09/11/2015 2:28PM

Keeneland September: Popular sires more prolific than ever

Barbara D. Livingston
Pioneerof the Nile's popularity is expected to rise after siring Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

By the end of the annual Keeneland September yearling sale, buyers sometimes feel like it’s déjà vu all over again, that this must be the 100th yearling they have looked at by some popular sire. It’s not that bad. … No really, it’s not that bad.It has, however, gotten worse – much worse – over the past 25 years.

As shown in the accompanying table, at the 1990 Keeneland September yearling sale, 3,523 yearlings from a crop of 48,253 North American foals of 1989 were assigned hip numbers in the catalog. Those yearlings were sired by 480 different sires, an average of 7.3 yearlings per sire, and none of those 480 sires were responsible for 40 or more yearlings in the catalog.

The world of Thoroughbred breeding has changed since 1990. That was the first year that Coolmore Stud’s stallion Danehill shuttled to stand in Australia. It was also the fourth year at stud for Woodman at Coolmore’s American branch at Ashford Stud. In the late 1980s, Coolmore, Vinery Stud, and Gainesway, among others, had begun taking advantage of improved techniques that allowed veterinarians to pinpoint much more accurately when broodmares would ovulate, thereby reducing the number of times a stallion had to cover a mare to get her in foal. That allowed stud managers to increase the number of mares bred to popular stallions. Danehill internationally and Woodman in America became the poster horses for that change, siring what would once have been considered phenomenal numbers of foals.

One hundred years ago, stallions rarely sired more than 20 or 30 foals in a crop, and America’s Wizard of the Turf, John E. Madden, was widely criticized for allowing his five-time leading American sire Star Shoot to cover 50 or more mares a year. When Arthur B. Hancock Sr. began popularizing stallion syndicates in the 1920s and 1930s, most syndicates were restricted to around 32 shares, with the stallion farm receiving four breeding rights and one mare being bred per season on each share.

The standard number of shares in a syndicate increased to 40 in the post-World War II era, and stallion managers became a bit more creative with breeding rights and extra seasons, but through the mid-1980s, few stallions covered more than 60 mares in a given breeding season. The immortal Northern Dancer, who counterintuitively was below average in fertility, never sired more than 36 foals in a single crop during his long, world-changing career as a stallion.

The slump in bloodstock prices in the late 1980s, however, increased pressure on stallion managers to create revenue to justify syndication prices, and refinements in veterinary palpation techniques and the introduction of ultrasound scanning gave them the opportunity to do just that by increasing the number of mares bred to individual stallions. The bloodstock slump, combined with a steady decrease in the number of racing days in North America, also led to a dramatic decline in the number of foals born on the continent. As the table shows, a decade later, the number of foals registered by the American Jockey Club had declined from 48,253 for the yearling crop of 1990 to 36,929 for the 2000 crop, a 23.5 percent decline in just 10 years.

Over the same time period, although the number of horses cataloged for the Keeneland September sale increased 32 percent, the number of sires represented dropped 15.2 percent, from 480 to only 407. That meant that the average number of yearlings per sire increased from 7.3 to 11.4, and the number of sires represented by 40 or more yearlings increased from zero to 14.

In 1990, Mogambo led all sires with 38 yearlings cataloged, while in 2000, Ashford’s stallion Hennessy was represented by 54 yearlings, while the same farm’s Royal Academy sired 53, as did Taylor Made’s stallion Saint Ballado. In another sign of the changing metrics in the stallion barn, the number of stallions with only one foal in the catalog dropped from 126 in 1990 to 92. Larger stallion books for popular stallions were well on their way to wiping out cheaper, less commercially attractive stallions.

Fifteen years later, the stallion landscape has changed even more dramatically. Foal registrations for 2014 are not yet complete, but the Jockey Club estimates that the final number will be around 22,000 foals, 54 percent fewer foals than in 1989. The total number of sires represented in the catalog has dropped almost as dramatically, declining 48 percent to 249. As a result, the average number of foals cataloged for each stallion represented has more than doubled from 7.3 to 16.7, and the number of sires represented by 40 or more foals has soared from zero to 46. That is where that weary feeling of having seen far too many yearlings by the same stallion originates. It is not just that there are scores by one stallion, but scores by many different individual stallions.

The number of stallions with only one yearling has dropped from 126 to 68, but the character of stallions with small numbers of yearlings also has changed. In 1990, Keeneland’s July sale of selected yearlings still dominated the yearling sales calendar and Keeneland had inaugurated select sessions at the September sale only the previous year. September was the place to sell yearlings who weren’t good enough for Keeneland July or for the Fasig-Tipon Saratoga August sale or had missed the summer sales due to injury or immaturity.

Although there were plenty of yearlings by stallions who had raced in Europe, only one, a Groom Dancer yearling, was by a prominent European-based stallion. Keeneland now attracts the broadest base of buyers of any yearling sale in the world, and over the last few years, more and more yearlings by European stallions have appeared, though usually in relatively small numbers. Predictably, Coolmore’s European roster is well-represented, headed by reverse shuttler Fastnet Rock’s 10 yearlings, six-time leading sire Galileo with four, and first-year sire Excelebration with three, but other European stallion stations are also represented. Juddmonte’s unbeaten Frankel has five yearlings in the catalog, while Irish National Stud’s horse Invincible Spirit has three, and the Aga Khan’s Haras de Bonneval’s stallion Redoute’s Choice has two. Dansili, Dream Ahead, High Chaparral, Lawman, Lope de Vega, Mastercraftsman, Myboycharlie, Nathaniel, Pivotal, Power, Raven’s Pass, Royal Applause, Sepoy, So You Think, and Teofilo all stand or stood in Europe for the 2013 Northern Hemisphere season and are represented by one yearling apiece in the 2015 Keeneland September catalog.

At the other end of the spectrum, 83 yearlings from the first crop of the popular young stallion Bodemeister, who stands at WinStar Farm, are scattered through the catalog. WinStar was also the home of the late Harlan’s Holiday, who has 82 yearlings cataloged. Spendthrift’s stallion Malibu Moon ranks third with 71, while two Lane’s End stallions round out the top five, with first-year sires The Factor and Union Rags represented by 65 and 63 yearlings, respectively.

What was regarded as a widely criticized and radical innovation 25 years ago is now standard industry practice. The early adopters like Coolmore at all its global outposts proved that breeding as many mares as possible to its young stallions offered them overwhelming advantages in ways other than collecting more service fees. More foals meant more runners, which, for the good sires, meant things like freshman sire titles, which, of course, attracted more mares in subsequent seasons.

While that has resulted in far lower percentages of stakes winners than the double-digit percentages that traditionally marked great sires 25 years ago, it is still the absolute quality of a sire’s best offspring that is the ultimate determinant of his popularity. If a stallion sires a string of Grade 1 winners, Breeders’ Cup winners, and the occasional champion, it does not matter very much if only 5 percent of his offspring win stakes races.

Indeed, as Triple Crown winner American Pharoah has proved, one great horse can transform a stud career. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, got off to a pretty good start with a promising first crop last year, but as American Pharoah began to dominate this spring, his stud fee soared to $60,000. Next year it is likely to be $100,000 or more.

And a few years from now, you can bet Pioneerof the Nile will be represented at Keeneland September by far more than the 44 sons and daughters cataloged this year as buyers search for another American Pharoah.