You’ll see a repetition of this in the next few weeks, but I think we can all agree that the first and usually the earliest impressions last the longest, and my introductory years as a commercial breeder of Thoroughbreds served as the fastest learning curve in any business I’ve had to do with. I was born into horses, and while the law provided me with my first encounter with the professional world, I guess there was an inevitability about a racehorse intervention at some stage or another. I had scarcely had my first winner at the races, another little fellow called Heliotrope, when I was sent to the United States on a scholarship; needless to say, I plunged right into the heart of it all, Lexington, Kentucky, self-styled “horse capital of the world”. On my first day out in the spring of 1978, my travelling companion paused for a moment on Huffman Mill Pike, and pointed to a gravestone a short distance from the road. Invited by one of the farmhands to make a closer acquaintance, it turned out it belonged to Domino, and the inscription, in lasting Barre granite, was testimony to the entire, complex issue of man and the Thoroughbred. “Here lies the fleetest runner the American Turf has ever known, and one of the gamest and most genuine horses”.
“Fleet,” we know: that’s easy to grasp. The horse by Nature’s own decree, after all is a creature who’s used his speed since the beginning of his evolution to evade his enemies. The attributes of “gameness” and “generosity” are something else. They’re a bit more of man’s making, or so we like to believe, and therein lies the sweet mystery of the racehorse. The Thoroughbred is bred to run, to race, and so the quality of being “game” is something this creature understands, and that’s what we’ve sought for well over 300 years. The will and the determination to turn away others, to be “generous” in his striving to win the race, are the fundamental features of the breed’s competitive fire.
In all this time, we’ve been a little pompous in the assumption that we can reshape the Thoroughbred according to our own desires. Man has relied on his creative imagination to summon this mythic figure, yet the trade-off for the horse is that he, not we, remains the master. We scour our stud books, our production records, our print-outs, but what the entire exercise seeks – the superior runner of races – remains the province of caprice. As man sees himself as nature’s partner, so might the horse, and the horse is right. Over the ages, the definition of excellence in an individual has lain in our ability to shape the competitive animal, so what could seem more logical as a pattern of excellence than a grand runner of one era, passing along his racing class to his sons and they to the next generation, and so on through a dynasty of reverberating genetic dependability?
As a tribe, we humans are inclined to smugly claim the breeding of an unbeaten Nearco, remembering the Italian maestro who shaped his ancestry and those that managed his production record with such acumen that, eight decades later, the sire line still raises the song of Northern Dancer, Nijinsky II, Danzig, Sadler’s Wells, Danehill, Halo, Seattle Slew and A.P. Indy.
Yet, how do we deal with the knowledge that Nearco’s vaunted ancestor Phalaris, arguably the seminal individual of the century, was a bit of an oddity within his own realm? He was used in the stud of Lord Derby in part because he did not fetch the asking price of £5,000 in the tumult of World War I and its aftermath. Which begs the question, how much do we have to do with our own destiny, and how much does destiny have to do with the shaping of us?
Among my acquaintances on that first pilgrimage to the “capital” was one of the most learned scribes of his time, Edward Bowen, editor then of the world’s most enduring bloodstock publication, The Bloodhorse. It was he who pointed to the many paradoxes which confront those who think they’ve got the breeding business “taped”. For example, we might easily see in Bull Lea a prime instance of the wisdom of bringing together the best strains of European stock with families longer associated with America. After all, he headed the sires’ list five times, and gave his home country a wondrous succession of champions like Citation, Armed, Coaltown, Twilight Tear, Real Delight, Two Lea and Bewitch. No doubt, there were many who would’ve been quick to see this as a great triumph of genius in the sowing and reaping of genetics. Which fails to explain why his sons were such a grave disappointment in the stud, while his daughters were as prized among matrons as you could get.
Even Bold Ruler, whose proud record seemed a logical extension of his exalted pedigree, in the end posed a riddle. How did it happen after he had sired so many racehorses of stand-out brilliance, that it was left to the thin thread stemming from one of his lesser sons that filtered its way through two generations, only to burst forth in the birth of Seattle Slew, while most of his other lines surrendered so meekly?
