Keeler Johnson's Pedigree Handicapping Primer

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Every winter, with the Road to the Kentucky Derby drawing plenty of attention from racing fans and handicappers alike, there tends to be more talk than usual about pedigrees—who's bred for dirt, who's bred for turf, who's bred to run 1 ¼ miles on the first Saturday in May, etc.

Different handicappers have different views on the importance of pedigree, and even those who agree on its significance often have opposing ideas on how to study and interpret pedigrees. I don't really consider myself a "pedigree handicapper" in the truest sense of the word—there are many who have studied pedigrees more extensively than me—but I frequently put pedigrees to use as a handicapping tool and have enjoyed enough success to know that a solid working knowledge of pedigrees will pay for itself time and time again.

So on a quiet weekend of racing action, I thought it might be fun to share my typical process for analyzing pedigrees and determining the most ideal distance or surface for a given horse. This is by no means the only way to analyze a pedigree, but hopefully it will provide some ideas to aid your own handicapping.

The first thing I do when analyzing the pedigree of an unfamiliar horse is to check out the sire and the damsire, and in many cases, this simplistic approach will be all you need to get a general idea for the distance and surface preferences of the horse in question. A runner sired by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin (a multiple Grade 1 winner going 1 ¼ miles) out of a mare by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy (a renowned source of stamina) is most likely destined to excel running long on dirt. In contrast, a horse sired by Kitten's Joy (the leading sire of grass horses in North America) out of a mare by turf champion Theatrical will in all likelihood be destined for a career on turf.

Follow racing closely enough for long enough and you'll pick up this working knowledge of top sires almost by accident, though if you find yourself unfamiliar with the race record and progeny records of a given stallion, you have a couple of easy options for conducting research. Looking up the horse on will provide you with data on their racing career, while a search through the online stallion register (provided the stallion is still active) will reveal plenty of information about their top progeny. Under "Tools and Resources" I like to click the "Download PDF" option; this provides a fast snapshot of the stallion's best runners and the races they have won.

If a stallion is young and has not yet sired any foals of racing age, it can also be useful to research his own sire using the same techniques, particularly if the young stallion was lightly-raced and didn't show a clear preference for a particular distance or racing surface.

If I'm conducting a deeper pedigree analysis (as I often do with Kentucky Derby contenders), that's when I start researching the dam as well. Typically, this will require a bit more work since many well-bred, but relatively unaccomplished race mares will be given a chance in the breeding shed and it's impossible to be familiar with the race and produce records of them all.

I usually begin by looking up the dam's race record (if indeed I don't know it off the top of my head) to see if she showed a clear preference for a particular distance or racing surface. A mare who frequently won going a mile or farther strikes me as a candidate for imparting stamina to her foals, particularly if she herself is stoutly-bred with a stamina-oriented pedigree. However, I don't get too concerned if a mare of low racing class never won beyond a sprint distance, since the majority of races in North America are sprints and it's hard to know if her perceived distance limitations were more the result of a lack of opportunity to run long at her class level. Or perhaps she had a physical issue that made running long difficult regardless of whether she was genetically bred for it.

Once I'm done researching the dam's race record, I'll turn to examining the records of her foals. A free and thorough (though slightly time-consuming) approach is to type the dam's name into the Dam's Foal Search page on Equibase, leaving the year of birth blank. This will bring up all the foals produced by that mare (and possibly other mares who share the same name, though it's usually easy to identify the foals you're looking for based on their years of birth.)

Go ahead and examine the race record of each horse, looking as always for signs of distance and surface preferences. Again, if you're looking at low-class runners, don't be too concerned if they were sprinters since a lack of opportunities or physical issues might have prevented them from showcasing their genetic capabilities over longer distances. A distinct preference for dirt or turf might be more meaningful, though be sure to keep in mind the sires of the horses you're researching—a mare might well produce a long-distance grass runner when bred to Kitten's Joy, but a dirt sprinter when bred to Speightstown.

However, if the dam in question has produced multiple foals that were successful running a mile or farther—particularly against high-class company—then I definitely take notice. Remember Better Than Honour, who produced the back-to-back Belmont Stakes winner Jazil (2006) and Rags to Riches (2007)? Clearly she was imparting serious stamina to her foals, which is why it was no surprise to see her son Man of Iron win the 2009 Breeders' Cup Marathon going 1 ¾ miles.

However, this is as far as I tend to go with my pedigree handicapping. Some people like to dive deeper and examine the third, fourth, or fifth generations in the pedigree, sometimes with special emphasis on sire lines and dam lines, but I personally believe that reasonably accurate conclusions can be drawn based on the first two generations of the pedigree, plus the progeny and produce records of the sire and dam. If I were to dig any deeper, I'd risk overemphasizing pedigrees in my handicapping, rather than using pedigree analysis as one tool out of many.

And besides—in the event that a horse completely defies their pedigree, you're going to see the on-track evidence soon enough anyway, at which point their pedigree becomes irrelevant!

Walking Thunder Impresses in Dubai

Did you happen to catch the breathtaking victory by Walking Thunder in the UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial earlier today? A Florida-bred son of Violence out of the Street Boss mare Street Show, Walking Thunder tracked a solid pace, seized command on the turn, and powered clear with complete authority to win by nine lengths. Walking Thunder is now unbeaten in three starts, and while it would surely be a big ask for him to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), he's certainly emerged as Dubai's leading candidate for the 2019 Run for the Roses.


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The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the fifth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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