stallion and mare(Cheryl Goss)

The Real issues: horsemanship and the horses

While there may be compelling reasons from the perspective of risk and value for the early retirement of horses, and the reduction in the number of starts they undertake, we have some other observations to offer on the subject, gleaned from our own experiences and the opinions of some of our more esteemed colleagues in the game. These include:

  • The business of breeding in the first half of the last century was the preserve of proper horseman, steeped in the tradition of producing and raising animals, in particular those of the equine species. The game has changed. Whereas the welfare and development of the Thoroughbred rested in the initial two and a half centuries, in the hands of the British aristocracy and subsequently in those of people who could afford to do it for the love of the game, rather than for its commercial benefits laterally, the business has been hijacked by “venture capitalists”. While there have been obvious benefits accruing from this turn of events, especially regarding the value of horses and the viability of the businesses producing them, it may have had an impact on the type of horse we produce and in particular, his durability.
  • When the motive behind the sport was the competition involved in beating your colleague, the intent behind breeding a racehorse was the production of an animal that could run faster for longer than the next one. That’s changed dramatically, and today, it seems that the greater influence in the minds of the breeders is largely what the progeny will yield in the sales ring.
  • Besides increasing the dearth in the availability of quality horsemen these days (many have left our ranks for other attractions in the economic environment), there are other considerations that compromise the soundness of an animal, including the urgent need to develop as big and precocious a product by the time the horse gets to the sales. The commercial imperatives are such that just about everything else that matters in the development of the athlete is forgotten in the process, and so, when it’s all taken its course, we’re left with the hope that besides being the “business” when an animal gets to auction, it still has the ability to run on top of it.
  • Financial considerations have also brought about the dispersal of the great thoroughbred families that used to comprise the private studs of the big owner-breeders of their era, so that the luxury of developing these families in a “closed herd” environment has all but disappeared. In the South African context, there are just a handful of people still in a position to produce horses for the sake of the sport of racing, and here we speak of people like Bridget Oppenheimer, Gaynor & Johann Rupert and Sabine Plattner among very few others.

Rewind three or four decades, and the scene was distinctly different. In our own district alone, we recall the great private breeding establishments of the Ellises (the most successful owner-breeders of their era right here at Hartford which, for those who are not familiar with it, forms part of the greater Summerhill estate), the Labistours, who dominated the Durban July in the 50’s from their Dagbreek Stud in Nottingham Road, Joyce Tatham’s Springfield Stud and Harry Barnett’s Springvale Stud. There were several others besides the Oppenheimers in other regions including the Armitages’ Rathvale Stud in the Eastern Transvaal, but the times they’re a changing.

Today we’re down to just a handful of these noble people, as we’ve said. Every other establishment has to make a profit, and increasingly, the principles involved in producing a sound, durable athlete are being compromised in the interests of the outcome in the sales ring.

  • Claiborne Farm is one of the most distinguished American breeding establishments, and it’s been in the hands of the Hancock family for four generations. One of the late, great “Bull” Hancocks sons, Arthur (owner of Stone Farm in Kentucky, and the breeder of two Kentucky Derby winners) proffers the view that overbreeding (the practice of committing hundreds of mares to a stallion in a single season) is also having its impact, though how precisely this comes about is not entirely clear to us. Presumably what he means is that the bigger a stallion’s book, the less the quality of the mares, and while that’s logical, those mares would’ve been sent to other stallions otherwise, and we guess that whether or not they produce sound progeny depends on whether or not they were wisely mated. The end result would be the same, all things being equal, whether they went to one stallion or were dispersed among a number of stallions, as the number of resultant progeny, give or take a few from a fertility perspective, would be very similar.
  • The biggest impact on American breeding however, must flow from their medication policies. Distinct from most countries of the world, certain states permit liberal pre-race medication of horses aimed at either masking or reducing “soreness”, or staunching bleeding, with the result that breeders who use horses that have been treated in this way for stud purposes, are bound to be perpetuating in their progeny whatever weaknesses those horses suffered from during their racing careers.

There is little doubt that with the passage of time, this must have a deleterious impact on the breed, and it’s probably the single most important feature, in American breeding at least, in weakening the end product. Of course, American blood is sort after the world over, and so there’s bound to be an impact in other areas of the globe as a consequence of this policy.

Americans are going to have to concentrate increasingly on addressing this issue if they’re to maintain their position as purveyors of quality bloodstock to the rest of the world, and of course in the production of horses capable of competing on the international stage, free of medication, on an on-going basis.

Back to South Africa, where in Summerhill’s real world, we hold the view that the demands of the commercial marketplace are the one factor that’s bound to impact on the soundness of our horses to a greater degree than any other. We undertake several thousand mating recommendations every year for prospective breeders and their mares prior to a breeding season, and the one question we’re asked more regularly by our correspondents than any other, is what they’re likely to get for the resultant foal when it gets to the sales.

Mercifully, in our own deliberations on these things, we very seldom involve ourselves in what the foal is likely to make in the sales ring, but rather what sort of animal we’re likely to produce as a result of the mating. Our thoughts, as much by design as anything, revolve around the issue of producing a racehorse, and we’d like to think (perhaps naively) that in producing a horse of proper athletic proportions, we’re likely to get both a sound animal and one that will run for its owner when it gets to the racecourse, and that question, properly answered, should take care of the results in the sale ring. It obviously doesn’t entirely though, as we seem to battle to crack the “million” mark for our yearlings.

That said, we’re doing well enough, and we sleep without conscience in the wake of a sale, knowing our horses represent value to those who’ve bought them, and that they have a more than even chance of turning out well when their big day comes first-time at the track.

The Breeders’ log tells the rest of the story.