John Gaines: In His Own Words

After taking over a highly successful Standardbred operation begun by his grandfather in 1925, and moving it to even greater heights, John Ryan Gaines established a Thoroughbred division of Gainesway Farm in 1962. He wasted little time in becoming one of the industry's most important and forward-thinking figures. Gainesway Farm became a true "stallion station," with Gaines never owning more than 15 broodmares, but instead concentrating on the stallion end of the business. He acquired, syndicated, stood, and managed such well-known stallions as Lyphard, Riverman, Blushing Groom, Vaguely Noble, Bold Bidder, and Broad Brush.

Gaines became a leading consignor at major Thoroughbred auctions and adviser and partner to some of the sport's leading owners and breeders. Though owner of a relatively small broodmare band, he has owned the dams of champions and twice had mares he owned-Cosmah and Glowing Tribute-named Kentucky Broodmare of the Year.

In 1989, Gaines sold his Gainesway Farm to Graham Beck, but just a few years later, missing the business he loved so much, re-entered the game, though on a totally different level. Gaines now operates John R. Gaines Thoroughbreds and owns more than 100 mares. His son and daughter are partners in the operation, which is managed by Olin Gentry. While most young horses are sold as yearlings, John R. Gaines Thoroughbreds has been selling its foals as weanlings.

It was Gaines who had the idea which became the Breeders' Cup, and he was a founder of the National Thoroughbred Association, from which spawned the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA). He also was instrumental in the founding of the Kentucky Horse Park and Maxwell H. Gluck Center for Equine Research at the University of Kentucky. Gaines has been bestowed nearly every honor and award in the Thoroughbred industry, including a Special Eclipse Award, Thoroughbred Club Honor Guest, and the lone recipient of the Breeders' Cup Special Award.

Gaines, 70, was provided questions in advance of a Sept. 17, 1999 interview with Dan Liebman, executive editor of The Blood-Horse. He supplied written responses to those questions, then was asked additional questions during the interview.

The Blood-Horse: Is the breed as sound today as it was 30 years ago?
John Gaines: Conventional wisdom will tell you that the breed is not as sound today as it was 30 years ago, 50 years ago, and 75 years ago. Conventional wisdom is almost never right. A study from 1969-1999 reveals a surprisingly marginal increase of only 3% in the number of horses starting in races over a 30-year period. The more horses competing on the racetrack would appear to translate into more unsoundness in the breed as a whole;; however, this does not appear to be the case.

It is the condition of racing that determines the soundness of the breed. There is no such thing as an index of soundness and there is no agreed upon definition of what soundness means. The tracks are not much different and the methods of training are not much different compared to 30 years ago, although I think veterinary science is much more sophisticated than it was 30 years ago. Since the Thoroughbred does not reach his full physical maturity until 4 1/2 years of age, soundness is always going to be a major problem. The unreasonable physical demands that are placed upon young, immature, undeveloped horses are going to cause all kinds of breakdowns, injuries, physical trauma, and mental problems.

Conventional wisdom will tell you horses stay sounder if they run on the turf instead of the dirt. Although it is almost automatically assumed horses stay sounder in Europe than they do in America, I wonder if this is really true. When the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company developed artificial surfaces for both trotters and runners, the change in surface only created new unsoundness problems in different loci of the horses' anatomy. The question of soundness is primarily an immaturity and condition of racing issue rather than a genetical and inheritance issue. The overemphasis on the perform-ance of the 2- and 3-year-olds in a Darwinian sense purifies the breed, because only the fittest animals can survive the conditions of racing.

Are commercial breeders forced into standing stallions oriented to speed and precocity over stamina and soundness, whether they want to or not?
No one is forced to stand any stallions they do not want to stand. Speed, precocity, stamina, and soundness are convenient buzzwords, but they are not mutually exclusive concepts. A horse can have soundness and precocity as well as speed and stamina. The conditions of racing determine the shape of the breed.

