe that the consensus among us is that the three generation (sale catalog) and even four generation (The Blood-Horse stakes capsules) family trees that are the commonly accepted representation are woefully inadequate. We all have programs that go back at least five or six generations and all agree that it is important to look back that far. What is your opinion on the subject, and do you see an economical and practical way to incorporate more generations into mainstream acceptance?

Hunter:
I think you'll always have trouble getting the average owner to look back further than three or four generations unless you can show him (her) why it's important to know more than that. Think back to when all this stuff about pedigrees was new to you and you'll be back where most of these folks are. Most aren't stupid and are quite willing to learn if they can see the relevance to their goals, but showing them the relevance is the trick; without that, they're apt to see the additional information as simply overwhelming.

Personally, I think it's well worth looking as many as 6 to 8 generations out if strong line breeding patterns are present, but I don't see an economical way of putting that into print in catalogs or magazines because of space considerations; the major North American stallion directories show five generations, and that's probably about as good as it's going to get.

Newark, DE:
How many mares were bred to Northern Dancer when his stud fee was $1,000,000?

Hunter:
By that time, he had been syndicated into 32 shares, each holding one breeding right. Most of the seasons being sold belonged to Windfields, which held 9 of the 32 shares. I don't think Northern Dancer ever covered more than 35 or 36 mares a season throughout his career.

Cedar Rapids, IA:
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions, I appreciate it. I find your work fascinating and am just amazed at the amount of research it must take. Can you tell me what got you interested in bloodlines and what made you want to pursue a career writing about it? I was blessed enough to meet Danzig on two occasions while he was at Claiborne, and he reminded me so much in looks of his sire. Can you tell me what you think his most important imprint will be on the breed to come? I'm looking forward to reading your new book.

Hunter:
You're very kind; thank you! I have been horse crazy since about age two (don't ask my parents where it came from; neither of them had the bug) but didn't start getting into pedigrees until I was about 15. As a teenager, I had access to the library at Middle Tennessee State University, which has an equine science program among its majors. I never seriously considered going into that program (I wound up in the psychology program at Vanderbilt University instead), but they had some good horse books in the library. Among them was Sir Charles Leicester's book, Bloodstock Breeding, which covered the pedigrees of winners of the Derby Stakes up through the late 1950s (the second edition, which I now have in my personal library, expands the coverage to the early 1980s).

I was absolutely fascinated by the way Sir Charles wove facts about who-sired-who with interesting information that helped make individuals of each horse he covered. I have never recovered from the fascination, and in a lot of ways Bloodstock Breeding was the model for my first book, American Classic Pedigrees 1914–2002. (The immediate inspiration for ACP was my long-suffering spouse, who by 2000 had gotten rather tired of hearing my gripes about the fact that there was no book similar to Sir Charles' covering American racing and said, "Well, why don't you write it yourself?" The rest, as they say, is history -- but I never would have taken that dare if I'd realized how ignorant I was when I took the project on!)

Regarding Northern Dancer, he's clearly a great male-line influence after the fashion of his ancestor Phalaris; the question is whether his sire line will contract to only one or two major branches as virtually all others eventually have or whether it will maintain several distinct branches for several decades yet. Right now, he has several major branches very much alive.

Charles Town, WV:
We have a Criminal Type mare out of a Crafty Prospector mare. We have a 2YO out of this mare by Run Softly, by Deputy Minister. Ten Most Wanted had the same pattern, with Deputy Minister up top and Criminal Type on the bottom. What other crosses do you think would be good for this mare? Love your books and thanks for the time.

Hunter:
It would be hard to be more specific without knowing more about your mare's female family, her own race record and conformation, and your breeding goals. Assuming you're breeding to race, the Storm Cat and In Reality male lines might be worth exploring, but I really can't go beyond very general ideas on the information you've presented.

Weston, CT:
Hi. Thanks for talking to us. I've read your book many times, but it cost $50 when I bought it. My copy is a bit ragged - will there be a paperback edition?

