the thoroughbred nick
the thoroughbred nick

(Photo : Thoroughbred Heritage / Famous Racehorses)


By Tony Morris 

A few months ago there were lively exchanges on the internet involving different parties who professed to have the best data on nicks. And as these were commercial operations, seeking to sell their data, it was not so surprising that the arguments became heated; vitriol was being tossed around in the manner lately so tediously dispensed by Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg.

The political party leaders have struggled to sell their philosophies and policies to an understandably cynical public who have become no more enlightened as they have sought to rubbish one another’s ideas. The electorate made up its mind earlier this month by going for the apparently least worst option.

Just who won the argument between the nicks merchants is unclear, but to this observer it hardly mattered. Am I supposed to care about whose version of a flawed concept acquired the most adherents? Nicks have become the new Figure System,  nonsense foisted on an industry whose gullibility remains much as it was when Bruce Lowe presented fiction as fact over a century ago.

The trouble is that in the uncertain world of Thoroughbred breeding everyone wants to be able to believe in something. People don’t want to accept the random nature of genetic inheritance and are susceptible to any theory that a smart salesman can make seem plausible. There are those who still adhere to Lowe’s ludicrous ideas; dosage continues to exercise a pernicious influence on some; advocates of deep linebreeding still have their followers; and the notion of nicks has been so strongly promoted as reality that new converts readily buy into it on a daily basis.

What is a nick? It is generally understood to be an affinity between two unrelated individuals – most often, but not exclusively, a sire and broodmare sire – recognized through a higher rate of success than expectancy. There are a couple of examples from history, which always tend to be cited as proofs of the phenomenon, one each from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The earlier of those examples concerned a pair of Derby winners, the 1880 hero Bend Or and Macaroni, successful in 1863. Examine the records, and it is hard to deny that they did terribly well together, the former as sire, the latter as broodmare sire.

Between them they delivered the best horse of the nineteenth century in unbeaten Ormonde, a son of Bend Or out of Macaroni’s daughter Lily Agnes, and he was one of a number of high-class performers bred to the same pattern.

In the 1920’s there came another prominent instance, involving Phalaris and Chaucer, again as respectively sire and broodmare sire. Among those who advertised that cross as a powerful nick were the brothers Pharos and Fairway, both important sires as well as superior runners, Classic winners Colorado and Fair Isle, Pharamond and Sickle, not quite top-notchers on the racecourse but important as sires in North America, and the Eclipse Stakes winner Caerleon. The alliance proclaimed itself as a sure-fire recipe for success.

And of course, in our own time nobody can have failed to notice how well Sadler’s Wells seemed to have been matched with daughters of Darshaan, and indeed with daughters of Darshaan’s sire, Shirley Heights. The combination clicked early, was soon picked up as a formula for producing a high-class runner, and breeders were not slow to make it a highly fashionable cross. It worked on a regular basis, and by doing so it proved significant in promoting the idea of nicks as a viable plan for delivering success.

People will believe what they want to believe, especially if they feel in need of a belief system, and it can certainly be argued that the examples cited above tend to suggest that nicks do occur. It is not a theory that may be as readily dismissed as Bruce Lowe’s family numbers, for instance.

But it still has its own element of hocus-pocus. I recall a discussion on nicks – specifically those involving Bend Or and Macaroni and Phalaris and Chaucer – with one of my early mentors, Humphrey Finney, an eminent stud manager with a profound knowledge of pedigrees, who wound up as boss of Fasig-Tipton, and whose memory is now preserved in the name of the sales pavilion at Saratoga. Finney pooh poohed the idea of nicks and had one word to account for the success of those crosses – propinquity.

It was a fair point in both cases. The first Duke of Westminster was the owner of Bend Or, and his broodmare band included some of the best-bred daughters of Macaroni; evidence for the supposed nick came exclusively from products of the Duke’s Eaton Stud. But would the Duke have recognised a special affinity there, something to be exploited for all it was worth? Hardly.

Macaroni was, rather like Primera, renowned chiefly for his daughters. He did get a winner of the Gr1 2,000 Guineas in Macgregor, but that one was an exception to the rule that defined him as principally a sire of notable fillies. Unsurprisingly, many breeders fancied that Macaroni would excel as a broodmare sire, and he duly did. It was understandable that the Duke would elect to put his Macaroni mares to Bend Or when the latter went to stud; what better notion could he have for enhancing the prospects of his young stallion?

Examine the record and a few pertinent facts emerge.

Yes, Bend Or’s record as a sire did seem to deteriorate as the supply of Macaroni mares dried up, but one of his best sons, as runner and sire, came late in Radium, who had no Macaroni connection. It is also apparent that Macaroni’s reputation as a broodmare sire by no means depended on links with Bend Or; he clicked with sires from a wide variety of backgrounds.

It was a similar story with Phalaris and Chaucer, both products of the Derby family’s Stanley Stud. Yes, it is an undoubted fact that they thrived in combination, as the examples mentioned above clearly demonstrate. But it was not as though Phalaris owed all of his success at stud to daughters of Chaucer; he had plenty of high-class representatives with no Chaucer connection.

As for Chaucer’s record as a broodmare sire, his own best daughter – on the racecourse as well as at stud – was Selene, who delivered Pharamond and Sickle to matings with Phalaris, but whose undying fame was assured by the great Hyperion, her son by Gainsborough.

Coming right up to date, who can doubt that Sadler’s Wells has been a great sire, with or without his products from daughters of Darshaan? And is not Darshaan an outstanding broodmare sire per se? It is not just what his daughters have produced in combination with Sadler’s Wells that have made him a success in that role.

My point is that, even in cases such as these, which have resulted in numerous successes, the notion of the nick is not a concept warranting confidence in its reality. No parent transmits the same set of genes at every mating, and on that basis alone there are plenty of reasons for doubting the theory.

While research is ongoing and there is still much to learn, geneticists are currently among the doubters on the subject of nicks. All they will say at present is that if nicks exist, they are far less common than is widely credited.

And that makes all the recent rowing – between parties who take no account of how genes behave – over a phenomenon of dubious existence, nothing but an unseemly and futile exercise.

Nicks are not the be-all and end-all of breeding, as some with data to sell would have us believe. Not content with trying to persuade us of effective links between sire and broodmare sire, they suggest affinities between certain sire lines, and every big winner supposedly emerges as the outcome of a pattern discernible in its pedigree and therefore suggestive of emulation.

While I can see plenty of reasons why a breeder might want to drill for oil where oil has previously been found, it is wise to remember that every horse is an individual rather than a conformist to a theory that some salesmen choose to peddle. Good horses, like bad horses and indifferent horses, spring from all manner of backgrounds, and genetics – which you may translate as pedigree – contributes no more than about 35 per cent to performance in any case.

Breeders are well advised to concentrate on the practical rather than the theoretical if they are serious about producing high-quality racehorses.

Part 2 follows later in the week.

Extract from European Bloodstock News