foal and mare
foal and mare

Mare and Foal

(Photo : Leigh Willson/Summerhill Stud)

If Thoroughbred breeding were merely

a numbers game…

If Thoroughbred breeding were merely a numbers game, it certainly would be a whole lot easier. But there’s more to the business than just the sciences of farming and genetics; there’s an art element as well. Sometimes a gut instinct guides a breeder to select a certain stallion or to give a mare one more chances.

However, many statistics are valid, and there now are some hard numbers that can be tacked on to the adage of “breed the best to the best and hope for the best.” Mares that had success on the racetrack, especially at the highest level, are more likely to produce stakes winners than less successful mares according to a new study. And contrary to conventional thinking, a first foal is usually not a mare’s best.

These are among the findings of a study that also points out :

  • Foals from grade 1-winning mares earn more than 2-3 times the average and are more than five times more likely to win a grade stakes than the norm.
  • Foals from graded stakes-placed mares earn more and have a higher stakes-winning percentage than non-graded stakes-winning mares.
  • Foals from unraced mares outperform foals from non-winning mares in the key categories of percentage of stakes winners, percentage of graded stakes winners, and earnings.
  • Overall, foals that come after a barren or missed year underperform against the norm.

The programming team at The Blood-Horse compiled these numbers based on the racing success of broodmares and attempted to quantify the level of quality of foals they produced. They also took that same sample of mares and looked at the quality of foals they produced after a barren or missed year. Perhaps most importantly, they took the same pool of mares and foals and sorted them by their birth order to see if there was any correlation between the quality of early and later foals. The population used in the study consisted of 65,196 mares that produced a foal in North America in 1998, 1999 or 2000. Their entire produce records (foals before and after) were then used for the study - a total of 407,812 foals - more than enough to get an overall picture of measuring class.

When this information was then shared with breeders large and small, more commercial and more home-based, their opinions were as follow :

“My first reaction is that I need to be even tighter on my selection process,” said Dede McGehee, a veterinarian and owner of Heaven Trees Farm near Lexington. “It’s pretty straight forward : Buy and breed stakes mares.”

“Your greatest chance of scoring a grades stakes horse is out of a graded mare,” said Dr. Charles Kidder, who in partnership with Nancy Cole operates Corner Woods Farm near Lexington, “However, looking at the percentage of unraced mare production, that’s how somebody in my scale has been able to develop a broodmare band by buying half-sisters, raced or unraced, to graded mares. My thought is those mares in that ‘unraced’ field in the study are a high percentage of those better pedigreed mares.”

Time Off

Perhaps it’s conventional wisdom, perhaps it’s an old wives’ tale, but there is the notion that giving a mare a year off from producing a foal will make for a better foal the following year. In the study, however, the overall stats for foals delivered after a barren or missed year are generally down across the board.

The figures were a surprise for Clifford Barry, the farm manager for Josephine Abercrombie’s Pin Oak Stud near Versailles, Kentucky. “The results of the foals from a barren or missed year were different than I would have expected,” he said. Others thought the figures made sense. “Coming back the next year, it seems some girls are much harder to catch (get in foal), and it takes more than one breeding,” McGehee said.

Order Up!

In another subset from the original data pull, the foal population was sorted by order of birth. This chart definitely drew the most comments from the horse people we shared it with. Two areas drew the most attention. First the higher “quality” of the second, third and fourth foal, in terms of stakes-winning percentages and average earnings, which were significantly higher than that for the first foal; and second was the drop off in all key statistics as the birth order from the mare increased, specifically around the 10th foal.

It’s all a numbers game, and you’ve got to play the odds,” said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales near Nicholasville, Kentucky, the largest seller of bloodstock in North America. “I see a percentage of first foals that are smaller. It’s almost like the mares’ reproductive space inside her is a little cramped on that first foal and the foal doesn’t have quite the room to develop in and ideal atmosphere. There are a lot of really good mares on the farm whose first foal was a good foal in terms of bone and substance and quality, but it just lacked size.” Kidder concurred.

A myriad of factors could explain the drop in quality as the birth order increases. Taylor pointed to a key component: “The huge part of the equation is the mare is only 50% of the genetic puzzle, and usually theses mares are getting the best stallion the breeder can afford to breed to them right off the bat. A lot of these mares, once they get up to say, 12 years old, and if they haven’t gotten a stakes horse yet, the quality of stallion they get bred to drops way off the chart.”

The commercial viability of yearlings out of older mares can be backed up by a comment from Taylor regarding results from the last September Yearling Sale at Keeneland where Taylor Made was the largest consignor. “I was looking down our ‘RNA’ (reserve not attained) list, and there was a disproportionate number of yearlings that were out of old mares… 16-years-olds and up,” Taylor said. “It’s definitely out there in the marketplace. If you have two horses and one’s out of a 5-year-old mare that’s a graded stakes winner and one’s out of a 18-year-old mare that’s a graded stakes producer, the foal out of the younger mare has less of a stigma attached to it. You also have to take in the environment the horse was raised in, including nutrition, pasture, exercise, and general horsemanship,” he said. “As a mare decreases in value, all those other variables tend to slide down as well.”

As an asterisk to any studies regarding the breeding of Thoroughbreds, good horsemanship and luck have to be factored in. Cold, hard numbers are OK to look at and discuss, but there’s more to the industry than just the facts.

Extract from The Blood-Horse