Hunter:
Since you asked, I checked with the publisher, and there are still a few copies of American Classic Pedigrees 1914–2002 available -- and it's only $34.95 now! Unfortunately, there are no current plans to issue the title in paperback.

Mt. Morris, MI:
Which of Northern Dancer's sons do you consider to be the most influential on the breed?

Hunter:
It's hard to pick just one at this stage of the game! I suppose if I had to tag one, it would be Sadler's Wells, who has not only been an absolutely phenomenal sire in Europe but is giving promise of being a great broodmare sire as well. While I do not see him as such a strong prospect as Danzig (via Danehill) or Storm Bird (via Storm Cat) to continue his male line well into the century, he has several good sire sons with a chance to continue his lineage around the world and I think he will be a great influence on the distaff side of pedigrees.

Lexington, KY:
What is your take on the recent DNA study released by Dr Harrison et al which confirms the study released in 2002 by Dr Hill et al, in highlighting the fact that there are a number (suggested as much as 20% of the breed) whose medina heliotype is in disagreement with the General (and American) Stud Book's recorded lineage of the individual? Do you feel confident in writing about the history of the Thoroughbred when scientific study is now showing that in many cases the pedigrees have been falsified at some stage? Not an easy question to answer but I would appreciate your thoughts.

Hunter:
Since I spend most of my time looking at relatively modern pedigrees (20th and 21st century), it hasn't really bothered me much though I do find it interesting. Very early pedigrees have always been open to question as new findings from private stud books, personal correspondence, and other sources come to light; the question in my mind is whether the authorities controlling the General Stud Book and American Stud Book will be willing to make the appropriate changes where they seem to be well supported.

Miami, FL:
Greetings from sunny Miami. I have a hypothetical question for you! Let's imagine that you could revive two male American stallions of the past that in your opinion would suit the present US thoroughbred population. Which ones would you pick and why? Thanks in advance, and the best of luck with your book.

Hunter:
That's a toughie! The mare population shifts over time, so it's hard to say what might suit the current North American population. If I had my choice of stallions whose excellent qualities I would like to see have another chance, however, I would select Domino and Man o' War. Domino wielded extraordinary influence despite his early death at age 6 with just 19 named foals registered; one wonders what he could have done with a full stud career. As for Man o' War, he combined blazing speed and unquestioned courage with the stamina and rugged bone that seem all too often in short supply in the modern population.

Louisville, KY:
What made Northern Dancer, in your opinion, such a proponent sire? Did that prepotency come from sire or dam primarily and why was this combination so proponent?

Hunter:
In my opinion, the keys seem to be the uniformly high quality of the stallions involved in his pedigree, the strong female families laced throughout his pedigree, and perhaps his strong line breeding to the extremely prepotent St. Simon as well.

When you look at the sires in the first three generations of Northern Dancer's pedigree, the weakest is arguably Polynesian, who sired 37 stakes winners from 298 foals (12.4%) -- this is some serious sire power when that's the weakest stallion in the bunch. The tail-female line descends from one of the Whitney families, and look at the other female families involved -- those of Nogara, Pretty Polly, Mumtaz Mahal, Selene, and La Grisette (the last a major source of speed in American breeding).

This is just an extremely strong pedigree from top to bottom.

Mt. Gretna, PA:
Avalyn, looking forward to reading your new book. Do you believe inbreeding is a desirable way to preserve or extend favorable traits when pairing horses? Wishing you continued success.

Hunter:
Thanks for the good wishes! Inbreeding is a useful tool but easily misused, because it's not a cure-all for using bad parents. The cardinal rule is "to and through": inbreed to a high-quality ancestor whose genes are descending through quality channels.

