Horse running through field

The Travails of Drosselmeyer

by Roger Lyons

Distorted Humor gets at least one superior runner out of about every seventh or eighth mare that produces at least one foal by him, counting winners of unrestricted stakes and horses that run at least second in a G1 or G2 race. In order to have a record like that, a stallion has to have a broad reach into the genealogical range of the broodmare population. Yet, inevitably, even the best stallions are challenged by certain otherwise important influences.

This brings up the interesting case of Drosselmeyer (Distorted Humor-Golden Ballet, by Moscow Ballet). He qualified as a superior runner in my system when he beat every horse except Fly Down in the Dwyer S. (G2), but anyone who’s watched the horse could see he has talent. Even so, he still hasn’t won a major stakes, nor was he able to meet the expectations represented by his challenging route to qualifying for the Kentucky Derby despite talent superior, arguably, to some of the horses that actually did qualify. For some reason, Drosselmeyer hasn’t been able to keep the promise. It’s a mystery.

It happens that Drosselmeyer’s dam, Golden Ballet, by Moscow Ballet, represents one of Distorted Humor’s most prickly issues with the broodmare population. Distorted Humor is out of a Danzig mare, and popular thinking about pedigree would suggest that Distorted Humor would work well with mares that resonate with Danzig, mares that have strains of Northern Dancer, the dams of which, like that of Danzig, trace to Teddy–maybe even mares that return Danzig himself.

Well, it isn’t so. The two most notable Northern Dancer strains whose dams trace to Teddy are Nijinsky II and Storm Bird. Of the 68 mates with Nijinsky II in their ancestries through Distorted Humor’s 2007 crop, only five have produced superior runners; and of the 56 mates with Storm Bird in their ancestries, only four have done so. What tells the tale, though, is that not even one of his 27 mates with Danzig in their ancestries has produced a superior runner.

The problem is that Distorted Humor wants strains of Northern Dancer whose dams contrast genealogically with his own strain, which is Danzig. After all, four of his seven mates with Sadler’s Wells in their ancestries have produced superior runners. Obviously, the problem is not Northern Dancer, with which Distorted Humor has an average strike rate overall in spite of his poor records with Nijinsky II, Storm Bird, and Danzig.

Drosselmeyer’s mysterious problem could be that he is out of a Nijinsky II-line mare whose second dam is by Storm Bird. Fortunately, on the other hand, his dam has a lot going for Distorted Humor.

Moscow Ballet, although by Nijinsky II, is out of a mare by Cornish Prince, with which Distorted Humor has a strike rate of 3/13. The big push, though, probably comes from Slew o’ Gold, sire of Drosselmeyer’s second dam, with which Distorted Humor has a strike rate of 2/6. That’s confirmed by his strike rates of 14/88 with Seattle Slew and 22/137 with Slew o’ Gold’s broodmare sire, Buckpasser.

How Drosselmeyer’s complex pedigree mix will resolve in his Belmont effort remains to be seen, but a horse’s pedigree is his fate, and fate gives no quarter.

Galileo and the Sons of Doubly Sure

by Roger Lyons

The cross that yielded Cape Blanco (Galileo-Laurel Delight, by Presidium, by General Assembly), recent winner of the Dante S. at York, is formally an A nick based on the Sadler’s Wells-General Assembly cross. Galileo may never get enough opportunity with Presidium mares to confirm a simple sire-broodmare sire nick in the conventional way, but this is not a conventional nick.

The fact is that Galileo has done a lot better with mares whose ancestries contain Presidium’s dam, Doubly Sure, than he’s done with Secretariat-line mares. Seven of his 27 mates that had Doubly Sure in their ancestries produced superior runners by him, including Cape Blanco’s dam.

Now, Doubly Sure is also the dam of Kris and Diesis, both by Sharpen Up, and they both have simple A+ nicks with Galileo. Furthermore, the numbers say Galileo’s nicks with Kris and Diesis are not attributable to their sire line. Galileo has sired foals out of 53 mares that have Sharpen Up in their ancestries (the whole ancestry, not just the sire line), and the only mares among them that produced superior runners by Galileo are those that have Sharpen Up descending through either Kris or Diesis. None of the 27 mares that have Sharpen Up through strains other than Kris or Diesis produced a superior runner by Galileo. Yet, Galileo’s combined strike rate with Kris and Diesis is 6/24 (25% superior runners).

Overwhelmingly, the numbers point to Doubly Sure as the key factor, and that’s the proof that Cape Blanco is bred from a simple nick with her son, Presidium.

Is Fly Down Up to the Belmont?

by Roger Lyons

When Frank Mitchell wrote about the classic breeding of Devil May Care here, I thought I might be in big trouble. I had already taken the position here that, while you can never rule out the possibility that a runner might be exceptional to its breeding, Devil May Care is not really bred to get the Derby distance.

