Pedigree Lament - By John Greathouse

(Originally published in the March 13, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

Great pedigrees, like fine wines or great books, only get better with age. Forty-five years ago I fell in love with fine-pedigreed horses. Oh, I knew what they were long before that but had never been exposed to so many at one time.

Wheatley Stable, Ogden Phipps, Rokeby, the Jeffords, Darby Dan, Greentree, Maine Chance Farm, Calumet, Claiborne, Charles Engelhard, the Woodwards, the Wideners, Bieber-Jacobs Stable; they all had one thing in common—good-to-great breeding programs. They had old-line mares they had bred years before and continued breeding out of their daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters.

Where have all the pedigrees gone?

Publications concern themselves with sale averages—what sold last year is supposed to have some bearing on what this year’s horses should bring. One of the things never referred to is the difference from one year to the next in the catalogs. I have said more than once that the only way to compare sales is to have the same economy, selling the same horses to the same people. Because everything changes, the averages from one year to the next are meaningless.

The real fly in the ointment lies elsewhere. For years commercial breeders have mortgaged their collective futures for today’s cash. We have been only too glad to sell our best-bred horses to our friends from Japan, Ireland, England, France, and Dubai. When we look at today’s catalogs, they lack those female families that gave us star power and the need for those players from around the world to come to our sales.

We will continue to breed and race fine horses, but without some infusion of strong female families into our system, the foreign buyers will go elsewhere.

Consider what World War II did to Europe’s Thoroughbreds. For safety and cash, those horses flocked to our shores. It’s taken Europeans a lifetime to get them back, and we won’t quickly recover these families either. Great families have generally resided in the private sector. Commercial breeders gain access through breeding to some of those stallions. Today many of those stallions stand in other parts of the world. The synthetic surfaces offer us a chance to get some of these stallions back quicker.

I have never understood the domestic commercial buyers’ emphasis on conformation. It’s important when looking at a horse to see what will keep that individual from racing. Absent any real flaws, one should probably pay more attention to the pedigree.

The 2009 Keeneland November sale pointed out how pedigrees can make a sale. With the addition of the Overbrook Farm dispersal, we saw bloodlines that helped a down market show some strength. The sale topper, Honest Pursuit, a modest race mare with an outstanding pedigree, is one of a kind—the kind of pedigree that can be a boon to the purchaser for generations to come. Exaggeration? Take the purchase of La Troienne by Ogden Phipps. Many fine families and stallions today still trace back to her.

When my dad started in the Thoroughbred business 60-plus years ago, he would buy a filly off the racetrack. Where and how he found them, with the little technology they had at their disposal then, is mind-boggling. Hell, they had 24-hour entries then. He never kept proceeds from the sale of their offspring, instead reinvesting in another filly from time to time.

I’ve often wondered what my life would look like today had I been buying a decently bred filly each of the last 20-plus years. I might own pedigrees today that we no longer have access to.

Two such men (there are more) that did this were Charles Engelhard and Bill Young. By the time he died, Engelhard had amassed quite a band of broodmares. In Young’s case, he tried to buy the best-bred fillies in any given year and retire them when they were through racing. When both of these breeding programs finally ended, their dispersals brought huge sums of money and were snapped up into the private market for the most part.

Our stallion business will also suffer because of pedigree limitations. The stallions will do well here in America, but (for the most part) playing on an international level will be very hard to do. Many of the best-bred horses in the world are standing or racing in Europe and Japan. Though the Darleys and Juddmontes of this world have mares here, their offspring are generally destined for racing elsewhere.

I grew up with so many fine pedigrees. And now they’re gone.

John Greathouse and his family own Glencrest Farm near Midway, Ky.


Leave a Comment:


I salute you, sir. I too, addressed this in an upcoming Kentucky Derby issue (May, 2010)of American Turf Monthly in "Who Can (Can't) Get the Derby Distance?"

I pointed to our great founding fathers of the sport -- whose primary goal was to improve the breed with every successive generation. Aside from owner/breeders like the Phipps family, the great families of American turf have disappeared, and the only thing that matters to today's breeders are the bottom line -- hurry up and win. Most are breeding solely for speed, with little to no regard for stamina.

That, combined with the rampant use of permissive and non-permissive drugs since the early 1970s, has created a profoundly inferior Thoroughbred -- brittle; unable to compete without 5-6 weeks between starts;imposts over 121 considered harsh, cruel and unnecessary, and with poor aptitude to run 1 1/4 miles.

The final death knell for American classic races is the shortening of once-prestigious stakes, such as the Coaching Club American Oaks from 1 1/4 (and which was run at 1 1/2 miles for long periods)reduced for this year to 1 1/8 miles; the Mother Goose from 1 1/8 to 1 1/16, and the once-proud Suburban from 1 1/2 to 1 1/4 and this year, to what now seems the standard "route" -- 1 1/8 miles.

It is a sad commentary on the state of American racing.

09 Mar 2010 1:45 PM

a great article...

