False dawns and misinformation have made me wary of genetic theories
The leading bloodstock writer questions interpretations of scientific advances
This article was first published in September 2013
I like to think I knew what I was getting into when I embarked on a lifelong study of bloodstock breeding. I was aware from the outset that luck was the biggest element in the business and that full-siblings rarely exhibited the same characteristics, so there could never be a foolproof recipe for success.
In brief, I knew I was never going to find all the answers, but that made me no less fascinated with the subject. And I’ve long been quite content to recognise the more time I spend studying it, the more I realise how little I know.
What I did, and what I would advise any young person intent on following me into this ever-mysterious, highly esoteric, routinely frustrating and – let’s be honest – really quite trivial area of study, was to read everything I could find by recognised authorities on the subject and, perhaps more important, to cultivate the friendship of those older and wiser.
Fifty years ago that meant my regular reading matter consisted of the articles in The Sporting Life by John Hislop and in the Sporting Chronicle and Horse & Hound by Peter Willett.
But I also scouted around for other sources, finding, to my delight, works by learned American writers such as Joe Estes, Charlie Hatton and Abe Hewitt, and I tried to tap into their wisdom as well.
I had advantages, and I endeavoured to make good use of them. I was a regular attendee at the races and, more importantly, at bloodstock sales, where people generally had more time to talk than on the racecourse.
I sought out those who already had a lifetime’s experience in the game, and in many cases those acquaintances became friends and mentors to me.
I owe much to the likes of Phil Bull, Bert Kerr and Humphrey Finney, who gave me their time in person, in regular correspondence, and in Bull’s case I had the privilege of being his house-guest for York races on several occasions. It was impossible not to learn from such senior, knowledgeable figures.
I found it was sometimes a good ploy to ask what might seem a daft question, one to which I thought I already knew the answer, because the confirmation would often come back perfectly elucidated. I never met anyone in this business who was a more lucid thinker than Bull.
Of course, when I started out the scientists really hadn’t got to grips with bloodstock breeding. Still quite young, I had the cheek to write to three university professors of genetics, complaining that while I had to be impressed by what their branch of science had achieved in the field of livestock breeding, it had done nothing to help bloodstock breeders. Did the athletic animal pose questions they couldn’t answer?
Only one bothered to reply to me, and all he did was to tell me what I already knew – notably, the advances made to the benefit of farmers whose activities involved the production of such as cattle, sheep and pigs. He ignored my main point.
Many years later, during my stint on the council of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, we were contacted by a geneticist who claimed he could offer valuable advice to bloodstock breeders, so I was excited by the prospect of meeting him and learning what he had to say.
Oh dear. If it had seemed promising that he had no background in the breeding of farm animals, we were disconcerted to discover the theory he had developed for the improvement of stock derived from his experience with zoo animals. His knowledge of how the thoroughbred breeding industry worked was zero, and suffice to say if his plan had been in force over the last 20 years Sadler’s Wells would not have reigned for so long and Galileo would not now be permitted to stand at stud.
But there has been significant progress in recent years. Geneticists are now applying their knowledge in the matter of the athletic animal, and there will be a lot more to come in future. One widely publicised application decreed Dawn Approach was not going to stay the Derby trip and the point was proved, although a best guess from conventional study would have predicted the same outcome.
That advance, if it can be called an advance, is of very limited value. An assessment of a horse’s stamina potential, even an accurate one, has nothing whatever to say about producing a better horse or the improvement of the breed. Breeders must still make their own decisions on how to mate their mares if they are seeking to improve their stock, and those operating in the commercial area must still rely on luck or judgement over how the market will perceive the standing of the sire when the day to sell arrives.
How far have the professional pundits moved on in light of the new lessons from genetics? In some cases, not at all, I fear.
A recent article I caught on the net examined the success of the Galileo-Danehill cross, and readers were asked to believe there was significance in the fact that five of the sire’s 17 stakes winners were out of Danehill mares who descended from Bruce Lowe’s No. 1 family.
Lowe’s classification of the breed by family numbers dates from the 1890s and was based on the records of success in Britain’s Classic races up to that point. It was already being ridiculed by the end of that decade and it has been proven worthless time and again ever since.
The discovery of mitochondria and the knowledge that they are transmitted only in the female line have led some to believe there might have been something in Lowe’s theories after all, but please, spare me such nonsense.
It doesn’t require much wit to recognise there are good, bad and indifferent representatives in every family and that inheritance from some ancestress in the late 17th century matters not one iota to the present-day thoroughbred. Lowe’s No. 1 family was the most numerously represented in his day, and it still is.