Pedigree vs. Conformation
By Judy Wardrope
What are the factors people consider when assessing a potential racehorse? In part, it depends on their intentions. Different choices may be made if the horse or offspring is intended for their own use or how the horse or offspring might sell.
And when a horse gets to the track, what factors help a trainer decide on a particular distance or surface to try? Most of the trainers I interviewed say that they usually look at who the sire is when trying to determine distance and/or surface preferences.
Trainer Mark Frostad said, “I look at the pedigree more than the individual regarding distance and surface.”
Richard Mandella says that his determining factors are “conformation, style of action, pedigree and the old standby, trial and error.”
Roger Attfield says, “It is extremely hard to tell turf versus dirt. I’ve watched horses all my life and I’ve tried to figure it out. I can tell when I start breezing them. I had a half-sister [to Perfect Soul], who was stakes-placed, and she couldn’t handle the turf one iota. I had the full brother…also turf. Approval could win on the dirt, but as soon as he stepped on the turf, he was dynamite.”
What about when planning a potential breeding for a mare or a stallion? Is conformation more important than pedigree? Or does pedigree have more influence than conformation? How much of a role does marketing play in the selections?
Although ancestry and conformation do go together, the correlation is complicated. For example, top basketball players tend not to come from families of short people, but most NBA stars do not have siblings who are star players. The rule holds for other athletes, including gymnasts. But what would you get if you crossed a basketball player with a gymnast?
Pedigree is not an absolute despite what marketing campaigns may lead you to believe. Look at human families—maybe even your own. Are you built like all of your siblings, do you all have the same talents? And what about your cousins? Are you all built alike and of equal talent?
When it comes to Thoroughbred horses, you will find that only the very top sires boast a percentage of stakes winners nearing 15%. If one assumes that a stakes winner is the goal of most breeders, then that would indicate at least an 85% failure rate.
When breeding horses or selecting potential racehorses, the cross might look good on paper or in our imaginations, but what are the odds that the offspring would be able to perform to expectations if it was not built to be a success at the track? Looking at the big picture, one has to wonder what we are doing to the gene pool if we only breed for marketability.
To get a better understanding, let’s look at four horses. Three of our sample horses have strong catalog pages, but did they run according to their pedigrees or according to the mechanics of their construction? Furthermore, did the horse with the humdrum catalog page have a humdrum racing career?
She is by Orientate, a campion sprinter of $1,716,950 (including a win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint [Gr1], who sired numerous stakes horses and was the broodmare sire of champions.
Her dam, Winning Colors, earned $1,526,837, was the champion three-year-old filly and beat the boys in the Kentucky Derby [Gr1] and the Santa Anita Derby [Gr1]. She was a proven classic-distance racehorse.
Winning Colors was the dam of 10 registered foals, 9 to race, 6 winners, including Ocean Colors and Golden Colors (a stakes-placed winner in Japan, who produced Cheerful Smile, a stakes winner of $1,878,158 in North America), and she is ancestor to other black-type runners.
Her lumbosacral gap (LS), which is just in front of the high point of croup and functions like the horse's transmission, is considerably rearward of ideal. This constitutes a significant difference when compared to either of her athletic parents.
The rear triangle is equal on the ilium side (point of hip to point of buttock) and femur side (point of buttock to stifle protrusion), and her stifle is well below where the bottom of the sheath would be if she were male. In essence these would contribute to the long, ground-covering stride seen in distance horses like her dam.
Her pillar of support (a line extending through the natural groove in her forearm) emerges well in front of her withers for some lightness to the forehand and into the rear quarter of the hoof for added soundness.
Her base of neck is neither high nor low when compared to her point of shoulder, meaning that placement neither added nor subtracted weight on the forehand.
Because her humerus (elbow to point of shoulder) is not as long as one would expect for a range of motion that would match that of her hindquarters, she likely resembles her sprinter lines in this area. Although I never saw her race, I strongly suspect that her gait was not smooth. In order to compensate for a shorter stride in the front than in the back, she probably wanted to suspend the forehand while her hindquarters went through the full range of motion. Unfortunately, she is not strong enough in the LS to effectively use that method of compensating.
Her race record shows her as a stakes-placed mare and winner of $127,093 but closer examination shows that the stakes race was not graded with a small purse and that her three wins, two seconds and three thirds were not in top company.
While valuable on paper as a broodmare, and despite being mated to some top stallions early in her breeding career, she failed to produce a quality racehorse. Naturally her value dropped significantly until she sold in November 2018 for $20,000 in foal to Anchor Down.
His sire, A.P. Indy earned $2,979,815, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Belmont Stakes plus was the Eclipse Champion three-year-old and Horse of the Year. He was also a top sire of stakes horses as well as a noted sire of sires.
His dam, Chilukki, earned more than $1.2 million, was the Eclipse Champion two-year-old filly, was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and set track records at Churchill Downs for both 4.5 furlongs and a mile. Her sire won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and equaled a track record for 7 furlongs.
His LS is 1.5” (by actual palpation) rearward of ideal and just at the outer limits of the athletic range.
His rear triangle is slightly shorter on the femur side (point of hip to stifle protrusion), which not only decreases the range of motion of the rear leg by changing the stride’s ellipse, but it adds stress to the hind leg from hock down.
The stifle placement (well below sheath level) would indicate a preference for distances around 10 furlongs (similar to his sire’s), except for the short femur.
His pillar of support does emerge in front of the withers, but the bottom of the line emerges behind the heel, making him susceptible to injury to the suspensory apparatus of the foreleg (tendons and ligaments).
His humerus is of medium length and is moderately angled and would represent a range of motion that would match the hindquarters. However, the tightness of his elbow (note the circled muscling over the elbow) would likely prevent him from using the full range of motion. He would stop the motion before the elbow contacted his ribs; thus, the development of that particular muscle as a brake and a reduction in stride length.
His base of neck was well above point of shoulder, which adds some lightness to his forehand.
He was injured in his only start and had zero earnings. He did go to stud based on his pedigree, but was not a success. He sired one stakes winner of note, a gelding out of a stakes-winning Smart Strike daughter, who won at distances from 7 to 9 furlongs.
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