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Trends in stallion selection


By Roger Lyons

        The stallion population in the 1980s seemed to be following the prevailing socio-economic trend of increasing wealth at one end and increasing poverty at the other. This applied to purse distribution at racetracks, and it applied to commercial performance at auction. In 1983 there were at least ten stallions standing for fees of $200,000 or more. The stallion population had a super-elite tier rising above a beleaguered middle class, whose plight was, of course, blamed on the poor, by way of complaints about over-production. In the 1990s is that the super-elite tier of stallions is all but gone. The best stallions now available have a status no higher than that of upper middle class.

        Some light has been shed on this trend by research which shows that, while the best horses of the contemporary breed are not as good as the best horses of the past, the contemporary average horse is better than the average horse of the past. In effect, the size of the middle class is increasing. One would expect the stallion population to follow this trend, and so it seems to be doing. As the top tier disappears, contenders step in to fill the void, and more of these contenders than ever are worth a look--in part because the mare population is on the same trend.
        The problem with democratization, whether of a society or of a thoroughbred population, is that it does not uniformly elevate the lower to the status of the higher. Rather, to the extent that the status of the lowest tier increases, the status of the highest tier declines. The effect in the thoroughbred population is that there is less to distinguish one stallion from another as regards both their commercial and progeny performance. Last year, I made this point in an article which appeared in the bloodstock section of Daily Racing Form in the context of some remarks about the use of stallion ratings. My point was that, if the variance in the commercial stallion ranks is decreasing, then the smaller increments of stallion performance measured by stallion ratings are of declining interest to breeders.
        This idea was so offensive in some quarters that it evoked a double-barrelled reaction from two leading authorities on stallions, both of whom speculated wildly about my motives and attacked them almost as vociferously as they attacked my argument. I would only point out that there is no type of argument that is more indicative of a weak position than the ad hominem argument. When such an argument is deployed, especially by professional journalists, it is an indication that the argument it is deployed against is strong.

        In any case, it is wrong to think that assessing a stallion with respect to a given mare is the same chore now as it was in 1986. It's a different chore in the respect that the spectrum of stallion quality has narrowed, at least on this side of the Atlantic. As a result, breeders, at least on this side of the Atlantic, are evaluating prospective matings with increasing consideration of the compatibility of the genotypes involved.
        This increased interest in ancestry has gone hand in hand with changes in the stallion population, but it has been facilitated by the sweep of computerization and by pedigree software products like CompuSire. Computers and the information that they process make it possible as never before to study pedigree patterns in a sophisticated way.
        Interest in pedigree feeds on knowledge about it. As breeders discover pedigree patterns to which well-designed software applications lend increased visibility, they become all the more convinced of the importance of replicating in their own matings the patterns that they see in the ancestries of superior runners. Certainly, stallion quality matters, but the breeder who selects the stallion that has potential or a proven record and completes the right pedigree pattern will have an enormous advantage over the breeder who simply breeds to the stallion with the best APEX ratings in that range. To be sure, the proliferation of pedigree software has done its part to change the game and the behavior of breeders, but these changes are all being driven by the larger trend in the development of the breed itself towards a higher average and a lower top end. This trend may have a genetic basis, as some authorities have speculated, but I find that a dubious explanation.

        The thoroughbred has proven to be genetically tractable to the differing requirements of many distinct racing environments. This suggests that the genetic determinism so prevalent in discussions of the breed and even of specific matings is vastly over-played. It also suggests that, for any given racing environment, both the character of the indigenous thoroughbred population and the tastes, opinions, and practices of breeders there, are grounded ultimately in the regional culture of social values. If so, then the structure and composition of the thoroughbred population will reflect that of the human population and be subject to its virtues and, alas, its limitations.
        The trend of the thoroughbred population parallels the trend of American society towards the systematic evisceration of its leadership and touchstones of excellence. In view of this parallel, genetic explanations seem hardly necessary.

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Copyright © 1998 Roger E. Lyons
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