“Breed the best to the best and hope for the best” is a famous quote widely credited to prominent American breeder John E. Madden when describing his philosophy on breeding a racehorse. That’s sound advice coming from a man who bred 14 Thoroughbred Champions, five of which won the Kentucky Derby, including the sport’s first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in 1919.
However, “the best” is a very subjective thing. Ask ten breeders who the best stallion is and you have a good chance of coming away with ten different answers. The list of variables that come into play when determining who to breed to whom is long and not the least of which is the one with the most important job from the breeding shed to weaning the resulting foal: the broodmare.
So where does one start when looking for a potential broodmare? Every breeder has a budget when shopping for their next prospect and there are many other things to consider before dropping a claim slip, being last bid at the drop of a gavel or picking up the phone to make an offer for a private sale. The majority are acquired through public auction, some as yearlings or two-year-olds in training with the intent of racing but never making it, and others through breeding stock sales once they’ve been retired from running.
A quick look through many Equibase profiles will show numerous sales results, like stamps on a passport. Fillies and mares are often plucked out of all levels of claiming races due to their breeding, accomplishments or even sometimes off the recent success of a sibling in stakes company that makes the claimer instantly more valuable than the price they’re running for. Sometimes a debut or stakes performance is so impressive that someone, somewhere, just has to have that filly or mare and calls the current owner to “make them an offer they can’t refuse.” Some are immediately retired; others are subsequently raced with the goal of adding to the proverbial “black type” to make them even more attractive once ultimately becoming a broodmare.
The general consensus among several notable Canadian breeders is that first and foremost you must consider whether or not this mare is going to be bred commercially with her foals to be offered at public auction, or if she is to be bred to produce foals that will race in the breeder’s own stable of runners. Glenn Sikura falls more into the commercial breeder side of things with almost all foals bred by his Hill ‘N’ Dale Farms Canada offered at auction annually in the Canadian-bred yearling sale or various sales south of the border. Owners-turned-breeders such as Carlo Tucci and Howard Walton, on the other hand, breed exclusively to fill their own racing stables every year, with many of their horses being second- or third-generation foals from their own homebred mares.
A prime example of this would be Howard Walton’s foundation mare Creative Mood whom he purchased as a yearling in 1993. Fast-forward 29 years and three generations: her descendants include a Canadian Champion and four stakes winners. Three generations bred and four owned by Walton giving him multiple limbs of the family tree with black type success. Carlo Tucci admits, “I got into the breeding game quite by accident. It started by having a racehorse that I retired, who was a pretty solid performer on the track. It then grew into several mares for similar reasons.”
Then there are breeders such as Ivan Dalos who breeds to have the best of both worlds, some foals bred with the intention of selling and others to be raced for himself. With stakes winners and champions aplenty, Dalos’ Tall Oaks Farm has twice been honoured with a Sovereign Award as Canada’s Outstanding Breeder.
In any case, the three most important things to look at when determining a filly or mare’s potential as a broodmare prospect are pedigree, conformation and race record.
A filly or mare’s own lineage is often the first thing looked at by a potential breeder and without a strong pedigree it’s hard to justify the investment of time and money required to breed a racehorse. It’s every breeder’s dream to come across a prospect with exceptional breeding, perfect conformation, a long list of stake wins and money earned. The reality is, those are few and far between and they command top dollar in most sales.
When breeding to sell, an individual’s lack of on track success can sometimes be overlooked as long as there’s a strong family behind her with relatives providing lots of black type. It’s unappealing to see large blocks of blank space throughout a horse’s pedigree page with little to no black type and relatives well into the fourth dam. Many fillies and mares are lightly raced or don’t make the races at all before joining a broodmare band and it’s both her stallion and the strength of her relatives’ accomplishments that make them worthy of being bred. While other factors come into play, pedigree is generally considered to be most important.
As with any horse purchase, a potential broodmare should pass the ‘eye test’ with conformation being very important along with size and build. She must be inspected closely to determine if she has any undesirable issues that could potentially be passed down to her resulting foals.
“Conformation is very important, as is size,” advises Glenn Sikura, adding “Unless you know the family intimately and you can justify that this mare is an outlier, you should avoid poorly-conformed broodmares. If the mare has a good race record I would be a little more forgiving of the conformation.”
Trying to find a balance between pedigree and conformation can be a juggling act, but Sikura ultimately feels that, “Overall, I still think pedigree is the most important; having said that, I would never buy a mare that was too small or very poorly conformed regardless of pedigree. Back at the knee, very small and general unathletic appearance are killers. Toe in, toe out, a little offset are forgivable.”
Adding to those sentiments, Dalos believes, “Conformation is important, but there are many things that you can overlook. She does not have to be perfect, she just cannot have any major problems; i.e. if she toes in slightly it can be overlooked if all else is great, but if she toes out major, then no. You can live with certain conformation defects and some do not pass down or impact. We have had horses that run great with not perfect conformation and have gone on to be good broodmares.”
Not to be overlooked is a mare’s own record as a racehorse. Many mares have been bred in large part due to the sheer talent and heart they displayed on the racetrack during their career. In most cases breeders want to see a good race record, feeling it’s important the mare herself was competitive with a lack of ability more likely to be passed down to her offspring.
Even the greatest race mares bred to the best stallions don’t offer any guarantees of successful progeny. A recent example of this would be that of the legendary Zenyatta. Almost unbeatable as a racehorse, she was 19 for 20 in her illustrious career before becoming one of the most anticipated broodmares in years. With her first four foals failing to win a single race among them, the results thus far have been very underwhelming. Sired by some of North America’s top stallions such as Bernardini, Tapit, Medaglia d’Oro and Candy Ride, Zenyatta’s foals have certainly been bred to be successful, but prove that breeding is not an exact science.
On the other hand, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Dubai World Cup winner California Chrome’s mother Love the Chase was only a one-time winner, breaking her maiden in an $8,000 claiming race before producing the multiple champion and winner of over $14,750,000.
There are of course exceptions to every rule, and while some may see these simply as guidelines, every breeder has their preferences, with each trusting their gut or time-tested methods they’ve found work for themselves. Some will prefer speed, with their choice of sires and broodmares geared towards sprinters; others stamina, looking to breed that Classic-type distance horse. Some breed to get turf-specific runners – dirt or synthetic need not apply. The possibilities and combinations are endless and what is desirable to one may not be to others.
One thing to be sure of, however, is that no matter what type of runner you’re trying to breed, the first and most important step will always be finding a filly or mare you’re confident can produce quality year after year. Easier said than done, but that’s all part of the breeding game and pursuit to breed “the best.”