06/04/2008 12:00AM

Breeders aiming to strike a balance


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The 2008 Triple Crown has been a roller-coaster ride for Robert Clay, who has been unusually close to both the glory and the tragedy of the campaign this year.

Clay is the owner of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., where Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown will stand at stud when his racing career is done, under the terms of a private deal that bloodstock insiders say puts the colt's total value at $50 million. But Clay also is co-breeder of Eight Belles, the filly who broke both front ankles while galloping out from her second-place finish in the Derby.

Eight Belles was euthanized on the track, and her fatal injury in what Three Chimneys called "a tragic accident" sparked criticism from animal rights groups, sports columnists, and some horsemen that modern breeders have weakened the Thoroughbred. The main accusation: Breeders' emphasis on speed and sale-ring profits has led to lighter-framed, less sound animals.

But Clay says he and his partners, Omar Trevino and Richard Nip of Serengeti Stable, did have soundness in mind when they bred Eight Belles. The partnership sold her to Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms for $375,000 at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling auction.

"To talk about her specifically, we had what is a very sound Dixieland Band mare out of a very sound family, and we try to add all the elements in. Speed was something she could have used a little of," Clay said of the partners' decision to breed Eight Belles's dam, Away, to Unbridled's Song. Away was a Grade 3-placed runner who started 24 times and retired at age 6. Unbridled's Song ran 12 times, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 2 and Florida Derby at 3. As for his record as a sire, Jockey Club statistics show his career percentage of starters from racing-age foals at 66 percent. The national average "fluctuates around 70 percent annually," according to a Durability Statistics Committee reporting to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation's Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit. A highly fashionable stallion, he is the sire of such Grade 1-winning fillies as Unbridled Elaine, Octave, and Splendid Blended.

"In our opinion, we made the right mating," Clay said. "It was a good mating, and it worked. Eight Belles was an exceptional athlete. You're breeding a racehorse, and hopefully it comes out with some commerciality. We're quite proud of the fact that we bred Eight Belles. We're not apologizing for anything."

Trevino, who owns a bloodstock agency in Lexington, agreed. Trevino said he was "more sickened than anybody" by the death of Eight Belles, a horse he readily admits having loved. But he does not regret the mating that produced her.

"The process was basically, 'Who can we breed to that's going to get precociousness and the body that we're looking for?' " said Trevino, a lifelong horseman originally from Texas. "Unbridled's Song had had a huge year that year, and he was a logical play. We owned shares in him, so we bred Away on our share. The whole idea was to breed an athlete. I don't go into the business trying to make the most money. I'm trying to make my mare, and so I want her to have every opportunity to produce classic runners.

"Richard likes to race, Robert likes to race, and I like to race," he added. "We always breed with that intention, because we know the family, and while we're commercial breeders and Robert is a consignor, if we don't get the amount we want for our product, we'll race them."

Trevino disputes the notion that early-maturing athletes, or those by Unbridled's Song, are more likely to be unsound.

"Unbridled's Song's greatest asset is that he puts a smoking body on a horse," he said. "He gives you that classic, athletic look. I'm not a trainer, but I think what happens is they look so good, and they look so precocious at a very early age, that people can tend to train them too quickly because they show the ability so early. If you take your time with these things and let them grow up, we've had very good luck with Unbridled's Songs."

Clay acknowledges that modern Thoroughbred breeding emphasizes speed. He notes how much American breeding and racing have changed since the 19th century, when four-mile record holder Lexington led the U.S. sire list 16 times. But Clay believes it's unfair to blame breeders alone for the trend from stamina to speed.

"My point is that for the last 50 years, breeders have bred a faster horse to run over shorter distances, because that's what either the market or the racing secretaries or the public have demanded," Clay said. "That's what we've bred. We've done a pretty good job. We've probably overdone it to the point that we don't have enough outcross stallions or enough stamina in the breed.

"I think it's a combination of what the sport has demanded, and it seems to have demanded horses that run from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and that's about it, and there aren't that many 1 1/4-mile races. We breed for what the sport wants. The racetracks may tell you that they're writing races that will fill, and those races are short. I buy that.

"I think we as American breeders have probably bred more speed into the breed than was necessary. At Three Chimneys, with Seattle Slew and Wild Again and Rahy and Dynaformer to a certain extent, we're always trying to bring outcrosses to the stud barn."

Will the newest Three Chimneys acquisition, Big Brown, help promote stamina? Clay is hopeful, especially if the Boundary colt wins the 1 1/2-mile Belmont as the first undefeated Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.

"There's a lot of stamina on Big Brown's female side," Clay said. "You don't change the breed overnight, but I would like to see less six-furlong racing. But racing secretaries need to fill their cards, so it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. It's like everything else in life: The pendulum swings. This debate is not unhealthy."