Breeder’s road to success

A research by Ulf Lindström relating to the records of 58 "Elite broodmares“ of Sweden

Owner of a broodmare of potential, what makes the breeder achieve success as measured by the performance (earnings) of the offspring? Blue-blooded or not, there is no guarantee that the genes of the mares will make the human factor – the choice of sire – irrelevant. This analysis checks basic regularities among the cohort of 58 "Elite Broodmares" born 1980 or later, as named by the Swedish Association of Breeders, ASVT.* Two variables are in focus:

1. Which offspring in order of birth turns out exceptionally good; is it "third-time lucky" as is often heard in the industry?

– And what about age of dam at first foal; young debut as broodmare means first three offspring best?

2. How consistent is the breeder with staying with sires of pure American blood as an alternative to try the Franco-American option, and vice versa?

– And what about "Don't change a winning concept," or is change of blood indicative of analysis, just curiosity or perhaps despair?

– And what about "Don't change horses in mid-semen," or is returning the mare to the same sire over and over again to have full siblings a sign of analysis or just going for the default option? 

1. Best among the offspring

Geneticists tell us that turnover of generations is improving the breed, and it would be foolish to argue against the thesis. Only thing is, the turnover bonus is not all that obvious among the community of breeders.

Best offspring in sequence of foals:

1st       11

2nd      10

3rd       12

 1+2+3 33 =  57%

4th         6

5th         7

6th         1

7th-     11 =  19%

Indeed, of all foals, the ones that are third in the production row are destined for the highest earnings at the races. Note also, that more than half (57%) of this broodmare population gives birth to the most successful offspring at the first, second and third foaling. Of mystery is the unfortunate records of the 6th foals.

Skip the sixth breeding? Of course, there is a statistical bias in favor of success of early production. At least four factors are recognized as part of the explanation. For a start, the first foal as well as foals out of older mares and/or late in the production row, are disadvantaged by lower supply of nutrients to the fetus. The human influences enter in sequence; first, some mares in foal are bought dearly for the pedigree, like the record of a full sister. Second, "average" mares are denied further coverings after, say, 3 or 4 foals of less than good conformation. They could have shaped up their acts starting with the 5th foal, also perhaps after a change of sire. Third, the community of breeders is known to lower its ambitions (economize, be content or reckless) if the early progeny has turned out to perform way over expectations, making the consecutive choices of sire less discriminant. Finally, the first-born, hyped yearlings of stellar pedigree are disproportionally pampered by being stabled with the top-notch trainers.

When to retire the mares, then? Of the 42 mares that have given birth to 10 foals or more – a combined crop of 183 individuals – only 3 offspring (2%) turned out to become their ageing dams' pride. Trapped (US, by Bonefish) foaled Marshland as her 19th and final offspring, a colt that went on to earn SEK 6m. But, 57 (32%) of the offspring to the heroines of the breeding barns either never entered a race or earned less than SEK 35,000. This – again with the benefit of hindsight – suggests that the breeder should have gone to the yearling sales to pick up a more promising individual (for the money s/he earned by dumping the unfortunate one on someone who had paid too little attention to the records of foals late in production). 

Age of dam at breeding debut and record of offspring:

Age dam  3-5         6-8       9-

Sum          18          33       7

1st best       4           7        1

2nd              3           4        0

3rd               0           8        4

 -1+2+3     7 (39%)    19 (58%)  5  (71%)

4th               2           2        1

5th               3           4        0

6th               0           1        0

7th-        6 (33%)     7 (21%)  1  (14%) Tot Sum 58

Young broodmares are more successful with their early compared to late offspring, 39% of the first three born and 33% of their production at mature age went on to become the most successful. Having said that, the slightly older debutants had an even better production record early in their breeding careers, or 58% turned out the best offspring if born as the first, second or third in the row. The senior mares, here only 9 of 58, had their 5 best performers among the first three offspring.

In sum, turnover of generations is a necessary but not sufficient parameter for improvement of the bloodstock, and be realistic: retire broodmares, in particular those who are getting long in their teeth, after their 9th foal.

2. Change of blood of sire.

If in doubt, stay with the pure American Standardbred blood.1 This advice, incidentally, also applies to most sires born in Europe outside France. For instance, Viking Kronos is registered as Italian, which is fine; he is 100% American in pedigree. Sires registered as DK, SE, DE may be of French descent in small portions (Maharajah and Brioni, each 10% French blood), but even the stallions with more French blood in their veins than many „real Frenchmen"(so-called trotteur français) do not qualify as French sires.

Broodmares taken to U.S. born sires throughout their careers are 9 altogether, producing 100 offspring out of which only 23 never saw a racetrack. Those bred to Americans in Europe too are 20, which means 29 broodmares at least once have given birth to offspring by French registered sires. None however has stayed loyal to the French blood throughout the breeding career (hence no comparable data to the all-American offspring).

