Letter: Gosden right about speed breeding
Are foals being bred to be sales horses rather than racehorses?
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker Letter: Gosden right about speed breeding
Breeder Sue Cameron from Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, writes on the subject of John Gosden's recent comments on commercial breeding being to the detriment of staying horses
I WAS delighted to see that such a prominent and deep thinking trainer as John Gosden has joined the argument about our present breeding policies.
It has been obvious for many years that the industry has been wasting the years of careful, informed and balanced thoroughbred breeding carried out by our forebears. Princess Zahra spoke on this subject at the Asian Racing Conference.
The whole concept of breeding racehorses has changed from just that to, in the main, a commodity market aimed at making money rather than producing a good racehorse.
The rot began when the standard numbers of mares covered, i.e., 42 per stallion in most cases, was abandoned. When it was in force, the stallions were managed by syndicate committees who selected suitable mares for their horses from the applications received, all aimed at breeding good racehorses and improving their stallion's chance of success.
Once that code was ditched, the floodgates opened and anyone who paid could cover their mare with just about anything they wanted as certain stallion owners realised that as long as the horse earned enough in his first couple of years it did not matter whether he was a success or not: he had paid for himself and could be thrown away with no loss.
This applied particularly in Ireland and it was a long time before this country got anywhere near covering the numbers of mares covered by horses standing in Ireland. Sadly we are now catching up.
The main focus of the industry now seems to be on making as much money as possible as quickly as possible by buying and selling horses, rather than striving to breed and sell good racehorses.
How often do we see in sales reports that such and such a lot has been bought for resale in a very short time. Tony Morris once described the foal sales as a place where people who did not want the animals were selling them to other people who didn't want them either; how true that is in many cases.
In turn, the huge numbers of mares covered by one horse put the price of potential stallions way out of most studs' reach and so the smaller players resorted to buying cheaper, mainly sprinter bred animals, for their establishments. Sometimes they were bought before they finished racing in the hope their potential would be realised after the price was set.
So the Classic horses were all acquired by the big battalions or kept by their breeders. Backed up by plenty of high powered advertising, the former became the fashion icons of the industry; the sales companies have played along and pushed these stallions, good or bad, to the forefront of their auctions while effectively ‘downgrading' better bred animals more likely to turn into good racehorses by their placing in sales catalogues.
We were lucky in that the advent of Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers to a large extent stopped the practice of rushing horses off to stud early in case they blotted their copy books and wrecked their earning potential. We were streets away from the original racing of horses at two, then aiming at the Classics at three, followed by the Cup races at four. How many horses could do that now, even if their owners put racing before money?
We have to be grateful that the likes of Coolmore and the few big owner-breeders do produce Classic horses, but the very fact that this production is in the hands of so few is unhealthy. Stud fees have risen to obscene levels and exclude all but the very wealthy from access to Classic breeding.
To further aggravate the problems of the industry, over the years many of the people who had a wide knowledge of breeding and years of experience of how it should be done have disappeared and the number of owner breeders has shrunk to a very small proportion of racehorse owners.
They have been replaced by owners who either buy or share a horse to race – and thank heavens for them – but they are often led by people who do not have enough knowledge but have spotted a way to make a living. Many agents and trainers are excellent, but the old-timers who looked at the horse rather than the page in the catalogue are gone. In these days of litigation and a high level of ignorance, veterinary tests and the printed page seem to carry more weight than the selection of an athlete.
At the same time, the new owners do not have the resources of the previous owner-breeders and need a quicker return on their money, as well as not appreciating that horses develop at various speeds. They are led to believe, mistakenly, that sprinters are precocious. The ignorant have patronised sprinting stallions on that basis and so they have been the ‘must-have' for many buyers who do not know any better. They end up with horses which often perform well early only to fade away later, and all because they do not know that patience frequently provides a better result and a better horse in the end.
The demands of the market have also led, I believe, to a deterioration in the way we rear our horses. To be ready for the fashion show at the sales, young horses are brought indoors too early when they should be outside, learning about life and exercising their hearts and lungs. I am sure it is true that owner-bred horses, who are only brought in when they show they are ready, do better than those ‘hot house blooms' who are brushed and pushed and pampered to make them look pretty to the uninitiated at the sales.
We are sacrificing soundness and hardiness by our modern methods and turning out animals whose minds and bodies are far less robust than they used to be.
This does not matter to the people who produce sales horses: their profit is in the sales ring and as few studs keep their mares for very long nowadays, what happens next is largely immaterial. In earlier times it was very important for your mares' progeny to perform so that the following ones could be sold; now the mares are sold before the truth emerges.
Until we change the emphasis, this situation will only get worse. The obvious way to do it is through rewarding breeders for producing successful racehorses. In France, breeders' prizes were given for any winner, anywhere. We have never had a total scheme like that.
It would be possible, through a non-profit making auction house, for breeders to receive ten per cent of any prize-money won, (with the possible exception of the enormous pots for sales races). This would encourage breeders to aim more for the racecourse than the sales ring and allow them to sell their horses for more reasonable prices in the first place. It would also enable knowledgeable breeders to profit from breeding a good racehorse.
If this scheme was put into operation, it might concentrate breeders' minds on planning matings better. At the moment, any sale catalogue will reveal that many mares are being wasted by matings with the wrong horses, just because they are perceived as commercial and impress the sales companies and the ignorant. Very few expensive horses, whose prices are determined by fashion, turn out to be much good. A mare should visit a stallion which suits her, not one that is fashionable at the time. The successful owner-breeders like the Aga Khan, Juddmonte and the Wertheimers have proved this over and over again.
The way things are going at the moment, certain sections of the industry are going to increase their stranglehold on the business to the detriment of the variety provided by a larger pool of breeders.