Lessons Learned - by Eric Mitchell

Not many Thoroughbred breeders have the resources of the top five North American breeders highlighted in the section beginning on page 22.

Still, anyone who is trying to catch lightning in a bottle with a couple of broodmares can learn something from the guiding principles and experience that have made Adena Springs, William S. Farish, Juddmonte Farms, Sam-Son Farm, and Stonerside the best of the best among North American breeders since 2000.

The single theme running through these elite operations is a commitment to quality. Of course, top-shelf often is available only at a certain price, so we have to talk in terms that are relative to the different levels of breeding. One nugget of information in how to judge broodmare value came from Farish, who noted that a broodmare didn’t have to be a star on the racetrack to be a valuable producer. Farish said it is preferable that a filly at least show some ability while in training, but it is more important her family has a proven history of producing winners—up close rather than back in the fifth generation.

A couple of other valuable lessons came from Garrett O’Rourke at Juddmonte Farms. One is being committed to improving on the flaws inherent in temperament, ability, or conformation. Every family, even the ones at Juddmonte, has room for improvement. Making matings based on perceived commercial value may scratch an immediate itch, but if the goal is truly to breed for racing success, then it requires taking the longer view. Sam-Son Farm, for example, does not breed to any stallion that doesn’t already have runners.

Among commercial breeders there clearly is a balance to be achieved to produce a marketable horse that will hopefully have what it takes to become a winner. Success at the sales is important, but there is no getting around the ultimate success that must be achieved on the track.

Another interesting lesson from O’Rourke may be one that only the breed-to-race operations can follow—being bold in willing to try something unconventional. Breeding the mare with a family that has excelled almost exclusively on dirt to the stayer stallion that loved the grass may produce a foal that raises more doubts than hands in the auction pavilion. It doesn’t mean the cross won’t work, but it might mean the foal will need time to prove itself. But if it means another stakes winner for the mare, then the wait is worthwhile.

And finally, Dave Whitford shared some of the wisdom he’s gained while choosing the matings at Sam-Son Farm for the better part of a dozen years. With the breed’s elite stallions getting 8%-10% stakes winners, success in Thoroughbred breeding or racing is about getting the statistics bending in your favor. Whitford uses a number of pedigree analysis tools now available to help narrow the search for the right stallions, but in the end he said breeders still need to do their research—dig into past performances and go look at the horses in order to identify why a particular cross seems to work.

“You would think it would get easier to work with the same mares year after year, but it always requires a lot of time. There are always new and emerging crosses,” Whitford said.

So it turns out breeding successful Thoroughbreds isn’t that different than being successful in any other venture. It all takes a sharp focus on quality and a lot of hard work.

Listen or download interviews with several of these breeders.


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