Do Current Conditioning Methods Impact the Breeding Shed?
Under-conditioning of our thoroughbred starts is not only producing ever-slowing Belmont Stakes times, it is also slowing the progress of the breed as a whole. Exercise affecting genetics? Impossible, you say? Current research is full of examples where intensity of exercise programs has been shown to influence genetic expression. I’m not qualified to expand on that point, but I can certainly draw comparisons between AEI and the conditioning programs of any given racing era.
The stallion stars of the 21st century, even the immortal Storm Cat, are not passing down their racing genes to their respective progeny as often as was the case several decades ago. At least that is the story told by the Average Earnings Index.
If you know full well the definition of AEI, please skip the next 2 paragraphs and get to the ‘good’ stuff, well maybe not so good if you are a breeder in today’s marketplace.
What is AEI?
Developed by long time BloodHorse editor Joe Estes, the Average Earnings Index is a statistical method to compare stallions across different eras. One can’t simply compute earnings, as the value of the dollar changes over time. Nor should crop size distort the picture. Mr. Estes simply computes the average racetrack earnings by age group each year, terms this figure 1.0, and compares how a stallion’s offspring performed vs. that average. If the average earnings for Storm Cat 3 year olds in 2000 was $20,000, and the breed average for 3yo that season was $10,000 – the AEI would be 2.0, for example.
The primary complaint is that AEI can be skewed by one big runner, but isn’t that part of the joy of breeding – hitting the Home Run Horse? Furthermore, when we compare stallion careers in this manner – the sample size becomes quite large and this ‘fault’ is mostly remedied.
In his time, Mr. Estes considered an AEI of 4.0 or greater as an indicative of an outstanding sire. Sadly, today’s breeding stars are only able to post figures just over 2.5.
Leading Stallions by AEI from 2013-2001:
2013: 2.74 War Front
2012: 2.68 War Front
2011: 3.03 Storm Cat
2010: 3:09 Storm Cat
2009: 3.26 Street Cry
2008: 3.15 AP Indy
2007: 3.38 Storm Cat
2006: 3.50 Storm Cat
2005: 3.57 Storm Cat
2004: 3.66 Storm Cat
2003: 4.32 Danzig
2002: 4.42 Danzig
2001: 4.53 Danzig
The past decade plus has shown us the end of the line for both Storm Cat and Danzig, and although both were breed leaders in their respective years, the AEI distinguishes one from another quite distinctly. AEI also seems to decline with age, which I think can be expected due to nature. However, Storm Cat finishes at just over 3.0 and Danzig in the vicinity of 4.3 – a huge level of statistical significance. I cannot find lifetime AEI data on these 2 since they are no longer active at stud. But, I did find a mention of Danzig’s AEI in 1999 at a robust 5.17, so it can be safe to assume his lifetime AEI performance to be vastly superior to Storm Cat. (EDIT Found it: Danzig 4.53, Storm Cat 4.11, not as big a difference as suspected, but still remarkable). What is also somewhat curious as I look at the data is that Storm Cat’s AEI fell off more drastically than that of Danzig.
Danzig’s not the only stallion who can claim AEI superiority over Storm Cat, not by far, but I’ll save that for a bit later in the post. The suspense is whether or not Storm Cat will make the All-time Top 20.
Here is a quick window into other stats indicative of breeding success for these two taken from a 2005 summary that briefly backs up the concept of the AEI indicative of superior breeding success:
% of stakes winners: Danzig 18%, Storm Cat 13%
% of grades stakes winners: Danzig 10%, Storm Cat 6%
% of G1SW: Danzig 5%, Storm Cat 3%
And here is a graphical representation of the top 5 in AEI for each of those years which further illustrates the increasing decline of stallion performance measured by offspring race earnings compared to peers:
In 2013 you can hit the Top 5 list with an AEI of 2.2, but back in 2001 it took a 3.27. The last 2 years (2013 and 2012) no stud (of several hundred) broke the 3.0 barrier, yet in 2001 the average of the top 5 was 3.9. Remember, Estes talked of superstars in the shed at 4.0 back in his day. Talk about lowering the bar. That graph looks familiar, where have I seen that trend before? Oh yes, recent Belmont Stakes winning times:
My apologies for this terribly primitive chart from an earlier post. The Y-axis is the winning time in seconds, averaged for each decade to control for equine gods such as Secretariat and also for varying track conditions at Big Sandy as well as different pace scenarios which can effect final times. The X-axis represents each decade, with the 1 corresponding to the limited data set of the 2010’s – 4 years, and the 9 representing the 1930’s – the first full 10 year span where the race was run at its current 12 furlong distance.
