More sires than ever but diversity dwindles

Trend which favours new stallions who retired early is worrying

Two months ago in this magazine Tony Morris lamented the ever-dwindling diversity in sirelines. What we certainly don’t lack is sires themselves, with another huge intake of new stallions in Britain and Ireland, and more than 20 new sires in France alone.

Obtaining industry-wide agreement on limiting stallions’ books would be nigh on impossible and there are only a handful of studs who observe restrictions – Shadwell and Whitsbury Manor Stud spring to mind in Europe

Whether or not this will lead to an increase in diversity is hard to say, but what it is likely to produce is a continuation of the trend that sees breeders flock to unproven new stallions, a growing number of whom haven’t raced beyond two and have pedigrees to match relatively moderate race records. Admittedly, not every stud is in the position to be able to stand a horse such as Ulysses, a dual Group 1 winner not just by a Derby winner but by the world’s most dominant sire, and out of an Oaks winner. But then it may well transpire that, despite the considerable support of Cheveley Park Stud and the Niarchos family, Ulysses’ first book will fill at the same rate as a stallion who happened to show precocity but was never given the chance to show his durability.

This is nothing new, of course. I was recently fortunate enough to have been made custodian of Sir Victor Sassoon’s scrapbooks detailing the career of his 1957 Guineas and Derby winner Crepello. The bloodstock writers of the day – including such illustrious names as Peter Willett and John Hislop – noted the fact that it was fortunate that Crepello was produced by an owner-breeder as such an unfashionably-bred colt, i.e. one whose pedigree contained plenty of stamina influences, would have been an unpopular yearling at the sales. Ah, ‘twas ever thus, only now perhaps even more so.

Down side of the numbers game
Obtaining industry-wide agreement on limiting stallions’ books would be nigh on impossible and there are only a handful of studs who observe restrictions – Shadwell and Whitsbury Manor Stud spring to mind in Europe, while Kentucky’s famous Claiborne Farm has traditionally attempted to restrict its stallions, even the extremely popular War Front, to around 100 mares.

In January, Claiborne’s young President Walker Hancock said in a tweet: “Limiting book size has many positives that I think most people don’t even realize. It would give more stallions opportunities to succeed, increase stallion fertility/breeding longevity, and boost regional stallions markets, just to name a few.”

Few people can disagree with this statement, and another element worth considering is how pruning numbers could actually boost a stallion’s stock in the sales ring. Even with the most commercially desirable stallions there’s a risk of there being too much of a good thing. Yearlings by a stallion on the up naturally become more prized if there’s a rarity value attached.

So without such an agreement on book sizes, which would doubtless lead to claims of restraint of trade, the one way to ensure you’re not a breeder of one of several hundred foals by a particular stallion is to ask the stud how many mares the horse is likely to cover and don’t book yours in if the answer is unpalatable.

British revival
Morris’s columm decried breeders’ failure to look past Northern Dancer and his male descendants and there really is no getting past him now, even in the National Hunt sphere. Sadler’s Wells continues his dominance here, with eight sons and two grandsons currently among the top 20 jumps stallions (happily, dear old unfashionable Crepello has been represented strongly in this table in recent years by his late great-grandson Presenting).

Though still dominated by French and Irish imports, the current jumping scene boasts stars who have pointed to signs of a revival in British breeding, which is lucky to have the likes of Kayf Tara, Scorpion and Black Sam Bellamy – the sires of Thistlecrack, Might Bite and Sam Spinner respectively.

As the TBA’s National Hunt Committee Chairman Robert Waley-Cohen points out in this month’s TBA Forum, Britain, though seriously lacking in numbers, can hold its own when it comes to the quality of National Hunt mares. In previous years, many of them have gone to Ireland to be covered but that is starting to change. The retention in Britain of new stallions such as Jack Hobbs has come about largely thanks to the efforts of Waley-Cohen’s committee in introducing the TBA Elite Mares’ Scheme.

British breeders have been responsible for two of the last three Cheltenham Gold Cup winners, and there’s now reason to believe that more will follow the fine examples of Coneygree and Sizing John.

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