Seth Hancock, Alan Porter, John Veitch, and Ric Waldman are constantly asked for their opinions on Thoroughbreds and breeding. On March 6 they shared those opinions with the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers' Club in Lexington. About 280 members and their guests listened to the visitors and panel moderator Ed Bowen.
The clearest message was an unsettling one: most breeding decisions are based on the potential to sell, not necessarily the potential to perform.
"I think we as breeders are poor custodians of the breed," Waldman said. "We have been suckered by brilliant, unsound horses."
Porter said he has seen the intensity of competition increasee through all levels of racing, but the potential to breed a horse who could beat racing's existing records perhaps is exhausted.
"Around the time of Dr. Fager and Secretariat, you hit an evolutionary wall," Porter said. "The average horses run faster but the potential (to break those records) is less. Dr. Fager ran a mile in 1:32. New York maidens run the same distance in 1:42." Porter said when those two disparate types of horses are separated by only 10 seconds, perhaps that's as good as it gets.
Bowen and the audience revisited similar questions for most of the evening, but from different angles. One discussion considered brilliance versus soundness.
"If you have no brilliance, you probably have no horse," Hancock said. "We retired Pulpit and he only raced six times. Even if he was unsound, his third dam, State ran 26 times. She was one of the soundest horses Claiborne has bred. We like to hope even if he (Pulpit) was unsound, he'd throw back to some soundness."
"I think we know if we're sitting on unsoundness," Waldman said. "I think instinctively, we'll still try to breed as sound as possible and breed out conformational flaws."
Porter, who is based in England, gave a different view on the type of Thoroughbred which has evolved in the United States. "In Europe it was always a perception they (American horses) were fast and tough. But since the time of Forego, you've lost weight carrying and distance, and concentrating on breeding a certain type of horse."
The Belmont retains its status as a Classic race, but the panel seemed to agree that a horse who is strictly a mile-and-a-half horse doesn't have much commercial draw in the U.S.
"The staying horse as a stallion, there's nothing positive about him at all," Waldman said. Waldman said when looking at stallions with a commercial eye, the key races are the Kentucky Derby, the Travers Stakes, and the Breeders' Cup Classic. "If that horse can win the Belmont, then all the better. With Seattle Slew, the mile and a half wasn't negative because he could do everything."
"In the mid 1970s, horses only equipped to win the Belmont got left behind," Hancock said. "They became a blip on the screen." Hancock's Claiborne Farm stands Derby and Belmont winner Go for Gin, but not without some difficulties.
"It's hard to make them (stamina stallions) because everybody's going for the same type of horse," Hancock said. "Go for Gin only had 27 mares in 2000." Hancock said his hope is that after foals from Go for Gin and Benny the Dip reach age four, their successes will in turn reflect on their sires. In the meantime, Hancock returned Benny the Dip to England on a lease with hopes of bringing him back to Claiborne in a few years.
Veitch pointed out the dearth of 12-furlong races would make it difficult for a trainer to capitalize on such a horse for lack of opportunities to race.
Although the discussion pointed out a glut of certain bloodlines and the threat of too much inbreeding, Porter said North America is in a better situation than England in that respect. "You always have new lines coming up," he said.
The panelists had interesting views on the use of computer technology in breeding decisions. Waldman saw the value of nicking programs because they draw more owners into the matching process. "It's transformed the mare owner," he said. "It's a great recruiting tool." Neither Porter nor Hancock denounced that method, but agree computer matings must be used in concert with conformation analysis.
"If you don't know what types of horses you have it's of no use at all," Hancock said. "All pedigree is just a piece of information," Porter said. "You're rolling a genetic dice. The best you can do is weight the dice with one (more) piece of information."