The recipe to breed a champion remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma

Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.  It’s an adage we’ve all heard and can be attributed to American John E Madden.  A prolific owner across both the galloping and harness code, Madden bred 14 “champion” racehorses, including five Kentucky Derby winners, four Belmont Stakes winners and the first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton.

He was also a bit of a trader – specifically in his earlier years when purchasing and improving horses – and claimed his motto was: “Better to sell and repent than keep and resent.”

It would also appear, based on that and his breeding mantra, he had a very tidy turn of phrase.

Which brings me back to breeding theories and the fact that champions can come in any shape or size.  They can either burst on to the racing stage as a ready-formed star or emerge more slowly, with time their friend as their talent blossoms as they mature.

It was something I got to thinking about again earlier this week after reading a fabulous piece from The Conversation, an independent media outlet which carries pieces predominantly written by academics.  Should be dull as ditch water, right? Not this piece.

The article in question was authored by Steven Tammariello, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Institute for Equine Genomics, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

I recommend you check it out in its entirety here.

What captivated me was largely what the author said intrigued him and that is how variations of genes impact on performance and/or development –  given he is a molecular physiologist, he has the ability to investigate further.

Faced with the incredible opportunity to do a little DNA testing on the mighty Seabiscuit Tammariello and his team leapt at the chance.  The source of this elusive DNA was slightly creepy, a couple of silvered (as in, dipped in silver) hooves from the champion racehorse.  Just reading about this brought back memories of some of the more macabre mementoes of our own racing heroes which were once housed at Ellerslie racecourse as they awaited a permanent home.  From memory there was an inkwell made from one of Carbine’s hooves, slightly more useful than Seabiscuit’s ornamental hoof.

Despite the age and deterioration of the hooves DNA was able to be extracted from Seasbiscuit’s coffin bones.  However, the nuclear DNA – layman’s description being the DNA inherited from all ancestors – was “somewhat degraded”.  The mitochondrial DNA – that which is only inherited from the female lineage – was described as intact and that allowed the team to confirm the hooves did come from Seabiscuit.

Despite the state of the DNA it was possible for some sequencing to be done around those genes related to racing distance.  From these it was determined that Seabiscuit’s gene variants were those often found in horses which are good over ground.  But, he also had minor variants which are usually found in sprinters.

The article stated:

This somewhat rare genetic combination of stamina and speed seems to be reflected in the champion’s race record, as he won races from as short as 5 furlongs (sprint) to as long as 1¼ miles (distance). Further, horses of today that we’ve identified with this genotype tend to be late bloomers, winning their first race almost three months later, on average, than horses with a genotype associated with precocity. Sounds like Seabiscuit’s race record: He didn’t become a true racing star until his 4-year-old racing season.

Of course, the obvious question – well, the one which leapt into my mind straight away – is, does this mean we can clone Seabiscuit?

Apparently, due to the quality of the nuclear DNA and the small amount retrieved, that is not an option – “for now.”

Instead the team is going to continue to examine Seabiscuit’s genome and attempt to discover more about just what it was which made him so special, especially given his well-chronicled physical defects (smaller than average; unusual gait; crooked legs – let’s just say he wouldn’t have made Book 1).  They will also be looking to see whether his DNA differs wildly from that of the modern thoroughbred.

What is going to be interesting in the future is how breeding theories may eventually end up going out the window.  No more breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best, in the future we will be able to look at a foal’s DNA and have an indication as to that animal’s precocity or otherwise and its optimum distance.

How far down that line can we end up going, and how accurate will those predictions be?  Surely, other external factors will still come into play with environment also continuing to play a part?

While I embrace these scientific advances I also tend to lean towards the romantic when it comes to breeding.

Indulge me a little as I now deviate into one of my favourite breeding tales, that of the Oaks and Derby winner Signorinetta, a true “love child.”

Her story begins with owner and breeder Cavaliere Edoardo Ginistrelli and a mare called Signorina who was no slug on the racetrack, being unbeaten in nine races at two, including the Middle Park Stakes; the winner of two more races at three and runner-up in the Oaks; and the winner of the Lancashire Plate as a four-year-old.

At stud though over ten seasons she had not produced a live foal before leaving Signorino who ran second in the 2000 Guineas before finishing third in the Derby.

A stallion called Chaleureux, who is variously described as a “nine guinea stallion” or a teaser – take your pick – used to pass Signorina’s box every day and, every day the mare would call to him.  This convinced her passionate Italian owner the horses were “in love” and he allowed Chaleureux to cover his prized mare.

The resulting foal Signorinetta was trained by Ginistrelli himself and while she may have won both the Oaks and the Derby it is widely agreed that the quality of that year may have been lacking.

