Breeding to Race: The Ten Most Common Mistakes
The science of breeding racehorses is full of pitfalls, and few will argue that even the most astute breeders have difficulty avoiding them. Those who have succeeded are able to identify these pitfalls as they relate to their particular program and implement strategies to safeguard their investments. With the breeding season upon us, there is no better time to re-visit these pitfalls and the damage they have on breeding programs. Whether they impact a racing program directly or indirectly, the effects are often lingering, and sometimes fatal. This month, we’ll look at some of the biggest mistakes made by those who breed to race.
- Oversimplification in stallion selection – For many breeders, planning a mating for a broodmare has been simplified to a nick rating and a call to the stallion manager requesting a contract. Physical inspections and detailed progeny analysis has taken a back seat to the nicking craze, even more so with the integration of the internet into the breeding industry. In talking with many newcomers, the nicking craze has become the end all solution for breeding decisions, rather than one tool among many for analyzing and appraising different breedings. Without coming right out and saying it, nicking gurus have overstated the statistical significance of their methods, and as a result, many breeders see nicking as the holy grail of breeding racehorses, placing an enormous amount of faith into a simple letter grade. Successful breeding to race programs go well beyond the simplicity of nicking and plan their mating according to a comprehensive and well thought out analysis.
- Investing in unplaced broodmare prospects – Few practices stack the odds against a breeder more than investing in unplaced broodmare prospects. Recent studies have been able to isolate many of the relevant variables and demonstrate that unplaced mares, even with the strongest of pedigrees behind them, lag behind talented racemares with lackluster pedigrees in the production of winners and stakes horses. Breeding unplaced, but well-bred mares is probably the most soundly defeated theory in the industry, and one of the most treacherous roads to venture for those who breed to race.
- Purchasing bloodstock based solely on the catalog – In the modern era of the personal computer and internet-based information systems such as Equine-Line and B.R.I.S., breeders who rely only on a sales catalog to help them acquire bloodstock are placing their programs at an enormous disadvantage. Remember, catalogs are put out by sales companies, who are not invested in helping buyers make the best decision. Instead, their goal is to sale as many horses as they can for the most amount of money. The amount of additional information that can be turned up by using Equine-Line or B.R.I.S. is difficult to overstate. The following example comes to mind:
- At a recent breeding stock sale, a weanling by an up and coming sire and out of a young winning mare passed through the ring, the final bid well-below the sire’s stud fee. Standing next to the winning bidder, I leaned over and congratulated her. As we continued to talk, she pulled out a detailed race record (with internal points of call) for the youngster’s dam. Needless to say, the race record depicted in the catalog for the dam (winner at 2, $56,900) did her little justice. In fact, she had broke her maiden impressively at Belmont in wire-to-wire fashion with even more impressive internal fractions. In short, this woman had made an excellent purchase by not relying on the catalog and utilizing one of the industry’s information systems.
- Breeding to unproven sires – We know that 85-90% of all stallions entering stud will fail, yet the business environment in our industry allows syndicates to command disproportionately high stud fees for stallions through their fourth year. The flip side of this phenomenon is that many older sires with strong, proven records have fallen out of fashion with the commercial markets, creating cost-effective opportunities for those breeding to race. For breeders in the later category, it makes little sense to ignore older, proven sires and instead, send their mares to stallions who are unlikely to achieve similar success. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to pull out an older stallion register and browse the new stallions from that particular year. As most of these stallions will have been exiled into smaller markets, it serves as a reminder that unproven commodities in the stallion markets are terribly unsound investments.
- Paying booking fees – Of all the pitfalls discussed here, this is probably the quickest way to immediately put your program at a disadvantage, whether your breeding to race or for the commercial markets. In many of the smaller markets, particularly in the west, farms charge mare owners a booking fee, which usually equates anywhere from 10-25% of the live foal price. Though stallion syndicates argue booking fees are used to keep mare owners committed, they’re reluctant to offer a refund after a mare owner fulfills his/her commitment, but the mare fails to conceive.
- The reality is that booking fees offer the stallion owner a guaranteed income, even if the stallion fails to impregnate a single mare. In essence, booking fees convert 10-25% of a live foal season to a no-guarantee season at live foal price. With the odds already stacked against breeders who race their foals, there is no reason to worsen the equation by shelling out booking fees.
- Failure to fully investigate your breeding stock – Even after a mare has been purchased, there is almost always more information that can be gathered that will help in the planning of future matings. Most notably, if the mare made it to the races, a simple phone call to the trainer and previous owner may uncover invaluable information. For example, a buyer might find out that a particular mare had chronic shin problems that were alleviated by putting her on the shelf until she was a three year old. Such information may point the owner towards stallions known for siring more precocious physiology. Contacting the prior connections can also be fruitful when purchasing an older mare as they may be able to tell you some of the common strengths and weaknesses found in the mare’s previous foals. The power of a phone call cannot be overstated when it comes to successfully managing a broodmare’s career.
- Overpaying for a Kentucky export – Breeders in smaller markets are often susceptible to a big name sire who flopped in Kentucky after underachieving with his initial crops. For whatever reasons, many exiled stallions stand for fees at or near what they stood for in Kentucky. We have to keep in mind that these are stallions that did very little with the opportunities afforded them, and as a result, shareholders are forced to seek revenue elsewhere. Mare owners need to remember this as they begin contemplating stallions offering the best value.
- Buying bloodstock sight unseen – As obvious as this one sounds, we’ve all succumbed at one time or another. We’re convinced that the deal in front of us is too good too pass up and we have to act now. And while it may in fact be a great deal, there will always be other ones down the road, preferably a deal that we can inspect first hand, or at the very least, by a trusted representative.
- Seeking advice from stallion managers – Before we get anybody too upset, we’re not alleging dishonesty. Instead, it is important for mare owners to recognize that there is a built-in conflict of interest anytime we ask a stallion manager for advice. Their first responsibility is to maximize income for the farm, shareholders, and for themselves. Only after these responsibilities have been met are you likely to get any kind of useful and objective information. Invariably, if you talk to a stallion or syndicate manager, at least one of their stallions will fit your mare, even though an objective advisor may say differently.
- Sentimental purchases – With the emotions involved in the racing industry, it is inherently easy to develop sentiment for a particular sire, dam, or female family. The problem then becomes when we turn that sentiment into the rationale for buying decisions. Our tendency is to put an inflated value on bloodstock that we have a sentimental connection with and at the same time, look past other opportunities that offer better value. Like in all other forms of investing, the most successful investors are quick to look beyond sentiment and instead, look towards long term goals.Even more common is a willingness to retain unprofitable bloodstock despite overwhelming evidence that long term success is unlikely. Perhaps due to a combination of sentiment as well as the difficulty of finding buyers, we all have stories of holding on to mares that we should have culled.