Horse racing is an industry built on using past performance to predict future outcomes, and if The Jockey Club goes through with its proposal to limit stud books to 140 mares bred per season, the Thoroughbred business has a decade of experience from the Standardbred side of the aisle to map out the road ahead.
The United States Trotting Association, the regulatory body for Standardbred racing and breeding in the U.S., has imposed a 140-head limit on mares bred by stallions who debuted in 2009 or later, and after early periods of potential legal battles and business adjustments, the cap is now considered business as usual.
The U.S. Standardbred gene pool is far shallower than its Thoroughbred cousin, both in the number of foundation pedigrees and in its current population – roughly a third of the national Thoroughbred head count. By the mid-2000s, a small handful of sires had taken command of the marketplace, and a growing abundance of 2×3 crosses had some in the USTA concerned about the genetic diversity of the breed.
Only a small handful of stallions exceeded what would become the 140-mare limit, but with artificial insemination expanding a stallion's availability beyond his immediate surroundings, the busiest ones could top out near 300 mares.
Among the industry leaders seeking a change was Russell Williams, president and CEO of top breeding operation Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania and president of the USTA. At the time the cap was first being discussed, Williams was a board member with the breed organization.
“It's very much an iceberg structure in the Standardbred breed,” he said. “There's a small number of stallions at the very top. Right now, there are basically three top trotters and three top pacers, and without book limits, those would basically be the only ones with a shot. The flip side of that coin is, for one stallion to breed 140 mares instead of 250, that makes a big difference genetically. The fact that we're imposing real limits that are having an actual effect on the books of only a few stallions doesn't change the importance of doing it.”
A study on the genetic diversity of Standardbreds was conducted by Dr. Gus Cothran of the University of Kentucky, who found a condensed stud book also compounded several physical issues throughout the generations. From there, Cothran came up with a suggested cap on mares bred.
“He came up with 140, and from his direction, it was just an estimate,” Williams said. “He said it was hard to say with the amount of data that we have to look at that the number is strictly scientifically justified, but since it's not too far below what our top stallions breed, and it's not too far above what the lesser stallions breed, and it looks like it'll fit with the rate of change that he could identify, that would be his recommendation.”
The next decade of Standardbred breeding was then, in essence, a genetic experiment to see how much hybrid vigor could be preserved if breeders were forced to look beyond the very top of the stud book.
Of course, such a broad measure wasn't going to be put in place without a fight in the courtroom, and Williams said the stud book cap was no different. Complicating matters was a headshy feeling among the USTA brass, which was coming off a major lawsuit with a sulky manufacturer over a model the breed organization pushed to ban from the races. The USTA ultimately won the suit involving the sulky company, but the legal arena can be a hard place to willfully reenter.
When the cap was close to becoming a reality, Williams said the USTA made sure it had its bases covered by hiring a Washington D.C. law firm that specialized in antitrust matters to examine the policy. The legal challenges eventually subsided, and the rule was enacted for the 2009 breeding season.
“There is the possibility when you have a specialized industry to take actions that are essentially anti-competitive if you have a pro-industry, non-commercial reason for doing it,” Williams said.
Unlike The Jockey Club's plan, the USTA's cap applied only to stallions who entered service in 2009 and beyond, meaning stallions who debuted before the deadline were never limited in the mares they could cover.
The implementation of a stud book cap rolled in gradually as each season brought in a new class of stallions. This provided farms and stallion managers time to react and adapt to the policy before the majority of the stallion population was under its umbrella, as it is today.
Whether it was a buzzed-about new name or an established commercial force in the years that followed, the cap forced managers of the top stallions to start turning mares away. Art Zubrod of Kentucky-based Brittany Farms had about 300 applications on one new stud around the beginning of the policy, and he said it added a new dimension to putting together the book of mares.
“You have to do it two ways: One, what's best for your horse, but also politically, what's best for the business and what's best for your business,” he said. “The first couple of years, it was quite a process. It's not easy to turn people down, but you do it as fairly as possible.”
The next question then became where the mares that were turned away from the mega-sires shook out into the books of other stallions. Did breeders seek out sons of the powerhouse to stay within a familiar pedigree, or did quality win out over bloodline loyalty?
“We're only talking, maximum, 120 mares,” Zubrod said about the “free agent” broodmares in the Standardbred population. “It doesn't take a lot to move those mares around. They just went to whoever was next-best. Let's say the top stallion served 200 and the second stallion served 160, and there were probably five stallions doing 120 or so. Those five stallions were getting an extra 10-20 mares.”
In discussions about a potential cap on the Thoroughbred side, a hypothetical often brought up involves shipping U.S.-based stallions overseas, where they would not have to adhere to the same restrictions, then bringing the foals back stateside.
The standardbred realm permits artificial insemination, and the USTA's stud book cap does not apply to Canada, so subverting the cap while maintaining a large presence in the U.S. would presumably be easier than with Thoroughbreds, which permit only live-cover matings. However, both Williams and Zubrod said nobody tried that gambit.
“One of the things that we have is the sire stakes programs in Pennsylvania, New York, and several other states, so if you took a very strong stallion out of, say Pennsylvania and went to Sweden to breed as many mares as you want, they wouldn't be eligible to the Pennsylvania program,” Williams said.
While there have been no rogue breeders that have tried to exploit the geographic loophole, Williams said there were plenty of unexpected developments that have popped up since 2009 that have required the USTA to adapt its policy with the ever-changing times and technologies.
“You have to be very careful once you impose these limits going forward because there's a lot of creative thinking,” he said. “People were trying to think 'How do we manage to get as many live foals as close to 140 a year as we can?' We go by the mares bred list, so live foals would be fewer than 140, but by trying to maximize the foaling rate, you're going to get closer to that.
“People have had ideas like, 'Let's go ahead and use embryo transfer and allow a mare to have two registered foals in the same year,'” Williams continued. “The ideas like that are had in good faith, however, as an anti-trust matter, they're unallowable. We have to sort of swat these ideas down, not because they're bad or in bad faith, but because that's not the purpose of the limitation.”
With a decade of data, Williams said the time will soon come to evaluate the state of hybrid vigor in the breed, both with Dr. Cothran and other researchers, to determine whether the stud book cap was successful in its mission. Regardless of the findings, both Williams and Zubrov saw the cap as a worthwhile experiment.
“Fortunately, on the Standardbred side, we have a pretty unified industry governance,” Williams said. “We do manage to work together pretty well, and it's a pretty level playing field. Whatever we do come up with, there might be some argument and contention because we're horse people, but we get through it, and I hope this will be something that will help our horses a lot.”
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