There is also a quirky tie to New Zealand through Signorinetta with one of her offspring, the 1912 filly Pasta (by Thrush) being the dam of six-time leading NZ stallion Hunting Song.

We may be making rapid advancements in the world of science and its contribution to breeding but until such time as we can create the perfect racing specimen in a lab there will always remain an element of the unexpected and unexplained in the make-up of our champions.

In the words of another passionate Italian: “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.” (Federico Tesio).

 

What first drew you to racing? Two very different horses led me to this place!

Here’s a question for regular readers – what was it that first drew you to racing?  What planted the seed which has obviously (if you’re reading a blog this obscure!) blossomed into a continuing interest?

I was thinking about this the other day, when I decided I needed – for my own sanity – to remember what first drew me into an industry which has now become a passion.  I guess hanging out with a range of academics daily has led to me not just accepting this as something which just “happened” but searching for an underlying reason.

Why is it that I care so much about the future of this industry?  That I, like other friends who have despaired at the Racing Minister’s ponderous approach to its protection and return to prosperity, currently feel deflated and defeated.

Since the launch of the Messara report all I have read, viewed and heard in the general media and on the industry’s “own” channel are negatives and reasons why it shouldn’t be adopted in toto.  Missing have been the voices of our thoroughbred industry leaders – I exclude those associated with the NZRB from that fold, the only place they have led us is into the abyss.  Obviously, working behind the scenes has been taken to the extreme?

So, feeling glum and borderline wanting to just chuck it all in and put my energy into something more rewarding, I got to questioning how a passion for thoroughbreds became so embedded.

I’m going to be self-indulgent, but its my blog and I can do what I want, however I’d love to hear your stories too so feel free to leave a comment or some feedback.

According to family lore, I sat on my first horse at 18 months old.  It was a racehorse, it was at Trentham and said horse – whose name has been forgotten in the mists of time – was trained by my grandfather and had just won a race. Perhaps that was what set my course?

While that is what I was told, my own earliest memories stem from Tauherenikau where my grandfather was training.  We lived over the road and my father would occasionally let me accompany him to the track in the morning.

At the time he had entrusted my grandfather with the training of a filly by Red Marlin (it was a VERY long time ago), her stable name was Poppy, and she wasn’t very fast, but she did like to eat.  A usual part of the stable routine back then used to be that the boys took a few of horses out for a walk around the nearby roads in the afternoon but one day they were rather late returning.  So late that my father was sent out in the car to look for them.

Nothing was awry, Poppy’s appetite had got away on her and, no matter what was tried, the poor apprentice was unable to prise her head up from the lush grass on the side of the road.  Poppy’s racing career was neither lucrative nor lengthy.  My grandfather, recognising her innate lack of ability, sacked her early.  My father, though, in the manner of most young men, believed he knew better.  He continued to train her himself – from my grandfather’s stables, using his gear, his staff and his feed.  My grandfather was proven right though, and it was off to the broodmare paddock for Poppy.

While Poppy may not have reached great heights on the racetrack she may have indirectly affected my career choice.  A story I wrote about her when I was around 10 was published in the children’s pages of a Sunday paper and was my first ever paid contribution.  A friend of my father’s who raced many of Poppy’s offspring told me many decades later that he had kept a clipping of the story.

Poppy’s banishment to the broodmare paddock and the subsequent need for stallion selection was responsible for my interest in breeding.  I had school exercise books full of pedigrees of every horse in my grandfather’s stable and found the differences between the many full and half-siblings which came through his care intriguing.

My visits to the track also became more regular as I grew older and around the age of eight I became a real pest.  I was usually thrown up on something quiet that my father could lead but my favourite was always Roodyvoo.  Not the more recent jumping version, this one was a half-brother to the Melbourne Cup runner-up Howsie and had fashioned an impressive record himself before breaking down prior to the Easter.

Sent to the paddock, Roody had been enjoying the life of Riley for 18 months before my grandfather decided to have the affected leg x-rayed again.  With no sign of the original injury and full of his usual vim and vigour it was back into training for Roody.  He never reached the heights for which he may have originally been destined but he did amass a great record racing up until he was around 10.

Once retired finally, he took up residence in the back paddock – which opened on to the course proper – here he would stand intently listening to Jack O’Donnell’s commentaries on race day.  It was on that gate in the back paddock where my grandmother and I were positioned one day watching what was Roody’s last race.  The field jumped and my grandmother, binoculars focussed on the gates said, “Something’s dropped the rider…. it’s ours.” By the time she’d got that out Roody was lining up at the gate waiting for us to let him in.  It was as though he decided, blow this for a joke, I’m done and took himself off to retirement.

