by Peter Neilson ©
Levin Breeders Group Meeting April 2000
Our experience over the last 20 years indicates that line breeding works. Members of the Levin Breeders Group have often bred the best or only stakes performer left by a generally unsuccessful or disappointing sire. When we have taken over a broodmare midway through her breeding career, we have produced racehorses superior to those previously bred from the mare. Some members have bred very good racehorses but no one has retired rich.
Whereas 20 years ago, the line breeders in the group were a small minority amongst New Zealand breeders, now many of our commercial breeders are either line breeding practitioners or will take advice from people who make mating recommendations on that basis. Sir Patrick Hogan (Cambridge Stud), Rick Williams (The Oaks Stud), Steve Till (Windsor Park Stud), Russell Warwick (Westbury now Watson Bloodstock), Peter Jenkins (Chatham Lodge), and Byron Rodgers (Arrowfield) are all examples of line breeders influencing or managing major commercial studs which are applying line breeding principles to top class bloodstock.
To paraphrase Richard Nixon's comment on Keynesian economics, if we are all line breeders now how can the hobby line breeder without the money behind the major studs survive? When it costs about $15,000, not including the stud fee, to raise a yearling and a similar amount each year to keep a horse racing for average annual stakes of only five thousand dollars in New Zealand, it is a miracle that anyone can stay in racing. However I do believe it is possible to survive and prosper as a hobby line breeder. Below are several strategies that I think would be useful if you want to continue as line breeders of Thoroughbred horses.
1) Write out a business plan
containing clear goals and monitor it regularly. I
started my line breeding programme with a very vague idea
of what I wanted to achieve, to breed a good horse. Ten
years on, and about $140,000 poorer, I think I would be
better off now, had I:
An explicit programme or business plan outlining what I wanted to achieve would have raised some pointed questions earlier and to my benefit with now perfect hindsight. An explicit business plan is a promise to yourself which forces upon you an objective review of the progress achieved to date. It doesn't matter if your plan is to have five K1 quality mares by the time you retire, to breed a group one two-year-old, to have two foals each year in the back paddock or even something really ambitious like breaking even on your breeding activities. A business plan you review regularly will help you monitor your progress and highlight when some corrective action or a new plan is required. While a business plan will not guarantee you won't lose money it will provide a comparison point from which to monitor your progress toward your goal.
2) Reduce mare numbers and improve the quality. While I believe it is possible to breed a stakes winner producing broodmare over three generations from very base stock, most of us will go broke trying to do that. It costs as much to keep a good broodmare as it does a bad one so it makes sense to improve the quality of the mares we start with. Then, we have more chance of breeding a stakes winner in the first generation rather than in the third. While we are breeding those three generations we will inevitably end up with more mares than it is sensible to keep.
As true believers in line breeding we are very inclined to let good money follow bad. Having failed on the racecourse with our first generation stock we retain our failed racemare for breeding and keep spending in the hope that one more generation of suitable matings will overcome all our previous problems. We then proceed to spend more money raising five more racehorses out of our failed racemare.
In my opinion our single most important survival strategy should be to improve the quality of the mares we breed from. By making sure that the mares we send to stud come from solid race performing families and that the mare's pedigree is such that our line breeding is likely to be successful we can considerably increase our chance of success.
I once saw a pedigree page for a yearling that had six mares on the page and only one of the mares had won a race. Truly a triumph of hope over experience. I agree with Earl Feck that on average, the difference between a non-winning mare and one that won even one race is probably as much as the difference in quality between a group one performer and a winner of a maiden race. As line breeders, our main assumption is that the genes of the names we are duplicating in the pedigree are present in the genes of the sire and dam we are using for the mating. The fact that the sire and dam we are using were both much above average racetrack performers at least guarantees that some ability came through to the parents of our planned foal.
I believe reducing our mare numbers and upgrading the quality of the mares we use is crucial because it enables us to spend more money on the stud fees of proven stallions but also because by using high quality mares its provides us with more opportunities and options. For example if you had a line bred weanling of commercial quality you have the option of selling the progeny to a pinhooker and using the proceeds to fund your next mating. For most of our current breeding programmes the only realistic option for possibly recovering our cost of production has been to take that line bred weanling through to the racetrack which requires us to meet all the costs of raising that racehorse, possibly for four or five years before we know whether the wait has been justified. In the meantime, the cost of raising that one animal has probably prevented us from using a commercial and proven stallion for our line breeding.
3) Use proven stallions. Like most of us, I stand accused of having sent an unproven mare to an equally unproven stallion on the basis that the mating contained many interesting duplications. From that decision, I have successfully bred a weanling, yearling and now two-year-old that is not worth anything until it can win a trial or a race. Even though I may breed the only stakes winner ever produced by the stallion, the probability is that the horse will never win a race or recover it's cost of production.
Only one in ten stallions goes on to be a commercial success. Most stallions fail and four or five years out most stand at less than their initial stud fee. Most of our shuttle stallions will fail but given their class as racehorses we would expect fewer to be absolute failures although many will disappoint. In New Zealand, we often have the situation where proven stallions with high success rates such as Star Way($10,000), Centaine($15,000), Lord Ballina($5,000) and, Grosvenor($10,000), are available and at stud fees considerably below those of this seasons new stallions which we know on average will fail.
You may say that stallions that are both commercial and proven are too expensive to use but that is not always the case. Volksraad and Zabeel are two examples of commercially successful stallions where the fees were not increased immediately as the first crop progeny succeeded on the racecourse. In his last years Sir Tristram stood at only $35,000 with a live foal guarantee well down on his stud fee at his peak of popularity.
