Homecoming Queen - QIPCO 1000 Guineas
Homecoming Queen - QIPCO 1000 Guineas

Homecoming Queen - QIPCO 1000 Guineas

(Photo : Mirror)

“A horse galloped on his lungs,

sustained his speed on his heart,

but won on character.”

Federico Tesio

Mick Goss
Mick Goss

Mick Goss

Summerhill Stud CEOThe third leg of an improbable treble played itself out in the English 1000 Guineas at Newmarket last Sunday. The winner, by a country mile, was a filly whose purpose in the race was to provide the pace for last season’s champion two-year-old, Maybe, but it turned out to be the female version of David destroying Goliath. This was yet another reminder of the possibilities of our sport, of the fact that the little man, despite the odds and the impossibility of taking on the money in the boardroom, is still able to find his place at the main table when it comes to the breeding of racehorses.

The Guineas heroine was Homecoming Queen, whose dam Lagrion had a racing record which must reassure any owner whose filly disappoints on the track. Unraced at two, she raced fourteen times over the next two seasons and failed to win, even though she spent much of her time at minor Irish tracks. Her best placing was her second in a handicap over 1 5/8 miles at Wexford, and Timeform rated her as low as 54 in her fourth season. The early years of her broodmare career were similarly unimpressive, but Lagrion hit the jackpot in her fifth year, when she produced the European champion two-year-old filly, Queen’s Logic to Grand Lodge. Her next foal was the European champion three and four-year-old, Dylan Thomas (by Danehill) and now, by another son of Danehill, Holy Roman Emperor, she pops up with the Fillies Guineas winner.

No doubt, the pedigree pundits will have a lot to say about how this filly came to be what she is, though they might not be able to explain why the first four foals from this “blue hen” were unable to win a race. They will also have difficulty telling you why the granddam, Wrap It Up, went winless in ten starts, though those that know the history of Jet Master’s pedigree, will tell you there are parallels in Lagrion’s story. For our foreign readers, and just in case you don’t already know it, Jet Master is arguably the greatest stallion to stand in this country, but his humble beginnings were the reason he fetched just R15,000 ($2000) as a weanling, despite his stature and his handsome looks at that age.

Over the decades, there’ve been many fanciful theories on how to breed a good racehorse, and in modern times, many of these have been dished up as foolproof principles which you access by paying enough for the software. You can learn much about genes without leaving your living room these days. The literature of the turf abounds with tomes on famous stallions, nicks, crosses, in-breeding, line-breeding, dosages and the laws of Mendel, the pea-growing monk.

But there are few volumes on athleticism and the future racehorse. Genetics of course, is a science. No, let me rephrase that. When it comes to racehorses, genetics is a sort of a science. Matters of conformation on the other hand, are an objective art. I’ll reword that one, too. Matters of conformation are occult. You can learn a little only by leaving your living room and looking at flesh and blood. Any horse, anywhere.

Over the years, there’ve been strident rantings on the breeding of racehorses by the likes of Bruce Louw, Colonel Vullier, Franco Verola, Steve Roman and Maclean, none of them cognisant of the attributes (and the limitations) inherent in the science of genetics, and very few of them, if any, reflecting an understanding that to be a good runner, you first have to be an athlete.

One of the first of the great writers to understand the role of genetics and the value of a good individual, was a former editor of the American BloodHorse, Joe Estes. Unlike many who came before him - and some who followed him - he had no pet theory to peddle, though he knew pedigrees as well, or better than, the next man. He recognised that they told only part of the story, stressing the importance of good land, good management and good nutrition to those who sought to produce good stock. He knew as well as anyone before or since, that the pedigree is a static (and historic) statement of the ancestry of a horse. “Pedigrees are useful only when we are ignorant of the merit of the individual, and not very useful then. The more we know about the individual and its progeny, the less we need to know about the pedigree. When we have a moderately complete record of the individual and its progeny, the pedigree becomes useless”. For some, and especially those who’d been punting fancy theories for so long, this statement was heretical, or at the very least, mischievous. Others recognised that no other commentator on the bloodstock business provided more sound advice to breeders.

An observer of no less intellect than Estes, was Phil Bull, a former teacher who did not entirely abandon that profession when he embarked on the business which bought him renown as the publisher of Timeform, Europe’s premier commentary on racing and betting. He was scathing of the pernicious habit of looking at pedigrees and treating one or two animals in particular lines as if they were continuities in fact, in the same way that they are continuities on paper. “Every individual in one generation of a pedigree is potentially of the same importance to the student of pedigrees, as every other individual in that generation. To see only a couple of “lines” forming a particular pattern, and expect the product of that mating to conform to that pattern, is to ignore the possibilities presented by the rest of the pedigree. Every mating presents an astronomical number of different possibilities in the offspring, and our business as pedigree students begins and ends with an attempt to envisage the more probable of these possibilities. After that we must turn to the horse himself to tell us, by his conformation, his action and his racecourse performances, which of the many possibilities presented by his pedigree, have, in fact, actually materialized in him. If we don’t understand the rudiments of Mendelian heredity, we have no right to be writing or talking about pedigrees at all”.

Estes, over decades of devotion to the cause, and Bull, within a few short paragraphs, introduced more common sense into the debate on the breeding of thoroughbreds than all those who had preceded them put together. Of course that did not mean that common sense would not necessarily prevail in the long term. About twenty years ago, I was flattered by an invitation from the famous breeder, Bob Birch, to head up a South African delegation to the International Breeders Conference in California. At dinner one evening, I was placed between two legends, E.P. Taylor, founder of Carling Breweries but whose immortality came from his breeding of the greatest stallion of all-time, Northern Dancer, and America’s most famous handicapper, Jimmy Kilroe. Opposite us at the table was Northern Dancer and Secretariat’s trainer, Horatio Luro (for whom the great racehorse, El Gran Senor, was named). I asked him what it was in Northern Dancer that enabled him to donkey-lick horses a hand taller, and his reply was simple “It’s what they have inside”. Federico Tesio, the mythical Italian breeder who’s often held up as the greatest of all time, and who gave us Nearco and Ribot, argued that “a horse galloped on his lungs, sustained his speed on his heart, but won on character”.

Which makes it all quite hard. Not only have you to guess the number of beans: you have to make a character judgment as well. Still, the game is irresistible, and if you were at the National Sales last week, you would’ve seen some spectacular guesses in the sales arena every minute there were horses in the ring.