Horse running through field

Pedigree, Conformation, and Zenyatta

by Roger Lyons

My last post explains why a recent post by Frank Mitchell gave me second thoughts about the appropriateness of Giant’s Causeway as a mate for Zenyatta in spite of the sterling statistical profile he has with her ancestry. My underlying point is that what’s on paper can and must be interpreted in light of what’s on the ground–and vice versa. That point drew some thoughtful comments bearing substantively on the case and more generally on the relation between pedigree and conformation.

First, Frank elaborates his reasons for thinking Giant’s Causeway might not be quite right for her, and it has a lot to do with her broodmare sire, Kris S. Frank not only casts his gaze on a lot of horses, but he also measures them, so you can be sure that he’s not speaking from casual observation. When he casts his gaze on Zenyatta, he sees a lot of Kris S. and some Troy, the broodmare sire of her sire, Street Cry.

Then Michele shares the experience, as a breeder, of having tried both approaches–breeding largely on pedigree and, alternatively, breeding largely on conformation, concluding that neither approach seems to make much difference in the frequency of favorable outcomes. Michele’s experiment was not conducted in a lab. It unfolded at much cost and over many years of trying to breed the best horses possible, and, as you read the comment, you get the sense that it rings true.

In the last comment so far, Greg correctly concludes that the distinction between pedigree and conformation is nothing more than a matter of emphasis. After all, he explains, statistical analyses that assess how a given stallion has done with mares representing a given ancestor actually do capture conformation issues–although indirectly. If you read Frank’s “The Weekender Pedigree” (and who doesn’t?) at The Paulick Report, then you know how much he’s into pedigree even though his science is biomechanics. The opposition routinely invoked by the cliche “pedigree vs. conformation” exists only because we associate pedigree analysis with one broad category of facts and conformation with another.

Greg proposes marriage of the two approaches, and he’s right. When Frank says that Kris S. is the major player in Zenyatta’s conformation (note the implication that pedigree and conformation are inseparable), it relieves a lot of statistical pressure. Rather than assuming Zenyatta’s entire ancestry to be more or less uniformly relevant, the focus can shift to Kris S.

Here are the candidates, along with their numbers with mares representing Kris S.: A.P. Indy (2/6), Galileo (1/2 and Frank’s choice), Giant’s Causeway (3/10), Invincible Spirit (1/2), Lemon Drop Kid (1/3), Mineshaft (2/5), Oasis Dream (0/2 with Kris S., but 7/35 with Roberto and great supporting numbers), Speightstown (0/2 with Kris S., but 2/10 with Roberto and good supporting numbers). And, by the way, Songandaprayer is 2/4 with Kris S. and may be a better choice for Zenyatta than better stallions that have poor or questionable numbers with Kris S.

Zenyatta Plus ?

by Roger Lyons

As an earnest reader of Frank Mitchell’s blog, I attended with interest to his remarks about a mate for Zenyatta, especially his misgivings about Giant’s Causeway as a possible match. Now, Frank is an expert in biomechanics, so I’m supposing that, when he says, “I don’t especially like him for this mare,” he means he sees a physical mismatch somewhere along the contours of the two individuals. When Frank speaks, I listen, but I don’t much like what I hear in this case.

That’s because on paper, which is where my life unfolds in this business most of the time, Giant’s Causeway is the best match out there among proven stallions. Don’t get me wrong. Frank’s choice is Galileo, and he also has a great profile on paper, but it’s not as factually confirmable as that of Giant’s Causeway–on paper.

Just for reference, Zenyatta is by Street Cry, by Machiavellian and out of Helen Street, by Troy, and her first, second, and third dams are by Kris S., Forli, and Hoist the Flag, respectively. Giant’s Causeway has had no opportunity with mares by Street Cry (hardly any stallion has), but he has a superior-runner strike rate of 2/7 with Machiavellian and 2/7 with Troy. He’s also 1/2 with Helen Street, the dam of Street Cry, because she’s also the second dam of four-time G1-winner Shamardal, by Giant’s Causeway.