The main problem is that she’s inbred 3×4 to Mr. Prospector. That’s a reasonable generational distance, but it still tags a runner as specialized for best efforts at distances of less than nine furlongs. That’s a norm that, like all norms, admits of exceptions, depending on other pedigree factors, such as the sire, the family, etc., and Devil May Care had already won the Bonnie Miss S. (G2) at nine furlongs. Still, . . . .

It’s now clear that Frank has a different view of close inbreeding to Mr. Prospector than I do because he’s just written here about how Fly Down’s (Mineshaft-Queen Randi, by Fly So Free) breeding puts the Belmont S. “well within his range.” Frank, once again, I must beg to differ.

Mineshaft has had 12 stakes winners, including Fly Down, that count when assessing his capability as a sire in matters pedigree. Five of those stakes winners have been inbred 3×4 to Mr. Prospector. It’s true that Cool Coal Man won both the Fountain of Youth S. (G2) and the Albert the Great S. at nine furlongs, but none of the other four have broken the 8.5-furlong barrier, and three of them never won a stakes beyond a mile.

Fly Down is Mineshaft’s sixth Mr. Prospector-inbred stakes winner, but not at 3×4. He has the added disadvantage, at least with respect to distance limitations, of being inbred 3×3, which is a huge difference.

Inbreeding and linebreeding, depending on the intensity, mean specialization around the capacities inherited from those repeated ancestors and their descendents. The increasing specialization in the population since the middle of the 20th century has almost certainly been a result of the increasing accumulation of linebreeding. Yes, some of this specialization favors the classic horse, but most of it does not.

So, Frank, if Fly Down wins the Belmont, I’ll take my hat off to you, but I won’t eat it because I remember all too well watching Volponi, another Mr. Prospector inbred, run away with the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Two Sires and La Paz

by Roger Lyons

Forest Camp (Deputy Minister) and Mission Impazible (Unbridled’s Song) have been the two best foals out of La Paz (Hold Your Peace-Classy Craft, by Crafty Drone), and their respective sires have something very special in common. Now, at this point I could say it’s some form of linebreeding with La Paz, but that wouldn’t be the truth because, as members of a population in which all horses are linebred, linebreeding just wouldn’t count as something special. No, it’s something really special.

It happens that, in the scoring method I use to reflect how well a mare crosses with a given stallion, La Paz scores just about as high as it gets with both Deputy Minister and Unbridled’s Song. In fact, not only does La Paz score in the 100th percentile of mares that produced foals by Deputy Minister, but not a single one of those dams scores higher than she does with Deputy Minister. Only four mares that have produced foals by Unbridled’s Song score higher, and three of them produced superior runners by him (winner of an unrestricted stakes or at least 2nd in a G1 or G2 race). La Paz scores in the 99th percentile with Unbridled’s Song.

In order for that to happen, Deputy Minister and Unbridled’s Song would have to have very similar profiles with respect to La Paz’ ancestry, and indeed they do. In both cases, there’s a simple sire-line nick with Hold Your Peace. Unbridled’s Song has a strike rate of 3/6 with Hold Your Peace (eNicks A+), and Deputy Minister has a strike rate of 2/10 (eNicks A+). Those strike rates reflect each sires’ opportunity with mares representing Hold Your Peace against the number of those mares that produced superior runners.

Both sires, however, also have a whole series of inside-the-pedigree advantages. The sires of La Paz’ second, third, and fourth dams, respectively, are Crafty Drone (Drone), Outing Class, and Royal Coinage–all found largely inside the pedigree these days. Both Deputy Minister and Unbridled’s Song appear to have good numbers with all three of those sire lines.

Unbridled’s Song has strike rates of 3/14 with Drone, 2/9 with Outing Class, and 2/6 with Royal Coinage. Deputy Minister has strike rates of 2/12 with Drone, 3/9 with Outing Class, and 2/4 with Royal Coinage.

It’s rare enough to come across a mare that has a profile at that level with any stallion, much less one that she’d actually been bred to. So, to find one mare that has actually been bred to two different stallions with which she has such profiles is just one of those things that you don’t think of until it happens. Makes you wonder what Deputy Minister and Unbridled’s Song really have in common, of which these similar profiles are a reflection and to which La Paz makes such a favorable contribution.

Super Saver: a Minority Report

by Roger Lyons

In a recent post on the breeding behind Super Saver, Sid Fernando sets in relief three differing approaches to identifying pedigree factors that account for that horse’s ability to win the Kentucky Derby, including my own. Nobody does the historical color as well as Frank Mitchell, but, clearly, Alan Porter’s analysis, as endorsed by Andrew Caulfield in his TDN column of May 4, is at odds with my account in regard to the factors that it emphasizes.

