Friday, March 4th, 2016
By Tom Gallo
This week in From the Horse’s Mouth, we will be hearing from Alan Porter who has been professionally involved with Thoroughbreds for over 40 years. He has authored racing and breeding analyses for almost four decades, and has been planning matings for over 30 years.
After several years working on a stallion farm in England, Alan turned to journalism, joining Stud & Stable (later Pacemaker), a journal on which Alan worked as Deputy Editor. He then served an eight-year term as advisor for Mr. & Mrs. Bertram R. Firestone’s Catoctin Farm and Gilltown Studs before becoming a freelance pedigree adviser and journalist initially working from Long Island, N.Y., but now from Florence, Oregon.
Over the years, Alan has written regular columns for Daily Racing Form, Thoroughbred Daily News, Pacemaker, Kieba Book, The Australian Bloodhorse Review, Bluebloods, The Blood-Horse, The International Racehhorse, as well as contributing to numerous other publications in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.
Alan has also authored three books on racing including Patterns of Greatness and Patterns of Greatness II – The Americans (co-written with Anne Peters) and is now publisher of Owner-Breeder International. A speaker at numerous seminars and conferences around the world, Alan has also provided pedigree commentary on camera for Fox Sports Network and for New York Times Television.
Alan Porter has consulted on breedings that have resulted in more than 300 stakes winners to date. They include at least four Eclipse Award winners, the winners of at least seven Breeders’ Cup events, as well as races like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Melbourne Cup (twice), Golden Slipper, French Derby, etc., as well as New York-breds that won in top-class company like Friends Lake, Artemis Agotera and Samraat, They include other champions and classic winners in Canada, Ireland, Germany, Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates, and group and grade I winners in at least 14 different countries. Matings planned for current runners include Mohaymen, Gun Runner and Zulu, who are all on the Triple Crown trail this year, and recent grade one winner Luke’s Alley.
He currently advises leading breeders and owners in the U.S., Europe, and Australia as owner of Pedigree Consultants LLC. He is also a partner in TrueNicks and Performance Genetics LLC.
Alan has been an owner and breeder in both England the U.S., and also owns an off-track Thoroughbred riding horse.
How important is it to do pedigree research when choosing a stallion for your mare?
After 40+ years of studying pedigrees, and 30 years of planning matings, I’m obviously going to be biased, but simple logic dictates that the choice of the stallion dictates the range of possibilities. It doesn’t take very long looking at pedigrees to see that historically there have been some combinations that have considerably outperformed opportunity, and some have done far worse.
These days A++ knicks are all the rage, seems simplistic to me, is it that easy? Choose a stallion, plug in your mare and out comes the magic combo? Genetics is a bit more involved no?
The information available from nicking programs is useful data. I was involved in the creation of the TrueNicks program (and am still a partner in the company), which is unique as it looks at sire/broodmare or sireline/broodmare sireline crosses taking into opportunity, both numerically and in terms of the class of the horses.
As far as mating plans are concerned, I run a TrueNicks Broodmare Analysis Plus Report or True Nicks Key Ancestor Report, which considers the whole pedigree. Both give a five cross pedigree of the mare, and a lot more data, including the top horses bred on the cross, their sires and dams, and the standard of their best win, information on colts and fillies on cross, and distance and surface information.
You do generally want to avoid a cross that has been tried a lot with representative sires and mares, and produced very little. There is, however, a lot else to consider from the pedigree/aptitude standpoint. I look inbreeding and linebreeding patterns created, taking into account whether the sire or the dam themselves are inbred or outcrossed. We have to consider what you are trying to breed: for example if you are breeding in the New York-bred program, and at maybe the mid-level, you have to think about what opportunities are going to be available if you end up with perhaps a middle-distance turf horse who isn’t top-class. On the other hand, if you had a graded stakes winning turf mare, you might be quite happy to go to a Kitten’s Joy type stallion. For the commercial breeder there are other considerations, often concerned with timing, and the kind of mares a stallion might have been covering for the crops of that are going to be racing when you have a sales horse.