What would the prospects be today for standing a first-year stallion like Vaguely Noble?
Vaguely Noble, Ribot, and Sea-Bird are generally considered to be the three greatest winners of the world's premier race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. All three of these transcendent racehorses and leading sires had an amazing turn of foot and could run all day. I think the prospect of standing a stallion like Vaguely Noble today would be fabulous. Incidentally, the progeny of stallions I selected and managed have won this most demanding of our classic races nine times.

Should this (breeding for precocity) be a source of serious concern to the industry?
Absolutely not. If for some bizarre reason the breed stopped producing these supreme examples of the Thoroughbred-the very best of hundreds of thousands of foals-that would be a serious concern.

Can and should anything be done about it?
Yes. Just keep breeding the best to the best and hope for the best.

So, that theory worked in the past and should work in the future?
Well, people try to make it so complicated, and it is complicated in the dynamics of how animals inherit. That is incredibly complicated. But, the principles are incredibly simple. And, it's all a question of getting as many probabilities on your side as you can. And, environmental probabilities are just as important as genetical probabilities. I once asked Bull Hancock the question, "If your fairy godmother came out of the sky and said, 'Bull, I'll grant you one of three wishes. Would you rather have Bull Lea, the 20 best mares at Calumet, or Ben Jones?' Which would you take?" He said, "That would be easy; I'll take Bull Lea." And, he said, "What would you take?" I said I would take Ben Jones. Because there are just a few transcendent trainers. And, they are so important, breeders only want to think in terms of genetics, but the transcendent trainer like Ben Jones, Hirsch Jacobs, Woody Stephens, and now (Bob) Baffert, Wayne Lukas, are worth as much as a great stallion or a great broodmare.

Does the commercial market and its characteristics (corrective surgeries and shoeing techniques, use of treadmills, steroids) have too much influence on the breed?
Corrective surgeries, shoeing techniques, and treadmills are a positive influence; steroids given for the wrong reasons are a negative influence. Taking the breed as a whole, these procedures are almost meaningless. Steroids administered to highly important racehorses and future sire prospects have been known to compromise fertility, particularly in the first year at stud.

You brought stallions from Europe to stand here. Why are so few breeders today importing new bloodlines?
Home is where the heart is. The breeders and owners of the great European stallion prospects prefer to keep their horses at home. Their breeding rights are worth as much in Europe as they are in North America. When I imported Vaguely Noble, Blushing Groom, Riverman, Sharpen Up, Irish River, and Lyphard, this was not the case. The market was here. At that time, when a prominent European racehorse or stallion was imported to Kentucky, he immediately doubled in value. This arbitrage no longer exists. With the exception of Japan, any breeder has access to almost any stallion standing anywhere in the world, if he wants to ship his mare and pay the stud fee.

Is the gene pool getting too narrow with Northern Dancer and Raise a Native (Mr. Prospector) line stallions?
Taking the Thoroughbred breed as a whole, the coefficient of inbreeding is at a very low percentage compared to that of other breeds of animals. The coefficient of inbreeding in Standardbreds is only marginally higher and is still considered to be a low percentage of the breed as a whole. There is no such thing as having too narrow a gene pool. Stallions only provide 50% of the genes to any individual animal and the broodmare, of course, provides the other 50%. Geneticists call this Galton's Law and it is one of the fundamental, indeed immutable principles of how animals inherit. Any permutation of Galton's Law is without merit and is errant romantic nonsense.

Why is the syndication of stallions less popular now than 20 years ago?
This is an economic decision. The stronger the economy, the less adverse stallion owners are to the risk of failure.
For the short term, the stallion owners can maximize the revenues, for long-term, if the stallion is a failure or mediocre, then the revenue stream will be compromised. It is somewhat like tiptoeing on the high wire without a safety net.

What will be the long-term effect on the breed of large stallion books?
Biologically a normal stallion can easily handle books of 100 mares or more. The way to manage a stallion is to manage the mares booked to him. Breeding techniques for mares have reached a high level of sophistication. Since there are more than 600,000 Thoroughbred horses in North America alone, large stallion books will have no effect on the breed as a whole. In the Standardbred industry, artificial insemination is allowed which greatly favors the proven progenitors who are frequently bred to 250 mares or more. This discriminates against the young, unproven stallions because they are not getting the best producing broodmares and their books are small by comparison. Looking at the top 1% of the breed, a large book of mares probably enhances the gene pool, but only marginally.