I realize that Andrew’s analysis has the advantage of being the standard account. Its topical structure defines the prevailing pedigree analysis, including its center-stage placement of linebreeding as the main actor. Therefore, I offer my rebuttal as a minority report.

Linebreeding certainly does have a functional relation to performance, but I emphatically disagree with the presumption that its effects must be favorable, much less decisively so, just because it happens to be found in the ancestry of a Kentucky Derby winner. To take Super Saver’s performance as evidence of the benefits of linebreeding simply begs the question of its effects and, more broadly, of its functional relation to performance. Unless the standard account can establish a statistical relation between Super Saver’s linebreeding and his performance, then its analysis might as well be founded on a non sequitur, and I believe it is.

As Sid points out, Super Saver’s family began with “a simple nick between a La Troienne daughter (Baby League) and War Admiral.” The family continued to evolve on that same basis, each daughter having had her best production by the best stallion that afforded the best simple nick. The accumulating linebreeding, involving multiple strains of La Troienne, therefore, was a systematic consequence of that series of simple nicks. More broadly, linebreeding is a systematic consequence of the pedigree model of breeding. It’s not a formula for breeding great racehorses. Rather, it’s an inevitable consequence of the process.

So, is linebreeding a cause of superior performance or just an effect of pedigree breeding? The latter is evident from the genealogical record, but inferring a causal relation to performance requires populational evidence that not even the cheerleaders for linebreeding are able to provide.

Well, then, what can be inferred about it? We know what the effect of linebreeding is in a broad sense. Its purpose and effect is to establish a generational continuity between a new individual and its ancestry. The more linebreeding a pedigree has, the more likely is the individual representing that pedigree to express the traits conferred by ancestors to which it is linebred. But, if linebreeding is so effective at reproducing the traits that constitute a great racehorse, why is it that so many horses with linebreeding similar to that of Super Saver in distant generations are just no good?

I firmly believe that the prevailing pedigree analysis–the standard account of pedigree–misunderstands the way in which linebreeding is functionally related to performance. Let me explain by analogy.

A good melody consists of two fundamental elements that oppose one another at every musical level. In order to be recognizable as such, a melody must have continuity. It must have a certain repetitive rhythm. If sung, the words must rhyme. A refrain is very much a part of what we expect of a melody along this direction of its movement. However, the continuity of good melodies is subverted at every point and at every compositional level by the element of variation moving in the opposite direction. Each measure of a melody must be continuous with the last, but different from it. The lyrics rhyme by repeating the same sound, but enunciated in different words. The refrain interrupts and contrasts with the sequence of verses. A good melody arises from the tension between continuity and variation, the latter always playing a subversive role.

Breeding a good racehorse is just like that. Linebreeding mediates generational continuity. Its function is to specialize the new individual around qualities that are conferred by the ancestors to which it is linebred. At its best, it yields a physically coherent individual. However, the new individual must also be capable of a well-rounded performance. It must have the variety of typological possibility required by the prevailing conditions of racing. That’s the job of generational variation, which operates in opposition to linebreeding.

In the same way that musical variation subverts continuity in the making of a good melody, generational variation subverts the continuity established by linebreeding. This fundamental opposition between linebreeding and generational variation is what the advocates of linebreeding don’t get.

According to the numbers I have for Maria’s Mon as a sire (and other stallions as well), A.P. Indy, Supercharger’s sire, has just such a subversive relation to his own linebreeding to La Troienne. After all, Maria’s Mon hasn’t otherwise done that well with Buckpasser (10 superior runners from 156 mares through his 2007 crop, counting the three through A.P. Indy). If you take out the seven mares in descent of A.P. Indy, then Buckpasser’s strike rate falls to 7/149.

Nor has Maria’s Mon done all that well with mares in descent of Seattle Slew, another important source of La Troienne. If you take A.P. Indy out of Maria’s Mon’s strike rate of 5/46 with Seattle Slew, it drops to 2/39. In fact, all but one of those five superior runners were out of mares with Seattle Slew in tail-male descent. But, if you exclude A.P. Indy mares, the strike rate with Seattle Slew in tail-male descent is only 1/19. So, read very carefully how the standard account gets its numbers relating to the Maria’s Mon-Seattle Slew “nick,” including that restricted stakes winner thrown in for good measure, because there’s much at stake in it for the linebreeding hypothesis.

My numbers, by contrast, don’t suggest broadly favorable effects of linebreeing to La Troienne through the ancestors of A.P. Indy. What they suggest is that A.P. Indy’s influence very favorably disrupts effects of linebreeding that are otherwise not at all favorable to foals by Maria’s Mon. A.P. Indy provides a beneficial variation that combines with Maria’s Mon to yield a simple nick.

