The progeny test
At this time of the year in North America, we often read announcements about prominent horses coming off the track and going to stud duty.
All of these horses have "the right stuff," of course. They were stars on the track, have first-class pedigrees, and flawless conformation.
Yet most of them will fail. In a decade, many of today's hot young stallion prospects will be the subject of trivia questions. As it says in the book of Matthew in the Bible, "Many are called, but few are chosen."
But how is a breeder to know which stallion prospects will be successful and which will fail?
Good luck. No one has the answer to that question.
The story is told that a visitor to Hanover Shoe Farms once complimented owner Lawrence Sheppard on the many great stallions in residence at Hanover. The man sang the praises of Hanover just long enough so that Sheppard---a man with a short attention span----interrupted him to say, "Never in the history of Hanover Shoe Farms has there been a time when we didn't have at least one mistake in the stallion barn."
Sheppard loved horses but he was a realist in business. If a stallion failed to make the grade at Hanover, he didn't remain there long. That stallion was sent down the road in search of a new home. And if Hanover happened to have any broodmares by that same failed stallion, they went in search of new homes, too.
John R. Gaines, a noted owned and breeder of both Standardbreds and Thoroughbreds, felt that that the only way to know if a stallion would sire good horses is if he proved that ability.
As we say, "The proof is in the pudding." All the theories and fancy pedigrees and racing glory mean nothing until a stallion proves his ability to sire top horses.
Gaines called his theory "The Progeny Test." He applied it to both stallions and mares.
Gaines, who was the man who conceived the Breeders Cup concept in Thoroughbred racing (which led to the Breeders Crown in North American harness racing) had a graduate degree in genetics. He was not simply an idle rich man tossing out theories.
Gaines was raised around trotters and pacers in northern New York and his father Clarence established Gainesway Farm in the Bluegrass for his Standards.
Son John made headlines when he was still in his mid-20s in the 1950s by syndicating the Hambletonian winner Demon Hanover for an astonishing $500,000. Demon Hanover was moved to Walnut Hall Farm to continue his breeding career, but died after just one season there.
Gaines and his father owned back-to-back Hambletonian in 1966-67 in Kerry Way and Speedy Streak. By that time, however, young John was already making the move to Thoroughbreds. He felt that artificial insemination took much of the art and fun out of breeding Standardbreds.
I interviewed Gaines at his plush office in Lexington, Kentucky, about five years before his death in 2005. He said that too many "can't miss" stallions had, in fact, missed success as stallions. The only way to know if a stallion had the ability to sire top performers was to study how his offspring raced.
If a stallion demonstrated his ability to sire top horses, he would likely do it again. The same applied to mares.
Certainly the owners of Hanover Shoe Farms never forgot the philosophy of its founder Lawrence Sheppard on a stallion that failed to find success. Florida Pro, Prakas, and Giant Victory are just three stallions that went to Hanover with great fanfare then failed. They didn't stay at Hanover for long. They found new homes.
Gaines was an educated, erudite man and he thought that many people in racing and breeding held beliefs that best belonged in fairy tales.
Gaines once said, "Millions and millions of dollars are spent every year on horses, yet a high school freshman [age 14] that is taking an elementary genetics course has a better understanding than someone who is spending a hundred million dollars a year and is listening to all these charlatans who are promoting genetic lies."
Gaines used the progeny test to his benefit in purchasing broodmares that others cast aside. He told me that he often bought older mares that had produced a top horse. Breeders sold these mares in favor of younger mares, but Gaines bought the old girls, matched them to proven stallions, and produced horses that did well on the track.
As you might expect, Gaines was not a believer in breeding to every hot young stallion prospect off the track. He knew that most of their glamour would fade over time. He wanted to breed to proven stallions to put the percentages in his favor.
"Everything in breeding and racing is a matter of understanding the probabilities and getting the probabilities working for you instead of against you," he said.
It's hard to argue with the logic that Gaines used in developing his progeny theory.
Dean A Hoffman
Dean A. Hoffman was executive editor of Hoof Beats for 25 years and currently teaches at the University of Arizona.
All views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Sophia Pedigrees.