09 Mar 2010 4:52 PM

Agree with Lauren. The American breeders have allowed foreigners to corrupt them. Selling the 13 million 2 yo has become their standard rather than the best bred horses. It broke my heart to see Azeri,Ginger

Punch and the late Flanders leave us to be broodmares  for foreigners.

09 Mar 2010 10:07 PM

I share Mr. Greathouse's wistful lament over the relative lack today of great female families. I, too, have often reflected on this, but am somewhat uncertain if what we're noticing is actual reality, at least to such a degree. Yes, the Japanese, Europeans, and Middle Easteners did take many of our better bred and producing mares, but I feel that our increased emphasis on sales did as much, if not more to dilute many great and potentially great female lines. On a separate note, the female pool today is substantially larger than in years past, which would tend to mitigate against certain female lines coming to the fore. As mentioned, these lines today are also more dispersed since the drastic decline of the breed to race operations-the Phipps being among the few exceptions in the US. (Incidentally, *La Troienne became a Greentree (Whitney) mare, and not a Phipps mare post the Bradley dissolution. Phipps then did acquire several of *La Troienne's daughters, and made very good use of them). So, is there today less quality at the top re-the female families, or are they simply more difficult to identify? This issue and question also relates to the stallion population.  

09 Mar 2010 10:31 PM

Well said !

09 Mar 2010 10:57 PM

ty for the GREAT info here...we have a leg up n VA...just LOOK how far we have Slipped since the Civil War...THATS ABOUT TO CHANGE...

10 Mar 2010 6:59 AM
C Hamilton

I agree with your lament of the lack of depth in modern mare families. But it would be a mistake to ignore conformation, regardless of pedigree. It is true that a mare from a truly great tail-female line often out-produces herself.

But if we ignore conformation for pedigree we are on the road to "bad" becoming "normal," and we just don't see bad for what it truly is simply because we're used to it.

I want to get back to a depth of family that also produces horses that can stand up to a genuine racing career past the 3-year-old season, and with good hooves that don't need to be held together mechanically.

10 Mar 2010 12:19 PM

Love the article.

I always looked forward to seeing the next Sam Son Farms bred horse too since most of them came from their own Canadian Dynasty of female family lines.

I also agree about the Pedigree being more important than the Conformation.

Now, i'm not sure how true this is, but i've always heard that Dark Star had the worst Conformation of any horse and "IF" that was true then it didn't seem to slow him down any.

Now "Maybe" that's also why he wasn't considered to be a Great Stallion ???   But, the point being that his lack of Conformation didn't seem to hold him back....."IF" it was true that is ???

10 Mar 2010 5:42 PM
Greg R.

Stop telling the truth..not that anyone will pay attention!  

10 Mar 2010 5:56 PM

By chance a few years ago, some friends of mine and I found a mare at a KY sale.  She was very well bred, but had trouble getting in foal.  Once problems.  We bought this mare and got one daughter out of her.  She is now 9 years old and is our foundation mare.  She has had 3 fillies and 1 colt and is in foal for 2010 to Quiet American.  She is from the immediate family of Northern Dancer, tracing back to his full sister, Arctic Dancer.  I will not let my friends sell any of the fillies for just the reasons spelled out in this article.  Quality mares will rarely let you down.  So far our 1 mare is giving us nothing but one nice foal after another, and all are by different stallions.  This years foal is the first time I have actually wished for a filly, because Quiet American is becoming the next great broodmare sire.  Only 3 more weeks to wait and see.  

10 Mar 2010 9:04 PM

A very good article.  Points up some one of the problems with the horse industry in the US today.

I have been out since the early 70's and now my son wants to get in the business.  

It is fascinating that he has been talking to me about this very aspect of choosing yearlings come the fall or next winter for future breeding.  

When I told him the only mare we ever owned was by Bold Ruler and out of a Discovery mare he nearly died.  Too bad she has been dead many a year.

Here is hoping things work out for the industry near term.....but I see many small operations going by the wayside each week in my trips from the old Forest Retreat farm to Lexington.

Sunshine and bright skies along with the spring meet at Keenland will make things better.

10 Mar 2010 9:37 PM

From the time I started being involved with the sales, I couldn't wrap my mind around why buyers are after what I think look like show horses. What good is a pretty horse if it can't run?Confirmation is a tool to predict soundness, and we're talking high-caliber athletes in rigorous training....even if they have perfect legs and balance it doesn't mean that they may not take a misstep and severely injure themselves.

And generally, when culling a herd (in any other livestock industry) you cut the bottom out. Why are we shipping all of our really great horses out of the country?! This is counter-productive to building a stronger breed. Right now, the only good thing is that foreign investors are more willing than Americans to spend the money on these horses. But then all of our best are gone. Why don't we sell off some of the less productive animals...not as much money comes in, but investing that little bit back into the great ones that remain will yield a much better return in the long run. In trying to run businesses with higher return we've forgotten to think beyond tomorrow. We've forgotten the basic principles of livestock management.