Now, we’ve moved a little away from the genetics aspect of the mating. As a general rule, however, the sire lines offer an import guide as that is where the highest quality tends to reside – a stallion usually doesn’t get to go to stud unless his performance level (and therefore his genetics) are high-quality.
That said there are cases where we would look past the nick. A horse like More Than Ready, tends to be more of his “own man” than being a “Halo line stallion” and we recently recommend a “D” nick mating for him, where Halo in general had been bad, but More Than Ready, for reasons we could see, had worked. You also get cases where a male-line changes course. Super Saver is by Maria’s Mon, but his dam is a Seattle Slew/Mr. Prospector/Northern Dancer cross, and where Maria’s Mon was disappointing with Mr. Prospector, Super Saver’s done well with Mr. Prospector, particularly combined with Seattle Slew or Northern Dancer. I’m expecting Super Saver’s son, Competitive Edge, to work well with Storm Cat, who wasn’t a huge nick for Super Saver.
We shouldn’t overlook too, that the female line is a unique genetic factor in the mating. The mitochondrial DNA, which are vital to the energy systems used in exercise, are inherited through the direct female line from mother to daughter. For optimal impact, however, the mitochondrial DNA has to combine with the right nuclear DNA, which is why we see certain female lines work well with certain stallions or sire lines, so it is worth paying careful attention to the strains that are present in the sires of the best runners from the family.
To give a couple of practical examples where “thinking outside the nick” has paid off for me: we recommended Storm Cat mares for Quality Road, even though it wasn’t a good nick, and we came up with grade one winner Hootenanny and graded winner Blofeld on the cross, both from out matings. Similarly, we recommend the mating for Mohaymen, who by Tapit out of a Dixie Union mare, and is currently on of the Kentucky Derby favorites. He wasn’t a mega-nick (A.P. Indy/Dixieland Band), but Dixie Union had done well over A.P. Indy mares, and we loved the linebreeding and inbreeding.
I’d argue that picking a mare for a stallion is a complex business, and when you consider that even if you if you had the mare and the season for free, it’s still going to cost maybe $15,000 to get to a yearling sale, or twice that to get to the track, that it’s well worth paying $400-$500 to get that initial choice right!
How important is it to actually go look at the Stallions and watch them move and walk?
You definitely need to know what the stallion is like, particularly in terms of avoiding faults that are in the mare. It also helps to see as many of the offspring of the stallion as possible to see whether he is passing on certain traits or not.
It helps to also know what your mare’s history and what she has thrown being bred to other stallions?
Yes, as sometimes a mare will dominate her mates for certain characteristics. If you know that she has consistently thrown a foal that is, say, correct in front, then you might be prepared to risk her with a stallion who is not perfect in that regard.
Sometimes the older guys just don’t look the part anymore will that affect their ability to continue to sire high class runners?
We have done some studies, and there is no doubt that a stallion’s performance declines with age, even when they are super-elite stallions, and covering top books of mares. Even Storm Cat and Sadler’s Wells were not immune.
I used to think that whatever the age the DNA the genes that are transmitted were the same, so there was no logical reason for performance to decline with age. I’m involved with a company called Performance Genetics, and I’ve learned quiet a lot since we’ve been studying equine DNA. There is a process called “methylation” that impact gene expression, so the same genes are present but those that are expressed might change. It’s been suggested as a factor in the increased incidence in autism with increased age of the father. It explains why you can get a perfectly viable horse – it’s got a head, four-legs and a tail – but it’s not as good an athlete, as the expression of certain genes is altered. There are some older high-level stallions out there now, that are still getting stakes winners, and graded winners, but the supply of grade one winners has dried up. You’ll also see the really good horses that make it from a low stud fee, have to be very good to continue to match their early crops even with better mares.
I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, and the general health and vitality of the stallion is probably a useful indicator, but age does catch up with all of them eventually, even if they remain commercially viable enough to attract good mares.
I always hear people say that they want to put size into their foal so because they have a small mare to breed it to a large stallion, that’s not always the case is it?
