Edward J. Messina, Ph.D.

As a pedigree analyst, consultant and breeder of thoroughbred race horses I am often asked by people looking to get into the breeding of thoroughbreds, “What do you look for in a potential broodmare prospect?” I think the best way to answer this question is to provide a sought of blueprint for what has been a successful approach for me over the last three decades. When the question is asked of me I usually ask the following questions, “Are you breeding to race or breeding to sell commercially?” However, whether you breed to race or sell commercially, at public or private auction, there are four critical factors that I use in the selection of broodmare prospects. These factors include 1) Race Record, 2) Pedigree, 3) Produce Record (for established mares), and 4) Conformation.

The purpose of this article is not to be totally inclusive with every possible example for each of the critical factors but rather to give readers some basic ideas so that they can develop their own strategy and plan that can help them to achieve success with broodmare acquisitions. In addition, as the author of this treatise, I direct my remarks primarily to those individuals without the inclination to spend a King’s ransom to acquire a broodmare prospect and to those with limited budgets. Therefore, the main purpose of this article is to share with you those factors and lessons I have learned, over the last three decades of breeding thoroughbred horses. It is my hope that this blueprint will increase your probability of acquiring quality broodmares that can produce quality runners, that is high earners and stakes performers.

A word of caution. My approach does not guarantee success, for if it did, it would take the mystery, challenge and fun out of breeding successful race horses. More importantly what it does do, is increase your probability for success. Established breeders may find some of what I have to say, to be their own experience and some of what I have to say to be totally new to them. In addition, I am sure that there will be those that will disagree with everything I have to say or with some of the things I have to say. I take no offense in disagreement, but rather hope that what I have to say will stimulate discussion and help us all to better understand what it is we are trying to do, namely move the breed forward and to breed stakes winners and champion quality race horses. Having said that I now venture onto the thin ice!

1. Race Record:

Numerous studies have been performed and published that clearly indicate that the better the racing quality of the filly, the higher the potential for the filly to become a stakes producing broodmare. Generally speaking listed and graded stakes winning fillies will produce a higher percentage of winners, high earners and stakes winners than none winning fillies and unraced fillies. Several factors come into play and contribute to produce these results. One of the more important elements, in their success, is that fact that stakes winning fillies are more likely to be accepted by stallion syndicate managers for the purpose of breeding to their nationally ranked stallions. As a result this class of fillies has a greater opportunity to be bred to the top ranked stallions, thus, increasing their probability of producing stakes quality runners. However, all to often I have observed many breeders with stakes winning fillies following the old adage of “breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best”. One only has to look at the entrants in many of our claiming races in North America to see that this does not always work. It seems to me that this breeding philosophy has as its’ primary objective the production of the most expensive horse as opposed to the best horse. Yes, the resulting progeny may be “well bred”, but the more important point is, “is it bred correctly?”. If you have a stakes winning filly or should you acquire one, you should avoid the lure of primarily breeding on the basis of the stallion that has the potential of producing the largest immediate economic gain for you, when you sell the foal. Yes, we are all in a business and profit is one of the motivating influences. However, the first question that should be asked is whether or not the stallion is right for the filly or mare? This can be explored by simply checking the stallions progeny records to see what he has produce when bred to other daughters of the broodmare sire line of your mare or filly. If he has produced nothing of note, with that broodmare sire line, but is a leading stallion, then you may be guaranteed an initial windfall when you sell the resulting foal, but in the long term you diminish the economic potential of your broodmare, especially if you plan to breed for the commercial market. On the other hand you just might be making history as opposed to following it. The best approach is to breed the filly to a top stallion that is the most genetically compatible. In this way your are breeding both for selling and racing potential. This is easier said then done as you will have to chose from many methods for stallion selection, a topic not covered in this article. However, I always recommend a breeding strategy that includes breeding both to race and sell. This gives the breeder the obvious options of racing or selling the foals, based on his or hers economic conditions at the time. More importantly it holds to what should be the goal of every breeder, that is, helping the thoroughbred population to move forward genetically. Breeding only to sell, in my mind, does not help to improve the breed.

