05/16/2008 12:00AM

For breeders, market dictates method


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The highly public breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles in the 2006 Preakness and 2008 Kentucky Derby have brought Thoroughbred racing under increased public scrutiny. Since Eight Belles's death on May 3, the public and the general media have sought to untangle the various factors in racing that might have contributed to such breakdowns among even the sport's elite athletes - and, time and again, they have pointed to Thoroughbred breeding, and particularly a focus on speed rather than soundness, as a likely culprit in breakdowns. The Thoroughbred, they say, has become increasingly delicate as breeders patronize bloodlines geared toward speed.

Many Thoroughbred breeders agree but say market forces, especially auction buyers' strong preference for speedy but unproven sire lines over known durable ones, have shaped breeders' matings and the resulting runners. That commercial trend, stoked by sharply rising prices at high-end auctions in the last two decades, is having long-term effects on the breed by making it harder to find breeding stock with proven durability.

"I have known individuals who have come in and haven't agreed with the modern-day breeding practices," said Bayne Welker, president of the Consignors and Commercial Breeders Association. "They've bred for stamina and distance, and in the end it's hard for them to market their horses. If you're not doing it strictly as a hobby, you want it to be at least break-even for you. You have to give the market what the market wants."

Today, that often means yearlings who can start earning their keep quickly, either for a reseller at a 2-year-old auction or an owner on the racetrack.

High-end breeding used to be largely the province of wealthy owners who bred their stock to race. But as prices for bloodstock have skyrocketed in the last several decades, breeding has become increasingly commercial, with a big auction price the goal for many breeders and a multimillion-dollar stud deal the goal for many buyers. Longtime breeders say they have seen more speculative, investment-minded buyers and breeders enter the Thoroughbred world in the last 30 years. Their demand for profits has exacerbated a desire for early speed, even at the expense of soundness, say some breeders.

"It's very seldom today to have anyone come to you wanting to get into the horse business that the first thing they say isn't, 'I want to make money,' " lamented Robert Courtney, who retired in January after 67 years of breeding Thoroughbreds in Kentucky. "We don't have many people any more who want to get into the business to enjoy racing. They want to get in to make money."

Today's heady Thoroughbred market has special allure for investors wanting home runs instead of profitable singles. Most of North America's unraced young horses are sold as yearlings, and, though the market has waxed and waned, its annual top prices generally have trended sharply upward over the last four decades. In 1961, when the first six-figure yearling sold, the highest price was $130,000. By 1975, that bar had been raised to $1.5 million. Today, multimillion-dollar prices are commonplace at select Thoroughbred sales for untried runners, as evidenced by the world-record $16 million price tag for juvenile The Green Monkey in 2006, the $11.7 million price tag for a Kingmambo yearling colt the same year. The market fell from those heights in 2007, but the top-priced yearling, a $3.7 million Unbridled's Song colt, was still a dazzling return on the $125,000 stud fee paid when he was born.

There is no doubt that the average number of starts has declined along the way. According to a study by The Jockey Club's Durability Statistics Committee, average annual starts declined from 11.31 in 1960 to just 6.37 in 2006. There are a lot of theories for why this has happened, but the increasing commercialization of Thoroughbred breeding and the market's emphasis on early-maturing speed undoubtedly have contributed.

In its research, the Durability Statistics Committee ranked a large group of stallions - those with first crops foaled in 1995 or later and with average starts per runner of at least 20 - according to their percentage of starters from racing-age foals and according to their average lifetime starts per runner. Many of the sires who ranked high for durability were also seen as unfashionable in the sale ring, an indication that sale-ring breeders and their customers were looking for something other than durability. And that's high-class speed.

The ultimate hope for colts' owners is that wealthy stallion operations like Coolmore Stud and Darley - also dominant buyers at yearling and juvenile auctions - or other major Kentucky stud farms will then bid millions to acquire the colt's breeding rights. Case in point: Big Brown, whose Kentucky Derby victory made him undefeated in four starts. His majority owners - the openly investment-minded International Equine Acquisitions Holdings founded by Michael Iavarone - confirmed before the Preakness that Big Brown, estimated by bloodstock professionals to be worth up to $50 million before the second leg of the Triple Crown, would not run at age 4.

Lucrative stud deals often prompt the colts' quick retirement. Similarly, fashionably bred fillies with good but limited race records also can retire early to be sold in breeding stock sales for multimillion-dollar prices. In both cases, they enter the breeding pool as relatively untried runners. That makes it more difficult to breed for longevity, breeders say.

"Very few stallions went to stud that weren't sound, and, remember, we had a lot more geldings in the old days than we have today," Courtney said of the climate when he entered the business in the 1940s. "People today won't geld a horse, thinking he might make a stud horse. Well, he might make a bad stud horse. The test used to be that a horse was a good, solid racehorse."

"When I first started, I remember thinking, 'I'm not going to breed to a stallion unless he's made 25 starts,' " said Arthur Hancock, owner of Stone Farm. "But you can't even find one that made 25 starts, hardly. They whisk them off to the breeding shed and syndicate them. In the old days, horses like Buckpasser and Round Table would carry weight and go the distance, and that was the real proof that a horse would be a good stallion.

"I don't think the buyers discriminate any more for soundness and the ability to run a number of races."

Hancock believes the decline in average starts reflects unsoundness brought about by emphasis on speed, large books of mares that increase inbreeding, overuse of stallions and mares with no proven durability, and the American Thoroughbred industry's relatively permissive stance on raceday medications and on pre-sale cosmetic surgeries. Medications like furosemide (Salix) for bleeding and phenylbutazone (Butazolidin) might help inherently less sound horses perform better, and cosmetic surgeries can straighten limbs that could increase soundness. But both make it harder to determine soundness in the breeding shed.

"Horses are running on chemically induced ability as opposed to natural health and natural ability," said Hancock. "So you're breeding a false picture, and you're doing that with the cosmetic surgeries too."

But Welker and others note that other variables also affect the average number of starts. Fashionably bred animals tend to be retired early to protect their higher values. Trainers wanting to maintain high win percentages might prefer to run horses less often and in races they are more likely to win. And the advent of year-round racing offers horses less opportunity for a winter's rest that might prolong their careers. But faster, less sound horses are also a factor, breeders acknowledge.

"I think any trainer will tell you, 'I'd rather have a horse that has speed and maybe wasn't the soundest horse than a horse that has no speed,' " Welker said.

Welker, for one, sees some adjustment on the horizon. Turf sires, traditionally more stamina-oriented, are enjoying a renaissance among commercial breeders and clients who believe their progeny are better suited to the new synthetic tracks. And when the market slows down, breeders and buyers both tend to head back to established sires with proven records - partly to hedge their bets if they can't sell a horse and end up racing it.

For the foreseeable future, the market will continue to drive many breeders' mating decisions.

"If you're going to make your living in this business as a breeder, your livelihood is dependent on it," Welker said. "And I don't care if you're in the horse business or the cow business or if you're making widgets: If you're not providing what the market wants, you're not going to stay in business."