What would happen to Mr. Prospector if he were a stallion prospect for 2022? Really, where would a very fast racehorse who didn’t win a graded stakes go to stud?
And don’t even think about Danzig.
Among the sires and stallion prospects at the commercial stallion farms today, there is a startling uniformity of pedigree and accomplishment. As one stallion manager told me, “If a horse doesn’t have a G1 on his race record, and preferably a G1 at nine furlongs or less, we know there’s not much reason to stand him.”
One might be surprised that the stallion operations such as Coolmore, Darley, Claiborne, Gainesway, Hill ‘n’ Dale, Lane’s End, Spendthrift, and WinStar don’t set the bar on who goes to stud and who doesn’t. They do, in a round-about way, of course, but the real test of selection is what will sell.
Stallion farms don’t want to stand stallions whose seasons they can’t sell, and commercial breeders don’t want to use stallions whose stock they won’t make a profit on. Therefore, the projections of stallion managers and individual breeders are the yardstick to measure the horses they want at stud and that end up going to stud and making a good early impression.
In the absence of very strong demand from private breeders who race their own stock, the marketplace for stallions is dictated by the majority of buyers, and those are resellers, primarily at the sales of racehorse prospects in training as 2-year-olds.
To change that dynamic, I would estimate that owner-breeder operations would need to account for at least 40-50 percent of the Kentucky stud fees sold, but today, I’d estimate those men and women who primarily race their own homebreds represent 20 percent or less of the pool of breeders who use Kentucky stallions.
As a result, the great majority of the stallion pool is predicated on what will sell to the great majority of buyers. The obvious emphasis is upon the young, very high-achieving racehorses with speed. Champions and near-champions only need apply.
In one sense, that might be a good thing because it places an intense emphasis upon the expression of racetrack excellence.
We do, however, have a long and well-documented history of breeding the Thoroughbred, and despite the importance of breeding to animals with superior athletic ability, the greatest sires are not always the greatest racehorses.
For every St. Simon or Nearco, there is a Phalaris or a Bull Lea. Not to mention such relative castoffs as the unraced Alibhai or the non-stakes winner Danzig.
The obvious reason for this is that racing and breeding are different things and require different characteristics, to a degree.
In racing, the emphasis, perhaps nearly the only emphasis, is on the phenotype, the physical animal in front of us. In breeding, however, the emphasis is the genotype of the horses involved.
Genotype is trickier because we don’t know exactly what makes a great sire so successful and what makes another “just a horse.”
Consider a couple of champions from the mid-1960s: Northern Dancer and Buckpasser. The best 3-year-old colts of 1964 and 1966, respectively, each had an outstanding racing record, went to stud with high acclaim, and achieved immediate success. Would anyone question, though, which was the more influential sire?
Hands down, it was Northern Dancer, and from the inferential evidence of his progeny, I’d say that Northern Dancer essentially got all the positive, high-class alleles from both of his paternal grandsire Nearco and great-grandsire Hyperion (sire of Nearctic’s dam), as well as from his maternal grandsire Native Dancer. That inheritance resulted in Northern Dancer passing on so much positive genetic code that his offspring were able to express racing ability of a very high order from an unusually high percentage of those offspring.
The horse who receives a higher proportion of genes that help the next generation isn’t always a champion, and we have seen others, including such contemporary stallion stars as Malibu Moon, Into Mischief, and Tapit, who began a life at stud with the season sales professionals beating down doors in search of mares to fill their books.
The evidence of the past and the great successes of the present clearly indicate that breeders and their advisers should advocate to have more stallions – not fewer – go to stud annually to allow those “lucky genes” to have expression, rather than smothering the breed with a mudslide of uniformity.