The paradox of racehorse breeding is a repetitive series of singular tales: breeders race through the stud book like runners in a broken field, justifying one decision this way and another that way, constantly leveaned by matters of price and the accessibility of the fashion of the day. Theories and ideals abound: a good stallion prospect, so they tell us, is one with a good pedigree who was a good, sound racehorse, achieving at the highest level. Racing provides plenty of tests to show us the way. Naturally, we’d all prefer a classic winner as a stallion prospect, certainly ahead of a sprinter that was not sound enough to go on. Except if his name was Danzig, Nureyev or Raise A Native, Northern Guest or National Assembly, limited by injury to three or four starts or none at all, all of them at a mile or less. Beliefs are regularly shattered, and Ed Bowen reminds us that it was the Royal Charger branch of the Nearco line, one looked upon as lacking in stamina, that in speed-orientated America, launched a sequence that sent Sir Ivor back to win the most exalted of the English classics, heralding an era of American-bred success in Europe. So sometimes we should remind ourselves that Napoleon had five brothers. But there was only one Napoleon.
The human concept of a “sire line”, like that of a “female family” (or bottom line) is a beguiling over-simplification of genetics. The scientists will tell you that anyone of the antecedents in a pedigree has the potential to influence successive generations, yet the straight line, sire or female, is something we’re able to grasp readily and around which we can get our figurative arms.
Absorbing all the intermingling of the other ancestors creates a zig-zag pattern more like the paths of a chess game; none of us would really like to think about horse production in terms of the “bishop” and the “knight” paths of a chess piece. No, the sire-line or the female family in direct lineage is so much easier to understand. Besides, there is also something socially comfortable about a sireline. It reflects a concept that we tend to live in Western civilization. Consciously or not, we’ve always thought and been taught, in terms of “sire lines”. On the subject of all those Biblical “Begats”, who can ever recall our Sunday School teachers pausing to counsel us that “the mothers were just as important, possibly more so, as the female controls the mitochondria”. Ruling dynasties were expressed in terms of men and their sons in the main, though more than a few history chapters spoke of times when a daughter emerged as queen, deadly or benign. Modern social attitudes continue to reinforce this idea: I remember for example, that when our son was born after our daughter, to several of our acquaintances it was more exciting that our son was a boy, that “to carry on the name” was somehow more cherishable, which of course was only in the eyes of the beholder. Still, the fact that for several thousand years, wives have generally taken their husbands names creates an intellectual and emotional familiarity with sire lines. Whether on balance, this custom, with all its gender-sensitive ramifications and egos, has served civilisation best, is open to argument. Fortunately though, this question is not within the scope of this story!
For both sides of the equation, history reminds us that the straight line on both sides of the pedigree is only part of the genetic tale. Yet the image of a great stallion atop a distinguished patriarchy summons the majesty of the racehorse, just as the thought of the female family summons an appreciation for another element of strength. Of course, there is an obvious advantage to sire-lines which recognises the inequality in numbers that gives a stallion hundreds more offspring than a mare. Which raises the amusing reality then, that in so many cases the lasting presence over more than a couple of generations is often the province of the daughters, as so many stallions disappear as “sires of sires” but continue their importance as sires of broodmares.
We all have our favourites in life, and this is not only our subjective right but it is also the storyteller’s prerogative. That mankind has not belled the cat of Nature is no detriment; the mysteries of the turf are as much a part of its wonder as the tenets and the decisions which seem so obvious in the aftermath. A look back at an era of outstanding stallions is, by its very nature, no more a story of guesswork intertwined with wisdom, of expectations met and disappointed, of predictability and random hits. As we crossover from one glorious generation of stallions, Jet Master, Fort Wood and Western Winter of the recent past, and Dynasty, Trippi, Captain Al, Silvano and Var of the present, that we should be on the brink of another era for South Africa’s sake, is our expectation and critically, our hope.