(Photo : SportHorse-Data)
“A good pedigree belongs to a good horse.”
As South African breeders contemplate life without Jet Master, inevitably our thoughts turn to alternatives, and because Jet Master was more mongrel than blood, we ask ourselves what constitutes a good pedigree. I asked the many-times champion trainer, Terrance Millard that question while he was inspecting yearlings for the TBA some fifteen years ago, and his answer was short (and to the point), “I’ve been in this game more than fifty years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a good pedigree belongs to a good horse”.
Humbug attends arguments about horse breeding the way an egret dwells on a tick-blown ox. Another great South African stallion of more than two decades ago, Foveros, unfashionably bred and stained yellow by the summer sun, rampaged as a racehorse through the Cape Town season like a wounded buffalo through the reeds. As always, you go home and pour over his pedigree. You go back six generations, and you look through 126 ancestors. No neon lights flash, there is no grand clue. That’s alright. Racing would be as interesting as quantum physics if it were burdened with mathematical certainty. You’re happy to conclude that Foveros, like Jet Master, had something greater than blood and conformation. They had the great tick of the heart. In sport that’s enough: rare talents are rarely fathomable.
Nonsense, says the breeding purist, who bails you up at the races the next week. It is the usual confrontation. The theorist is vaguely hysterical. You are vaguely surly and pretend you need to go to the tote. The interrogation begins. “Didn’t you see all that Hyperion in the pedigree? Three doses of it. Three! And Hyperion’s close relative All Moonshine, is in there too”. I recall the fact to him that I’ve bred many horses with that many doses of Hyperion’s family, with less than inspiring outcomes. You ask yourself why these buffs can’t tell you these things in advance, before Foveros and Jet Master became famous. We could’ve cleaned up at long odds. Truth is, they can’t, and it’s all rather tiresome. I’m sure that when Pat Devine picked Jet Master as a foal at the old Natal Mare and Weanling Sale, she hadn’t bothered to check the co-efficiency of the colt’s inbreeding.
We don’t assail our clients with dosage or linebreeding theories here at Summerhill, but we breed and raise top-class winners by the hundreds. Over at Highlands, when Graham Beck presided over the champion stallions, National Assembly, Jallad and Badger Land, all at one time, they didn’t discuss their success in terms of the “international outcross” their pedigrees represented. Both farms have owned the national breeders’ title many times.
We are, therefore, in favour of anyone who can offer serious thoughts about breeding without the humbug. Someone who knows about the caprices of nature as well as the laws of Mendel, someone who knows that nothing can make a fool of you more comprehensively than a thoroughbred. Which is why I’ve always been greatly taken (and impressed) by the simple logic of Thoroughbred Breeding: Notes and Comments. Its author, Sir Mordaunt Milner, cuts through humbug like a flail mulcher.
Milner failed at Leeds University because he went to the races instead of to lectures. He then immigrated to South Africa where he was a stipendiary steward, a novelist, a breeder of classic winners, and sales-topping yearlings. The back dust-jacket of the book catches Milner’s breezy fatalism. It shows him bridling his riding hack. The caption says “This filly was bought as a yearling in a season before her full brother won the New Zealand Derby - what good luck! She never won a race: she never had a foal, what bad luck! That’s racing”. Do not be misled. The book is a considerable piece of scholarship. It brings a fresh mind and a deft pen to all the usual things: nicks and crosses, prepotency, dosages, how to select a mare and how to find the right mate for her. It is never boring, never superficial. But you always have the feeling that here was a man who had read all the books and knew all the theory, but who had also stood in a paddock, looked at a sad little foal who was all wrong, and said to himself there is a time when all this theory is “bunk”.
Here are a few of his smartest observations:
- “When a mare is offered for sale one frequently reads the following sort of comment beneath the displayed pedigree: ‘The next dam is So and So, a daughter of Thingamabob tracing to Paraffin’. This means the mare will have the famous mare Paraffin (1870) in the eighth or ninth generation and the influence will be as remote as an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower to his or her descendant in the Senate or in the Bowery… This sort of announcement is as meaningless as putting the family number after the name of a horse. It is… a lot of bull.”
- “At a poultry show, a young fancier asked what was the difference between inbreeding and line-breeding. An older one answered: ‘Well son, it’s this way. If you keep on breeding with your own birds and you are successful, you speak of line-breeding. But, if your results are bad, you can blame it on inbreeding’.”
- “The commercial breeder has to breed a yearling that can walk well enough to satisfy the buyers; whether it can gallop as well is then the buyer’s problem”.
- “If you’re going back seven generations to support a theory, you might as well go back eight”.
- “There is no relationship between size and ability on the racecourse, but one thing is sure: there is a definite correlation between size and price at the yearling sales”.
- “How many mares do you need to start a stud and how do you choose them? Only one, provided you pick the right one. Both the Childwick Bury and the Aga Khan’s stud would still have been known world-wide if the only mares they had started with had been Absurdity and Mumtaz Mahal”.
As you can see, Milner was a pragmatist, but he pulled up well short of saying that breeding is all luck. His theme is that by sifting the evidence intelligently you can improve your luck. The words of the great American breeder, John Gaines, (whose farm Gainesway, the Beck family owns today) often seemed close to the Milner approach. Gaines once said “It’s really the game of percentages, a game of getting many little things working for you. Every little plus gives you a higher probability than someone else has”. You’ve heard that many times at Summerhill.
The passage I like best in the book belongs not to Milner, but to Phil Bull, founder of Timeform, whose wisdom was also contained in our previous piece entitled ‘From Pauper to Princess’. It goes like this: “Anyone who thinks he can breed a champion by sitting down with a split-pedigree book to find an ideal mating based on inbreeding or crosses of this or that, just isn’t in touch with reality. Every “great” horse is (by definition) a rarity whose superior genetic make-up is the result of a statistically improbable accident. You may hope for and solicit such accidents, nothing more.”
Which brings me back to Foveros. I may have that quotation printed on a card. Next time the breeding theorist hectors me about Foveros and Hyperion, I can simply hand the card to him. On reflection, that won’t work. He is sure to say that Phil Bull is notorious for his lack of knowledge about Hyperion in the fourth generation.