11/02/2014 4:46PM

Sparkman: No exact science to buying a broodmare


Step 1: Get lots of money.

Step 2: Wave your hand repeatedly at a sale.

If only it were that simple, life would be far easier for hundreds of bloodstock agents, farm managers, consultants of various types, and Thoroughbred breeders this week in Lexington, Ky. If success in breeding Thoroughbreds were determined only by who has the most money, the richest people in the world would breed all the best horses.

While the very rich do breed their fair share or more of the world’s best racehorses, even the most casual perusal of graded stakes results each week will disabuse one of the notion that ultimate wealth is all it takes to breed a top-level horse. The super wealthy keep that army of bloodstock agents, farm managers, and consultants employed from sale to sale, but that clearly is not the only way to do it.

Still, it would be foolish for the wealthy, and indeed anyone who can afford it, not to use all the tools that are available.

The first thing one must decide when buying broodmares is whether you intend to breed only for the commercial market, purely for your own racing stable, or some mixture of the two. As a general rule, buying mares to breed for the commercial market means paying more attention to pedigree, while breeders supplying only their own stock to their racing stable may not care quite so much about whether a pedigree is particularly fashionable as long as the mare could run and is well conformed.

Buying broodmares is not the same as buying weanlings, yearlings, or 2-year-olds in training. Most obviously, in the weanling, yearling, and 2-year-old markets, one is buying potential racehorses whose ultimate ability to compete at any level is a matter of conjecture, however expert. That is why agents, trainers, consultants, and others spend all those hours trooping through the barns and, at 2-year-old sales, watching horses train and recording their every move on video.

When buying a broodmare, though, you know precisely how much racing ability the horse possessed – or, at least, actually displayed on the racecourse. That is not to say that at virtually every barn, one will not hear the hard-luck story of the mare who was, the seller assures, a much better racehorse than her record shows. Consignors, after all, have a job to do as well.

The catalog displays the mare’s race record at the bottom of the page, though not necessarily in the most efficient and informative format. The most notable important piece of information missing from the catalog page is number of starts, which appears only when number of wins is 50 percent or more of the total number of starts.

For more precise information, one must purchase one or more of a variety of sources, ranging from access to data through the industry’s major publications and other information providers to subscriptions to various racehorse rating systems. All of those resources offer ratings of a horse’s absolute merit as a racehorse.

That information can be especially useful in sorting through the sometimes bewildering array of notations in a sales catalog. In each merit rating system, a range of ratings historically will be associated with each level of racing accomplishment, from Grade 1 all the way down to claiming level. Thus, one might indeed discover that the consignor is right. According to the chosen rating system, an allowance or even a maiden winner might have run, for example, a Ragozin number equivalent to that of an average Grade 1 winner.

Of course, exactly what one should do with that information is at the buyer’s discretion. Ever since Blood Horse editor Joe Estes first researched the question in the 1930s, however, it has been abundantly clear that on average, the best racemares make the best broodmares. That is why they bring more money. In the current market, a young Grade 1 winner almost automatically will bring $1 million or more. 

Still, though, not every good racemare produces stakes-winning offspring. The question buyers want to answer is which ones are most likely to do so. At least four different biomechanics companies and three different genetic testing companies provide answers for that question on a probabilistic basis backed by scientific data.

DATATRAK International, EQB Inc., Equix, and Cecil Seaman & Co. all offer analysis of broodmare potential based on meticulous measurement of various aspects of a horse’s physiognomy. The underlying systems used for prediction of future performance by broodmares vary from company to company, and buyers should familiarize themselves with and understand the underlying logic and science behind the predictions before using those services. Given the amount of money spent on an expensive prospective broodmare, however, the fees charged for the analysis are comparatively trivial.

Similarly, genetic analysis companies, including Equine Analysis, Performance Genetics, and Ireland-based Equinome, offer data based on analysis of a horse’s genetic makeup derived from hair or blood samples. Depending on the technique used, some of those companies can provide analysis of how a given horse’s genetics compare to an extensive database of historical runners and whether certain sites on their chromosomes indicate whether they are more or less likely to pass on high-level ability to their offspring.

The ultimate problem is that all Grade 3 winners, for example, are not created equal. Racing-merit ratings, biomechanical ratings, and genetic tests are all ways of attempting to sort out which mares truly possessed that level of ability and which may have, for example, gotten lucky and encountered a weak field or perhaps may have been the only runner to handle a wet track. Conversely, one or more of the criteria may indicate that a Grade 3 winner was just as good as the average Grade 1 winner.

Buyers always are looking for an edge, and by definition, that kind of information, in addition to the recommendations of conformation experts, pedigree experts, trainers, farm managers, and others, can constitute an edge that enables a breeder to find a real bargain among the avalanche of expensive prospects.

And make no mistake, the best prospects are going to be very expensive this week at the Fasig-Tipton November and Keeneland November sales. Last year, the 116 broodmares or broodmare prospects sold at Fasig-Tipton’s boutique sale averaged an astonishing $695,365. The average for 164 mares in Keeneland’s Book 1 was $434,331.

With mares of the quality of Grade 1 winners Princess of Sylmar, Judy the Beauty, Stopchargingmaria, Turbulent Descent, Believe You Can, Iotapa, Executiveprivilege, and Her Smile, among others, available over the coming week, there are bound to be plenty of buyers willing to pay seven figures for a mare they hope can produce runners of similar quality. Average price should be in the same ballpark this year as in 2013. No one would be surprised if it climbed higher.

At that level of investment, mistakes are expensive, and the smart buyer will use all the resources at his or her disposal. Of course, none of the methods described provides guarantees of success. Mares whose genetic tests resemble those of Grade 1 winners may never produce a winner, while conversely, those with genetics equivalent to an average allowance winner could throw a succession of graded stakes winners. The same is true of the analysis available from biomechanics companies, conformation experts, pedigree mavens, you name it.

In the information age, however, information is power. The more you have, the better chance you have to win … if you know how to use it.