You mention artificial insemination in Standardbreds. Of course, you were formerly involved with Standardbreds. Do you think artificial insemination would work in Thoroughbreds?
First, it would be an economic disaster. Secondly, from a standpoint of hygiene, it would be a definite plus. But, it would destroy the entire economic paradigm of the industry. That is one reason I got out of the Standardbreds, because the art of breeding horses and the fun of breeding horses were being lost.

If you were getting into the stallion business today, what attributes would you look for in a stallion prospect? How would that strategy be different from 20-30 years ago?
The attributes a responsible stallion manager is looking for are the same today as yesterday. All of the criteria are probably weighted differently by different stallion managers, however the categories are the same: racing class, pedigree, soundness, conformation, temperament, precocity, stamina, speed, way of going, and durability pretty much cover the waterfront. In absence of the progeny test, all of these criteria become irrelevant.

How has the shuttle stallion trend influenced the business?
Biologically, it is a good thing for stallions to be bred year-round. It is closer to nature as opposed to an arbitrary, artificially imposed breeding season. The idea that a horse only has so many covers in his genetic bank is scientifically absurd. This concept is one of the many tongue-in-cheek myths originating from the diabolically fertile mind of Federico Tesio, one of the greatest horsemen of all time (he was greatly amused by the gullibility of his fellow breeders and the more outlandish Tesio could make things, the happier he was). The breeder of Nearco and Ribot was interested in creating a persona that would make him more mysterious and profound.

Under competent management, the health risk has proven to be minimal. I think it will be fascinating to see how all of this shuttle business will work out from a performance point of view. It is pretty predictable-the best stallions here will be the best stallions down there. The biggest problem with the shuttle stallions is the quality of mares being bred to these horses is vastly inferior to their Northern Hemisphere books. Over time, the shuttle stallions should improve the breed in Australia, New Zealand, and South America.

It is essentially an economic decision. Obviously the older and more proven the stallion, the less incentive there is for the Southern Hemisphere shuttle. After the horse becomes a certain age, the health factor of moving the horse back and forth becomes a significant problem.

What is primarily driving today's bloodstock market?
No one needs to own a racehorse. No one needs to own a Rembrandt painting. No one needs to own haute couture. No one needs to own a Gulfstream private jet. No one needs to own diamonds by Cartier. The wealth that has been created by the unprecedented performance of the stock market for the last eight years has had a profound effect on the creation of wealth and personal disposable income. Fifty percent of our population now own stocks, bonds, and other securities. There are 7.1 million participants in the horse world today and 6.9 million horses. This has a total impact, direct and indirect, on the U.S. gross domestic product of $112.1 billion. However, less than 10% of these participants and horse owners are involved with Thoroughbreds. The marketing challenge is how to engage and attract the horse-initiated public to the world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing.

Do you have any fears that we are heading for another 1980s-style correction or crash?
When the late, great J.P. Morgan was asked by a "wet behind the ears," recent graduate of the Harvard Business School, "What is going to happen to the market," the Wizard of Wall Street said, "Young man, I know exactly what is going to happen to the market; it is going to fluctuate."

What is the greatest threat to continued growth (in the industry)?
There is no question whatsoever-the greatest single threat to continued growth is the anti-gambling sentiment throughout the country. Thoroughbred racing is a very small part of the gambling industry. If we are not politically strong, well organized, and adequately financed, we will not have any influence.

As a student of genetics, how did you apply that to your breeding philosophy in the Thoroughbred business?
As a young man growing up, I had the unequaled opportunity of being associated for many years with Lao J. Brosemer, who worked for my father. Without question, Brosemer knew more about every breed of domesticated animal than anyone else in the world. At one time he was head geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was unsurpassed in the entire field of animal husbandry. My father, and his father before him, had a profound understanding of horses and both were great teachers. From a more theoretical standpoint, I worked closely with professor of genetics Dr. Dewey Steele of the University of Kentucky and the highly intelligent and longtime editor of The Blood-Horse magazine, Joseph A. Estes.

