Athleticism Runs in Their Family
Thoroughbreds are purpose-bred to be athletes, but for many, running is just one of their many strengths
By Jen Roytz, Kentucky Equestrian Directory 2021 Issue
In the world of Thoroughbred breeding, the pedigree is king. Drive through the Central Kentucky countryside each spring and you’ll likely see scores of Thoroughbred foals frolicking in the fields with their dams, testing out their new legs and discovering their love for running and racing with their friends.
Each of those foals represent not only their owner’s aspirations of success on the racetrack, but the potential that lies ahead long after they’ve run their final race.
Purpose-bred to be superior athletes, every Thoroughbred foal began as an idea on paper, the result of careful planning and consideration about how the bloodlines of their sire and dam could potentially complement each other to create an individual that is greater than the sum of its parts. Significant investment backs that idea, from the stud fee of the sire to complete the mating, to the eleven months of care, proper nutrition, prenatal veterinary work, and more that is spent before the foal ever takes its first breath.
Just like humans or any other animal, not every Thoroughbred is athletically gifted in the same way. Their genetic makeup, conformation, and biomechanics might lend themselves to a horse having a propensity for turf over dirt, or sprint races versus route, or longer distance events.
In the same vein, these characteristics can also lend themselves to non-racing attributes, such as suspension at the trot, form over fences, quick turns, temperament, and mental fortitude, all of which are considerations for equestrians looking for their next sport horse or recreational riding partner.
Reloaded, Thoroughbred Makeover Champion in 2018, with trainer, Elisa Wallace.
Notable Sire Lines
In the world of Thoroughbred breeding, primary importance is placed on the statistics and progeny results of stallions in a horse’s pedigree, with the stallions of closest relation (sire, damsire, grandsire) often carrying greater significance in decisions.
Why not on the female progeny results some might ask? Only because of the ratio of parents to offspring – while a female horse can produce one foal in a calendar year, a stallion is able to sire many more progeny in a year (in the case of a popular stallion, that can mean well over 100 offspring in a given year and well over one thousand in a lifetime, versus a mare producing one foal a year and, even as a successful broodmare, likely less than 15 in her lifetime). From a purely data-driven perspective, there is simply a larger pool of subjects from which to glean information from the standpoint of stallion progeny than that of mare progeny.
That is not to say that the dam’s side of the family is not important; it is significantly so. Much of the information available for consideration, however, is dependent on the sires on the dam’s side of the pedigree for the same reasons mentioned above.
As a stallion advances in his career, horsemen and handicappers alike begin to notice trends in their offspring, and as their offspring retire from racing and embark on new careers, predispositions for various disciplines, tendencies, or temperaments become apparent as well.
Upper level eventer, coach, and trainer, Jenn O’Neill, specializes in retraining Thoroughbreds for the sport of eventing under the banner of Lucky Dog Eventing. Based in Lexington, Kentucky, O’Neill estimates she restarts and sells more than 20 Thoroughbreds each year, putting the first rides and foundational retraining on them post-racing.
“I try to find horses that have a good, trainable mind,” said O’Neill. “Talent is great, but if you can’t harness that talent, that does you no good. If I’m looking for a lower level amateur-friendly horse, what I care about most is the horse’s attitude.”
While temperament and demeanor aren’t typically the primary traits horsemen breeding to race are concerned with, they are predispositions that some sires are known for more than others.
“Arch, for example, is a sire that produces amateur-friendly, big horses. These guys typically are just quiet and happy to do whatever you want,” said O’Neill. “I’ve had several horses by More Than Ready, or out of mares by More Than Ready. They tend to be on the smaller side, but they have such great attitudes and can figure exercises out easily. They’re good jumpers, but possibly a little tougher on the flat with their typically lower neck sets.”
In addition to temperament, O’Neill places primary importance on the quality of a horse’s canter. She says over the years she has found several sire lines that often offer that combination.
