The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79
II.—Of Breeding and Judging
II.—Of Breeding and Judging.
There was a time when I used to read with bated breath those articles headed "Stud Strolls* or "Paddock Rambles," to which racing writers are so much addicted. I was lost in wonder at that wonderful command of technique which could examine, criticise, analyse, a dozen or twenty yearlings, and find something quite distinct to say about each of them. Here was judgment, if you like, a knowledge of what to look for, an eye to detect it. But I became disabused of these theories as the result of an action which, I must admit, no gentleman would have been guilty of. I cut out some of these articles and pasted them into a scrap-book!page 10
At later periods I was able to enter against each animal the price it realised and the name it received. I was then, of course, in a position to review the estimate of each in the light of its performances, and derived a considerable amount of enlightenment and amusement from the result. In justice to the scribes, I should add that the buyers knew no more than they did, and, when you come to consider, it is manifestly impossible for any man to gauge the possibilities of a racehorse by looking at him. Indeed, when not engaged in vaunting their powers in this respect, racing writers are prone to remark that "they gallop in all shapes." But take a concrete case. Two three-year-olds meet at level weights over a mile, which the winner, all out, compasses in 1.40, beating his rival by a length, say three yards and a half, or a fifth of a second. This is a clear and decisive win. The winner has "silenced the opposition," "carried too many guns," for them, or, in any way that you like to express it, clearly established his superiority. Yet he has only excelled the second horse in the proportion of one in five hundred. There may be "heads only between second and third," with a couple of others close up. Will any man risk his reputation for sanity by asserting that, two years previously, the buyer of the winner was able to detect that margin of superiority? Yet that is just exactly the statement that those commit themselves to who prate about a keen judge of a horse, and so forth.
Reports of sales make interesting reading two or three years later. If you could see a table giving the names of the highest priced yearlings in England, Australia and New Zealand, for each of the last twenty years, and another of their winnings, you would begin to realise to what extent judgment is of avail. Because, when one man bids two thousand guineas for a yearling, we know that another must have bid fifty less, while others dropped out at various stages. Similarly, when a buyer snaps up, for a hundred or two, what turns out to be a smasher, the question arises, whether he was exhibiting superlative judgment, or twenty others proved conclusively that they do not know a horse when they see one.
But surely, you will ask, if one star differs from another in glory, there must be some difference between horses, something that the eye can detect. No doubt. But only up to a certain point. There is a certain form of judgment which has, if nothing else, a negative value. If you were to yard a thousand fairly uniform sheep, and ask me to pick out the hundred best ones, it is extremely probable that after I had done so another could pick a hundred just as good. On the other hand, if I undertook to cull out the hundred worst ones, I think I could get pretty page 11 close to success. In matters of this sort there is a tendency to overlook the fact that the best horse in England must belong to somebody. Money, a good trainer, and sense enough to let him alone, added to sufficient knowledge—usually on the part of the aforesaid trainer—to weed out duffers, are the chief ingredients in that good judgment, and eye for a horse, of which we read so much. And that, by-the-bye, is what amuses me so greatly when I see gentlemen asked to judge light horses at an agricultural show, simply because they may have paid the training bills of some not markedly unsuccessful racehorses.
The kind of judgment which finds out what a horse can do, and, equally important, what other horses can do, is to be found more often among trainers and jockeys than among owners, who get the credit for it. In short, it simply comes to this, that the man who can judge of a racehorse's abilities to win by looking at him, let alone by looking at a yearling, has not yet been born. It is the knowledge of this circumstance that enables me to extract so much amusement from the literary efforts of racing writers, and especially from the antics of those shrewd, farseeing, unimpressionable, racegoers who cannot push their sovereign into the totalisator until they have "had a look at the horses." Delicious!
Equally fatuous is all this bleating about pedigrees and breeding, stud-book lore, and all that kind of thing. Upon the ground of breeding there is hardly a horse in New Zealand whose success could not be explained in the light of his pedigree. True, his sire did nothing on the turf, his dam no more. Granted that neither of them has produced anything resembling a winner. All the same, "the thoughtful student of the stud-book"—priceless phrase—"will not be surprised" when he studies the extended pedigree. Staylace, by Bootjack out of Corset, on the sire's side showing two distinct strains of Compression, by The Screw, that renowned mare alternately referred to as a tap-root, a corner stone, and a fountain head, while on the distaff side—yes, I have seen the expression—he runs back to Ragamuffin, by Rags and Bones out of Muffin Bell, whose blood, transmitted through Indigestion to the fruitful Nausea, etc., etc. "Stout blood this, my masters," is the accepted expression which follows an exposition of the results of this form of research. But what does it all amount to!