One of the other important reasons why high quality race fillies have a higher potential for producing significantly more winners, high earners and stakes performers, is that they have stood the test of management and/or mismanagement, breaking, training and racing at the highest level of competition, and have remained sound enough to do so. Racing quality is thought to be genetically inherited at a level of about 30% or more. However, soundness is also inheritable, yet I do not know of any good published data indicating to what extent. Nonetheless, it is not impossible to imagine that the greater the degree of soundness in a family, the higher the probability for the family to produce winners and stakes performers. It has been my experience that soundness leads to racing and reproductive consistency and that consistency can lead to the production of quality when the filly or mare is bred correctly. Based on the previous information and most particularly the strong correlation of racing quality and reproductive potential, I highly recommend that a breeder retain or acquire fillies that have won and were high earners and or listed or graded stakes winners. Since the purpose of this article is to guide breeders with limited resources, I will now focus my attention on the winning high earning filly.

Why should the breeder who cannot afford to purchase listed or graded stakes winners retain or purchase high earning fillies or mares? Well, for several reasons. But first some basic facts. It has been estimated that about forty-five percent (45%) of the annual thoroughbred crop is generated by none winning or unraced fillies. As a group these individuals produce fewer, winners, listed and graded stakes winners. So acquiring or retaining them reduces the breeders probability of achieving success. Remember we are trying to develop a strategy that is going to increase our breeding success. Already I can hear the screams! Yes, there are exceptions and there are those none winners or unraced fillies that can produce high earners and stakes performers. However, they do so at a lower incidence then winners and stakes winners. Keep in mind that a none winning filly has proven that she has not inherited the characteristics of soundness, speed or courage to compete effectively. So why take the chance and resist what the genetics has already indicated. My recommendation is to stay away from non winning fillies especially if their dam was unraced or a none winner, as you will be fighting an uphill battle, genetically speaking. However, I should like to point out that I make a distinction between non-winning fillies, fillies who have raced but were unable to win, and unraced fillies. The genetic potential of unraced fillies is not known, but non-winning fillies prove they do not have what it takes genetically, physically and mentally to make it on the race track. It would be wrong to not say that there are indeed exceptions. The point is we are dealing with probabilities and studies have shown that unraced fillies make better broodmares than non-winning fillies. However, why they do so is not known. But, this statistic is one of the reasons why I am more inclined to purchase unraced fillies. I will explore this in greater depth later in another section. However, simply put, the non-winning filly, for whatever the reasons, has not been able to demonstrate through racing quality as to whether or not she has inherited the necessary genetic information to make her a racing or breeding success.

Therefore, as we all cannot afford listed or graded stakes winning fillies, the breeder will do well to retain or acquire fillies whose earnings derived from competing in restricted state bred stakes and/or open allowance races at major racing centers. While these fillies are not in the top three percent of all stakes winners they have distinguished themselves sufficiently to be in the top four to ten percent of all racing fillies. However, to qualify their earnings should have been all acquired primarily in four years of racing. For example a filly who has won $100,000 to $200,000 in four years, while competing in allowance races or state bred restricted stakes is more desirable than one that took six to ten years to become a high earner. This type of filly is special as only seven percent (7%) of all horses earn over $25,000 in their lifetime. Best of all, these fillies are relatively less expensive to obtain. Another desirable feature is that the filly should come from a family in which the first two dams were winners and that they have produced at least fifty percent winners from foals and that these runners themselves were high earners. While the experienced breeder can determine these factors easily by reading a pedigree, the novice breeder would do well to rely on industry based statistics that measure the racing success of the progeny of mares via the published Standard Starts Index (SSI) or Average Earning Index (AEI). The former developed by Bloodstock Research Information Services (BRIS), and the latter by The Blood-Horse. While these statistics have some limitations, they are nonetheless useful for comparing the racing quality of horses. As a rule of thumb, I prefer fillies with an SSI or AEI of 2.50 or more and an SSI or AEI average of 2.50 or more for the progeny of the first two dams in a fillies’ pedigree. Selecting fillies on this basis, as broodmare prospects, will increase the probability of your retaining or acquiring fillies with better than average potential for producing high earners and stakes performers. By way of example, several years ago I purchased a mare named Avie’s Song. She was not exactly a high earner, as she only earned $33,150, but she was stakes placed in a restricted stakes and had an SSI of 5.90. This mare had four foals for me, before I sold her. Three of these foals became stakes performers, the stakes winners Doc Calls Her Kate, My Lady Avie and the stakes placed winner S’more Smoke. Let me tell you it is so gratifying when you find these bargains and breed horses from them that out do their own dams.

