Thoroughbred breeding remains more of an art than science 119TH PREAKNESS

May 22, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

You can be sure of one thing about the horses in the Preakness yesterday: Every one of these thoroughbreds was bred the old-fashioned way.

You'd find no test-tube miracles here.

"There's an old saying in horse racing," says Ed Fountaine, who writes the Bloodlines column for the Daily Racing Form. " 'Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.' That's about as scientific as most people get."

Whereas the modern, genetically improved dairy cow produces three to four times more milk than it did in the 1940s, the thoroughbred glides down the track at a speed similar to what it ran a half-century ago.

The winning time in the Preakness in 1943 was 1 minute, 57 2/5 seconds. The winning time yesterday was 1:56 2/5.

Breeders of Standardbreds, the horses that pull sulkies at harness tracks, embraced artificial insemination in the 1950s. By impregnating their top mares with semen from choice stallions (and upgrading sulkies, track surfaces and racing styles), they improved the record time for a mile by pacers from 1:55 to 1:46 1/5.

The thoroughbred industry does not permit artificial insemination. The main reason, horse people say, is economics.

"I'm firmly, adamantly, overwhelmingly opposed to it," says Snowden Carter, 73, who was general manager of the Maryland Horse Breeders' Association from 1962 to 1986. "It would absolutely wreck countless farms and eliminate stallions all over the place."

Owners of mares would buy semen from a limited number of proven stallions instead of hiring the mediocre stallion down the street.

Dr. Bill Solomon, a veterinarian who breeds thoroughbreds and Standardbreds at his farm in northern Baltimore and southern York counties, says there's another reason for preserving the status quo in thoroughbred racing.

"Tradition, I think, is more important than anything else in the thoroughbred industry," he says. "They like things to be more of a sport than a science."

Steve Roman, a breeding adviser from Houston, says horse owners tend to be wealthy and in the business for social as much as financial reasons.

"It's a hobby for many of them," says Roman, who developed the Dosage Index, which rates horses' stamina based on their pedigree. "They're not professionals in the same sense as dairy farmers who've spent all their life with their cows trying to improve the herd."

Carter, longtime manager of the state breeders association, agrees.

"They're trying to achieve increased production," he says of dairy farmers. "All we're trying to achieve is entertainment."

Hold on a minute, says Dr. Tom Bowman, a veterinarian and part-owner of the Northview Stallion Station breeding farm in Cecil County. He says it's not fair to compare cow breeding with horse breeding.

"The genetic factors that go into winning a race aren't nearly as well-defined as what goes into milk production," he says. "Until we can define heart and desire as they pertain to racehorses, it's going to be impossible to breed them the same way we breed other livestock."

In addition, Bowman says, there have been tremendous scientific advances in breeding horses the past 25 years. The main advance has been in pinpointing the optimum time for breeding a mare.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, he says, an ambitious stallion bred 45 to 50 mares during the February to June breeding season. Now, because a stallion needs fewer matings to impregnate one mare, he can breed more than twice as many.

And breeding consultants compile in computers great amounts of useful data, such as which bloodlines tend to mesh with other bloodlines. This is based on matings that produced successful horses.

But still, Bowman says, so much depends on intangibles no one has been able to define. "That's why it's always been considered an art instead of a science," he says.

Some owners breed horses with opposing characteristics (sprinter to distance runner), and others breed horses with similar characteristics (grass runner to grass runner).

"You can't even get a straight answer as to which is best," he says. "But once in a blue moon it works out. The rest of time it doesn't."

It worked out for Pam Darmstadt duPont, who bred Never Knock to the sire Cormorant in 1991 and produced Go For Gin, the Kentucky Derby winner who finished second in the Preakness.

"In my case, I hate to say, it's just dumb beginner's luck," says duPont, who has bred horses since 1987 at Pillar Stud farm in Kentucky.

John Sparkman, bloodstock and sales editor for the Thoroughbred Times in Lexington, Ky., was general manager at Pillar Stud three years ago. He arranged the mating that bore Go For Gin.

DuPont's dam, Never Knock, was based in Kentucky. DuPont wanted to breed her to a horse in New York state, where her parents live.

Sparkman recommended Cormorant, because the bloodlines suggested it would be a good match. There was nothing scientific about it.

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