Home > Hoof Beats Magazine > Breeding Basics: Selecting a Stallion

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Breeding Standardbred racehorses is both an art and a science. For those who aren’t breeding at the commercial level, but would like to optimize the success of their breeding product either in the sales ring or on the racetrack, Hoof Beats presents this seven-part series of breeding basics.

This month’s topic is about finding the best stallion mating for your mare. We asked breeders and pedigree experts with experience at this level what they thought were the most important factors in determining the mating that will produce a healthy and marketable foal.

Interviewed were Michael Andrew, owner of Three Crow Farm in Gorham, Maine; owner and breeder Jim Avritt Sr. of Lebanon, Ky.; Bruce Brinkerhoff, USTA pedigree expert formerly affiliated with the Kentucky Standardbred Sales Co.; and Richard Arnold, president of Willow Oak Ranch in Tennessee and Montana.

They agreed that among the most important factors to be considered are conformation, pedigree and marketability.    

Conformation – Complement Physical Characteristics

Andrew, who said breeding is a game of probabilities, suggested choosing a stallion whose conformation and temperament complements the mare – perhaps to give size or length or correct a conformational weakness.

A physical evaluation is part of the process, according to Brinkerhoff. It will include information on the mare and her produce and family, and their tendencies. It should be done on as many other relatives as possible.

“This information will guide you as to what attributes to look for in a stallion,” Brinkerhoff said. “Match her strengths to the stallion’s and don’t duplicate physical faults.

“Conformation evaluation of prospective stallions and their offspring is crucial to complete this part of decision-making; however, there are instances when animals don’t reproduce their characteristics--but those common to the family--thus in-depth knowledge is essential.”

Avritt’s advice is simple.

“Do not breed to a stallion with faults similar to those of the mare,” he said.

Pedigree – Find the Family Ties

Andrew said his first priority is “to find the best mares I can afford or raise myself. I seek mares out of great producers – dams with over 70 percent winners and with speed deep into the pedigree.”

Another priority is to have the mare bring back some of the genes of the stallion’s dam.

“This is an old breeding principle that appears to have merit,” said Andrew, whose article, “Elite Mare Theory,” appeared in the November 2015 issue of Hoof Beats. “I particularly like to concentrate the genes of great mares.”

Andrew also seeks to avoid crosses that appear not to work from previous similar matings with that stallion, while Avritt noted that some stallions “nick” (i.e. are more successful) when bred to mares by certain stallions. He cites the example of Kadabra, who was more successful when bred to mares by Balanced Image than mares by any other stallion.

Knowledge of pedigree evaluation and pedigree theory are essential, Brinkerhoff said. He said the USTA’s four-generation, catalog-style pedigree will help in identifying top animals within the first four generations. If a pattern or affinity with a certain sire line develops within the family, it is worth considering duplicating that pattern.

Brinkerhoff also said that another useful pedigree research tool is the USTA’s Standarbred Roster of Stallions, or STARS (stars.ustrotting.com), an online listing of featured stallions that contains current performance information on their offspring from the USTA database. For even more in-depth statistics, he recommends the USTA’s Crosses of Gold (pathway.ustrotting.com). He said it is useful to identify compatibilities between stallions from one sire line with mares of another sire line, commonly referred to as “nicking.” Nicking theory is based on copying the mating of a successful horse to produce another successful horse.

Pedigree theory includes three basic crosses to be considered: inbreeding, outcrossing and linebreeding. Each have their advantages and disadvantages, Brinkerhoff said.

Inbreeding is mating two closely related individuals - generally with a common ancestor within the first three generations (3x3 or closer). While this approach can reinforce positive traits, it also can identify and magnify negative traits.

An example of inbreeding is 2016 Triple Crown winner Marion Marauder. He has Valley Victory twice in the third generation.His paternal grandsire, Muscles Yankee, and maternal grandsire, Donerail, are both by Valley Victory.

Outcrossing is mating two unrelated individuals - generally with no common ancestor within the first five generations. This approach results in hybrid vigor and can produce a superior animal; however, out-crossed individuals generally don’t breed as “true” as linebred ones.

Linebreeding is mating individuals with a common ancestor more remotely related than inbreeding - generally duplicating crosses in generations three through five (between 3x4 and 5x5). The key to linebreeding is identifying superior animals and using them in duplications.

Meadow Skipper is a horse that has had a tremendous influence on pacing pedigrees. An example of duplicating Meadow Skipper is Idyllic Beach. She has 12 crosses of Meadow Skipper, closest in the fifth generation (eight crosses in the sixth generation).