We let him back in the paddock, took his saddle off and gave it to the clerk of the course who had come looking for the missing horse. Other than our morning trips to the track, that was the last time Roody set foot on a racecourse.

In retirement Roody’s role was to socialise the new additions to the stable, but he also set himself up as quality controller.  Every afternoon my grandfather would add freshly cut grass to the hay in each box and one day he heard rustling coming from the box he had just completed, wandering back to check he found Roody undertaking a taste test.  Installed in a yard at the end of the stable block Roody had managed to open the gate and had followed behind my grandfather ensuring all was up to par for his stablemates.

We left the Wairarapa when I was 11 so my future hands-on horse experiences came via school holiday visits to my grandparents or when I could go to Trentham.

The champagne turf wasn’t exactly welcoming to kids back in the day.  You could go in the Leger area if you were under 12, but that was miles away from the horses.  Instead I used to try and tag along with my aunt (on the dam’s side, this one) who was regularly the on-course nurse.  Her office for the day was a tiny hut situated close to the back-parade ring.

Once I hit college age and was officially “allowed” to go racing I was at Trentham every opportunity I got, even if it meant wagging school to get to the mid-week Winter race day.  While I might have been old enough to be in that part of the course the Wellington Racing Club officialdom now had a problem with the fact I was female.

While waiting for the running of the Wellington Guineas where my grandfather had a live chance I was approached by a white coat and informed I couldn’t be where I was.  Where I was, with one of my grandfather’s mates, was on the wrong side of the white line which determined where the men would be and where the women would be banished.  It’s amazing there is anyone left with a passion for racing such was the determination of some administrators to crush our enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm is still taking a beating but despite, in fact more likely in spite, of our very average administrators and their flaccid leadership, I’m still here.

And it’s all because of the horses.  Oddly, I appear to have lucked into a couple of horses which are providing moments of great excitement at present.  I like to think it might be reward for perseverance!

Hopefully, by the time next week’s blog rolls along we will have an inkling of good news around the Messara report and those of us left standing will be rewarded further with some positive action.

Time to embrace the process and be part of racing’s solution

The date has been named and, next Thursday, our burning questions will be answered.

What will be in the Messara report and when and how will it be actioned?

Already though the naysayers are spreading their poisonous tendrils as they attempt to negate the report before it has seen the light of day.  They are no strangers to the industry, in fact it was possibly their ancestors who took machetes to every earlier report which sought to set the industry back on a profitable course.

All those missed opportunities to drag us back from the abyss – the bottom of which we now find ourselves – were the result of timidity of thought.  That inability to trust the people charged with doing a job and back the minds behind the likes of the McCarthy report has led us to this point in history.

It is one of the saddest differences between Australia and New Zealand.  Whereas the Lucky country is populated by gung-ho, optimistic, take-a-chance gamblers, we have a high proportion of dour, purse-lipped, wowsers who would rain on any parade.

Point out any positives in Australian racing to this lot and they will scowl, shake their heads and spit out some drivel about there just being more money in Australia.  Try and draw their attention to the gross over-spending and inability to rein in operating costs of our own NZ Racing Board and they have no answer.

What I find particularly sad is that some of those who have been sagely shaking their heads and claiming the Messara report will make no difference are supposedly journalists, current and former.  These people make (or made) their living from the industry, yet they are incapable doing their job which includes questioning those in power and taking them to task.  Instead, they accept puff-piece PR from the NZRB and seem to find it normal that we have an organisation whose costs outweigh its returns to the industry.

Of course, the difficulty we now have in New Zealand is the paucity of truly independent racing media.  This breaches many of the fundamental elements of journalism [Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel] – its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover; It must serve as an independent monitor of power; Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

This lack of independence means those seeking out credible information need to look to the country’s only independent racing publication The Informant and its correspondent Brian de Lore, or the likes of the Otago Daily Times and its racing reporter Jonny Turner.

Racing coverage which seeps into mainstream media is either of the negative “rich racing people get given more money” theme; or, what should be the celebration of a wonder horse with a Kiwi connection, ending up being all about the money she has won.  The latter is due to a total lack of understanding of the industry from the presenters and those who have directed them towards the story.

What to do then when this long-awaited Messara report finally sees the light of day?

Read it through, breathe, read it again.  Sit back, mull it over and ask yourself one question.  Am I going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Make no mistake, this is our last chance to finally get it right.  Tinkering around the edges and throwing a few all-weather tracks into the mix is not going to solve the problems we have.  This is going to take bold moves, some of which we may not immediately like.

You can be part of the problem or you can embrace the process and be part of the solution.

On owners, diversity and the future

Last season I took the plunge and joined the NZ Thoroughbred Owners’ Federation.  The organisation, with which I had quite a few dealings during my time at the NZ Trainers’ Association, just requests a mere $55 annual sub.

