Our piece on the folly of the proliferation in breeding theories which appeared about a fortnight ago (Tony Morris: Opening a can of worms April 16th) has enlisted a lot of responses, almost all of them supportive, and the odd one constructively debatable.
Also fired up on the topic, Byron Rogers (ex Arrowfield Stud, Australia, and now a pedigree and industry buff in the USA) produced an intriguing treatise on the changing typology of the Australian racehorse.
Rogers points to the fact that the archetypical Australian racehorse of the second half of the last century was crafted around the emergence of the great Two Year Old events such as the Golden Slipper, the Blue Diamond and the Magic Millions Sales race, and was largely founded on the blood of the legendary stallion, Star Kingdom. The physical result was a powerful, big, early maturing juvenile that could go with the best anywhere at 5 and 6 furlongs. As is evident from their stud book, while a successful three year old campaign at up to a mile was obviously a bonus, many of their great sire were exactly what the programme had prescribed, namely precocious, very fast runners whose principal job was complete before they turned 36 months old.
The Australian Two Year Old programme was so strongly endowed with prize money that breeders’ principal efforts were aimed at producing horses capable of competing in the major events for these horses, and they could match with the fleetest- footed athletes anywhere, and then some. For those that managed to pass the test at two, and still had something in the tank for their latter years, they provided the durability for the breed in a country which became the testing ground for some of the best sprinters in the world.
By contrast, the typical European thoroughbred of the modern age is an altogether leaner, leggier and longer specimen, somewhat answering the description of what we know of human marathon athletes, and it too, is a product of the programme which racing’s masters in those realms have prescribed. Lest we should forget though, horses are also a product of their environment, their nutrition and the people that work with them, and while racing programmes have a considerable impact on what breeders are breeding for, just how far an animal evolves in achieving its genetic potential, is also heavily dependent upon these other factors.
There was a time when Britain was home to the fastest horses in the world, and was known for its variety of sprinting sirelines (including as well, some of those that were more Classically-inclined, such as Hyperion and Nasrullah) but the growth in the popularity of races such as the various Derby’s run throughout Europe, the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe as the principal and richest targets, has all but wiped out those speed lines from the British Stud Book.
Reverting to the southern hemisphere, what seems to be happening increasingly, particularly in those countries where the “shuttle” concept was seen as a panacea for all the evils of what was widely believed to be a dearth of quality bloodstock, is that the type and aptitude of the horse being produced right now in shuttle-affected countries, is taking on a new shape. If one goes to Australia specifically, with the advent of the “shuttle”, you can’t help noticing the very broad variety of types now emerging, and the almost paranoid reliance on those stallions that make up the shuttle.
Historically, the “shuttling” of stallions came about as a result of a novel idea on the part of the late Robert Sangster and his partners at Coolmore, where, driven by the dual considerations of broadening the genetic pool and the possibility of improving it, and the obvious lure of a second income from those stallions employed to undertake the “shuttle” some 70 horses a year are making the pilgrimage Down Under, between Australia and New Zealand.
Speaking of the latter, New Zealand was once the bastion of the “staying” southern hemisphere racehorse, worthy of an enormously popular following from across the Tasman, among those bent on acquiring stamina stock capable of beating the best Australian-bred horses in their own back yard over distances of ground, and that formula proved hugely successful over many decades, with New Zealanders plundering, in some years, a disproportionate share of the Grade One prizes in Australia at distances of ten furlongs to two miles. Yet the impact of the “shuttle” in both countries has been so powerful that we can speak no more of the typical Australian or New Zealand racehorse, as we once knew it, because the Australians are being bred to go longer, and the New Zealanders to go shorter, to the degree that in the latter case, New Zealand’s classics this year, have fallen to Australian breeds. Is it conservative that their own monopoly even at home has disappeared within a single generation, if this is anything to go by. Of course, we can only conjecture, as it’s too early to say that a distinct trend has emerged but it’s tempting to think that way on what’s in front of us.
If we can change our focus to South America, it’s always pleasurable to recall the halcyon days of the Argentinean economy of the 1920’s and 1930’s, when the agricultural economy of that country was one of the strongest in the world, and they could afford some of the best thoroughbred blood. During this time, Argentina imported no fewer than nine individual English Derby winners, some proven, some unproven and some disproven, and whilst not all of them struck home runs, the majority of them contributed considerably to the evolution of what became a deadly racing machine. The environmental impact on the South American-bred animal was also significant, inasmuch as it was a typically strong, big boned, plain-headed brute, adaptable to both turf and dirt surfaces, and covering a wide range of aptitudes.
