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Analysis: A turn away from stamina in breeding
For years, the groundswell of voices bemoaning the decline of stamina in North American Thoroughbred breeding has grown steadily louder.
They are not wrong.
An analysis of the leading North American stallions in 2013 by both progeny earnings and number of mares bred shows that the typical successful Thoroughbred in the U.S. and Canada possesses the lowest progeny average winning distance (AWD) figure in decades, one that comparatively finishes behind major breeding hubs around the world.
The average AWD number for the top 50 American stallions as ranked by progeny earnings in 2013 was 7.01 furlongs. That figure represents a drop of nearly a fifth of a furlong in average distance capability by progeny of the top 50 sires in 2003 (7.18 furlongs). It is easily the lowest figure compared against representative snapshots from top-50 lists in 1993 (7.62), 1983 (7.26), and 1973 (7.22).
While one-fifth of a furlong – or 132 feet – may appear insignificant, that measures out to about 16.5 fewer lengths of projected distance capability for the best offspring of the best contemporary stallions measured against those from a decade ago, with a length measured at eight feet.
There are caveats to any analysis that compares data from different eras, and taking top sire lists from years selected on a per-decade basis inevitably includes some stallions who made the rankings due to one exceptional year (such as 36th-ranked Sagace, sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arcangues, in 1993) along with perennial standouts. The sample also includes highly ranked stallions whose progeny AWD is also derived from a relatively small group of runners compared with their peers’ due to abbreviated breeding careers.
Still, the comparisons across time – and across current geographical boundaries – shine some light on American breeders favoring of speed over stamina in recent years, despite the continuing appeal of the Triple Crown and other marquee route events.
“We [as an industry] have tended to breed more to produce sprinters and milers,” said Will Farish, owner of Lane’s End in Versailles, Ky. “We at Lane’s End haven’t done that, but an awful lot of people have bred that way in this country for the past 20 to 25 years. As a result, you can think back to when the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a two-mile race [which was reduced to 1 1/2 miles in 1976 and to 1 1/4 miles in 1990]. We’re not breeding that way for stamina now for the most part.”
Lane’s End has done one of the better jobs among the major Kentucky stud farms of maintaining prominent stallions with distance capabilities. The retirement home of stamina-imparting sire A.P. Indy is the only operation that housed multiple horses ranked in the top 50 by earnings last year that were also ranked among the top 10 by AWD. Those were Lemon Drop Kid, ranked 23rd among North American sires by earnings and third among the top 50 earners with an AWD of 8.07 furlongs, and Smart Strike, ranked 21st by earnings and sixth among the top 50 with an AWD of 7.66 furlongs.
Lemon Drop Kid, a son of another pensioned Lane’s End sire in Kingmambo, was one of only three stallions ranked in the top 50 North American sires by earnings to post a lifetime AWD above a flat mile, joining Giant’s Causeway (8.55) and Arch (8.08).
“Our philosophy has been to breed classic horses and doing that by using middle-distance mares or sires [and] breeding back to classic progeny from the other side,” Farish said.
The direction of the breed’s distance capabilities can be predicted in the short term by examining the AWD figures of the leading stallions ranked by number of mares bred. Of the top 50 stallions from that cohort in 2013, 29 had foals who had raced and won at the time data was collected. The average AWD figure of those 29 sires – 6.98 furlongs – marks a negligible drop compared with the AWD of 7.01 gleaned from the sires on the earnings list. That figure is also subject to change if calculated again at a future time, as many of the most popular sires in terms of mares bred are just beginning their stud careers and have few current foals of racing age.
Giant’s Causeway was the stamina leader among top 2013 North American stallions by both earnings and mares bred with the aforementioned 8.55 AWD. The 17-year-old son of Storm Cat, dubbed “The Iron Horse” during a racing career that earned him European Horse of the Year honors in 2000 and saw him win three Group 1 stakes at distances of 1 1/4 miles or longer, stands at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. He finished ranked third in progeny earnings last year and 36th by mares bred.
One prominent farm has several young stallions that show potential to push the breed’s capabilities higher – Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs.
Adena’s Paris, Ky., division houses five stallions who began covering mares in 2010 or later: Einstein, Fort Larned, Mast Track, Point of Entry, and Tiago. All five were Grade 1 winners at two turns, with personal AWDs ranging from 7.83 furlongs (Mast Track) to 10.89 furlongs (Point of Entry).
Eric Hamelback, general manager of Adena Springs Kentucky, said that Stronach and the Adena Springs team go out of their way to seek out stamina-laden résumés and pedigrees in their stallion prospects to balance the growing population of speed-oriented broodmares.
“The Adena Springs philosophy is typically we are looking for stallions that can carry [their stamina] for two turns, but that’s not to say that speed-influenced horses haven’t done well, too,” Hamelback said. “It’s more of a philosophy of the [particular] stallion complex you may be looking at – but I think that definitely for us, Frank likes horses that can run a route of ground.”
While the 2013 roster of leading sires ranked behind samples from prior decades in terms of AWD, the deficiency is even more pronounced when the same cohort is compared with leading sires of 2013 in other prominent racing jurisdictions around the world.
The top 20 North American sires by 2013 earnings finished behind the top 20 from Europe (8.64 furlongs), Japan (7.55), and Australia (7.17) by AWD and tied with South Africa at 7.09. (The sample was reduced to top 20 stallions due to the unavailability of top 50 lists from some of the other countries.)
Neither Farish nor Hamelback saw this as a major point of concern for North American breeders. Racing horses in other regions of the globe, they said, demands a different skill set from that typically found domestically and thus requires different breeding strategies.