For this one gets membership and the promise that they will, on my behalf, work “to improve the economics, integrity and pleasure of the sport of thoroughbred racing.”

If I’m honest, I only joined to see who was running the group and how well they had embraced technology to grow their membership and fulfil at least the latter promise.  I wasn’t really surprised to see that the president was the same one I used to attend meetings alongside back in the early 2000s.  It’s not easy getting people to volunteer for such thankless tasks.

Not wanting to put the boot in – it would be akin to kicking puppies – the Federation seems mired in a time before technology even though it does have a website.  Their communication with members could be so much better, as could their acknowledgement of winning owners who are members of syndicates.  Achieving the latter might even assist when it came to attracting members.

I paid my membership – online, so that must be a positive – and then, sometime later in the mail came a card which declared me a member and was my Owners’ ID card.  Nothing else with the card, no welcome letter or list of membership benefits, just the card.  It did seem to be a waste of an opportunity to maybe recruit new committee members or extend an invitation to up-coming events or, anything really.

No doubt there will be more mail awaiting me at my home address when I return, advising me my membership for the current season is due.

The other item which arrives in the mail – although also available to view online – is the Owners’ Bulletin.  My background in magazines means I have an addiction to all things glossy and printed.  While there is a convenience to being able to read stories online I still prefer the tactile approach while sipping my beverage of choice.

The Bulletin has the potential to provide owners, old and new, with relevant news, information, background, insights as well as the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of one’s equine stars.  However, this also suffers from the fact that too much is being required from the few put-upon souls volunteering their time to run the Federation and get the Bulletin out on time.

There is only one word for it – tired.  Probably much like the volunteers.

Surely the clearest sign that they struggle to find current and relevant content is the inclusion of an NZRB puff-piece – it would appear the Federation is drinking the NZRB kool-aid!  Running press releases without questioning their veracity doesn’t put me in mind of an organisation which is fighting to improve the economics of our industry.

Owners are footing the bills which keep horses going around in this country and we deserve so much better than the NZRB has been delivering.

A little debate in the July edition which I found interesting was a discussion about diversity within racing.  It amuses me, coming from my current role at a University, when people within racing speak about diversity and assume we are talking only about men and women.  Anyway, I’ll play their game!

So, let’s examine the inclusion (I prefer this term when we are talking the male/female divide) of the fairer (in so many ways) sex within the NZ racing industry.

As everyone knows we are marking 40 years of women competing on an equal playing field with men as jockeys.  And, unlike so many other sporting areas, there has been no gender pay gap, from day one they have earned the same money for the same work.

Female jockeys are an accepted part of racing life here to the extent they nearly outnumber the blokes.  In this area we are leaving Australia behind.

Likewise, we also recognised female trainers many, many, many decades before the Australians.  As far as they are concerned Shelia Laxon was the first female to train a Melbourne Cup winner.  In fact, it wasn’t until that happened that the Aussies managed to ‘fess up that they had indeed done Granny McDonald wrong.  Back in 1938 when her horse Catalogue won the Cup rather than be able to stand up and claim the win as hers, Granny had to sit back while husband Allan was lauded as the winning trainer.

We have females working in most every area of racing here, although I haven’t noticed anyone putting their hand up to attempt commentating.  Considering the feverish backlash in the world of cricket and rugby it may be some time before we find a female with a suitable alto voice and a skin thick enough to take the barbs!  A shout out to Victoria Shaw in Australia here, this is one area where they have beaten us.  Victoria making her calling debut in 1998.

The talk within the industry about diversity, seems to stem from general media talk about representation on boards and the age-old pay parity argument.  Numbers are growing, albeit slowly with the NZX reporting in January that 27% of directors on NZX/S&P50 boards were female, up from 22% the following year.

It’s progress but I think amid the clamour to get more women on Boards we should also be considering how many women WANT to be on boards and focusing on having, first and foremost, people with the best skillset, regardless of gender.

Having served on the committee/Boards of three very different racing clubs I can report from personal experience that things have changed since my first experience in 1996 when I was the only female.  A subsequent experience saw me serve as Vice-President to a female president on a committee which boasted five women.  I am certain that was because it was an extremely hands-on committee which held working-bees (read, cleaning frenzies) in the days prior to race days!

Again, it comes back to whether women want to be involved and what they bring to the table.

The Owner’s Bulletin piece seemed to feel the solution lay with the industry attracting more young people who embrace the idea of diversity, after all the future will be in their hands.

While it is a great concept it is also a cop-out.  Great ideas are not the preserve of the young and some people push boundaries until the time comes to push up daisies.

What the industry needs in spades is passion and a desire to see things change for the better.

We need to be part of the solution!