One of the voices almost lost in time is the venerable bloodstock writer Hidalgo, the pen name for Thomas Merry.
Perhaps the most important contemporary commentator on Thoroughbred breeding in America for the last quarter of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, Merry had some decidedly firm ideas about the importance of male lines, especially those that had fallen out of favor due to the winds of fashion. In his book, The American Thoroughbred, Merry writes:
from the close of the Revolution to 1865, the end of the War of Secession, we imported thrice as many of Herod’s line as of Eclipse and of Matchem blood. And from the close of the Civil War to the present date — there were 138 stallions of Eclipse’s male line as against 172 of Herod’s and 42 of Matchem’s. It looks to me as though we had overdone matters in all three periods, especially in the second one, at the close of which we found ourselves overloaded with Herod blood. The marvelous success of Leamington, Billet, Glenelg and Buckden, all Eclipse horses; and of Australian, the only Matchem horse imported for nearly a half-century, upon the Lexington-Glencoe mares, from 1870 to 1885, shows how badly we were in need of a really good and legitimate outcross.
Despite his hobby horses, Merry was a good analyst, calling the results as they stood from the racetrack. For example, he noted that the great sire “Lexington got no sons worth being called sires, but his daughters built up reputations for all five of the above named sires, with Bonnie Scotland and Prince Charlie thrown in. Of the above mentioned stallions, Leamington did not get the most winners but he bred, by long odds, the best class.”
One of the reasons that Lexington did not get the sire sons was that racing changed radically from the days when Lexington set a world’s record for racing four-mile heats. By the time most of his best stock were racing, the sport was strongly trending toward single dashes, frequently at distances short of a mile, although there were still heat races and many long-distance races.
Although Lexington himself was able to cope with the changing environment by breeding on a nimble and swift racer, his sons bred back to the stouter side of the pedigree, getting too many slow horses.
Merry’s comments on the uncertainties of breeding and racing can be summarized by the following:
American breeding is a good deal of a lottery, at best, for horses have succeeded here that were failures, or comparatively so, in England and Australia. Leamington made three seasons in England, during which he got 19 winners of 42 races, none of which exceeded $2,000 in value. We all know what he did here for, after being buried alive on Staten Island for three years, he was sent out to Kentucky where he got Enquirer, Lyttelton, Longfellow and Hamburg, all in one season ; and Hamburg, the poorest of the lot, won over $3,500 in three seasons, while Lyttelton was much better ; and as for Enquirer and Longfellow, [they were the stars of their day.]
Glencoe’s case is even more startling as a reverse caused by transplantation. He stood to sixteen mares in 1836, getting 13 foals, only one being a male, which died as a yearling. What his daughters achieved at the stud would fill this entire volume if I undertook to give it in detail. He was brought into Alabama, where most of his get were flashy, the great Peytona excepted. When he got up into Kentucky and had access to the daughters of Medoc, Leviathan and Wagner, the records soon began to tell a very different story. Even in 1860, twenty-nine years after his birth and three years after his death, he was second on the list and that by a narrow margin.
Finally, his observations on the sales scene, then not nearly as formalized as it is today, follow the theme above and sound hauntingly familiar.
American breeding is, to a considerable extent, a lottery. Look at the great performers that have sold as yearlings for less than $1,000; and at the high-priced yearlings that have not since won enough to pay for their straw bedding; and in the history of those horses and their performances you find a sufficient corroboration of what I say.
In a year when the Kentucky Derby winner originally sold for less than the stud fee to produce him and when the sales have plummeted to such an extent that bargains out of those sales are certain to abound in another year or two, it is somehow strengthening to know that such economic thrashings are just part of the great scheme.