I grant you that there are men who can reel off pedigrees for hours without a mistake. It is marvellous to listen to them, and often extremely interesting to hear the running commentary on the deeds of various animals, the history and vicissitudes of their owners, the coups they pulled off and didn't, page 12 and in the latter case the reasons why. But after all, what is the practical value of this form of knowledge? You cannot formulate any rule, or mention any strain or combination of strains, which does not produce many more failures than successes. As years pass, I find it interesting to note how families die out and spring up again under the impulse of imported blood. With all our boasting about Carbine, etc., we cannot breed racehorses. Three generations of Antipodean blood is the extreme limit. After that we must import.
Students of pedigree seem to overlook the fact that Nature still has a word to say about breeding, and that she need not speak very loudly to effect most marked results. A bullock weighing 9981bs. is not perceptibly inferior to one of 10001b., whereas we have seen that a margin of one in five hundred is quite material at racing. And surely it must be apparent that, if we cannot judge a racehorse by looking at him, you are not going to do much better by studying his pedigree. The fatuous stupidity of the nonsense that is written about breeding was revealed to me a good many years ago by an article in "The Field," England's most stately sporting paper, upon the breeding of Melton, then at the zenith of his fame. In a column of closely reasoned small print, the writer proved to a demonstration that Melton (Master Kildare—Violet Melrose) was bred upon such lines that nothing short of being born with only three legs could have prevented him from galloping. How could it be otherwise when the name of Waxy appeared no less than eight times in his pedigree. "Stout blood, this, my masters." And, of a surety, it seemed so. But it appeared that Violet Melrose had produced some four or five other foals to Master Kildare, and not one of them had proved capable of keeping itself warm. I have always wanted to know whether the breeder of Melton was a genius, or the breeder of those others an ass.
It is one of our limitations that we can never know just what it is that constitutes that last essential excellence which enables a horse to win races. We cannot know whether a horse is merely unable to go any faster at the end of a race, or simply unwilling, tired of the thing, perhaps frightened by flogging, or in any case influenced by mental, not physical, considerations of which we can have no conception. We know perfectly well that many horses do refuse to do their best, and we call them rogues, sour tempered, jady, and other oppobrious names, but we can never tell whether similar causes are, or are not, at work to an extent quite imperceptible to us but sufficient to produce that astonishingly small difference, when expressed in mere figures, between a winner and a mere place-getter. Among human beings the widest mental and page 13 physical differences exist between children of the same parents, differences which the gift of speech enables us to ascertain and estimate. We can never get a glimpse at the inside of an animal's brain. In the case of sheep and cattle it is not necessary that we should, but our ignorance on this point is fatal to a complete understanding of the difference between Melton and his brothers. Yet, when you read the before-mentioned "Stud Strolls" and "Paddock Rambles," you shall always find that the pick of the basket is full-brother to a Melton, at the subsequent sales he will top the prices, and in the ultimate result usually prove to be but a second-rater.
Of all problems, that of breeding is one of the most complex. When Nature has decided upon the type of animal best suited to certain environments, she goes on producing it. Witness a thousand herrings or porpoises, rabbits or mice, sparrows or wood-pigeons. But when man tries his hand how marked the lack of uniformity! We prate about the evils of inbreeding. But take a pair of rabbits from the same litter, turn them out in an empty land, and let this country and Australia testify to the vigour of the inbred results. What trips up man is Nature's abhorrence of extremes. Two champions will not usually produce a third. That our best horses produce champions may be due to the fact that they have been mated with mares of but average or mediocre racing powers. But how often do our best racing mares produce anything notable? Many, if not most, of our successful brood mares have not raced. Prom that, and on other grounds, it is sometimes urged that the breeding potentialities of a mare are destroyed by an arduous turf career. Mere conjecture. The best mare we have seen for a good many years is out of a mare who raced long and fairly well. To me it would appear that the failure of a champion racing mare may be due to the fact that she is mated with a champion racing horse, and Nature steps in with the remark that this phenomenon business has gone far enough, and we must now get back to normal. However that may be, you will find, as I have already said, that the offspring of two champions will continue to excite the admiration of Stud Strollers, and to "set heads nodding" in the ring, but when you ask scribe or buyer to reel you off the names and breeding of the most successful horses during the last decade, you probably will form an opinion not at all unlike my own upon the question of judgment, whether in buying or breeding.
* Appendix A.—Page 47.