Horse running through field

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.

4 comments to “Super Saver: a Minority Report”

  • Greg writes:

    “It must have the variety of typological possibility required by the prevailing conditions of racing.”

    This is the key. Very Varola-like, Roger. That the best animals combine a variety of aptitudes, can draw on those various aptitudes as necessary in a way that gives them the athletic resources to succeed. I’ll buy that. And those “types” are reflections of the particular racing environments and the pressures they place on those pedigrees.

    Or something like that.

  • Roger Lyons writes:

    That’s exactly it, Greg, and Varola has been a very important resource for me in regard to the historical development of the population. But I think his thesis about different geographical populations being shaped by the local values, while true, only goes so far. Anyone who observes the population in a critical way must wonder if the population isn’t something of a runaway train at this stage.

  • Greg writes:

    Runaway train, or sale rather than race oriented, or whatever other cultural/economic factors are at work that we might not even have fully identified–the horses still ultimately reflect those pressures, eh?

  • Tweets that mention Roger Lyons' Pedigree Matters » Super Saver: a Minority Report -- writes:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by enpinsSire Watch. enpinsSire Watch said: Roger Lyons takes a look at Super Saver's pedigree and the linebreeding in it. […]

« Previous post Next post »