Industry leaders discuss what qualities top stallions possess
Roundtable interviews conducted by Rich Fisher
We admire their ability on the track and in the breeding shed. And then we admire what comes after them to carry on the family name.
But does anyone ever give serious thought to what makes a stallion great? For those who do, take a bow, because that’s a lot of serious thinking. But most folks just admire them and watch as they spread their wealth to other stables and owners.
In part one of this two-part series, Hoof Beats decided to get to the bottom of this issue as we in-terviewed nine of the top breeders, trainers and agents currently active in harness racing to discuss pedigree, management, outcrossing, artificial insemination and greatness in general. The answers were illuminating, as some topics drew mostly agreement, while others resulted in wide-ranging opinions that make for a fascinating read.
The panel consists of:
• trainer Tony Alagna, owner of Alagna Racing in Manalapan, N.J., who trained two-time Pacer of the Year Captaintreacherous;
• Garrett Bell, general manager of Winbak Farm, located in Chesapeake City, Md.;
• Adam Bowden, owner of Diamond Creek Farm, located in Wellsville, Pa.;
• Tom Grossman, owner of Blue Chip Farms, located in Wallkill, N.Y., and the leading commercial horse boarding and breeding farm in North America;
• Joe McLead, co-owner of Sugar Valley Farm in Delaware, Ohio;
• Dr. John Mossbarger, USTA director and owner of Midland Acres in Bloomingburg, Ohio;
• Jim Simpson, president of Hanover Shoe Farms, located in Hanover, Pa., and the biggest breed-ing farm in harness racing;
• Perry Soderberg, Standardbred bloodstock agent and former trainer for Jimmy Takter, Soren Nordin and Stanley Dancer; and
• Dr. Ken Walker, owner of Walker Standardbreds breeding farm, located in Sherman, Ill.
HB: Is a stallion’s pedigree essential to his becoming successful?
Alagna: I would say on the pacing side, 100 percent. For a stallion on the pacing side to be suc-cessful, he’s got to have the right paternal line to get the job done. On the trotters, you can have a little bit more leniency because the gait of a trotter is a natural gait and I think you’ll find a lot of stallions that came from obscure roots show up on the trotting end, like Kadabra, for example. But for pacers, I think it definitely makes a difference.
Bell: It’s not essential, but it most definitely helps. Great pedigree does not mean a great stallion. There are many incredible racehorse brothers with great pedigrees that have gone to stud and when one of them fails, who can say why? There are also many successful racehorses who are now stallions that started with mediocre pedigrees.
Bowden: I don’t know if it’s essential, but I think if you look across the board—the stallions that have stood out over the test of time, long term they do have to have some depth of pedigree. You ask people and they’ll find the one stallion that doesn’t have as good a pedigree as everybody else. But to me, that’s the type of horse that came along at the perfect confluence of events where you needed an outcross horse or there was sort of a gap in quality. Overall, yes, I think it is very important.
Grossman: Yes. I just think, for all the obvious reasons, the maternal pedigree particularly for the ability to consistently produce quality horses is important. And like a lot of things with stallions, it’s a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You won’t attract a proper mare with a stallion with a sub-par pedigree.
McLead: Very much so. I like to look at a stallion all the way down to the third and fourth dam, de-pending on how old the pedigree is. Nowadays, you notice the more new, fashionable-type horse. The speed has now become—not really a non-existent factor, but nowadays, if you have a pacer going (1:) 52, what’s a (1:) 52 pacer anymore? I really don’t throw out the speed factor part of it, but when it comes to a stallion, a pedigree all the way through has to show speed. The truth is, it’s all about bloodlines in our sport; if you don’t have the package all the way through, it becomes a complete guessing game. If you can take out the guessing factor, part of it by having solid bloodlines with top performers, then it’s almost a no-brainer.
Dr. Mossbarger: I do not believe it’s totally essential in order to become a good stallion. I think what’s important is that the stallion passes on his traits. If a stallion is going to the breeding shed, he probably had some good racing traits on the track or he wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to the breeding shed.
We all love great pedigrees with a stallion, but there are a lot of stallions that have become good stallions with mediocre pedigrees. Ones that come to mind are Albatross, Nobleland Sam and Some-beachsomewhere. He was out of a $6,000 mare. So that tells me that wasn’t a great pedigree.
Simpson: No. There are many great stallions that didn’t have a great pedigree. The one that jumps out is Albatross. Of course, he’s by Meadow Skipper and his dam Voodoo Hanover is by Dancer Hanover and really she didn’t do anything. So the stallion somewhere in the pedigree is blue blood, but not necessarily.
Soderberg: Yes, because whatever DNA he has will transfer to his offspring in a “cocktail” mixed with each mare’s DNA. But if you mean whether a super-bred stallion has a better chance than an average-bred stallion, just based on the pedigree, I am not so sure. I think that the mare’s pedigree is much more important than the stallion, for sure.
Dr. Walker: I think it sure is. Like any athletic individual or whatever species you’re looking at, you need to have the sire and the dam be athletic to pass along. It’s in his genes.
HB: Must he be an outcross for certain mares to attract the right genetic pool?
Alagna: Not necessarily an outcross, but I think one thing the breed always does is, it takes care of itself. It seems like every time we breed ourselves into a corner, a stallion shows up that kind of opens everything back up again. But I think you’re going to get certain lines that have to be out-crossed and it seems like there’s a stallion that can always get the job done.
Bell: Outcrossed stallions have a step up, because of the greater pool of mares to choose from.
Bowden: No. The short answer is no, and I’ll just stick with that rather than shoot myself in the foot.
