Updated on 09/17/2011 10:39AM

Breeding 101 under fire

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WASHINGTON - For as long as Thoroughbred racehorses have existed, breeders have sought to produce the best horses by creating pedigrees with the proper blend of speed and stamina. But the modern American breeding industry has rejected this traditional approach. It wants speed, speed, and more speed.

The emphasis has become so extreme that fast sprinters are more likely to become fashionable stallions than winners of long races such as the Belmont Stakes.

The clash between old and new ideas has been decided in the marketplace, where buyers pay top prices for youngsters likely to be quick and precocious, thus encouraging breeders to produce such horses. But the battle between the old and the new also took corporeal form on the first Saturday in May, when two horses raced abreast of each other as they turned into the stretch at Churchill Downs.

One of the horses, Empire Maker, possessed such a classic pedigree that people at Juddmonte Farms envisioned him as a Kentucky Derby winner from the day he was born. His sire, Unbridled, had won America's two most important 1 1/4-mile races, the Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic. His dam, Toussaud, had produced two foals who won Grade 1 stakes at 1 1/4 miles.

Funny Cide, who was racing alongside Empire Maker at Churchill Downs, was of a different caste entirely. His sire, Distorted Humor, was a fast horse whose optimal distance was seven furlongs. Only once did he win running as far as a mile - and that was in a four-horse race. Funny Cide's dam won two cheap sprints in Oklahoma. The gelding's genes should have dictated that he fade in the stretch.

He did not; he drew away from Empire Maker. If he can defeat his regally bred rival again in the Belmont Stakes, Funny Cide can capture the Triple Crown and thoroughly mock the supposed shortcomings of his speed-oriented pedigree.

The current fashions in the sport derive from long-established principles of breeding. When the Aga Khan, a famous breeder, was asked in 1950 how to improve the British Thoroughbred, he replied, "The remedy must be more and more speed."

Horses with this vital quality are most likely to go on to be effective sires. The most influential stallions of the 1990's were Mr. Prospector, Danzig, and Seattle Slew - all blazingly fast racehorses.

Conversely, horses who lack quickness but win at long distances often go to stud and pass on only their slowness to their offspring. Strike the Gold and Sea Hero rallied from far behind to win the Kentucky Derby in the 1990's; both were such busts as stallions that they would up being exiled to Turkey for stud duty.

The great American breeders of the 20th century - the Phippses, the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, Calumet Farm - all understood that speed was just part of genetic mix necessary to develop classic winners. All aspired to win important stakes at 1 1/4 miles or longer, and winning those races required stamina.

But as the great dynasties faded away or diminished in importance, commercial breeders began to dominate the business. They raised horses not to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup but to sell them at auction as yearlings or 2-year-olds. The majority of buyers didn't prefer late-maturing distance runners.

"Everybody wants an immediate return on their investment," said John Sikura, owner of Hill 'n' Dale Farm in Kentucky. "The market is dominated by short-term thinking."

In recent years the emphasis on speed and precocity has become so disproportionate that distance runners have become stigmatized. "There aren't too many horses who win classic races that turn people on. How many Derby winners are in great demand?" asked Ray Paulick, editor of The Blood-Horse magazine.

The answer: not many. Stud fees reflect contemporary preferences. Distorted Humor, whose greatest achievement was winning a Grade 2 stakes at seven furlongs, commanded a $20,000 fee even before Funny Cide developed into a star. Real Quiet - who came within a nose of sweeping the Triple Crown - is priced at $10,000.

The preference for speedsters becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they are bred to better mares and thus obtain a greater chance of success. Innumerable fast sprinters are now hot commodities in the marketplace - Forest Wildcat, Cherokee Run, Carson City, Montbrook, Phone Trick, Mr. Greeley. Their offspring command hefty prices even though they likely will not have the stamina to win classic races. Yet owners and trainers prefer to buy fast horses and gamble on their stamina because the American racing game favors speed.

Tracks card fewer long-distance races than they did in the past. Most racing surfaces favor speed. A sprinter who gets a comfortable lead and sets a slow pace can easily win a long race. Ric Waldman, stallion manager at Overbrook Farm, recalled that the late trainer Charlie Whittingham said that any horse can go a distance if he can be taught to relax.

"Trainers feel like most speed horses can be stretched out," Waldman said. "If Barclay Tagg didn't feel that way, he probably wouldn't have bought Funny Cide."

Sprint-bred horses routinely win at a mile or even 1 1/8 miles - yet that is usually their limit. Pedigree expert Bill Oppenheim observed: "The recent history of North American breeding is all about speed stretching out. But the history of the Kentucky Derby suggests that speed can stretch out to nine furlongs - not 10 furlongs."

Year after year, horses with good form at 1 1/8 miles hit the wall when they try to go the Derby distance. For this reason, most people viewed Funny Cide with skepticism in the Derby. Perhaps his victory indicated that Distorted Humor is a freakish kind of sire, one who will beget offspring with far more stamina than he himself possessed. But even if this is the case, Funny Cide likely will find the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont a formidable challenge.

Before the Triple Crown series began, John Chandler, president of Juddmonte Farms, lamented some of the current trends in the industry. Chandler is a traditionalist who looks back wistfully on the days when the most important race in the fall was the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Now it is run at 1 1/4 miles.)

"Everything is shortening up," Chandler said, "and people are breeding horses with less stamina. That's why the Belmont will always be a stumbling block."

At 1 1/2 miles, he assumed, a horse with a classic pedigree - such as Juddmonte's Empire Maker - ought to have a distinct advantage.

Centuries of Thoroughbred history suggest that horses bred like Empire Maker are supposed to win races such as the Belmont Stakes. If Funny Cide prevails Saturday, he will drive yet another nail into the coffin of traditional ideas about breeding.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post