Choosing a Thoroughbred stallion

  • The choice of a stallion is the single most important decision a breeder will make in a year. Yet sometimes it can be difficult to believe that there has been any constructive thought involved as mares flock, lemming-like, to horses with dubious credentials, either in terms of being unproven, oversubscribed or both.

    The breeding industry is currently thoroughly out of kilter, with too many mares in the pool (which actually means too many bad mares) producing too many offspring. And overproduction is here to stay for a while; this year’s record crop — which, when the final tally is made, will be more than 17,000 in Britain and Ireland — is likely to be followed by at least two more gluts before the message gets home, if it ever does.

    It has to be assumed that every breeder desires to produce as good a potential athlete as possible, given the material at hand. But it is rarely possible to turn a sow’s ear into a serviceable pigskin wallet, let alone a silk purse. Yet, because this is an industry built on dreams, too many refuse to acknowledge reality in not only choice of mate, but also whether to mate at all. All an increase in population generally does is broaden the base of mediocrity above which rises the tiny pinnacle of excellence.

    Stallion masters have been blamed for a situation where the brakes are off books (which is a fact of life now; no going back to the old days of considered management) and horses are used apparently cynically as vehicles merely to generate money, often on a “buy now, pay considerably later” credit deal that only encourages profligacy. But as long as mares are queuing at the door, perhaps the big studs cannot be wholly castigated for their sometimes Ratneresque behaviour. Business is business, after all.

    Demand, though, is down, and the poor day-to-day prize-money levels in this country must be considered a factor. If the sums involved in the breeding industry do not add up, neither do those concerning racehorse ownership, although recently introduced owners’ premiums for the produce of British-based stallions have helped.

    The foals conceived next year will go to the yearling markets of 2007 to race for the first time in 2008 and although that may seem some time away, decisions made now must be viewed in the long-term.

    “What appears to be a good deal,” says Leslie Harrison, manager of Plantation Stud, near Newmarket, “is not necessarily so, especially if you are overbreeding in the first place.”

    Cheveley Park Stud in Newmarket is one establishment that does operate a limiting policy.

    “We restrict our stallions to 100 mares, plus any of our own, and have done so for some years,” says managing director Chris Richardson. “But breeders, too, have a responsibility to bear in mind the market when planning to mate mares who would not help the overproduction situation. They must make a contribution, as should sales companies in their basis for selection.”

    The commercial sector is the one that has suffered this season as a result of overproduction. Owner-breeders, whether a 200-mare operation or a one-mare show, are outside the equation.

    John Warren is an observer from both sides of the fence, through his involvement in Highclere Stud and as a buying agent.

    “We go round the sales with catalogues that get bigger every year,” he says, “and there are only so many horses you can actually get to see. When you go into the marketplace, you start at the top and work down. You simply don’t have the time to find the horse that might be the nice individual by a poor sire.

    “Breeders should aspire to quality. They should not mate just for the sake of it, or for convenience or expedience. They should remember that the foal they produce has got to end up back in the marketplace, and if they get the stallion right, they might get 60 viewers. If the stallion is wrong they’ll get two, and they’re probably only being polite. If a stallion is very cheap, he’s probably cheap for a good reason. And also if he’s very expensive, he could be so for the wrong reasons, like hype and fashion.”

    Over the centuries, the time-honoured formula for breeding a winner has been: “Put the best to the best, and hope for the best.” In the modern era it could be updated to read: “Put the best, but only your best, to the best you can afford. And just hope.”

  • This breeding feature was first published in Horse & Hound (2 December ’04)

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