You certainly don’t want to radical a contrast, and you wouldn’t want to breed a small mare to a large stallion for her first foal! What’s surprising is that tall stallions often work with mares by taller broodmare sires: I’m thinking of things like Unbridled’s Song with Nijinsky II; Pleasant Colony with Nijinsky II; Dynaformer with Unbridled’s Song, which you wouldn’t expect. I do think you want somewhat similar proportions. Overall, I’d say, if you are trying to change something, size, type, distance, aim to slightly modify, rather than go for the opposite, even if takes more than a generation to get where you want to go.
You and I have known each other for many years and many times you’ve suggested matings that were not an A or A+++ but sometimes an interesting combination of blood that came out a B so why should I do that when everybody wants the perfect mating?
It depends how you define the perfect mating! I’d say that we are aiming – generally – for the mating that gives us the best chance of a desirable outcome given the resources available. There are a number of criteria that should be considered, the success of the sireline/broodmare sire line cross is only one. It’s an important one to be sure, but has probably received disproportion weight, since it is one that appears easily quantifiable. The best possible mating will usually – but not always – have a positive nick rating, but when all factors are considered that mating could easily be one that is a TrueNicks “B” rather than “A”
Holy Crap there is an increased number of stallion prospects being retired lately. What with all the incentive programs and free nominations along with the stallion season auctions. Realistically what percentage of colts sent to the shed each year really do end up as established commercial and Gr 1 producing stallions?
Would you say you’d have to weed through a lot more chaf before you get to the fruit these days in looking for a legitimate Stallion Prospect?
Well, there aren’t as many stallions being retired from the track as in “the old days,” but there are more than any time since the crash in 2008.
Stallion selection is certainly not easy. As we’ve said there tends to be a decline with age. On the other hand, I think it’s very nearly impossible to predict stallion performance from race-record and pedigree. Once a stallion is good enough to be a mainstream commercial stallion – say a good grade two winner in Kentucky – then there isn’t a lot of correlation between performance and success. We can look at four sons of Pulpi – Tapit, Sky Mesa, Corinthian and Purge – all grade one winners with successful stallions close up in their families (although we think the concept of stallion family is another myth). Tapit, admittedly with a career cut short by illness, ran the lowest Beyer Speedfigure of the three. Corinthian, who retired to the same farm at a higher stud fee, and was from the family of Sadler’s Wells and Nureyev, was a complete bust. Then you have a horse like the prematurely deceased Lawyer Ron, who is by a solid blue-collar sire – Langfuhr – from a very weak female line, who did a tremendous job from the two crops he had. Horses like Indian Charlie, Tiznow and Midnight Lute, didn’t have fashionable pedigrees, but have made it.
So, you have unproven stallions that really are a shot in the dark (are they Tapit or Corinthian?) and older sires that are likely to fade as they age. In between that we have the proven sires. That’s fine if you can go to a Tapit, for example, who is not only proven as a top-class sire, but has several very well-bred crops to run, but many more worthwhile stallions tend to be somewhat up and down, simply because of the inconsistent quality of their books. The pattern is often that a stallion goes to stud, has a big first book, and then the quality of his mares declines steadily over the next few years – unless has a major impact with his first weanlings or yearlings – his books won’t really improve again unless his runners hit. So a horse that retired in 2010, had foals of 2011, but didn’t break out until his runners were three, in 2014, might then get a big book of mares in 2015, for foals of 2016, and three-year-olds of 2019. In between those those crops, however, he might go very quiet, as he wasn’t covering great books of mares. In those situations, stud fees, yearling prices and racetrack activity can get quite a way out of sync. So a stallion can have his best bred crops at the sales during a period where his runners are from his weakest books of mares. There is a lot to keep straight when judging these horses, and whether they are value at a specific point!
