STAMPING THEIR STOCK
Article by Tony Morris
Tony Morris will contribute quarterly features to www.juddmonte.com. If you have a query relating to historic events, horses or racing personalities, or want his view on any aspect of Flat racing and breeding, past or present (with the exception of advice on matings), write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your request.
My thanks are due to Geoff Snowball for the interesting e-mail that provides the topic for this article. Geoff says he is not involved in the industry, but is fascinated by thoroughbred breeding. Good for him! He notes that all the photographs of FRANKEL foals he has seen seem to show ‘baby Frankels’, while breeder Philippa Cooper has been quoted as saying that all her foals by FRANKEL's distinguished contemporary Nathaniel resemble their dams. He wonders whether there is anything significant about stallions stamping their stock. Does it promise success on the racecourse, or should it be considered an irrelevance?
I don’t know how many photos of FRANKEL foals Geoff has seen, and nor do I know how many Nathaniel foals Philippa Cooper owns. But in both cases reference is inevitably to a very small sample of crops that exceed 100 by far. Impressions gained from such limited numbers are apt to be misleading, but in truth we might have photographic evidence of entire crops and still be misled. My own limited sightings of FRANKEL foals – in the low double digits – indicated to me that they were not by any means all in his image, though all walked well, which horsemen naturally find pleasing, but recognise as just one attribute among many that often matter.
The market pronounced on the products of both sires in 2014, and it was unsurprising that there was far more variation in the prices paid for the Nathaniels than in those for the FRANKELs, given the obvious difference in the quality of their respective books. Anyone with the best interests of the British breeding industry at heart will want both stallions – each a son of Galileo out of an outstanding broodmare – to succeed, but we must be realistic about how we measure success.
In the old days a truly exceptional stallion like Nasrullah or Northern Dancer might achieve a ratio of more than 20 per cent stakes-winners to foals. We defined a good sire as one who could register ten per cent. In the era of three-figure books, no stallion is going to manage close to 20 per cent, and it takes one of outstanding merit to exceed ten per cent. That is how things are in today’s ultra-competitive environment. The overwhelming majority of the stock of even the best sires are not going to prove capable of winning at Listed level or higher. The phenomenon known as regression to the mean guarantees that FRANKEL (Timeform-rated 147) can never get a runner as good as himself, but he is certainly entitled to get plenty of top-class performers, as the likes of Nijinsky and Mill Reef did in the past, achieving ratios of stakes-winners to foals in the teens; Nathaniel (Timeform-rated 129) might well get some stock who exceed his achievements, much as Northern Dancer and Sadler’s Wells did.
It is still common for horsemen to award special respect to the bay stallion who gets only bay offspring. That probably began with multiple champion sire Highflyer in the eighteenth century, and over the years the phenomenon gained further credibility through the exploits of numerous other important sires, such as Galopin, St Simon, Blandford, Sir Gallahad, Tantieme, Round Table, Sir Tristram and Sadler’s Wells, but it actually meant nothing. Having received a bay gene from both parents, those horses were incapable of siring a chesnut.
But countless indifferent and bad stallions have failed to get chesnuts; Hyperion, six times champion sire and a huge world-wide influence was a chesnut son of bay parents and had only one chesnut grandparent. I well recall a prejudice against Nijinsky’s chesnut products, a theory that took a bit of a knock in 1986, when Ferdinand and Shahrastani won Derbys on each side of the Atlantic; Lammtarra later underlined the folly. Let’s be clear about it: colour signifies nothing on the racecourse or at stud.
We soon got to learn that FRANKEL and Nathaniel, both with bay parents and having only one chesnut grandparent (Urban Sea) had acquired a chesnut gene from somewhere. Each gets bay and chesnut offspring, as does Galileo, who sired classic winners of both colours – chesnut Nightime and bay Sixties Icon – in his first crop, thus ensuring that no prejudice developed in his case.
Of course there is more to the notion of a horse stamping his stock than colour, and horsemen not unnaturally prefer a stallion’s stock to at least resemble the sire in general outline, but there are far too many exceptions to the rule for the notion to warrant acceptance as fact. And it cuts both ways. My mind goes back to Tattersalls in 1970, when the only Northern Dancer colt on offer in Europe was up for sale. We had just seen Nijinsky, a son of the same sire, win the Triple Crown and everyone was expecting him to win the Arc in a few days’ time. There were only two bidders for the colt at Tatts, and he was knocked down for the paltry sum of 15,000gns. Why? He looked nothing like the imposing Nijinsky, who had given us an image of how a son of Northern Dancer should look.
Of course, we were to learn in time that Nijinsky was the least typical of all Northern Dancer’s stock, and that the yearling who turned few heads – Lyphard – was not only in the mould of his sire, but a much more typical representative of his sire’s progeny. On paper, The Minstrel was a very close relation of Nijinsky, but – small and chesnut – he looked everything that his three-quarter brother wasn’t. He was, though, in the same mould as his sire, and not a great deal inferior to Nijinsky as an athlete.
I always think it is useful to consider human relations to gain some appreciation of how genetics works, and that’s something that almost anyone can do. I have five children, none of whom resembles me, and their differences are far more marked than their similarities; but there are three females among my eight grandchildren who have obvious Morris physical characteristics. I have photographs of my mother taken in the 1920s in groups of 40 or 50 women; when I challenge anyone who knows my youngest daughter to identify her grandmother in those pictures, they find her instantly.
I have a pal in Kentucky, David Dink, who must have done more in-depth research into thoroughbred pedigrees than anyone else, past or present. Through his analyses of entire crops of racehorses, he has successfully demolished every theory of breeding ever promulgated. How does he summarise what he has learned? ‘Breeding is just a crap-shoot.’ I feel bound to agree with him.
Tony Morris has been writing about racing and breeding for over 50 years, contributing to numerous publications at home and abroad. He is the author or co-author of several books, was named Racing Journalist of the Year in 1990, and in 2010 received the TBA's highest award, the Devonshire Bronze, for his 'outstanding contribution to the British breeding industry. He has travelled widely, attending race meetings and bloodstock sales in various countries, and has been privileged to see many of the best horses and meet many of the most prominent personalities in the industry over the last half-century.
Date: 6 March 2015