Take the question someone asked earlier about Megahertz, who's booked to Giant's Causeway for her first breeding. Both stallion and mare are out of Rahy mares, so the foal will be inbred 3x3 to Rahy. This inbreeding does increase the chance of getting a small horse because that's what you're inbreeding to, but there's no question that Rahy was a quality racehorse as well as being a good stallion, and you certainly can't quibble with either Giant's Causeway or Megahertz as being horses of the highest class. Basically, any genes they got from Rahy were probably good ones.

On the other hand, I recently ran across a filly closely inbred to Secretariat whose parents had nothing to recommend them as racehorses or breeding stock. Now Secretariat was a great horse, but the chances that these parents have inherited much in the way of his beneficial genes don't look good based on their performance -- I'd say the chances of this filly being a good racehorse just because she's inbred to Secretariat are pretty poor.

Los Angeles, CA:
Avalyn - Thanks for taking time to share your expertise with us. Man O’Hare’s bloodlines persist through the smallest of windows, yet he seems to have such an impact. Any thoughts of why In Reality as the Broodmare sire on the dam side seems to produce high class horses. Recent examples would be Smarty Jones, Discreet Cat. Have a great day.

Hunter:
For whatever reason, the Fair Play line has produced a lot of good broodmare sires -- Fair Play himself was champion broodmare sire 3 times, Man o' War was in the top ten broodmare sires 22 times, War Admiral led the broodmare sire twice, and more modern representatives of the line have done well in this department. The key seems to be a certain level of genetic flexibility as to what sires they can work with, but what causes one line to produce many sires who do well as broodmare sires while another (like that of Phalaris) tends to produce stallions that are much better as sires of winners than as sires of broodmares is a mystery I haven't unraveled.

San Juan, Puerto Rico:
What a valuable opportunity to ask and read your in-depth analysis and opinions on Thoroughbred pedigrees and breeding. Best of all, what a blessing to read from such an authoritative, yet unassuming lady. My question is: Who would you consider the best overall underestimated sires of the last 100 years and why? Blessings.

Hunter:
Wow! I don't think I can adequately cover 100 years of breeding history in the space of this chat, but I can give you a couple of candidates. Secretariat would have to be near the head of the list. He tends to be belittled because he did not get a racer as good as himself and was not a great sire of sires, but his influence as a broodmare sire is remarkable.

Modern breeding would look very different without Storm Cat, Gone West, A.P. Indy, and Chief's Crown -- one could also mention Dehere and Summer Squall. And looking back in time, the great Colin was troubled by fertility issues and probably never got the opportunities his merit as a racehorse deserved, yet managed to get 15% stakes winners from foals and keep the Domino male line alive.

Atlanta, GA:
Do you have any ideas as to how well Megahertz and/or Ashado will do with their respective matches this year...do you think they will be good producers?

Hunter:
I have to admit that the close inbreeding to Rahy in the Giant's Causeway/Megahertz mating gives me some pause, not because Rahy isn't a high quality horse both as a runner and as a sire but because of the size issue -- many small horses have been good racehorses (not least Northern Dancer!), but they do face some disadvantages. Rahy is quite small, Megahertz is tiny, and Giant's Causeway, though average sized himself, has a pedigree with a lot of smallish horses up close. Megahertz was all heart as a racer, though -- if she can pass that on as a broodie, her foals should do all right.

Storm Cat/Ashado is hardly a surprise; if a colt from this mating can win a couple of decent races, you're talking a very valuable stallion prospect. Ashado has a good-quality pedigree; with her female line, I wouldn't be surprised to see her produce at least one runner with some talent on turf.

Chicago, IL:
Avalyn, I've been reading your articles on breeding with regard to Derby contenders and really enjoy your perspective. Going one mile and one quarter on Derby day, does the horse's racing style contribute as much or more than his breeding?

Hunter:
Racing style certainly helps. The ideal runner has good tactical speed with the ability to turn it on at the jockey's direction; such a horse can go to the front if the pace is soft, stalk, or come from further back. One-dimensional horses usually have problems in the Derby: confirmed front runners tend to get burned out in early speed duels, while come-from-the-clouds closers risk getting blocked by traffic.