So, the number 4 on the horizontal axis is the fastest decade (1980’s) when you average the 10 winners’ times and come to a value of 147.94, or 2:27.94.
I don’t have enough data on AEI to precisely overlay these two charts. But we can make two general statements:
- 2:30+ winning times over fast Belmont tracks have become the new normal in the 2010-2013 timeframe, performances not seen since the 1930’s.
- AEI numbers of our ‘leading’ stallions are approaching 2.5, versus a historical 4.0 or better.
Now of course these two trendlines don’t overlap precisely. Belmont winning times were on the improve after Bold Ruler’s day, but the sudden reversal in the early 90’s is apparent, coinciding with the legalization of Lasix in New York State around 1995. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have stopped improving over the last several decades as well; but the longer Belmont has actually reversed the trend in winning times. Meanwhile, AEI declines consistently over the entire interval.
Danzig is perhaps the lynchpin in this AEI analysis, before him big AEI numbers, afterwards – not so much. Conditioned by Woody Stephens, although only raced 3 times due to injury, Danzig never won the Belmont – but Stephens did with Danzig Connection in 1986, the last of his 5 consecutive victories beginning in 1982.
Missing from this post is any reference to mares. Many believe, as do I, the majority of good racing genes comes from the female side of the mating. However, billions are tied up in stallions due to the numbers game foisted upon them by nature. I think we can agree that during each racing era; 90% of all elite runners are conditioned similarly. From the mid 1980’s onwards it’s all Lukas and speedwork every 6/7 days, racing with 5-6 weeks rest. Starting with Stephens and running back towards Preston Burch and Max Hirsch in the 40’s – it was 2-3x weekly speed sessions and racing every week or two. Remember the Derby Trial was run on a Tuesday preceding the Derby on Saturday. Nowadays that race should be called the Preakness Trial, because no elite horse is prepared to run twice in a month, much less a week.
So, although AEI only looks at half of the equation, the mares being bred too were also conditioned/raced more aggressively in the days of Bold Ruler, etc. The Comparable Index somewhat addresses this, but I’ll have to leave that for another day, or maybe someone smarter than myself.
Minimal conditioning practices decrease the rate of passing on athletic genes to offspring. When horses were worked long and often, and raced more frequently, they became better athletes and maximized genetic expression which carried over to the breeding shed. Do I have ‘proof’ of this? Nope, but I don’t need to as I am merely a blogger who is biased towards ‘old school’ conditioning practices.
Bottom line: Going to a top stud in Danzig’s day gave you a decent chance at earning 4x the breed average and covering your bills; today the ROI is half that. The importance of choosing a top sire is lessening.
Here is a 99% complete list of all time studs ranked by AEI, I may have missed a few from 1990-2010, but based on recent trends it’s not likely they would have made this list anyway:
Bold Ruler 7.73
Northern Dancer 5.14
St. Simon 4.75
Tom Fool 4.51
Hail to Reason 4.47
Bull Lea 4.37
Mill Reef 4.36
Count Fleet 4.28
Mr. Prospector 4.25
Seattle Slew 4.12
17. Storm Cat 4.11
Round Table 4.01
Blushing Groom 3.97
Hoist the Flag 3.88
*I stopped with Equipoise because I always chuckle at the fact this is also the name of a very popular steroid. Surely not known back in the 1930’s, but used today quite often, not only in horses, but also in humans.
Could I get past the Jockey Club today naming a horse Testosterone? Furosemide? Cobra Venom? Clenbuterol?
Ok, now for the arguments against my primary claim. Most of them will involve other nuances of the AEI, and rightfully so. However, the crux of the Index lies in comparing racehorses to their peers in each individual year. So, the fact that horses started much more often in Bold Ruler’s day than in Storm Cat’s shouldn’t matter. Nor should the fact that purse sizes now are significantly larger due to inflation and casino money. Now, the predilection of today’s stallions to get larger books of unraced mares? Absolutely a valid claim and surely a factor in declining AEI in the modern era.
Let’s think about this yet another way. Assume we have two twin girls who become mothers at age 25. Let’s also assume they married twin brothers. Identical genes all around, or as close as we can get. Mother A and Father A both read books obsessively pretty much from school age on, while Mother B and Father B never read more than a cereal box, spending the rest of their time watching television.
Baby A and Baby B are born. Who is more likely to have, or even develop, a strong inclination to read books? Have the reading habits of Parents A altered their genetic expressions to influence the likelihood of passing on the ‘reading gene’ to their offspring. Have Parents B done the opposite? Surely possible, albeit unlikely to ever ‘prove’.