“Stallions I like to see as sires or damsires include Steven Got Even (or his son, stallion, First Dude), Johar, Bellamy Road, and Candy Ride,” said O’Neill. “All tend to throw good brains and great canters. Plus, all of the Candy Rides I’ve seen have huge tails, which is always a fun bonus.”
Other sire “likes” O’Neill tries to seek out are Unbridled’s Song (“good canters with a great jump”), Hat Trick (“really attractive, but usually on the smaller side; catty, with a great jump”) and A.P. Indy (“usually have beautiful necks and front ends”), as well as Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.
“I’ve had a few by Fusaichi Pegasus that were real hunter types physically, with tons of bone and pretty heads,” she explained. “They tend to be stubborn to begin with, but once they understand their job, they’ll work with you.”
Thanks to the quantity of horses she retrains and sells in a given year, fellow Thoroughbred retrainer, Jessica Redman, has also learned which traits tend to come with certain sire lines. Redman, who operates Benchmark Sport Horses in Delaware, and often sources horses throughout Central Kentucky, retrains and sells more than 140 horses per year.
“The majority of my buyers tend to be eventers, so I look for bloodlines that throw uphill, good-moving, and good-jumping types that can hold their own against the Warmbloods,” said Redman. “I tend to like sires by El Prado, Sadler’s Wells and Galileo.”
Other sires or sires-of-sires Redman likes include: Dynaformer, Arch, Empire Maker, English Channel, Stormy Atlantic, Malibu Moon, Maria’s Mon, Medaglia d’Oro, Tiznow, Street Sense, and Kitten’s Joy.
Exercise rider and show jumping competitor, Laura Moquett, has had the pleasure of riding hundreds of horses at the racetrack and transitioning some of them to sport careers afterward. One of her current favorite morning mounts is Breeders’ Cup winner and fan favorite, Whitmore, who she gallops daily for her husband, trainer Ron Moquett.
Laura has noticed pedigree attributes that lend themselves to sport horse talent, but due to her job as an exercise rider, she often comes to her conclusions in a different way than O’Neill and Redman, noticing the attributes before knowing what the pedigree is.
“I am a sucker for a big-moving, good-looking horse when it goes by at the track,” said Moquett, who acquired her current jumper, a gelding by Bellamy Road, when he caught her eye at the track. “Over the years, I’ve found turf horses to have a more natural, floaty action and often a good jump. I tend to like how they carry themselves behind – they often use themselves well and also often have a nice swing from their shoulder.”
Moquett says she also looks for horses with higher-set necks, which one can often see as a physical characteristic thrown by certain stallions, such as Tiznow, Giant’s Causeway, and Sadler’s Wells.
“I feel like [the higher set neck] helps them put more of their weight behind them for things like rocking back into the jump or getting a proper lead change,” she said. “I also like a horse that tries and is smart, but not too smart. You want a horse to be a thinker, but not an over-thinker.”
The Pedigree is Only the Beginning
So often, pedigree is an excellent indicator of a horse’s propensity to have certain off-track (or on-track) characteristics and attributes. But, as most trainers will attest, a good horse is a good horse, no matter what the breeding, and from time to time a horse will overcome its breeding.
Such was the case with Champion racehorse, Runhappy. Runhappy was sired by Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, who himself is by Maria’s Mon (both favorites of off-track Thoroughbred rehomers). He is out of the mare, Bella Jolie, whose two victories came in races farther than a mile, and who was sired by Broken Vow, a stallion known for producing distance runners. Runhappy was clearly bred to excel at the mile-and-a-quarter “Classic distance” – the distance of some of America’s premier races, including the Kentucky Derby, Travers Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Instead, Runhappy became an American Eclipse Award Champion Sprinter, setting a new track record in capturing the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint and earning most of his wins in front-running style. His only losses came when he was asked to go a mile or farther.
Cigar is another prime example of a racehorse bucking his pedigree. By Palace Music, a multiple Group/Grade 1 turf stakes winner in Europe and America, Cigar was expected to be a turf specialist. While he was good on the turf, he was truly exceptional on the dirt, putting together a 16-race winning streak that included victories in the Donn Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Hollywood Gold Cup, Woodward Stakes, Pimlico Special, Oaklawn Handicap, Gulfstream Park Handicap, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, all Grade 1 dirt races.