On the other side of her pedigree, Giant’s Causeway has a strike rate of 3/10 with Kris S., 10/117 with Forli (a bit weak, admittedly), and 8/46 with Hoist the Flag. The way I add it up, Zenyatta’s ancestry scores in the 94th percentile of all mares that have been bred to Giant’s Causeway.

I’m not going to get in a fight with Frank over this because I know when to back down. The truth is–as much an embarrassment as it might be to those of us who specialize in pedigree–what’s on the ground has the right to veto what’s on paper. So, I’m going to defer to Frank on this and back Galileo although, in deference to what might actually happen, A.P. Indy has a very good profile, too. The Mr. Prospector-line stallions that have been suggested–not so much.

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.

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.

Pedigree Profile: Awesome Act

by Roger Lyons

In 1997 Crypto Star, winner of the Arkansas Derby (G2) at nine furlongs, was not the only runner by Cryptoclearance to have won a stakes at that distance. However, despite the perception of Cryptoclearance as a stamina influence, only one other of his offspring had won a stakes beyond 8.5 furlongs. That was Kingdom City, which happened to be entered in the undercard on Derby Day that same year. He had won the Round Table S. (G3) at nine furlongs two years before, but was not the same as a five-year-old. Neither of them fared very well on Derby Day 1997.

That distance barrier for Cryptoclearance remained intact only until the following year when Victory Gallop won the Belmont. The only other offspring of Cryptoclearance to win a stakes beyond nine furlongs was Volponi in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Needless to say, Crypto Star didn’t take my money that Derby Day. Betting that a horse’s performance, especially in the Kentucky Derby, will be anomalous to its breeding is like drawing to an inside straight. No, I’m no fool, I found a much smarter way to lose my money.

One horse that won’t get my money this year is Awesome Act. I just can’t back a horse in the Derby with 4×2 inbreeding to Mr. Prospector, especially one that has not yet won a stakes at nine furlongs. Oh, and did I mention? The only runner by Awesome Again and inbred to Mr. Prospector to have won a stakes beyond 8.5 furlongs was Awesome Gem, which won the Hawthorne Gold Cup H. (G2), but that horse is inbred 4×4 and it was in the mud.

That analysis could easily go wrong for me because Awesome Act has already proven he’s exceptional in other ways. Through his 2006 crop Awesome Again has sired superior runners out of only six mares with Mr. Prospector in their ancestries, that from 103 opportunities. So, in that sense, what Awesome Act has done so far makes him a rarity.

One way in which Awesome Act is typical of his breeding is that his dam is out of Coup de Folie, by Halo, and that’s the kind of family that’s almost indifferent to the stallion that’s been selected for it. It’s a good thing, too, because Awesome Again has had a superior runner from only one of 26 of his mates that had Halo in their ancestries, and the eight additional mares that had Halo’s dam, Cosmah, descending in some other way all failed to fire.

No matter how Awesome Act might fare in the Derby, Awesome Again has already established his credentials as a versatile sire that can get classic-distance runners. Besides Awesome Gem, he’s sired Ghostzapper (Breeders’ Cup Classic–G1), Ginger Punch (Personal Ensign S.–G1), Rumor Has It (Kentucky Cup Turf S.–G3–and three other stakes beyond nine furlongs), and Hotstufanthensome (Mac Diarmida H.–G3); and nine furlongs is a piece of cake for many of his runners. However, if you check CompuSire online, you’ll see that the nearest inbreeding among the classic-distance stakes winners–outside of Awesome Gem–was 5×4 to Raise a Native in the ancestry of Hotstufanthensome. The rest, by today’s standards, were outcrosses.

Clearly, Awesome Act’s breeding does not fit the profile that is typical of the best offspring of his sire, especially those that won at classic distances. The question is, how exceptional can he be?

The one other thing that worries me is Volponi, that anomalous son of Cryptoclearance. Nobody was more shocked than I was when he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic because, you see, he’s inbred 3×4 to Mr. Prospector!

So, while I won’t be backing Awesome Act, I completely agree with Frank Mitchell when he says, “you just never know.”