One word of caution, while race record, is a good predictor of reproductive potential, it by no means guarantees success. One only has to look at the reproductive records of some of our greatest race mares. Why they fail is not always known but perhaps it is due to the absence of the other factors that are crucial to a mares reproductive success. However, race record does provide the breeder with a statistically greater probability of retaining or acquiring an above average broodmare prospect. This is especially true when you add the other factors into the process that I will discuss in the subsequent sections.

2. Pedigree:

It is no mystery why a filly with a strong family pedigree, that is one loaded with black type, has a greater probability of becoming an above average broodmare. Simply put the family has, either by design through the breeder or mother nature, concentrated the dominate positive genetic influences that contribute to an above average racing and reproductive record. In other words, the family has highly desirable genetic influences that are inherited in a more reliable fashion then other thoroughbred families. However, the majority of breeders cannot afford to purchase such broodmare prospects, so what are they to do? I recommend the following strategies:

a) retain or acquire fillies that are unraced or high earners by leading sires.
From a probability standpoint leading or nationally ranked sires most often become leading broodmare sires and their unraced or winning daughters are less expensive to acquire then stakes winners. However, this is only true early on in the stallions life time so it is important to recognize these stallions as early as possible. In addition, it is always preferable to acquire such fillies if their own dams were winners and stakes producers. However, success can be achieved if the second dam was a winner and the third dam a stakes producer.

b) retain or acquire fillies that are unraced or high earners by stallions with high racing quality but were failures as sires of sires and unable to maintain their line through male descendants. These stallions had all the necessary genetic requirements to be great race horses but not all the dominate positive genetic influences to become sires of sires. However, the daughters of these stallions will inherit the important sex-linked characteristics of heart size and mitochondrial density that are important to racing quality. Typically, I like to concentrate on fillies that were sired by winners of races at a mile or longer and especially those that won races that are considered classics, such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Travers Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. My reason for this is based on the bias in the stallion population towards speed. I do not want to breed daughters of sprinters to those types of stallions in the population, as I am attempting to breed a winner of a classic race. I aim high so that when I miss, I am at least near the top of the racing ladder. Fillies by these types of stallions are more affordable, for most breeders, especially after several crops to race fails to produce an heir apparent. At this time they become discounted, somewhat, by the industry. Be sure to select their daughters that have some black type in at least the third dam and try to acquire those whose own dam was a winner and a winning producer.

Why do I even consider retaining or acquiring unraced fillies? In addition, to the point made earlier, several studies have demonstrated that these fillies out produce none winning fillies in all categories, that is percentage of winners, stakes performers and graded stakes performers. Thus, from a probability standpoint I am increasing my odds for success. This is especially true if you limit yourself to the type of broodmare sire lines indicated in this article.

c) acquire or retain fillies that have more than one leading broodmare sire in her pedigree. Once again I can hear the screaming as this strategy seems to reek of chauvinism. Let me remind you that about 45% of each of our foal crops is produced by unraced or none winning fillies and that racing and reproductive quality correlates with racing quality. So where is the culling process that is supposed to take place with regards towards genetically improving the breed? It certainly is not happening with a significant portion of the filly population we are sending to the breeding shed. In contrast, the majority of colts that retire to stud have distinguished themselves on the race track, so the culling is actually taking place on the male side of the equation. With that in mind examine the four generation pedigree of a broodmare prospect, it contains eight mares and seven broodmare sires. Acquire or retain fillies that have as many prominent broodmare sires in their families inclusive to the fourth generation. The genetic influences of these broodmare sires will diminish by fifty percent in each generation removed from the first. Therefore, based on this genetic rule and my own empirical observations, I limit analysis to the fourth generation of a broodmare prospects pedigree. Once again this strategy attempts to concentrate the dominate positive genetic influences, primarily from the male side of the pedigree to increase the genetic potential for success. Two processes are genetically operational in the pedigrees of our horses. Genetic dilution and genetic concentration of the positive dominate attributes for racing and reproductive success. This strategy attempts to achieve genetic concentration to enhance the mares potential.

