mick_goss_speaking_at_summerhill_stallion_dayMick Goss speaking at the annual Summerhill Stallion Day

Everyone of us engaged in the fascinating business of breeding thoroughbreds will have been intrigued at some stage or another by what it is that makes a good broodmare. Of course, we all have our individual idiosyncrasies when it comes to what we’re looking for in a prospective mare, and thank heavens it’s like that, or we’d all be after the same individual. It isn’t our intention here to deal with the physicalities or, for that matter, how we evaluate pedigrees in the selection of mares; we’ll come back to that at a later stage. For the time being we’re going to occupy ourselves with the question of where to source prospective mares.

Most breeders of experience will tell you that when you’ve got a good family, stick with it, as it takes years to understand the peculiarities of a family, not only from the perspective of what type they throw, but also what sort of temperaments they have, how sound they are, whether the family needs speed or stamina, bulk or quality, etc, and to waste the patrimony of that experience is to set yourself back as many years as it’s taken you to get to know the family.

So the best place in the first instance, when you strike gold in a family, is to persevere and develop it. “Family building” is a scholarly business, requiring plenty of patience, as well as a good deal of endurance. We’ve had families for example, that’ve looked quite dismal at times, but once we eventually found the right recipe, they’ve flourished into some of our best foundation stock.

However, we don’t spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the wheel, only applying common sense and a set of principles that’ve served us well over the years, but which took a good deal of time in the making. The real purpose of this introductory piece on sourcing mares involves their origins.

Analysis is a vitally important issue in the choice of breeding stock, whether you’re speaking of stallions or mares, and the best example of the value of analysis, in our view, lies in the exploits of Australia’s Arrowfield Stud, where the “bossman”, John Messara, with his stockbroking background and despite his relatively limited knowledge of the horse in the early years, resorted to analysis as his primary tool in assisting him in the selection of stallion prospects. Today his farm boasts the breeding of the stallion colossi Zabeel, Flying Spur and Danzero (all Champion sires,) while John was also the “maker” of the mammoth stallions, Danehill and Redoute’s Choice.

Most students of the game remember Federico Tesio, the fabled Italian breeder and owner-trainer, for the fact that he bred the immortal foundation sires, Nearco and Ribot, as well as the highly successful stallion, Donatello, yet for all that great man’s exploits, John Messara’s record, particularly given the intensity of modern competition, is quite exceptional.

So much for the value of analysis when it comes to the selection of stallions.

In our wonderings, we recognized a quite significant but at the same time, perplexing phenomenon in our local breeding, and that involved the substantial disparities in the success of mares from different countries. While Argentina and New Zealand were for many years the sources of some of the best racehorses ever to come to South Africa, both male and female, it’s a strange quirk of nature that none of those great champions ever made a serious impact at stud, in the first generation at least. There wasn’t a single decent stallion to speak of and we can’t recall a single good horse from the phenomenal likes of Tecla Bluff, Taima Bluff, Dandy Sun, Solera, Époque, Ecurie, Bombarda etc. Of course, a South African-bred daughter of Tecla Bluff, Tecla Fields, is renowned for the fact that she produced three Group One winners in her own right, but that’s part of the point. Recent Equus Champion Elusive Fort, also comes from Argentina’s spectacular “E” family, but again, he was not a product of the first generation.

It was the same with the litany of great fillies and colts that came out of New Zealand, and while the Australian bloodstock purchased in the same era was less successful at the races, these mares and the fillies from Europe, the UK and the USA, proved far more effective in the breeding shed.

In recent years of course, with the advent of the shuttle, Australian-bred horses have come right into their own at the racecourse, and we guess we can anticipate, particularly with all the shuttle blood now available, that the “Australians” will really begin to shine as broodmare prospects, not that they haven’t already done well.

So what is it that set the stock of these latter countries apart as “breeders” from those emanating from Argentina and New Zealand? There are any number of theories in existence, one of which involves where and how the bulk of them were trained, but it serves little purpose to deal in fairytales or old wives stories, so we need to look more closely at the stock from those countries, and in the end, try and find something practically connected with the blood, the type, and the environments prevalent in their areas of origin. As it happens, it would be easy to apply theories relative to where and how they were trained to any one group, but since the “Argies” and the “Kiwis” were largely conditioned in different yards, we have to assume that where they were trained had less to do with the final result, than is so often suggested.

For what it’s worth, our theory revolves around three issues, and they are;

  • The environment : Anyone who’s been to Argentina and New Zealand will tell you they are spectacularly productive agricultural environments, and both the soil and the climate contribute substantially to the ease of farming in those regions. The result is, and this is a generalization, it’s much easier to raise stock in such a situation than it is in other countries where the soils are of a lesser quality, or where climate is an issue.

For the purposes of this argument, we’re assuming that all horse-producing countries have a liberal sprinkling of quality horsemen, and while there may be disparities from country to country, the playing fields are fairly level as far as skills are concerned.