Bearing in mind that most animals are bred towards a very specific and narrow purpose, one of the great challenges facing racehorse breeders across the globe is the fact that we are trying to produce animals to cover an enormously broad spectrum ranging from 800 m right through to 4500 m (in some countries) and this in itself is an almost impossible task in any one animal. While South America’s indulgence in the “shuttle” concept is relatively new (its only really taken root in the last 10 to 12 years) there have been some strong statement on its positive effects, particularly those emerging from the likes of Spend A Buck, Candy Stripes and Royal Academy whose exploits in the southern hemisphere have been considerably greater than they were in the north, and while northern commentators would be quick to draw on their belief that the competition in the South less challenging the lie to that theory is quickly dispersed when one thinks how well these horses have performed in the northern hemisphere when purchased by that quarter as proven runners.
Yet, when all is said and done, we can’t resist the notion that there is a certain “sameness” developing in certain quarters in the horses now being bred, particularly as a consequence of the shuttle and it seems to apply to both hemispheres, not only from a type perspective but from the point of view of their pedigrees. Increasingly, the globalization of racing is bringing about a “sameness” in the way racing programmes are being written, as more and more horses aspire to the biggest prizes on offer at the Breeders Cup in the United States, the World Cup in Dubai, and at the international meetings in Europe, Japan and Hong Kong. In a way, that’s a pity, because it’s the diversity in the respective strengths of the various countries’ stock that has made racing the spectacle it is, and which ensures that every country, no matter its size, has a shot at earning a prize at these meetings, for as long as the variety in distances over which large prizes are available, ensures that the breed continues to evolve in its uniquely diverse way. It would be all the ore a pity if the term “sprinter” at some stage in the future simply meant the fastest horse over a short course among a breed designed to go further.
What does all this mean in the South African context, particularly in the light of the fact we are constantly at war with ourselves with what we are breeding in this country, and there are regular clarion calls for the introduction of the shuttle concept as a “quick fix” to the improvement of our local breed. Those that attended the 2006 version of the South African National Horse Racing conference will recall the bias of several contributors and at least one speaker for a negotiated set of protocols that would facilitate the movement of shuttle stallions in and out of this part of the world.
This writer was one of those that questioned the strategy, if only because, from a purely financial point of view, those horses that are likely to be available for shuttling duties to South Africa will almost certainly be the fourth best group in the world, with Australia able to afford the best, New Zealand the next and presumably, the South American countries next. The latter group’s ability to compete at a higher level than ourselves arises from the convenience of having a ready-made American market next door which facilitates the sale to the USA of their best runners for millions of dollars, and acts as a financial conduit to horsemen in that part of the world.
Every day, South Africans are presented with evidence of the value of the competiveness of the home-grown product, and the ability not only of our locally produced mares, but also, and in particular, our locally produced stallions, in producing superior runners. Of course, this is not to say there is no value in imported stock; on the contrary, if only for its genetic variety, the best stock from abroad, and particularly from those countries where racing conditions are not dissimilar to ours, can be of grat value, but we are all too quick in our belief that local performance is “less” performance, and towards the inclination that anything from outside is better than from inside.
You only have to revisit the achievements of the shuttle stallions in Australia and New Zealand to know that there has only been one outstanding success, in the nature of Danehill, whom it is fair to say was more successful on balance, in the southern hemisphere than he was in the north. The popular belief in Australia now (and because this is a fashion issue it might change in the next few years) is that the best stallions in that part of the world right now are the sons of the shuttlers that have achieved excellence as runners in Australia (yet another case of a preference for horses that’ve performed in their own conditions), and this is evident in the achievements of Redoute’s Choice (now standing for a stud fee of $330 000), Encosta de Lago, Flying Spur etc. Against this, a growing suspicion prevails in some circles around the northern hemisphere performed horses, where some local horsemen are beginning to regard these horses as a means for the rich and powerful to exploit the local market with animals largely unsuited to either the Australian conditions or the programme, or both.
What then is the typical South African racehorse? Well, it wasn’t long ago that we looked to a significant degree like Australia, with races such as the Bloodline Million, the South African Nursery, the Smirnoff Futurity and the Administrators Champion Juvenile Stakes (over 1200-1400 metres) serving as the principal breedshapers. The progeny of stallions such as Harry Hotspur and Golden Thatch were the flavour of the moment, and it was little mystery that at distances beyond a mile, we were more than vulnerable against imports from the stamina-inclined products of New Zealand and Argentina.
