Breeders causing pedigree problems

Over-reliance on Northern Dancer shows lack of imagination

About 30 years ago there was some debate over whether artificial insemination should be permitted in the thoroughbred. The proponents argued that its introduction would surely reduce costs in the industry quite dramatically, and, assuming it could be adequately policed, there should be benefits for all.

This was clearly an idea that was never going to become reality without the agreement of all the world’s Stud Book authorities, which might represent a significant hurdle to overcome, but there appeared to be growing support for the move and letters were sent out to numerous parties inviting comments.

I was flattered to be asked for my opinion on the matter, and duly responded. I was bound to acknowledge that such an innovation did have the potential to reduce breeders’ costs, which they would no doubt welcome, but it was not something that would go down so well with horse transport companies, and would probably put some of them out of business. But radical change in all industries always left some worse off, sometimes to the extent of causing mass redundancies.

I also had misgivings about the potential for mistakes. Natural covers allowed reasonable confidence in authenticity, there having been very few examples of wrong identification in recent years, but there would need to be extra safeguards under the proposed new regime, and how could they be implemented? Of course, this was long before anyone had thought of sequencing the equine genome, let alone learning the valuable lessons that DNA analysis could provide.

But my main objection to the introduction of AI centred on its impact on the breed. It was all very well for breeders to produce their stock more cheaply, but it would surely mean that the most popular stallions would be patronised to excess, while perhaps equally worthy stallions were sidelined. There were worrying implications for the gene pool, with the prospect of a loss of that diversity that had served the thoroughbred so well over two centuries and dozens of generations.

Weatherbys’ annual Return of Mares has become an ever more deeply depressing document, charting as it does breeders’ insane concentration on the same elements in pedigrees

Summarising all those thoughts, I concluded: No, let’s not go this route. The potential advantages are outweighed by the potential damage to the breed we have nurtured and developed so successfully since its foundation.

I was far from surprised that nothing came from the move to introduce artificial insemination. Its proponents wanted a change that was far too radical for its time, and, so far as I am aware, it never got so far as to become an item on the formal agenda for a meeting of the world’s Stud Book authorities. But I still wonder why the move was so readily rejected.

I would like to believe that the protection of the breed and the authentication of pedigrees were paramount in the minds of those who might have sanctioned it. But I dare say it was just considered to constitute more bother than it was worth. A whole new system of regulation on a global scale would have had to be put in place, and it is easy to imagine that there would have been little appetite for even trying to implement that. The status quo would have seemed wholly preferable.

The irony is that while my main argument against the introduction of AI may have seemed successful in the mid-1980s, we now have – and have had for many years – the scenario that I feared it would bring. I failed to foresee that the advances in veterinary expertise that resulted in stallions being able to cover much larger books of mares would have exactly the same effect as AI. The most popular horses are wildly over-subscribed, and so many others struggle to acquire the patronage they deserve. Breeders pin their faith in stallions from the most familiar pedigree backgrounds, and their neglect of lines that thrived in former times means that they are throwing away the precious diversity that their predecessors cherished and sustained.

Weatherbys’ annual Return of Mares has become an ever more deeply depressing document, charting as it does breeders’ insane concentration on the same elements in pedigrees and their wanton neglect of almost everything else. For 200 years we have been saying that every thoroughbred traces back in the direct male line to one of three stallions, the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian or the Godolphin Arabian. We seem likely to be reducing that number to two in the very near future, and while that may be no big deal in the context of the breed’s survival, given that male lines are not all that matters, nor, arguably, even of much consequence in many cases, it serves to illustrate the point about loss of diversity

When I came into this game, something over half a century ago, it was common knowledge that the male line descendants of the Darley Arabian outnumbered those of the Byerley and the Godolphin by an enormous amount. But that pair still flourished as valuable minorities, while there were so many different branches of the Darley line, passing on different desirable qualities, expressing the diversity that existed within the line.

Whatever became of the sprinting line that sprang from Orby, and routinely handed down speed and precocity generation after generation? Hyperion won six sires’ titles and was a byword for class and middle-distance and staying quality in his sons and sons of sons, but where do we find him in pedigrees now? Almost never in the top line. Blandford provided four Derby winners and was a three-time champion sire. He seemed to have disappeared until Monsun resurrected his line unexpectedly and, I’m inclined to fear, only temporarily. A viable line from Djebel lasted for several generations, but is all but gone now, along with the Byerley Turk.

Where do breeders go to find something that is different and viable? The industry has boxed itself into a corner, and there is no clear route to redemption

For decades, breeders in these islands have looked to Northern Dancer for everything, his Danzig and Nureyev for speed, his Sadler’s Wells for middle-distance merit and stamina. And I would be the last to deny that the policy has delivered plenty of success. But the routine patronage of their sons and their more distant male descendants, many of whom have scarcely earned the right to stand at stud, displays a remarkable lack of imagination and common sense.

Where do breeders go to find something that is different and viable? Where, indeed, does Coolmore go after Galileo? The industry has boxed itself into a corner, and there is no clear route to redemption.

Still, while we celebrate a brilliant Horse of the Year, by a grandson of Sadler’s Wells out of a daughter of Sadler’s Wells, who is to say that Enable received an overdose? I admire her no less than her greatest fan, but I hope breeders recognise that a sample of one does not represent a formula for guaranteed success

If there has been one positive development in breeding over the last few years in these parts, it has been the emergence of Acclamation as a significant influence in pedigrees. Yes, he is Northern Dancer line again, but he has the little Canadian-bred so far back as to be of no consequence to him. Could I have fancied Waajib, who never won above Group 2 level, to become a success as a sire? No chance. Was he a successful sire? No, apart from one really gifted son in Royal Applause.

What about Royal Applause? How good was he as a sire? He got decent results without the best of opportunities, but never a Group 1 winner. Acclamation was about the pick of his stock, successful in Group 2. Could I ever have imagined Acclamation as a successful sire and a successful sire of sires? I don’t think so.

Nevertheless, Acclamation represents a triumph for breeders capable of thinking outside the box. Let’s hope the lesson is not lost on others. The industry has never been so in need of alternatives to the obvious.

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