A horse that can relax and wait for the jockey's signal will probably stay better than one that has to do things its own way, all other things being equal, but a true miler probably won't get ten furlongs on racing style; you've got to have some bottom in the bloodlines as well.

Lexington, KY:
Hello. What is your opinion on the "breed for speed" mentality that specifically points for speed oriented horses bred to win early in their careers, not necessarily later at the classic distances?

Hunter:
Generally speaking, you get what you breed for. What aggravates me are the people who want to breed for precocious speed and then gripe and groan that they can't win the Derby because it's too long, too tough, needs the distance cut, and so on. Sorry, I don't think it should be cut from its present distance to accommodate those who want flashier resumes for horses that aren't bred to go a distance. If precocious speed is what you want because it's highly marketable, be content with that. If you want horses that can win a Triple Crown race or the Breeders' Cup Classic, your odds will be improved by using blood that perhaps isn't as fashionable but has proven it can go a distance. That aside, I do feel the emphasis on precocity and speed has been bad in one respect; it has fostered a higher tolerance for unsoundness in breeding stock since a colt with a fashionable pedigree need only win one or two good juvenile races to be a highly marketable stallion prospect.

Lineboro, MD:
Hi, Avalyn. Have your book on order, what son of Northern Dancer do you like the most as a stallion? And what do you think of Dixieland Band?

Hunter:
My personal favorite among the sons of Northern Dancer is Nijinsky II, who has contributed a great deal in the way of classic stamina to the breeding pool and is an important agent in inbreeding to Northern Dancer -- perhaps because he isn't physically typical of the Northern Dancer tribe, being larger and scopier.

Dixieland Band is a sire who took many years to get the recognition he deserves. He hasn't gotten quite the overall quality of some of Northern Dancer's other sons, but year in, year out, he's been a reliable source of good horses. I'll miss him when he's gone.

Garrison, KY:
Which new stallion of 2005 do you see as becoming the next great or at least useful sire in the years to come?

Hunter:
I assume you're talking about sires who stood their first season in 2005. I certainly have hopes for Smarty Jones, who's being managed by some sharp people and got an excellent first book.

Among less expensive first-year sires of 2005, Saarland also got a very strong response; with his pedigree, I would hope to see him be the type of horse that can sire good three-year-olds in the classic races.

And it's hard not to like Peace Rules in Florida; he was such a gutty and consistent racer, and the Florida market has received him extremely well. If he can pass on half his own drive to win, he'll get some runners.

Keymar, MD:
Is there a difference in how you would rate Northern Dancer's influence on the breed from the perspective as a sire-of-sires or as a broodmare sire?

Hunter:
Northern Dancer is definitely a stronger influence as a sire of sires than as a broodmare sire. He is the broodmare sire of the great Argentine sire Southern Halo, however, and the top young Australian sires Flying Spur and Encosta de Lago trace to his daughter Fanfreluche, so he's obviously not devoid of influence on the distaff side.

Lexington, KY:
Who do you predict will be the next Great American Sire in terms of progeny accomplishments, and not strictly stud fee, after Storm Cat?

Hunter:
Well, I'd love to see Tiznow succeed at that level, but this season and next will tell the tale -- if he doesn't get some top three-year-olds by next fall at the latest, the commercial market will drop him like a hot rock.

My guess is that the next great sire in the USA will most likely emerge from the *Turn-to male line; both Ghostzapper and Saint Liam are getting plenty of support and Ghostzapper in particular seems to be in a good position since he is free of two of the other major male lines out there, Mr. Prospector and Seattle Slew.

Editor's Note: BloodHorse.com moderators retain editorial control over Talkin' Horses discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests; guests may decline to answer questions. Opinions expressed by guests of Talkin' Horses are those of the guest and do not represent the opinions of Blood-Horse Publications, its employees, associates, or affiliated organizations. Guests, dates, and times of Talkin' Horses discussions are subject to change.