Whether you’re listening to, watching or reading about horse racing, there always seem to be a strong undercurrent of chatter going on regarding lineage and breeding – the process by which one horse is selectively bred with another to produce specific traits in the foal.
From the outside looking in, it seems a pretty simple format in that if I have a horse blessed with wonderful stamina but it struggles with speed, then I need to breed it with a quicker horse or a sprinter to produce offspring (or progeny, to give them their official title) with speed and stamina.
Of course, the science behind playing God with horses isn’t quite as straightforward as that and there are stables which have been learning the intricacies of breeding for generations with incredible results.
However, unlike the tale of Adam & Eve which, allegedly, contains some historical inaccuracies, we can actually trace horse lineage back to the three stallions who are responsible for the entire modern thoroughbred racehorse bloodstock – the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arabian.
Byerley Turk came first and is rumoured to have set foot on British shores in 1986 after being captured at the Battle of Buda by Captain Robert Byerley. A tall, dark brown horse, much could also be said for character having also taken to the battlefields of Boyne and Ireland before finally retiring to stud. Although he wasn’t thought to cover many good quality mares, his ability and athleticism has resulted in fourteen Oaks winners, twelve Derby winners and ten St. Leger winners all listed as descendants.
Next up was Darley Arabian who, according to New Scientist, has genes which can be found in the Y-chromosomes of more than 95% of all modern thoroughbreds. His arrival in the UK is shrouded in mystery with some sources claiming that he was purchased by Thomas Darley as a present to his horse-loving brother, while others claim Darley arranged for the kidnapping once it had become clear that the Sheikh refused to sell his finest colt. Either way, his first season in stud produced Flying Childers who went on to retire undefeated and was proclaimed at the time as the best horse of his generation. Darley Arabian covered very few mares in his life and, of those, only a small number were any good, which just goes to show how much of a class act he really was.
Last and by no means least, we have Godolphin Arabian who found his journey to stallion superstardom far from simple. Originally a gift to Louis XV, the French aristocrat was so unimpressed by him that the was simply used as a carthorse. He was eventually brought over to England and was considerably smaller than his European counterparts. As a result, he was used as a teaser to test the ‘receptiveness’ of female horses on behalf of the larger males – pretty morale-crushing stuff for any species…
Following one of these reconnaissance missions on Lady Roxana, she was rejected by the target stallion, Hobgoblin, and her owners then decided to just breed her with Godolphin Arabian instead. Their first foal, Lath, went on to win the Queen’s Plate nine times in nine attempts and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the 300 years since, things have changed quite significantly and the money, science and sheer scale of breeding operations across the world are abundant than ever.
The big breeding story from the last 18 months and one which is likely to continue for a long while yet is that of Frankel, the undefeated multiple Group 1 winner who won his final race as recently as 2012. Considered the best horse of his generation, if not ever, he clearly carries all the characteristics of the perfect gentleman too, covering his first mare on Valentines Day 2013.
There is very little time for pillow chat and further romance in the big money breeding game however as Frankel went on to cover a further 132 mares that season at a princely sum of £125,000 a go. Prospective investors will be encouraged by the ‘no foal-no fee’ promise, although it still remains a huge gamble to take given the number of foals that are born who don’t even make it to track.
Frankel’s case sets a perfect example as to how profitable and prolific race horse breeding can be – he has already earned around five times what he made on the track in prize money through covering mares alone and that’s before any of them have even run a race.
The numbers are truly mind-boggling and, with the amount invested into genetic research, breeding specialists, and even international transport, they have to be. Next time you’re checking out the latest maiden with a few debut runners or tuning in to a 2-year-old race analysis, keep an ear out for the lineage and factor this additional string to your bow into research.
Knowing the developmental course that a horse is likely to go on can give big clues to how it may perform when upped in distance, moved on to a different surface or tried on a different style of track.
Although there are a huge number of variable to consider when it comes to racehorse breeding, that should give you enough to get your teeth sunk into some lineage lists and progeny pages! It will be very interesting to see how much of Frankel’s ability is retained in his foals