Nick of Time - by Dan Liebman

A few days after selling a yearling for the world-record price of $13.1 million in 1985, Warner Jones had no problem describing his breeding philosophy.

“I look at what worked in the past and try to repeat it,” Jones said.

Jones knew a lot about breeding horses, and a lot about selling yearlings.

So that’s it? “Yeah, that’s it,” a smiling Jones said.

If something worked, repeat it; as simple as that.

Of course, there is more to it than that, and Jones knew it—things like soil, water, horsemanship, conformation, luck, and marketing.

In essence, the late owner of Hermitage Farm was describing an important factor in breeding: nicking, the process of assessing the affinity for breeding certain sire lines to certain broodmare sire lines.

There have been many successful nicks over the years, the most recent being Mr. Prospector/Northern Dancer. The obvious success of the Mr. Prospector/Northern Dancer nick is responsible for so many of today’s breeding animals being from those two dominant sire and broodmare sire lines.

Nicking services have been available to Thoroughbred breeders for years, but, unfortunately, they did not take the entire pool of foals into consideration. Until, that is, Blood-Horse Publications, in conjunction with Pedigree Consultants owners Alan Porter and Byron Rogers, brought TrueNicks to the market.

(Full disclosure: As a partner in TrueNicks, Blood-Horse Publications benefits financially from the company’s success.)

Other nicking services do not look at all foals bred on a cross, only the successful ones. So, which is of more use to a breeder: to know only how many stakes winners have been produced from a cross; or to know how many total foals have been produced from the cross, and from those foals, how many have gone on to win a stakes race?

Obviously, it is the latter.

Think of it this way. If a stallion has 100 foals, 20 starters, and five stakes winners, what is his percentage of stakes winners? Is it 25% (five stakes winners from 20 starters) or is it 5% (five stakes winners from 100 foals)? Of course, it is 5%. So, why would you look at all foals in this instance, but in terms of nicking look at only the successful foals? You wouldn’t, and TrueNicks doesn’t.

TrueNicks uses The Jockey Club Information Service’s entire database to examine every cross of a sire and broodmare sire, and then an algorithm formulates a Sire Improvement Index and Broodmare Sire Improvement Index, multiplying the two to express both the opportunity and expectation from each cross. A score of 6.0, for example, means the nick performs six times better than the average opportunity, which translates to an A+ True-Nicks rating (go to for a complete explanation).

In 1948, The Blood-Horse editor Joe Estes, always seeking statistics to aid Thoroughbred owners and breeders, developed the Average-Earnings Index and subsequent Comparable Index as ways of measuring the success of stallions. The ratings have been included in The Blood-Horse sire lists and on Stallion Register pages ever since.

Last year, all A, A+ and A++ nicks were included in The Blood-Horse Stallion Register (while 13% of the entire Thoroughbred population earn A, A+, or A++ rankings, 37% of the stakes winners are rated thusly). Now, TrueNicks ratings, regardless of letter designation, will be included for the first three finishers in stakes worth $100,000 or more that receive write-ups each week in The Blood-Horse. And, beginning with the yearling sales this summer, TrueNicks ratings will be added to Auction Edge, making that product even more of an aid to those shopping at Thoroughbred sales.

A mission of The Blood-Horse has always been to inform and educate the industry, and useful statistical information fits that mission perfectly. That nearly every major breeding farm in Central Kentucky, and many others in regional markets and internationally as well, have signed their stallions up for TrueNicks shows the company is continuing to fulfill the mission set forth nearly 100 years ago.


Leave a Comment:

Dildo Draggins

I give this infomercial a nick rating of C-.

03 Jun 2009 2:20 PM

Using the editorial section of the magazine to advertise a product the Blood Horse is financially vested in strikes me as a major conflict of interest.

03 Jun 2009 2:43 PM

I thought your column was suppose to be thought provoking.  True nicks does use a better sample pool than e-nicks however it still only looks at 25% of the pedigree.  Both systems ignore the entire female family as well as the broodmare sire lines on both top and bottom.

Your articles are normally great, this one is as ad and supports breeding with one and one half eyes closed.

04 Jun 2009 7:38 AM

The methodology differences between competing nick rating systems are at the very least debatable. In fact they might make an interesting and useful discussion. This editorial, however, seems only self serving.

04 Jun 2009 12:22 PM

The comments received, thus far, are well deserved. Your take on what motivated (its "mission") The BloodHorse to initiate this "service" is at best disingenuous. It's been my experience that nicking services (including TruNicks) have, in general, lead many breeders to a sense of false security-having them believe that little else is needed when fashioning a proper mating. Also, to my knowledge there have been no retroactive studies to confirm the relative success of any nicking program.    

