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.

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