Jenn O'Neill says High Shine (Giant's Causeway - Silky Omega, by Fusaichi Pegasus) definitely gets his attitude from his damsire, Fusaichi Pegasus.
While pedigree can be an excellent indicator of both on-track and off-track talent in a Thoroughbred, it must, of course, be backed up with said talent, and should be looked at more as a guide or suggestion rather than as a rule.
“Pedigree can be a useful tool in identifying prospects, but there is so much more that shapes a horse into what it’s going to be besides his or her parents,” said O’Neill. “You can train a Thoroughbred to be good at a lot of things – they are athletes – so long as they have a good, trainable mind and you are capable of being a good teacher.”
O’Neill says that when considering the purchase of a horse who has recently retired from the track, and taking on the task of retraining it for a new discipline, there are two key questions to keep in mind.
“You should ask yourself, ‘Is the horse going to be safe for what you intend to do with it?’ and ‘will the horse’s body allow him or her to physically do what you intend to ask of it?’” said O’Neill.
Redman and O’Neill both also offered credence to the idea of a potential horse shopper doing their due diligence to develop a sense of what attributes are important to them in their equine partner and what types of horses they enjoy riding. Do they enjoy a more forward ride or a “push ride” (a horse that requires encouragement to go forward)? Do they enjoy a hotter horse that is more energetic, or do they prefer a calmer mount? What size and body type of horse do they enjoy riding?
Developing one’s preferences and any “non-negotiables” can come from riding different horses, watching horses competing or schooling in the disciplines of interest, and talking with their trainer about what they feel is best. Pedigree can then serve as a helpful tool in identifying prospects based on those preferences.
Jenn O'Neill aboard Lewis (Bar - Fast Beat, by Steady Beat), whose obscure pedigree didn't stop the pair from competing at the advanced level.
Doing Your Own Research
There are a number of websites available to research the pedigrees, race records, and other pertinent information about Thoroughbreds that can be used when shopping for an off-track prospect.
Pedigree Query (www.pedigreequery.com) is a user-friendly website that offers a free five generation pedigree for Thoroughbreds. All sire and dam names in the pedigree are “clickable” and many offer notes about race record, sales history, or other information (sometimes even off-track information), allowing users to identify notable horses several generations back.
Pedigree Query also offers a “Progeny” feature (under “Reports” on the menu bar), which allows users to look up the offspring of both sires and dams in the pedigree. This is often useful when one is considering a horse and wants to identify any siblings or other notable progeny by the same stallion.
Another useful website when researching Thoroughbreds as potential sport horse prospects is Equibase (www.equibase.com). A subsidiary of The Jockey Club, Equibase offers information on a horse’s parentage, and also a complete, verifiable history of a horse’s race record, charts from each race, the horse’s most recent racing connections (owner, trainer, breeder), and Thoroughbred auction (Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton, OBS, Barretts, etc.) results.
The Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Sport Tracker (www.retiredracehorseproject.org) is designed to help people research and identify off-track potential in Thoroughbreds. This user-driven database has hundreds of horses listed whose owners have uploaded not only pedigree and competition statistics, but photos and/or videos and rankings on various off-track attributes, such as form over fences, suspension at the trot, soundness, temperament, and more.
“While a horse’s pedigree can offer insight into which non-racing sports he or she will excel, at the end of the day every horse is an individual,” said O’Neill. “Same with humans – offspring do not always show the same athletic aptitude as their parents, but some things tend to run in the family more often than not.”
About the Writer
Jen Roytz is the executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project, a national nonprofit organization best-known for putting on the annual Thoroughbred Makeover. She is also a partner in Topline Communications, a Lexington, KY-based marketing and communications agency. She and her fiancé own and operate Brownstead Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding, sales, racing and retraining operation in Versailles, KY.
Published in the KENTUCKY EQUESTRIAN DIRECTORY - 2021 ISSUE