It’s quite possible, too, that Numbered Account, a key source of La Troienne also tends to subvert the La Troienne continuity. Maria’s Mon has a strike rate of 1/3 with daughters of Numbered Account through his 2007 crop, but her dam, Intriguing, otherwise has a strike rate of only 2/23. Maria’s Mon happens to work with Numbered Account, as far as can be determined, but not so much with her sire, Buckpasser, or with her dam.

As a matter of fact, the ancestors of Supercharger that have had the most favorable impact for Maria’s Mon through daughters have nothing whatever to do with La Troienne or with A.P. Indy. Maria’s Mon has a strike rate of 7/50 with daughters of Mr. Prospector, sire of Super Saver’s second dam. With daughters of Northern Dancer, sire of Super Saver’s third dam, Maria’s Mon has a strike rate of 5/34. These numbers, far from confirming that Super Saver’s performance is an effect of linebreeding, clearly suggest that it’s more likely an effect of generational variation. The influence of these important sires interdicts a linebreeding continuity that otherwise really hasn’t worked for Maria’s Mon.

In one pedigree after another, ranging across many different sires, the numbers say linebreeding is not the decisive factor. In fact, the numbers point to the ways in which atypical or variant strains subvert the effects of linebreeding. Such evidence trends toward the inference that Super Saver’s ability to win the Kentucky Derby is decisively affected, not by his linebreeding, but by the various directions in which his ancestry has deviated from its linebreeding to constitute a well-rounded individual–a horse with the speed, stamina, stoutness, and physical courage not only to withstand the rigors of training for that race, but also to win it.

We live in an era during which linebreeding has become ubiquitous in the population. All of the horses are linebred, and the functional relation of linebreeding to racing performance has already been taken too far. It’s too late to turn to the standard account for celebrations of linebreeding. In such an era, the successful breeder is the one who can identify useful variations with which to restore the residual aptitudes, the one who understands that linebreeding is the problem, not the solution.

Linebreeding as a Visual Gimmick

by Roger Lyons

And did I mention that pedigree interpretation that focuses on linebreeding is so boring? I won’t go so far as to say it’s gibberish, but, if it’s not, it’s the last thing you pass through before you get there. In any event, it’s fair to say the written word is not the linebreeder’s best friend. It won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog (if there are any) that I have a theory about that, too.

The focus on linebreeding is part of a broad cognitive shift in human culture, which started off by way of oral tradition. Speaking and listening need no special incentives because they are both pleasurable in themselves. Then, with the rise of literacy, the transmission of culture began to take on a visual orientation organized at first by the printed page. In the course of the last century, with the rise of commercial culture, Western cognitive capacity has morphed into full-blown pictorial mode.

Understanding linebreeding is cognitively impossible unless it’s understood in pictorial form. It’s completely dependent on the visual orientation, and that’s why written descriptions of it are nearly incomprehensible.

You can say that the linebreeding consultants–you know who they are–actually throw back to oral culture because the essence of their discipline is to memorize thoroughbred ancestry in comprehensive detail going back to the origins of the stud book, kind of like tribal story tellers; but I would argue strenuously that what stands between their memories and the writing of their pedigree interpretations is a mental image they have drawn, complete with duplicated names in bold-face type. And that’s assuming they don’t actually have the pedigree printouts in front of them as they write. Their prime literary problem is to get you to look through those words to see what they see.

The current focus on linebreeding, in that sense, is a product of the visual orientation that has been gradually taking over human cognitive capacity since the origins of capitalism in the 15th century. The appeal of the visual orientation is strong because, as every advertising professional knows, pictures sell. It’s because the eye is the least intellectually discriminating of all our organs of sense. Thus, the persuasive appeal of those computer printouts of extended ancestries, their typographic features all pointing to linebreeding.

It’s a good thing for linebreeding that a picture is worth a thousand words. It doesn’t have to make sense because you can “see” the meaning in it. If you don’t instantly get the picture, then those tedious pedigree interpretations will eventually sink in by way of endless repetition of the stock topics of linebreeding–Domino-Macaroni, Nasrullah-Princequillo, Tweedledee-Tweedledum, etc., etc.

But, as I’ve tried in other ways to explain, those typographic features, taken together, constitute a grand illusion, the mirage of a winner’s circle always just out of reach. Linebreeding is now a pervasive feature of the thoroughbred population. Selling linebreeding is nothing more than selling thoroughbred pedigree–in its most generic sense–by another name. Not even the linebreeding consultants realize it’s just a visual gimmick because they don’t bother to notice that the bad runners are bred in the same image as the good ones. The difference can’t be reduced to a full-page ad for pedigree, any more than a picture can be transcribed into a thousand words.