04 Jun 2009 2:04 PM

I have been a constant critic of True Nicks, as you well know. It is a flawed system. It uses "past posting" to formulate ratings...It is statistically insignificant..It is a dangerous tool designed only to extract money from stallion owners that "subscribe" to the service...I have cancelled my 25 year subsription to the bloodhorse in protest of this money grabbing nonsense...

04 Jun 2009 2:54 PM
Give Me Yeats

I have been using TrueNicks since it started to mate my mares and pick out yearlings to race with some friends. So far I am happy with the results but use it as a tool to help me, not an absolute, which is where I think TrueNicks and the Blood Horse need to be careful. They are an industry publication that needs to impress on the user that TrueNicks is not the answer. I think that Sceptre made a good point in that society is tending to look towards absolutes now and Truenicks is not that.

Sure, there are cases where horses go from rating C to A+ on the basis of a couple of horses winning stakes races (I have rarely seen it go the other way but I guess it must), but they aren’t nearly as common as the horses that rate B+ or better off their maidens that go on to win stakes races (yesterday’s SW Classical Slew is one example). This is one area where I am finding it a good service also. High rated maidens running in stakes races are usually winning them. I have been keeping a database of TrueNicks ratings and indeed there are some lowly rated stars like Barbaro and Stardom Bound, but there are some outstanding successes like Zenyatta (A), Curlin (A), New Approach (A++) and Zarkava (A++). The positives outweigh the negatives from what I have seen.

I agree with Greg though, a discussion on the relative merits of each nicking system would be interesting and worthwhile. Intellectually it appeals more to me that TrueNicks considers the runners and thus the opportunity of something really happening where Werk/enicks doesn't. From that aspect alone I think that while Truenicks is not the answer as far as unlocking the mystery of the pedigree, they are at least better than what was out there. It is hard for me to believe that the Blood Horse would have put their name behind and the Jockey Club supplied data to a product that hadn’t withstood some type of statistical testing.

Elaine made the comment that using the editorial section of the magazine was a conflict of interest. It could be, except I think that Dan clearly stated their interest in the product. Personally, I don’t think this article was clever at all. It just opened the door for comments to be made, especially by the vocal minority who have issues with Truenicks, but I guess there is some kudos to Dan in that he could have elected not to publish anything and not given the minority a voice at all. Indeed the Blood Horse have taken a brave stance in some ways allowing comments in the first place.

05 Jun 2009 12:06 PM

nicks are to racing what voodoo is to medicine. nonsense. and to see the bloodhorse promoting one set of witch doctors over another devalues a once impeccable brand.

05 Jun 2009 8:55 PM

Unless nicks are generated on a specific sire to specific broodmare sire -- with the foreknowledge that all horses on that cross were intended to be racehorses -- knowing how many horses exist for a nick is irrelevant.  People in this industry stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that there are a growing number of thoroughbreds bred each year who were never meant to be racehorses.

If there are 50 horses bred on a Pleasant Colony (and sons) over Raja Baba (and sons) cross, even 5 (10%) foals who were never bred for the track and therefore, unraced can significantly impact the statistical analysis (and that's all a "nick" is -- a record of PAST results, not a predictor of future ones -- so anyone thinking they should never change needs to go back and take a remedial statistics course).

Nicks (be they eNicks or TrueNicks) are a tool and should never, ever be considered the deciding factor or even be a major consideration when planning a mating.  Unfortunately, humans as a group are lazy and want an easy answer.  Nicking programs provide that as well as a nice convenient scapegoat for when something goes wrong or the resulting foal is just no good.

Using an editorial column to pimp a service is just tacky.

06 Jun 2009 4:30 PM

I have a question. I have seen a mare referred to as a "blue hen producer". I see the term "blue hen" a lot. What does it mean? Thanks for the help.

06 Jun 2009 5:04 PM

Dear gammyp6: Blue Hen Mares are touchstones in the direct female descent of modern thoroughbreds. The recognition of such mares is extremely important when it comes to identifying the strongest elements of a pedigree so as to build upon those elements by selective breeding. Ellen Parker is a pedigree researcher who has spent lots of time studying famous mares. She's comes out with a list of the 500 or so most influential mares of the last century. For instance Gay Hostess is a Reine De Course mare. If you are serious about pedigrees, check out her site ( for some good articles and also some great books about famous broodmares. Another excellent site for information on blue hens is Blue hen mares are also referred to as “elite mares” or “Reines de Course”.

08 Jun 2009 2:47 PM

Many thanks Elaine for so thoroughly answering my question. I totally get it now!

10 Jun 2009 12:02 AM

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