Grossman: I think it’s a very clear advantage—particularly on the trotting side, where it’s still fairly concentrated bloodlines. It’s been a big part of Chapter Seven or Credit Winner’s ability to succeed at being an obvious cross for some of the very good Muscles Yankee and Muscle Hill line mares.
McLead: Yeah, I’m 100 percent on that. You look at top pacing stallion Somebeachsomewhere, may he rest in peace. Our sport really needed a horse like him when it comes to the outcross side, and the proof is in the pudding. The market was getting saturated, the breed itself was getting saturated with the same crosses, and with Somebeachsomewhere coming around, it was a blessing for our sport to bring in a different type of gene pool. He came across and has been able to produce a lot of different things now.
Dr. Mossbarger: I’ve been told over the years it’s great to have an outcross stallion, but you may go broke trying to make one. What I mean is, you let the other guy try the outcross stallion. When we talk about breeding, we have to understand the terminology of what is an outcross and what is line breeding and what is inbreeding. Different people may define those terminologies differently.
In this day and age, there’s probably not a true outcross stallion out there, when you talk about three by threes, three by fours and those type of things. I guess you would have to say Somebeachsomewhere was an outcross. Maybe that’s why he was successful; he crossed well with Artsplace mares. The question is, was Somebeachsomewhere a great stallion or were the Artsplace mares good broodmares that helped make the stallion? If you look at Abercrombie, he would be a stallion that didn’t make his mark his first year or two when he bred to Hanover mares. But the Albatross lines came in and the
Albatross lines helped make Abercrombie.
The other thing I’ve learned is good mares help make a stallion, but average mares will not stop one.
Simpson: I don’t know about must, but it’s certainly better than not. Somebeachsomewhere was a great outcross that got him going. His genetics took over from there, but he got a great start with outcross mares.
Soderberg: Generally, outcross and line breeding both work. Statistically, certain crosses work better than others. But the reasons for this can be many. For instance, it seems like Muscle Hill works great with Cantab (Hall) mares, and most likely their DNA mixes beautiful. It seems like the Cantab mares have what benefits Muscle Hill and vice versa. But, it should be noted, that Cantab Hall has had a great syndicate behind him, and has bred some terrific mares. So many Cantab mares will come to Muscle Hill and other stallions with a great maternal family.
It should also be noted that this is not only a cross between Muscle Hill and Cantab Hall. Both the mare and Muscle Hill have many other ingredients in their pedigrees that have an effect on the out-come. All in all, I prefer to stay away to a very close inbreeding, if ever possible. At times, you can get a high-ability horse by inbreeding or close linebreeding, but the risk of doubling up on the weaknesses is also greater. Unfortunately, we bred ourselves into a genetic corner in North America, and could benefit from some new blood.
Dr. Walker: Not necessarily. That’s the way we got to where we’re at by not outcrossing. When you inbreed, you’re going to enhance the trait that you want to part of the time. The rest of the time you’re going to probably either stay the same or make it worse. By inbreeding, you improve, but percentage-wise it’s not a great thing.
HB: Must the stallion have a number of stakes performers and winners to improve his book of mares each year?
Alagna: It depends on the stallion. If the stallion comes from more humble origins, he has to pro-duce right off the bat if he’s a mid-level stallion to attract people to come back and want to go more heavily into investing in that horse. If it’s a horse that was a big stakes winner that has a big stakes resume that the market commands right off the bat, then I don’t feel he has to necessarily prove himself as quickly as a mid-level stallion does.
Bell: Definitely. Breeders want to see winners and champions, as do stallion owners.
Bowden: Once they’re established, I don’t think that hurts. Sometimes horses get a lot of credit for the way their offspring look. Credit Winner got carried a long way as an example, because he makes such a beautiful horse—where people maybe overlooked the quality just because he put out such a great individual. I’m not saying that they didn’t race, because you’ve got plenty of good ones, but it was rare that you found one to race outside the state of New York.
On the other hand, there are horses that continue to produce quality individuals every year, but they don’t seem to pay for them. Bettor’s Delight is a perfect example. The individuals may not have been perfect, but boy, if you’re breeding to race, he would be the perfect stallion to do that with—and still continues to be both here and on the other side of the world. He’s arguably the best stallion in the world.
Grossman: He either has to have that kind of consistency or one or two spectacular performers. For me, I like to see a horse producing very good young horses out of not-very-obvious mares.
McLead: Yeah, once you get to that point, it’s a popularity contest. A stallion always has to prove himself. It’s just like in the real world with human beings at the office. The more a person produces, the more they’re sought after. The better opportunities come around for them.
Basically that’s the way the world works.
Simpson: Yes. I think buyers, owners and trainers in particular are in a position where they can be picky. You don’t buy yearlings to win cheap overnights. So the better trainers and owners with the most resources will pick off the highest stakes-winning siblings.
Soderberg: Yes, we are not very forgiving in this business. It is a year-to-year thing and a stallion needs to start out good, and continue to produce, to stay current. But, some stallions have had dips in production, with lowering of the stud fee as a result, only to come back a couple of years later with an improved production. Kadabra is one example; he started out well, had a dip and the stud fee was lowered. But he bounced back nicely and he has stayed strong through the years. The stud fee was raised back up as a result. But, Kadabra first established himself as a stallion that could produce stars, so he was able to handle a small dip.
Other stallions with less early production and a weaker syndicate, or no syndicate, may not recover from any dips. The easy answer to this question is, yes, a stallion needs to produce each year to stay current and improve their book.
Dr. Walker: Yeah, if they have big stake winners, they will probably get a better book of mares than ones that don’t. HB
Rich Fisher is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.