  • The pedigrees : Looking at the pedigrees of horses in the various countries, another feature becomes especially evident, and that is these issues are often influenced by the ready availability of cash. The northern hemisphere has never been short of money, and they’ve always been able to afford the best genetics. In the Antipodean countries, Australia has been the “richer” country compared to New Zealand, and whilst as colonial entities, neither commanded the wealth of their masters to the north, Australia always had more “disposable” than New Zealand. It followed that the Aussies were able to afford more expensive and more fashionable genetics, where New Zealanders had to “box smarter”.

This is no slight on Australia at all, as they have some exceptional horse people in that country, but the truth is, money often breeds complacency because you can occasionally get away with the acquisition of what you need to make yourself successful, whereas you can’t do that when you can’t afford it, in which case you have to work harder at other things to achieve the same result.

Realizing that they could never afford the sort of genetics their Antipodean neighbours could, and since they were competing for much the same market, New Zealanders opted to breed a tougher, stouter horse of greater stamina, while the Australians went for the more fashionable, speed-orientated type whose aptitude was better served by a trip of six to eight furlongs. In very broad terms, it was this simple differential that enabled New Zealand for so many generations to dominate the longer distance races at the highest level in Australia, while they couldn’t get in much of a blow when it came to the shorter races in that country.

Coupled with an exceptional environment and a generous climate, New Zealanders were able to produce a robust, durable, long-winded individual, and while it lacked precocity in the main, it was capable of training on for several years. By contrast, the Australian thoroughbred was typically early-maturing, extremely quick, and “shorter lived”.

Turning for a moment to Argentina, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, in a world in which agriculture was one of the dominant economic activities, this phenomenally fertile country became one of the richest in the world, and Argentineans were able to acquire, particularly from the United Kingdom, some of their best bloodstock, including a long line of winners of England’s greatest race, the Epsom Derby. Consequently, when times changed and military dictatorships intervened in the government of Argentina, as the direction of the international economy moved from agriculture towards a more industrialized profile, so Argentina’s cash resources declined in relative terms, and so did their purchasing power relative to thoroughbreds.

As a result, they relied heavily on the blood they had imported in those earlier years, and proceeded to concentrate on the breeding of their own stallion and broodmare prospects, with very little reliance on imports. Yet they continued to produce an exceptionally strong, resilient individual which was a product of local breeding and a staggeringly generous environment, and which never appeared to lose its vigour and vitality.

By the 1970’s, New Zealand was heavily endowed with the sort of staying blood the northern hemisphere had come to shun and Argentina’s pedigrees were barely recognizable outside of Argentina and its immediate South American environs. For all that, horses from both countries came to South Africa in big numbers and they succeeded in droves, principally because they were tough and could take training, and certain of the people that had them knew how to exploit their attributes and get them to maximum fitness. For all that, as we’ve already said, they disappointed when they got to the breeding shed.

How do you explain this? Well, it’s one helluva question and we guess it will exercise the minds of breeders for much longer than it’s taken to get a treatise of this nature published. For what it’s worth, this is our view.

We’ve already mentioned that the richer countries were possessed of the “richer” blood; that is, horses descended from the world’s best families and by the most fashionable stallions. Consequently, from a purely genetic perspective, these countries were extremely well served and their blood, when exported, appeared to be adaptable and capable of “breeding on” in several different environments.

Our theory on the “Argentineans” and “New Zealanders” is that, notwithstanding their success on our racecourses, when they got to the breeding shed, the blood just didn’t possess sufficient depth to maintain itself in a more testing environment, so these horses tended to breed “down” sooner than those of higher pedigree. In other words, the “Argies” and the “Kiwis” were products of two of the best agricultural environments in the world, and their ability to breed on in more testing areas, or for that matter in areas that were unfamiliar to them by contrast with their own environment, meant that they were not able to carry their legacies to the next generation as successfully as they had in their home countries.

  • You might well ask then, whether the status quo has changed, and while there is little analytical evidence to suggest it has, it’s worth noting that both New Zealand and Argentina today are also the beneficiaries of the shuttle stallion phenomenon, and that they’ve both shifted their ground from being primary sources of stamina to the producers of horses that are beginning to look increasingly like their neighbours, in the case of New Zealand, Australia, and in the case of Argentina, the United States.
  • In some respects, this is a sadness, as it means the archtypical thoroughbred from each of these regions is beginning to look less and less like the animal which forged the nation’s reputation, and more like one from the northern hemisphere. While this is a process which will take some time to achieve its complete manifestation, right now it appears to be irreversible. That said, from a purely South African perspective, there remains a prejudice against breeding with blood from these countries, which may well herald a window of opportunity to seize whatever pricing advantages may exist in the acquisition of South American and New Zealand bloodstock, particularly with the advent of the shuttle, and before they emerge as successful progenitors in the first generation. This is particularly so as stock from Australia and the northern hemisphere is becoming increasingly less affordable on account of the relative strength of their currencies.
  • Of course, we mustn’t forget that our own stock can hold its own with anything from abroad, especially as it’s been tried and tested on our own racecourses. But if you’re looking for genetic variety, as a broad rule, you can source some serious “ink” in foreign pedigrees, (though coupled with racing class, that can be expensive,) and if you’re seeking performance, most times you’ll get far better value at home.