As the Kentucky Derby nears, handicappers pore over mounds of statistics, historical records, breeding theories, and other information to find the winner. Each tries to figure out the most important factor or factors: recent form, ability to get 10 furlongs, trainer, sire, dam, post position, or a combination of the above.
This everlasting puzzle brings to mind a conversation I had with John Gaines at his home in downtown Lexington, Ky., some years ago. He was still active then despite having sold his Gainesway Farm to Graham Beck, and he was working on ideas to promote Thoroughbred racing. He was no longer involved with the Breeders' Cup or the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, both of which had been born of his thought processes. Each, he felt, had deviated from its original mission of promoting the sport as he had envisioned, and his vision was the only one that mattered.
But that was Gaines: highly opinionated and utterly brilliant, the smartest guy in the room -- and he let everyone know that.
In any event, during the course of the conversation, quite off topic, he queried rhetorically: "What's the most important factor to success in racing? A great sire, a great broodmare band, or a great trainer?"
It was an interesting question since most owners and breeders likely think you need a measure of all three to be successful, to say nothing of a little -- or a lot -- of luck. Countless fortunes have been lost through the centuries by people trying to unlock the combination for success on the track and in the breeding shed.
"I think a transcendental trainer is the most important thing," Gaines said, answering his own question. "A great trainer can make a sire or a dam. The trainer will get the most out of a horse, and that will give an owner the best evaluation of the horse's ability." (Hall of Fame horseman James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, another exceptionally astute fellow, might have debated the point. He believed horses made the trainer, not the other way around, and once famously said: "Give a man the best horses, and any one of 500 would be the best trainer.")
At the time of this conversation in the late 1990s, Gaines seemed to be referring to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had dominated racing for years. The horses Lukas developed went to stud with all the opportunities afforded top racehorses; in turn, many became good sires or good broodmares.
This was an interesting thought coming from a man whose business at Gainesway had been all about sires. But Gaines challenged convention and thought outside the box.
Gaines was right in that breeding can be a crapshoot no matter how good a racehorse the prospective stallion or mare was -- and no matter how well bred. After hundreds of years of trying, no one has yet truly mastered the genetics of this game.
Plus, on the breeding side, the numbers work against you. Even with the best of sires, on average, only one in 10 of his foals will become a stakes winner.
With a top mare, the chances are somewhat better since the best mares will produce several stakes winners, but a mare may only produce 10 foals in her lifetime, so even if she gets three stakes winners, that 30 percent success rate may play out over 15 years.
Gaines's observation that a trainer is the key factor for success plays well against history. A number of great horsemen over the past hundred years or so begot breeding success for their owners, turning out great racehorses who went on to become top sires and broodmares. That was true of James Rowe Sr., Ben Jones, Fitzsimmons, Elliott Burch, Woody Stephens, Lukas, and Bob Baffert, among others. These trainers put their horses to the test, and those who answered the call became the best prospects at stud. That didn't mean they became the best producers, but they certainly had outstanding prospects for success.
There are exceptions to every rule. What about a great trainer like Allen Jerkens? He never trained a horse who went on to become a great sire. In some respects, that shows how great he was: Jerkens got the most out of unfashionably pedigreed horses who had been bred on a budget by Jack Dreyfus's Hobeau Farm.
Clearly, despite Gaines's emphasis on trainers, there must be some quality of pedigree for a sire or broodmare to succeed. This is a game, after all, where today's athletes are the parents of tomorrow's athletes.
Pedigree matters, and a look at some great racehorses who lacked a proven sire's lineage helps prove the point: Seabiscuit (by Hard Tack), Stymie (by Equestrian), Skip Away (by Skip Trial), Fantastic Light (Rahy), Silver Charm (Silver Buck) -- we could go on -- failed at stud. It's hard enough for a progenitor to succeed even with a great family tree, as only a handful of horses from every foal crop will come to be considered good sires.
Breeding and racing is often a riddle -- perplexing, frustrating, and sometimes rewarding -- but from Gaines's perspective, the best way to improve the odds is to send your horses to the best trainer available.