3. Produce Record (Established Mares)

It is easier to evaluate the pedigree and reproductive record of an established broodmare. Mares with a lot of black type in their families will be expensive. So our focus will be on mares that have some black type. This is essential as it indicates that some elements of the family can produce quality runners. Once again concentrate on the bottom line of the pedigree, that is the first three dams. These dams should be winners and they should show that they are capable of producing fifty percent or more winners from foals, less if they were bred incorrectly or to inconsequential stallions. In addition, at least a third of the foals to race should be high earners, that is they have an SSI or AEI of 2.50 or more. All to often when I attend the sales, I encounter catalogue pages where the first five dams and their reproductive history are listed. Yes, lightening can strike, but my advice is to avoid such broodmare prospects, as the probabilities are against you.

Should the broodmare in question have a decent pedigree but she has five foals to race and they were produced by quality stallions, but none of them is a high earner or stakes performer, then one again my advice is stay away. Basically, because broodmares have the highest reproductive potential for producing stakes performers within their first eight foals. However, if the mare has a very good family but the first five foals are by inconsequential stallions or she has been bred incorrectly, then I have taken the chance and purchased these mares and have had success with them. There are many reason for doing this. Among them is if you know what you are doing, you can increase the probability of the mare producing a quality runner by breeding her correctly. Secondly, the mare will be less expensive to acquire which in the long run can turn out to be a financial success for you. I employ this strategy when mainly breeding to race.

4. Conformation

Conformation encompasses a lot when it comes to the physical inspection of a broodmare prospect. First, if I am looking at a listed or graded stakes place or winning filly, let me be clear and say that I do not care how their legs look or how they walk. Yes, I perform the perfunctory inspection, but more as a courtesy to the seller. These broodmare prospects have already genetically demonstrated that they have the mental and appropriate biochemical and biomechanical attributes necessary for success. When it comes to high earning winning fillies, I will look a little more closely as there are some physical attributes I stay away from, for example fillies that are back at the knee. This is an inheritable trait and will contribute to unsoundness. If you cannot get the foals to the race track, then you have no chance for success.

In the selection of broodmare prospects one should be primarily concerned with balance throughout the body frame and legs. Proper proportions are essential for biomechanical efficiency. As these characteristics are inherited, but also affected by management (proper feeding and care). I do not want a filly where one component of the body is excessively larger or smaller then the rest. It has been said by others “that pretty does as pretty is”.

I am often asked as to whether the size of a broodmare makes any difference. In my opinion it does not matter as long as the mare has a balanced body. However, I have found that commercial breeders prefer larger mares as they produce larger foals on average and those foals will appear more mature then their peer group at the sales and therefore command higher prices. So if you breed to sell you might lean towards the slightly larger but balanced mare.

In addition to balance I also prefer fillies with a normal to slightly longer coupling, that is the distance between the withers and the point of the hip. This plus a normal to slightly wider distance between the points of the hip should contribute to ample space for the uterus of the mare to expand and accommodate the growing foal. I avoid fillies, with lengths in these two areas, that are shorter then normal as this decreases the probability for the production of a balanced foal.

When it comes to unraced mares I am very particular about their legs and how they walk. I will accept for purchase broodmare prospects who have strong families, crooked legs and strong evidence of mismanagement or improper care. It is amazing how many bargains I have found in this category. In fact, one of my own mares falls into this category and she has produced a G3 stakes winning filly. Furthermore, if the unraced broodmare prospect has a strong family and is from a sire line that is not noted for producing crooked legs, I will also purchase this type of filly. More often then not this can be developmental and not genetically induced. For example, the filly may have been produced by an older mare, something you can research. If so it is most likely that the scarring of the mares uterus and/or its blood supply may have been compromised. This occurs after multiple births in most mares and will contribute to a foal having badly conformed legs. Once again, if you do your homework you will be rewarded with a bargain broodmare and very likely an above average producer.

Finally, I very highly recommend that if all of this is a bit much, then you have two options: one do not become a breeder or secondly get help and quality advice. There are lots of qualified pedigree experts that can help you with your broodmare acquisitions. Use the test of time to determine who you want to advise you. The person should have been in the business for at least a decade and been consistently associated with quality horses. Interview the person and see if you are compatible and the person is competent. If the person shows up in an eight year old worn out car then you know success is not likely.

Now that you have acquired your broodmare, you must now select the right stallion for her. This is the second step in the process to becoming a successful breeder. But, more on that at some later time.

I hope this article achieves it's goal of helping you to formulate a plan and approach to acquiring broodmares that will enhance your chances of breeding a quality runner. Good luck to all of us, as luck is also an important factor for success!