Estes was the devastating critic and debunker of breeding myths. He was the most scientific journalist that ever wrote about the breeding of Thoroughbreds. I was taught when all was said and done the progeny test was the only thing that mattered. That is why my program is to acquire older proven mares after the fact rather than unproven young mares, despite their credentials before the fact. In lieu of the progeny test, the most important thing is racing class in both the sire and the dam.

I also learned from these influential mentors and from my own lived experience that scientific truth is not always economic truth. There is only a handful of people in racing that have an elementary understanding of genetics, how animals inherit, and scientific probabilities. The mythology surrounding the breeding of Thoroughbreds is pervasive. A few of these myths are the astonishing stupidity of the dosage system, the absurd overemphasis on the female family, and the irrational belief in the validity of nicks.

When you say overemphasis on the female family, do you mean the first dam or the whole female family?
The way we present our pedigrees is genetically irresponsible. The third dam in the female family is genetically no more important than any other horse in the third generation of that family. But that has become economic truth, though it is not genetic truth. I never look beyond the sire and the dam, because that is where the genetic material is coming from. The big issue is, that while there are all of these statistics, these pedigree nerds, the people that are promulgating all of this scientific nonsense, there is never any control group. It is all selective, self-serving, worked-over information. I did a study one time with Dewey Steele about nicks, and we found the worst horses, those finishing last at Thistledown and Charles Town, had the same nicks as the horses that were winning the classics. One of the dumbest things that's done is that they take an infinitesimal sample of maybe three or four or five horses and pompously say that is a nick. From my scientific point of view, a sample that is that minuscule is worthless.

Millions and millions of dollars are spent every year (on horses), yet a high school freshman that is taking an elementary genetics course has a better understanding than someone who is spending a hundred million dollars a year and is listening to all these charlatans who are promoting genetical lies.

Do you think geneticists will ever be able to identify the genetic markers that constitute a faster horse, or conversely the genes or markers that identify negative traits?
The universe of scientific research and accomplishment ebbs and flows, and does not fit into the time and space of conventions that we are so fond of using to categorize our thoughts. I think it is fair to say the first 75 years of the last century, science was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the mathematics of time and space and the origins and operations of the universe. In the last 25 years of the century science has provided the preliminary research and indeed the launching pad for the exciting keystone technologies of computing and biotechnology. As more of the arcane secrets of genetics and molecular biology are revealed to the modern public, we will be able to have insights into the common mutations of our own genetic makeup. We will be able to spell out the precise sequences of the billions of letters in the equine genetic code. In fact, the new genetics will go far beyond the usual gene sequence analysis. As we crawl further up the value chain to include the chemical side and pharmacological and toxicology data, we can then search for continuous sequences that might lead to a full-length gene. The possible discoveries, compelling though they may be, do not necessarily mean we will in effect see a change. There is little question we will make quantum jumps in theory, but it does not mean we will be able to apply this theory in practical concrete terms. As we all know, the horse is not the most congenial of host animals.

What are the most important factors to breeding success?
Everything in breeding and racing is a matter of understanding the probabilities and getting the probabilities working for you instead of against you. In genetics it is the progeny test and in the environment it is the transcendent trainer.

Who were some of the most influential figures in Thoroughbred breeding in the second half of the 20th Century, and why?
John Magnier is just getting started; before it is all over, he will be one of the towering figures in the history of breeding. Magnier is unsurpassed in understanding imagination, risk taking, horsemanship, business acumen, and determination. The foundation of a never-equaled-before breeding empire is unfolding before our eyes. Magnier does everything but cover the mares.

Seldom, if ever, has any breeding/racing enterprise over an 80 year period been handled with greater intelligence, knowledge, and understanding of the genetic, environmental, and management issues (including ruthless culling) that consistently produces champions and near-champion performers than the Phipps family enterprise. Phipps-bred and -owned Bold Ruler was champion sire an unprecedented eight times, the broodmares are transcendent, the progeny spectacular, the economics unequaled, and the environment outstanding.