While we remember our stallions ranks of that era with some affection, in hindsight, anything more than affection was probably misplaced, and the use of the word “reverence” for those horses now would amount to an overstatement. We doubt very much whether too many horses of that era would have been capable of producing quality runners over distances approaching ten and twelve furlongs, given the fact we were largely a speed-crazy nation. Visiting our sire logs of the time would have revealed that the top end was dominated by a son of Relko (who never produced a son anywhere else in the world of any merit); a son of High Veld, (a highly performed local-bred champion racehorse in the form of Elevation); a son of Persian Gulf (whose only other sire son of any value also stood in South Africa); a son of Mexico II (who was sold as a teaser at a fat stock sale in Beaufort West for a mere R2 000); and a son of Thatch (whose only other son of any stallion merit was a full brother to Golden Thatch).
How things have moved on, and a visitation these days to our stallion log, quite apart from the dominance of a horse of Jet Master’s class, reveals the presence at the top of the log of a son of the revered international sire of sires, Gone West; a Group One winning son of Sadler’s Wells, a Graded Stakes winning son of Blushing Groom, a son of the celebrated Mr. Prospector, followed by sons of Roberto, Danzig and Machiavellian all highly prized progenitors of stallions across the globe. And right behind them are the quality racehorses, Count Dubois (Zafonic) and Captain Al, a multiple Grade One winner.
Of course, the reliance on proven racehorses as the best source of stallion success is not entirely new to South Africa, as the years shortly after the Second World War saw the arrival of a number of serious racehorses destined to make it the top of our sire ranks, including Fairthorn (multiple Champion sire Timeform 120), Drum Beat (Timeform 131), High Veld (Timeform 126), and Noble Chieftain (a Royal Ascot Juvenile Stakes winner), in an era which produced the world class likes of Sea Cottage, Colorado King, Hawaii, In Full Flight and Elevation, not to mention any number of sprinters who would have been capable of mixing it with the best in the world. In this latter category, we recall the likes of Sentinel, Trocadero, Magic Mirror etc.
In contrast to Australia, South Africa had a slightly more extended programme which went beyond the juvenile races just mentioned, and incorporated what was known as the “Golden Guineas”, so that the most popular horses were the ones that could go six furlongs with the best at two and train on to become quality milers at three. Nonetheless, we were deficient in the stamina of our horses, and in this area we remained vulnerable. An outcry over the rich Two Year old events finally brought about the demise of the Bloodline Million ( a pity in our view), and over-inclination towards the enhancement of the Three Year Old programmes, which all but smothered the emergence of top class juveniles. While this part of our programme has been ably supported by a growing concentration on the production of horses over greater distances, we need to be careful of producing an animal which in the end, is a watered-down version of both aptitudes, and most certainly, we need to be conscious of not developing the “sameness” that is becoming increasingly evident in other parts of the southern hemisphere.
Of course, much of South Africa’s desire to follow the northern hemisphere is centered on the old inferiority complex that bedevils most of the colonial nations, and from which countries such as Australia have only emerged in the last 20 years or so, and from which there are visible signs that South Africa, New Zealand and others are gradually breaking out. The new-found confidence in our own abilities is manifesting itself on the sporting fields, in the boardrooms of big business and in our achievements across the political landscapes of the world, and it’s only just beginning to dawn on South Africa’s breeders that we are fortunate to carry on our businesses in one of the finest environments anywhere.
Our stockmen are as good as the best, our climate is comparable to the best, our nutrition is getting to the standard of the best, and our home-grown racehorses shaped by our best stallions, appears to be a better bet for the improvement in the breed than what we might get if we resort to the bottom end of what is available in the way of shuttle stallions. For our money, we would far rather back the likes of Jet Master, Western Winter, Fort Wood etc., to outpoint a $5 – 10,000 northern hemisphere-performed horse that none of Australia, New Zealand, or Argentina has any use for.
It’s the same old story repeating itself again. If you want to open up a grocery business there is little point in sandwiching yourself between Checkers, Pick ‘n Pay and Woolworths. You’d rather put yourself into a niche market as the family grocer supplying superior products with superior service in a special neighborhood, than try to compete with the same product at what has to be an uncompetitive price in their market. In the end, our unique selling advantage has to be a uniquely crafted animal tested against the best and representing international racings best value-for- money. That’s a proposition, as we are a low-cost producing country, and good value selling is something we can offer and yet still make respectable profits, and we need to turn this to our advantage,e instead of following the Pied Piper down the “sameness” trail.