The number of first born to French sires are 8, to sires registered in Sweden 9. Of the "patriot breeders", 2 were extremely lucky with their choice of Swedish sire, 1 quite, 1 very and 1 fairly satisfied. The "Frenchie" breeders--and this include those who bought a French broodmare already in foal to a French sire--make up 8 out of the 58 in the population, and 7 of them were extremely or quite satisfied with what they were to witness down the road. One broodmare had her first 7 offspring by French sires, 3 became million-earners. Anecdotal evidence only, but the few cases of a marked French touch to the breeding policy does not show extreme variations in earnings among the progeny. 

A tricky question for the breeder is when to change between the two major sire types; every third year, or when the choosen path has exhausted its shots at fame and fortune? Only, what if the 3rd offspring ahead of the change, the mare already being in foal to the "other type," suddenly has a metamorphosis, scoring wins in group races with fat purses?

The issue is also infested with strong opinions about the French blood, from the incurable fans to the equally stubborn detractors of French trotting. Checking the data, there seem to be stories behind the choice of trying the French card: informed analysis in a couple of instances, principal Francophile bias to about the same extent. But in about 10 cases of going for the French option the impression is a non-committed "why not?" There are also a few instances of breeders' choice that suggest that the owners of the broodmares should have stayed loyal to French semen, as there are cases the other way around.

In sum, unfortunately the bloodstock industry in Sweden – like in the rest of Europe – is less than satisfactory informed about the uses and abuses of French blood. Of something of a paradox then, breeders outside France may have good business reasons to learn more about the options available.

3. Siblings, fine but why?

The jury is still out on the case about full siblings. Too many siblings leave a record behind that puzzles the industry: Hadol du Vivier was a better racehorse than his big brother Fakir du Vivier, but the latter was a sire of prominence whereas the former flopped (HdV had 1 Swedish-born offspring earning more than SEK 0.5m, FdV had 9). The great Valley Victory outran as well as outsired his vicious brother Wall Street Banker, and so on.2

Returning the mare to a sire for a full sibling is anything but a trial and error policy, it is a choice that reflects on the community of breeders. So, what does a high proportion of full siblings say about the community? Professionalism, choice of sire as indicative of serious analysis? Perhaps, but if all the offspring of the respective "Elite Broodmares" were by different sires, the same conclusion is equally valid as a sign of thourough analysis of the sires available.

Tot no. of Broodmares                       58

   Broodmares with full/no siblings  55/3

   Production total                            667

   Production full siblings                 336

   Non-starters: full siblings/total  17%   9%

   Ratio full siblings:non-related       3:2  

Of the 58 broodmares, 55 have produced full brothers and full sisters, to the combined number of 336 foals, or half the total production (667) of progeny. Of the 336 individuals who have at least one brother or sister, only 58 turned out a disappointment in the sense that they never earned a cent (if at all they entered a race). The non-starting proportion of full siblings is therefore quite low, or 17% of all siblings and only 9% of the combined life-time crops of the 58 mares. Of less than obvious reasons, 41 of the 58 non-starters related by blood were full sisters, only 17 full brothers. This "gender gap" is of human making. A full sister to a very successful brother is likely to be given a short time to prove her worth at the race track before being transferred to the breeding barn (along with excuses such as injury contracted at play in the paddock). (Rough estimate of the non-starting yearly crops in Sweden for the period: 45%.) The bottom line: 34 broodmares did better with their full siblings (25 full brothers, 9 full sisters), 24 did better with the offspring not fully related by blood.

In sum, while full siblings, full brothers in particular, may prove to be rewarding for the breeder and subsequent owners – and for the community of breeders full siblings was a slightly better option than avoiding these matings – the only conclusion must remain self-evident; at least wait until the old brother/sister-to-be has reach 3 before returning the dam to the sire.

4. Conclusion

The gene and the human factor, what accounts for the success among the progeny? Overall, the human factor enters primarily at the initial and concluding points of a breeding career, the acquisition and retirement of the broodmare. In between the mare herself is more important than the breeder. This is not to say that the mare could have foaled a star performer with just about any local nag as choice of sire. For one thing, a mark of the breeding community is that left behind as a "gender bias." The wish for a full brother to a successful sister and/or another successful full brother, or sister for future breeding purposes, is indicative of a professional breeding policy. As for the issue of blood – to opt for American or American with a heavy French accent – we are left with confirming the most common conclusion in the industry: it's a toss-up!

1. "Der prozentuale Anteil der mit einem Geldgewinn notierten 1.074 Nachkommen der 112 französischen Zuchtstuten mit einem Gruppe 1-Sieger als Nachkomme liegt bei mageren 53,4 Prozent.“
J. Gassner: Retrieved 12/08/2013. Note, however, offspring born in Sweden with high proportion of French blood are known to perform according to the saying "many flops, but when they turn out successful they are quite successfull. "Det blir flera dåliga hästar, men när det väl blir bra blir det riktigt bra." P. Jonsson: Retrieved 12/08/2013.
2. On full brothers at stud, see Travhästen, no 5, 2011:öder%20i%20aveln.pdf

Data: The 58 "Elite Broodmares“ and their records: (click on the pdf)

Last update Dec 8, 2013.
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