Calumet Farm won the Kentucky Derby eight times between 1941 and 1968 with a near miss by Alydar in 1978. It can be argued Calumet Farm's Citation was the greatest racehorse, Bull Lea the greatest sire, and Ben Jones the greatest trainer of the last half-century.

Four generations of the Hancock family have probably stood more breed-shaping stallions at Claiborne Farm than any other stud farm in history. The tradition and influence continues unabated.

E.P. Taylor bred an all-time record 358 stakes winners. Northern Dancer was the most influential stallion of the past 50 years.
Nelson Bunker Hunt bred 158 stakes winners and bred or owned 25 champions.

C.V. Whitney and the Greentree Farm of John Hay Whitney and Joan Whitney Payson were run as totally separate entities. However, they continued their family's heritage and collectively bred a total of 345 stakes winners.

John W. Galbreath stood the breed-shaping progenitors Ribot, Sea Bird, Swaps, Graustark, His Majesty, and Roberto. Darby Dan bred over 100 stakes winners.

George Widener bred and owned eight champions; Paul Mellon, the only horseman to breed and own the winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Epsom Derby and the Prix de l'Arc de Tri-omphe; Hirsch Jacobs, as breeder, owner, and trainer, the most complete American horseman since John E. Madden; Robert J. Kleberg Jr. of King Ranch bred 81 stakes winners, including Triple Crown winner Assault and Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Middleground.

The most influential European breeders of the last half century include the present Aga Khan, his father and grandfather, the Maktoum Family of Dubai, Daniel Wildenstein, Robert Sangster, who is one of the world's most influential horsemen of the last half century, and Prince Khalid Abdullah.

In the list of most influential breeders, do you include yourself without being pompous or arrogant?
Frank Lloyd Wright said, "One time, this was very early in my life, I had to decide-to be honestly arrogant or hypocritically humble." No, I think I have had a tremendous influence because of the stallions I brought here. And, I think I have had a tremendous influence in the improvement of the sport. I've never, until now, had a very large broodmare band. I only had 10 or 12 broodmares, so, as a breeder, I don't think I've made as significant an impact as I think I will do now with 100 mares. But, I think it would be pompous of me to include myself.

Are you satisfied with where the Breeders' Cup is today, in terms of its popularity within the industry and the general public? If not, what can be done to make the championship day event more successful?
The Breeders' Cup basically determines the year-end champions. Anyone who likes to see great horses run fast and far loves Breeders' Cup championship day. In terms of public interest in the event, the ratings are extremely disappointing and have been from the very beginning. I believe the best ratings were in 1984 for the first Breeders' Cup. Now, for the first time, every race on television mentions the Breeders' Cup as the ultimate objective for the racing year. The advertising and marketing of our championship event are deplorable. Many millions of dollars have been wasted and spent in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Do you think the Breeders' Cup national stakes program is making an impact from a marketing standpoint, or by getting more breeders to nominate their foals?
At the beginning, the Breeders' Cup National Stakes program was extremely important. However, with the dramatic increase in purses, I really believe that most of the money could be used elsewhere in a more productive manner for the common good of the sport, and I do not believe that it would impact nominations in any substantial way.

Where would you like to see the Breeders' Cup positioned 15 years from now?
First of all, I would like to see the championship day become part of the American psyche like the World Series and the Super Bowl. I would like to see purses for our championship event double in value and perhaps several new categories established. Perhaps in 15 years the directors, officers, and staff of the National Museum of Racing, in their infinite wisdom, would reach the conclusion that the only championship day in the history of the sport of racing should be recognized. It is really quite amazing that after years of determining the champion performers of the breed each year, there is not even a passing reference of the Breeders' Cup in the National Museum of Racing. It is really quite mind boggling. As Lord Hartington, the senior steward of the English Jockey Club, once stated, "the idea of Thoroughbred racing without the Breeders' Cup is unthinkable." For the Breeders' Cup not to be permanently recognized in the National Museum of Racing is not only unimaginable, it is pathetic.