In the old days when we both started in the business Lasix was not allowed on racetracks on the NYRA circuit. At that time I was a stallion seasons broker and many of my clients would not breed to stallions that ran out side of NY because of a belief that a horse running on Lasix had a weakness that would be passed on genetically. In the previous answer you indicated that stallions in England and Ireland are medication free. Have the effects of medication have any affect on the performance level of the offspring of a stallion who ran on medication, and more directly queried from a bio-medical standpoint, have you seen evidence that the proliferation of medication has weakened the breed in the US?
Interesting question! Funnily enough about 95% of the breed goes back in male-line to an English horse called Bartlett’s Childers, whose nickname was “Bleeding Childers.” He was a foal of 1716, and another very influential stallion, Hermit, the winner of the 1867 Epsom Derby was also a bleeder, so it’s not a new problem.
You do tend to hear much less about horses bleeding in Europe, although it does happen. We never heard anything in Europe about American horses bleeding more often back in the days that there were a lot of U.S. breds imported.
That said, since there is a genetic element involved, you would think that if anti-bleeding remedies are not available, really bad bleeders at least, would be less likely to go to stud, and reproduce.
I’m going to hazard a guess that to some degree, however, if there really is a higher degree of bleeding in the U.S., it’s influenced by a couple of factors. One is dust, which is very prevalent in the shedrow system. The other is dirt racing which sees horses go out quickly and “die” rather than run in the “cruise and kick” style of European racing. If you’ve ever been running in a track race and gone out too fast, you’ll know that doing so places a lot more stress on the system. Of course, there is an incentive to observe any level of bleeding in the U.S., as that gives permission to run on Lasix, which is generally accepted to be performance enhancer.
In general medication might be a contributory factor in horses running less often, as they run harder and take more out of themselves, and there is also a dehydration factor with Lasix. At the higher end, I think you also have to look to the compression of the breed. I’d suggest that the best horses aren’t any better than 40-50 years ago, whereas the best horses from the 1970s where almost certainly faster than in the 1930s. In the meantime, the average horse has improved, so the best horses are in general not so removed from the next level. So where a Citation could run in a smaller race the week before the Derby, and have nothing more than a exercise gallop, you would find much stiffer competition if you tried that now. If you look at distance running in athletics, you see that the weekend warriors or club runners might run a race almost every weekend, but you don’t see Olympic or World Championship hopefuls doing that: they race sparingly and careful prep to be right on the big day. So, unlike the era of the great handicap horse, when runners like Stymie, Assault, Armed and Gallorette, modern elite horses are prepped like elite athletes, raced sparingly, with two, or at most three starts in the spring going into the Derby. By the way, while we tend to think of the horses of yesteryear being sounder, that wasn’t always the case. Native Dancer had ankle problems most of his career; Bold Ruler battled unsoundness throughout his time in training; and Citation missed a whole season at four!
Perhaps the biggest problem with medication, is perception. It definitely negatively impacts the export value of the U.S. thoroughbred, and it gives the casual sports fan the impression that horses are “drugged” to make them run better. Perhaps a pragmatic solution is that medication is not allowed at the higher level, say graded stakes, while it is available for horses running at the bread-and-butter level?
Are they stricter overseas with retiring horses then we are stateside?
There isn’t really much need for restrictions in England and Ireland, as the domestic product runs medication free, and the quality of the European thoroughbred is at a level where England and Ireland don’t look to import stallion prospects. In Germany, stallions that have raced on medication are not recognized by the Breeding Commission, and they have to be evaluated on performance, and physical aspects. In fact a few years back, a German Derby winner nearly didn’t make it on conformation.
In England and Ireland there are a few big outfits that really dominate the landscape. France is interesting as it went through a quiet spell, but has had some breakout stallions that weren’t commercially obvious, but got great support from their owners like Le Havre and Kendargent. They also have a very hot young stallion – Siyouni, by the Nureyev line horse Pivotal – owned by the Aga Khan.
Thank you Alan for your time and knowledge. Watch for more helpful interviews and save the date for our next LIVE Educational Seminar on April 30 at the Fasig-Tipton pavilion! If you have any questions for Mr. Porter or comments, questions, feedback or suggestions for future dialogue, feel free to email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. — Tom Gallo