“The turf influence is great in European racing and especially in South Africa,” Hamelback said. “For those types of races, almost regardless of the distance at times, you’re going to need more stamina on that surface. In my opinion, the stamina of a turf sprinter, let’s say on yielding turf, you’re going to need to have a little more stamina than you would on a dirt surface at six furlongs. It has been influenced by surface.”
Hamelback speculated that the trend of breeding for speed as opposed to stamina in the U.S. would not lead to further shortening of the sport’s cornerstone races. While attempts to incentivize distance breeding with new races such as the Breeders’ Cup Marathon have largely failed, Hamelback said the prestige of races such as the Belmont, Kentucky Derby, and Travers Stakes in their current stamina-testing format will keep most breeders aiming for them.
“I think that the classic distances are always going to remain the same and always remain sought after,” he said. “I don’t know that changing the current format of races or the way races are written – certainly nobody’s going to shorten the Derby or Belmont – so I think people are still breeding for that. Maybe not as much, but I think that is still something breeders are trying to achieve, whether it’s the Triple Crown series or the Travers or the Breeders’ Cup [Classic]. I think people are still breeding for those races. It’s just that there happens to be more speed influence in our pedigrees than there once was.”
This is nothing more than a BREEDING industry. The racing is just an afterthought. ONE GRADE 1 at a sprint distance at 2 years old and they are good to go to the shed. and the only point I disagree with is hardly anybody breeds for the Triple Crown anymore. THE MET MILE IS THE RACE!!
NOT only stamina but also it's STURDINESS. These are weak frail short distance sprinters and milers.
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For many years, I've been placing much the blame for the weakening of the breed in the US on breeders and buyers. Perhaps the racing secretaries should be called to account for the sprint oriented cards we see day in, day out at our major race tracks. When NYRA introduced turf sprints at Belmont and Saratoga, I was intrigued by the handicapping challenge and also loved to see the blazing fractions. What I now realize is that they've incentivized sprint racing and both bring more sprinters to the race track, and, keep potential stayers in the barn or on the farm. Most major tracks, but especially NYRA have also shortened the distance of major races to almost laughable levels. What's to stop our racetracks from carding more races at 10, 12 or 16 furlongs? Initially, the trainers will howl but they'll quickly fill the races in pursuit of the purse money. Auction buyers will similarly see the payday in purchasing stayers if that's where a larger proportion of purse monies will be directed. This is a challenge for NYRA, Magna, and Churchill. They can make a difference in a relatively short time frame, perhaps 5 to 10 years.
Mr. Gekko's points are well taken. In particular, I like his Suggestion #3 about banning Lasix in a way that is similar to that which was proposed by the Breeders' Cup. That idea was hijacked by the California trainers who threatened to take away simulcasting rights from the Breeders Cup. Any attempt to use a phase-out of Lasix will be met with the same resistance by trainers, not just in CA but anywhere that it's tried. What gives trainers such power? A clause in the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 was inserted to give "horsemen" veto power on certain activities if the rules ever changed. It is unfortunate that the term was not clearly defined to mean all stakeholders and not just "horsemen", which trainers have interpreted to mean that they retain sole rights to override any changes. The only way to de-fang the trainers is with legislation, or at the very least an amendment to the Act to take care of the oversight.
There are some ways this could be remedied: 1. The Triple Crown track operators (Churchill Downs, Magna and NYRA) and The Breeders' Cup need to band together and implement rules that actually expand on those already in place in Harness Racing where top horses would have to race through their five year old season with horses sired by stallions who were FIVE years old or younger when conceived ineligible for ALL Graded Stakes, including ALL Breeders' Cup races. If Woodbine Entertainment Group (who already does this with Meadowlands owner Jeff Gural in Harness Racing where top horses have to race through age four with any progeny by horses whose sires were four or younger ineligible for major stakes run at any track Mr. Gural or WEG operates) joined in and did the same with the TC operators and Churchill Downs, then I think it would force a MAJOR change in how horses are bred. 2. Breeders' Cup, Ltd. agreeing to lengthen the Breeders' Cup Distaff and Classic to 1 5/8 Miles each (and Filly and Mare Turf to 1 1/2 Miles) and also doing a major reconstruction of the purses that put the emphasis on races for older horses and those who want to go long. This would include restoring the Breeders' Cup Marathon, making that a $2 Million race and lengthening it to 2 1/4 Miles while also adding a BC Turf Marathon for the same purse/distance on the grass. At the same time, the BC Juvenile races, Sprint, and Turf Mile can all be cut to $1 Million while the Dirt Mile and Turf Sprint can be cut to $600,000 and the Juvenile Turf and Juvenile Fillies Turf to $400,000. The Distaff can be increased to $4 Million and Classic to $6 Million as part of a plan to encourage distance racing as lengthening the Classic and Distaff to 1 5/8 Miles would force other tracks to lengthen their prep races considerably. 3. A five-year phaseout of Lasix. How that can be accomplished is starting in 2015 with banning Lasix for ALL RACES for two year olds, the Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup and selected Grade 1 Stakes, expanding in 2016 to ALL RACES for three year olds (only) through The Belmont Stakes and ALL Grade 1 & 2 stakes, then in 2017 to ALL stakes events worth $100,000 or more, then in 2018 to ALL events other than claiming and finally ALL RACES in 2019. These changes would make it so horses would have to be bred for stamina, soundness and durability as opposed to speed, precociouness and the quick buck. This might force some of the commercial breeders to drastically change how they breed horses and learn to be more patient, something we don't seem to have a lot of in our current society.