Are you satisfied with the progress made by the NTRA in the first 18 months?
The progress has been phenomenal. In 18 months the coverage of racing on TV has doubled. The TVG racing channel is one of the most positive events that has happened to the sport in this century. It would never have occurred without the NTRA. The $200-million investment by AT&T, Rupert Murdoch, and the Hearst Corp. would never have been made without the NTRA. If successful, the TVG racing channel could increase purses by as much as two billion dollars. For the first time in history, racing is speaking with a common voice, in a common cause, for the common good.

If you had it to do over again, would you have recommended the NTA be dissolved and then work in a cooperation effort in forming the NTRA?
It is doubtful the NTRA would have ever come into existence without the NTA's leadership, financial resources, and concern for the general welfare of the industry.

How much funding do you think the NTRA needs to be the most effective? Where should that money come from?
There are many imaginative funding opportunities that have not been sufficiently explored at this point in time, which will need to be activated for the NTRA to reach its goals. When you have neglected your customer base for 50 years you cannot expect to renew this base in five years. The industry needs to have an undeviating commitment to the NTRA over a period of time and not expect instant results.

What about the comments from breeders that they are being hit from all directions for donations to the NTRA?
Well, the breeders have stood up and been counted. Other segments of the industry, that are parasites on the industry, should become involved because that is only fair. I don't notice the trainers giving any money. The jockeys have. What I think is that if they have a specific purpose for this money that they are asking for, that it will go, say, to a PAC fund, then I think they would have a lot more participation.

How do you envision the NTRA and major events like the Breeders' Cup and Triple Crown working together in the future? They are already working together in a most effective way. Creating new corporate sponsorship is a high priority. Is this a time to be optimistic about the business, considering the strong bloodstock market, the consolidation of racetrack ownership, and investment from companies like TVG?

The answer is a qualified yes. Where the sport has the most exposure is a lack of presence in the political arena. Anti-gambling legislators with the stroke of a pen can undo every positive initiative affected by the industry. It is an ever-present danger that has not been addressed in a satisfactory way.

In 1965, you addressed the Thoroughbred Club of America to express your concerns over development in the Bluegrass area and how it would impact horse farms. You continue to be involved in that issue today. Realistically, will government step in with financial incentives for farm owners not to develop their land?
Many of the things that I said in 1965, 34 years ago, in my address concerning urban expansion and the Thoroughbred industry were relevant then and are very hot items today. The issue is a matter of mediation between one-dimensional environmentalists and the equally one-dimensional proponents of untrammeled growth. It is as much an economic development issue as it is an environmental protection issue.

Obviously, you have always believed strongly in advertising and marketing. Can you explain why you have considered that so important?
As the founder and owner of the Gaines Food Company, my father, C.F. Gaines, was considered the outstanding marketing person in the pet food industry in the U.S. where, at one time, we enjoyed a 48% share of the market. With my father as teacher and mentor, it was only natural that I developed a great interest and strong bias for advertising and marketing.

When I established John R. Gaines Thoroughbreds six years ago, we developed the concept of selling our entire crop as weanlings in November instead of as yearlings in July. Our idea was to sell summer quality weanlings and to establish a unique niche in the marketplace. This approach has been tried and proven successful, both for us as sellers and the alert buyers who have resold their weanling purchases as yearlings, on many occasions for twice their purchase price. We are now considering several permutations of this concept that we feel will meet the needs and excite the imaginations of a highly sophisticated buying public.

In what other areas are you devoting your time and energies?
Vincent Van Gogh said the best way to know life is to love many things. I am just starting to know life, but I am running out of time. I am the most fortunate of men because I have had many of my dreams come true and I am still dreaming and I am still working. I enjoy playing the game, particularly the horse game.

What is it about Thoroughbred racing and breeding that has kept your attention all these years?
It is a legacy handed down to me by my grandfather, my father, and by me to my two children. We all have an ownership in John R. Gaines Thoroughbreds, and I am happy to say there is an unbroken continuity for four generations now of a shared love of the Thoroughbred.

Breeding Thoroughbred horses is the greatest challenge in animal husbandry, because you are breeding for highly elusive intangibles like speed, stamina, soundness, and courage. I have also discovered in my lived experience that you cannot have sporting success unless you have economic success. Improving the breed, and at the same time improving your pocketbook, is the best of all worlds and control over our future.