10 Mar 2010 10:49 PM

‘‘What is your experience along that line,’’ Mr. Madden was asked,

“I will be frank with you. Too many raise horses, too few breed them!

11 Mar 2010 12:33 AM

This is a article from 1960 by Mme Vuillier.

1.) The principal role of the mare is to improve the stallion.

2.) Today, the stallion's racing record, the stakes won, the class,

and the amount of money won play important roles in breeding,

because a big winning stallion may become the founder of a new

series in the Vuillier System. Formerly, these were les important.

3.) The conformation of the Thoroughbred counts for little. It is the

pedigree that most important.

4.) The Aga Khan's best race mares have not been and presently are

not his best broodmares. His best horses usually come from the

sisters and half sisters of the great winning mare.

11 Mar 2010 12:40 AM

You forgot about Belmont and his Nursery Stud. Belmont had some of the best bloodlines in the world.

11 Mar 2010 2:59 PM

I feel so fortunate to have trained some of these horses with the great pedigrees, for Calumet Farm and Greentree Stable. Even though I was third string trainer, the class in these horses was still evident, and they won many races for me.

There is just something about a well-bred horse that makes him stand out. they are different from all the others.

I will always remember those horses fondly, and feel honored to have been a part, albeit small, of a great era.

12 Mar 2010 1:22 PM

Follow out the progeny of double copy mares and you will be surprised that the majority of daughters carrying the x factor are leaving the country and going to Japan!!!

Try finding a colt or filly carrying the X-factor on the Sire's tail female line and out of a double copy mare I searched pedigreequery and found maybe one out of a hundred foals. Rico Mambo?

Try finding a son of Storm Cat out of a double copy mare---Yet everyone is rushing to bred to a son of Storm Cat---Do mare owners read---The knowledge and research ignored by the people in this industry is amazing---Find a trainer that has read Tom Iver's

"The Fit Racehorse II--or mare owner who has picked up Marianna Haun's "The X Factor".  NO wonder we haven't had a Triple Crown Winner since Secretariat!!!

17 Mar 2010 9:33 PM
Ann in Lexington

Don't forget the great Florida breeders who made outstanding families out of less stellar stock. The most recent loss was that of Fred Hooper, he of the offbeat stallions (Specialmante, Quibu, etc.)and Olympia inbreeding, but before that Florida lost Tartan Farms families, full of Aspidistra and Rough 'n Tumble in so many variations, and several others. California still has the Johnstons at Old English Rancho but they have always been more miler oriented.

20 Mar 2010 10:05 AM
james f webb

Until the Jockey Club stumbles into the 21st century--or the 20th century for that matter, and stops its illegal prohibition of AI, the gene pool will continue to spiral downward. Our gene pool needs massive influxes of outside blood but the Jockey Club seems a lot more interested in protecting its director's vested interests than protecting the breed. The excuses for not allowing AI have sounded like press releases from The Flat World Society for decades. Stop fiddling with "nicking" and Dosage snake oil before the gene pool disintegrates. Do something to save the breed from the two-year-olds peddlers "Flavor of the Month" mentality while there is still something to save.

24 Mar 2010 5:15 PM

John, the problem with breeding good pedigrees is it would require most bloodstock agents to go to a school that doesn't exist. Every farm has their "expert" bloodstock &/or pedigree expert, but sadly in most cases the true, qualified expert is rare diamond in the industry.  It's just easier to say a horse is "balanced" without further explanation than to know pedigrees in depth and to be able to discuss them in regards to the individual horse or specific traits.  John, you're absolutely right - however, pedigrees can also expose those pretenders of the industry quicker than a balanced horse on the track.

30 Mar 2010 4:57 PM

yet again another so called "NO-Know it all" wants to jump in with the X factor . . . to prove you know nothing you only need to read your own post - Secretariat is NOT the last Triple Crown winner! We've had two since then, please take your X Factor to another country!!!!

30 Mar 2010 6:32 PM

Yes I forgot the last two Triple Crown  winners but isn't it amazing they are all out of DoubleCopy MAres






 out of WON'T TELL YOU

And the leading broodmare sire


out of DEMURE


  Here's hoping you get a Quiet American filly out of your Northern Dancer mare!!!! Chances are she may be carrying the double copy gene.

Yes the point is the X Factor is going to another country---Somebody in Japan is buying daughters and granddaughters out of Quiet American (DEMURE),

KingMambo(MESQUE), etc  for the price of last years Kentucky Derby winner MTB

^10,000.00----Just wonder if any of the contenders for the Kentucky Derby  this year are out of a Double Copy mare and how many double copy mares they have in the first three generations.

12 Apr 2010 7:32 PM

John Greathouse

Take a look at the pedigree of a four year old filly breed by Douglas Arnold of Kentucky --  


I don't believe you will find a pedigree carrying as many double copy genes anywhere---raced for a 15,000 tag at Indiana Downs -June of last year hopefully she's still in the states!!

12 Apr 2010 7:58 PM

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