“I recommend duplicating superior crosses in a pedigree,” Brinkerhoff said, pointing out the cross of Valley Victory on Speedy Crown mares. The full sisters Ariana G and All The Time are bred on this cross. Their paternal grandsire outcrossing is Muscles Yankee and maternal great-great grandsire Victory Dream are both by Valley Victory from Speedy Crown mares. These fillies also have nine crosses of Speedy Crown, closest in the fourth generation; five crosses of Speedy Somolli, closest in the fifth generation; and five crosses of Noble Victory, closest in the fifth generation.

“These are examples of stacking up great horses in a pedigree so they will have significant influence,” said Brinkerhoff, “but keeping them far enough back in the pedigree so you hopefully won’t get the deleterious effects of inbreeding.

Another facet of linebreeding is duplicating female families. An example of this type would be American Ideal. His sire Western Ideal’s third dam, Angel Hair, is a full sister to his own third dam, Ambiguity. Both mares are by Bret Hanover and out of K. Nora.

Avritt favors outcrossing and linebreeding, while Andrew prefers outcrossing if you have an inbred mare and inbreeding if you can double up a great ancestor from the sire and the mare, especially great females.

“As a rule of thumb,” said Avritt, “I do not like to see the same mare or stallion in the first three generations of a yearling, although I can accept the same stallion or mare in the third generation if it occurs only once and one appears in the top of the pedigree and the other in the bottom of the pedigree.”

Arnold, who has gradually accumulated 14 broodmares over the past seven years by purchasing yearling fillies and broodmares at Harrisburg and some race fillies retiring from the track, said that “We are type to type, individual to individual breeders. Genetics are very specific. But even the greatest families have `dud genetics,’ so we look for the great individuals out of the great families.

“All stallions, including the greatest stallions, do not match all mares, so we employ a phenotype and pedigree structure on selecting even the most successful stallions for our individual mares.

“This is our approach in its most simplified form. We are making progress on our program, but we have not had enough success to be confident that we can execute this strategy effectively. But in any program you have to have a plan and this is ours.”

USTA/Mark Hall photo
2016 Triple Crown winner Marion Marauder is an example of inbreeding, with Valley Victory showing up twice in the third generation of his pedigree.

Marketability – Getting the Most in the Sales Ring 

When Andrew plans to sell offspring, he selects from stallions that are currently popular, but adds, “this becomes a financial decision as the most popular are usually the most expensive.”

Avritt said that when breeding to an unproven stallion, “they must be in the top two or three from the standpoint of racing performance (i.e. speed and earnings) and proven stallions must be in the top five, especially from the standpoint of yearling sale average.”

Avritt also advises not to “overbreed” your mare. If you have a “cheap” mare, don’t breed her to a top stallion because you may lose money. On the other hand, you can breed a top mare to a lesser stallion and still make money, which should be the goal of all small commercial breeders.

Consider the location of where the stallion stands, Avritt said. For example, some yearlings are more desirable than others because of the sire stakes program to which they are eligible. Also keep an eye out for shipping and boarding fees if your mare is bred within the state where he stands in order for the resulting foal to be eligible to that jurisdiction’s sire stakes program.

“The shipping and boarding fees in some instances can amount to almost as much as the stud fee,” he said. “If I have to ship a mare to New York to be bred, the transportation and boarding bills will run between $4,000 and $5,000.”

Lastly, Avritt said to consider the purchase of shares or lifetime breedings in newly retired stallions. In addition to “free” breedings, the owner of shares is normally entitled to a proportionate part of the proceeds from the sale of excess breedings to the stallion and the Southern Hemisphere breeding rights, which can be substantial.

Arnold believes in utilizing established stallions “for a number of reasons relating to quality and predictability,” noting that “this is in tension with the commercial reality of breeding to new popular stallions with exciting prospects, but no breeding track record.”

Many buyers, he said, are always excited about the prospects of new stallions, which makes the first two crops of a stallion with a big race record out of any marketable mare attractive on potential alone.

“Our breeding criteria make it difficult to exploit the new stallion enthusiasm,” he said. “It is a truism that a new mare with a great race record gets two foals accepted on potential, but if the foals do not work out, the mare’s later foals will become less marketable--regardless of the mare's race record.” 

Unraced or low-performance mares with current highly productive pedigrees get a good portion of the same presumptions as the big race mares, Arnold said, but all mares have about three foals to prove their worth or the mainstream purchasers discard them in their thinking.

“For this reason,” Arnold said, “it may be short-term profitable to use unproven stallions, but risky for your mare’s future to not take advantage of the predictability of established stallions.”

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