Of all the angles a handicapper must study, pedigree analysis is perhaps one of the most difficult, but don’t be intimidated. A little basic knowledge can be very effective, particularly when betting on races for 2-year-olds, first-time starters or horses making a surface change.
A good racehorse is as much a product of its breeding as it is of its environment, upbringing and training regimen (not to mention just pure luck). The unique physical features it inherits from its sire (father) and dam (mother) predispose it to run certain distances, over specific surfaces and, most importantly, fast or slow. Training can certainly enhance (or hinder) such predispositions, but it always comes back to breeding.
So, how do you begin studying pedigrees? First, let’s start with the basic terminology, using 2007 Kentucky Oaks and Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches as an example.
Born in 2004, Rags to Riches is the progeny (offspring) of Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy and Grade 1 Acorn Stakes runner-up Better Than Honour. In breeder-speak, a foal is always “by” a stallion and “out” of a mare, thus Rags to Riches is by A.P. Indy out of Better Than Honour. Her dam’s sire (specifically called damsire) is 1981 Canadian Horse of the Year Deputy Minister. The equivalent to the human term “grandmother” is only carried down through the damline, not through her sire, so Blush With Pride (by Blushing Groom out of the Traffic Judge mare Best in Show) would be considered Rags to Riches’ second dam; Best in Show would be her third dam, Stolen Hour would be her fourth dam and so on.
Better Than Honour is a black-type producer, meaning that she has given birth to several stakes winners, including Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, Peter Pan Stakes winner Casino Drive and Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner Man of Iron. Because they share a dam but are by different sires, Jazil and Man of Iron are considered half-brothers to Rags to Riches. Because Casino Drive’s sire Mineshaft is a son of A.P. Indy, he is considered a three-quarter brother to Rags to Riches. Horses that share the same father but different dams are not technically considered siblings, however.
Looking at the pedigree chart above, you’ll notice that the stallions Bold Ruler and Nasrullah appear twice each in Rags to Riches’ bloodline. This is called inbreeding, and so you will hear that Rags to Riches is inbred 5 x 4 to Bold Ruler and 5 x 5 to Nasrullah–the 4’s and 5’s refer to the number of generations back, and should always be read from top to bottom as the pedigree is laid out.
Pedigree Query is the most accessible online source for studying a horse’s pedigree, but it is nowhere near complete since it relies on its users to add and update information on each horse. However, you would be hard pressed to find a more useful source, as you can also view information under “Reports” about a mare’s progeny and their individual race records. In some instances, when a horse has been sold at auction, you can find more comprehensive pedigree records in catalogs on auction websites such as Keeneland, Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, and Fasig-Tipton. Similar pedigree and racing information can be found for horses racing in Europe at Racing Post and in Australia and New Zealand at Racing and Sports.
So, now that you know the terminology and where to do research, what does it all mean? I thought it would be a good idea to go straight to an expert to find out. Sid Fernando is the president of eMatings.com and Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., a former bloodstock editor and columnist at the Daily Racing Form who now writes a must-read blog for those interested in international racing and breeding at Sid Fernando + Observations, as well as the pedigree blog Who’s Hot, Who’s Not.
Q: It may sound simplistic, but like human beings, do sires and dams pass down specific genes to their offspring that affect particular areas of physical development such as color, height, bone structure, and muscularity?
A: Sure. The two main colors are bay/brown and chestnut, and chestnut is a recessive gene, which means that you need a recessive chestnut gene from each parent to get a chestnut color. There are stallions, for example, that are dominant bays—they do not carry a chestnut gene—and their offspring are always bays. Seattle Slew and Danzig were examples of dominant bays. Grays, however, are possible at any time when these genes combine.
Size, bone, and muscle mass are all inheritable qualities, as they are in humans.
Q: In general, is there a correlation between the size of horses and how far or fast they can or cannot run? For instance, do taller horses run better than shorter horses over longer distances while shorter horses perform better in sprints? What about big-boned horses over those with more delicate frames?
A: No real correlation between size and speed and distance. However, lighter-made horses do appear to race better on turf and over distances, and sprinters do tend towards more mass, just as in humans.
Q: Is the sire more important than, or equally important to, the dam’s bloodline in considering distance capabilities and how a horse might perform on a particular surface? For example, if the sire excelled at sprinting and the dam’s family is rich in stamina, would the offspring be a sprinter like dad or would the dam’s influence help it stretch out? What about vice versa: If the sire’s a router, but the dam is pure sprint speed? Could the sire’s influence produce a horse with stamina–or is it all a crapshoot?
A: It really depends on the stallions and mares in question. There are certain sires, Dynaformer, for example, that sire distance horses, usually on turf; and there are mares from families that have been cultivated for classic distances, such as the mares in the Aga Khan broodmare band. Then there are stallions, such as Carson City , who were better suited for speed on dirt, and there are mares and families that are more speed-oriented. Usually, breeders tend to breed like to like, or in gentle deviations, instead of sprinter to extreme stayer, or vice versa. When they do, it’s called “fish and fowl” mating. In a fish and fowl mating, it’s difficult to predict what you might get. However, take a look at the most famous example of combining Dynaformer with a Carson City mare—the tragic Derby hero Barbaro. He was promising on turf, was switched to dirt and won the Derby . His Carson City dam is a full sister to the stakes-winning sprinter Lucky Lavendar Gal—who won each of her seven races at sprint distances like a typical Carson City . But Barbaro’s dam, the sister to Lucky Lavendar Gal named La Ville Rouge, was a winner at sprints on dirt, won on turf over a route and also was Grade 1-placed in a turf race over a distance of ground. She proved to be a perfect mate for Dynaformer.
Q: How far back into a horse’s pedigree should one study in order to better understand whether or not the horse can perform on certain surfaces or at various distances? Do certain genetic traits change or die out after the passing of so many generations?
A: Four or five generations is sufficient.
Q: When you hear the term “back class” in a pedigree, what exactly does that mean?
A: That refers to stakes producers in the direct line of female descent a few generations back from the horse in question.
Q: Could you recommend any good books that are must-reads for anyone just beginning to explore pedigrees and bloodlines? What are the classic sources, and which ones present more recent ground-breaking theories?
A: Frank Mitchell’s book on breeding theories, Racehorse Breeding Theories is a good starting point. Another great book with historical background is Abe Hewitt’s The great breeders and their methods.
Q: Do you have any other advice for people just starting with pedigree handicapping?
A: Watch for sires whose progeny perform well on turf and off-tracks. Also look for speed sires and early 2-year-old sires when handicapping early maiden races, and look for turf and distance sires, for example, when looking at distance races on the turf.