Proven stallions which therefore have a number of progeny already racing enables the line breeder to identify the lines that are working in the successful progeny and to buy or lease a suitable mare to take advantage of the pattern. Our proven sires are currently available at stud fees below those of many unproven shuttle stallions. Proven shuttle stallions are equally often good value. The recent surge in as yet unproven shuttle stallions and the hype that surrounds them should not obscure the fact that the majority of those horses will be failures.
4) Line breed, but do it commercially. If we line breed but use commercial stallions and mares we have the opportunity not only to produce superior racehorses but we also increase the number of options we had regarding how the progeny can be sold. In recent years, the pinhooker has become a feature of the New Zealand scene just as it has existed in the other countries for some years. The options that are available increase when we line breed with commercial stock. With our current breeding programmes we end up with stock that can only be leased to owner or hobby trainers. Alternatively, we have to pay the cost of a horse preparation because the animals will not be able to be sold until it can become the winner of a race or trial.
If we line breed but do it using commercial stock then we have the opportunity of selling our progeny at the weanling, yearling or ready to run sales as well as out of the paddock. It is also possible if, for some reason a filly that we breed is injured, then she can be sold as a broodmare prospect provided that the pedigree is sufficiently commercial. If our competitive advantage as line breeders is that we can identify matings that are more likely to produce superior runners, if we can recover on our investment at an earlier stage then the cash flow will be available to enable us to make many more superior matings.
It is my experience that line bred horses have more correct conformation compared with more random commercial matings. Yearlings purchased at the top end of the market require both commercial pedigrees and almost perfect conformation. Line breeders commercial matings are more likely to produce yearlings in that elite category. Such yearlings, when they go on to produce a high proportion of superior racehorses, will create strong demand for similarly well bred yearlings from the same source.
5) Stick to what you know best. Great racehorses are not solely the product of a line bred pedigree. The great racehorse needs to be fed correctly, well trained and correctly ridden. Having decided we know how to construct great linebred matings we decide that we should take short cuts elsewhere which means the potential of the mating is lost in poor feeding, or training because we cannot afford to meet those costs as well as our breeding costs such as stud fees and agistment.
If we are not also the world's best trainer, jockey or groom, we should give those tasks to people who can contribute to our success. If we do that, it will cost more money which again is a reason why we have to restrict the numbers we breed and work on improving quality of the mares and stallions we use. By quality I mean of the quality of the pedigrees of the horses we use and their racetrack performance.
6) Share risk. If we cannot afford to use commercial stallions alone, my view is that it better to share ownership in the progeny of a commercial linebred foal by a proven stallion than own all of a foal by a non commercial unproven stallion. Risk sharing can take several forms including foal share arrangements with the farm standing the stallion, or sharing the use of a mare of the quality required to produce a commercial foal.
One form of risk sharing that I had engaged in for many years is breeding fillies with good line breeding and leasing them when they become yearlings for a small share of the filly's race winnings. What this means is that I may not recover the cost of raising the yearling but I do avoid the cost of finding out if she is good enough to breed from. By avoiding those costs, I can own more line bred broodmare prospects than I could if I was racing all my own progeny.
One cost saving and risk reducing strategy is to use linebreeding to stallions known to leave early maturing stock for your first few matings of a mare so you can prove the mare earlier. By using an early maturing stallion for your line bred mating your able to find out earlier what your mare is responding to with respect to line breeding. Once you know what your mare responds to and that she has what it takes to be a good broodmare then you can switch to a stallion with similar lines that leaves later maturing stock.
7) Let someone else do the hard work. Now that many more breeders are applying line breeding principles to their matings, it is possible to purchase rather than breed your own line bred racehorse. Many horses are sold at auction for less than the cost of production and some of those will be line bred whether intentionally or not. If you are breeding to produce future breeding stock and you purchase at the yearling stage, it is an option to lease the filly or colt for racing and by doing so you will avoid most of those costs. You can then take the animal back at the point where you wish to breed.
If our competitive advantage is in the analysis of matings, then this is a cost effective way of finding the animals you want. You can analyse the pedigree of the yearling in a sale, a weanling or even a foal in-utero and assess its potential as a future racing or breeding animal. With horses in sales you can reject on type, (good on paper matings that have failed in practice) something that you cannot do so easily with your own progeny. In-foal mares often are sold for little more than the stud fee for the stallion of the foal they are carrying. If the mating on paper is good for the in-utero foal you may be able to immediately sell the mare to the under bidder if you did not want the mare, only the foal she is carrying.
8) Apply your talents where the competition is weaker. From examining yearling sale catalogue pages, I gain the impression that, in New Zealand and Australia, there is much more line breeding being undertaken than even ten years ago. This now means that the comparative advantage of hobby line breeders is much less in New Zealand and Australia than previously. The rewards of line breeding are much greater when not everybody else is also doing line breeding.
In some countries line breeding is not quite as common as in New Zealand. In other countries such as the USA, Japan and England it is my experience that line bred matings are far less common. We should be applying our talents in countries such as the USA and Japan where the rewards for breeding a good horse are likely to be so much greater than in New Zealand. While it is true that raising horses and using a stallion in those countries is more expensive so are the rewards of breeding a good horse or selling at auction.
The reports of people in New Zealand being offered a million dollars plus for a group one winning mare for racehorses with potential to win at that level is not hype. In the USA, new entrants into racing want to start at the top not at the bottom and will pay that sort of money for a Kentucky Derby or Breeders Cup prospect or for a race mare with a good chance of leaving a top-class racehorse. While there are some very talented line breeders in the USA and Japan, the majority of horses are produced from sending mares to the stallions which are currently hot, irrespective of pedigree compatibility.
July 22, 2001. Copyright by Peter Neilson 2001.