Saddle up

The little known reason the Kentucky Derby is always one ‘mother’ of a race

Thoroughbreds get important genes passed on to them from their fathers, but one of the most crucial traits comes from their mothers — and only their mothers

The 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. (Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports, via Reuters)

For thoroughbred horse-racing enthusiasts everywhere, the first Saturday in May is an occasion to celebrate. It’s a date on the calendar that plays host to a phenomenon known as the greatest two minutes in sports, the run for the roses, the first leg of the fabled race for the Triple Crown.

Yes, the Kentucky Derby is upon us.

Thousands of people from all over the world will be strategizing about their bets and waiting with bated breath—that probably smells vaguely of bourbon — to see which horse has the speed and the talent to win a spot in racing’s most elite club.

But it’s not all about the hats, and the drama, and the celebrity appearances. Thoroughbred racing is an expensive, strategic business. Handicappers are employed to help the inexperienced choose their best betting options that will –hopefully — give them the greatest chance at a payday. A racing form is a breakdown of statistics with many factors to consider: length of the race, condition of the track, speed of the horse, trainer, place of birth, position in the gate, et cetera. All of this information is listed for every horse in a confusing jumble of words and numbers that is often overlooked. But while all of this is helpful, what really makes a winner? Or, perhaps, a more apt question is not what, but who?

A thoroughbred’s sire, or father, is easy to spot on any racing form. Indeed, the names of most registered thoroughbreds are usually a riff on their father’s, much like we give our children a patronymic. But if you think predicting the outcome of thoroughbred racing is tricky, thoroughbred breeding is an entirely different game based on a little bit of strategy and a whole lot of pedigree.

When considering breeding a race horse, the average person might likely suggest that what makes a good foal is a good sire. When choosing a sire, breeders look for a great record both on the track and in the sale ring — former Derby winners are often popular choices — especially those whose offspring have proven their own worth in wins and prizes. Commercially, sires are big business and you have to pay attention to the names that are in favor because people pay thousands for stallions of some renown to “cover” their mares, as the act of equine intimacy is affectionately known. A famous father can make your horse the fan favorite — indeed only about 2 percent of stallions judged eligible for breeding — but research and opinion in the industry has revealed that instead of dad, who you should betting on is mom.

Churchill Downs racing form – A horse’s mother is known as the “Dam” listed right beneath the Sire.

If you ever find yourself at a thoroughbred sale, look at the catalogue and the first thing you’ll notice is that the entire maternal line of each horse is listed. “The lineage on the page is all about what the maternal line has done,” explains Tony Lacy, a sales and bloodstock consultant based in Kentucky. “If you’ve got a dominant mare, she can supersede even the moderate stallions. The importance of the mare can never be overstated.” It’s a phenomenon that was even alluded to in a funny exchange on an episode of Seinfeld in the 1990s.

In a 2015 paper titled, “Potential role of Maternal Lineage in the Thoroughbred breeding strategy” published in Reproduction, Fertility and Development, 675 Australian Thoroughbreds were tested, and researchers broke down the basics of breeding to a cellular level. Scientists discovered that when it comes to racing ability, it’s the mother of the horse that seems to hold the X-factor to success.

“Maternal heritability of athletic performance may be a stronger contributor than paternal heritability to race ability,” the authors of the study concluded. Scientists studying this phenomenon hypothesize that a horse’s racing potential boils down to is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the component responsible for the creation of ATP; otherwise known as the key ingredient in energy production for physical activity. Put simply, if your job is to cross the finish line first, you need ATP in spades. Interestingly enough, Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from only the mother, so while a sire will undoubtedly pass on many critical genes to their offspring, this is one thing they can’t contribute.

Known as the “distaff” or “tail-female” line, tracing thoroughbreds through their mother — or “Dam” as they’re known — is often easier to do since mares produce so many fewer offspring than stallions who are being used as “studs” (meaning they no longer race but live the playboy lifestyle eating and breeding). In one breeding season, stallions can cover close to 200 mares each depending on demand. The gestation period for a mare is about 11 months. When you break down the genetic contribution of a horse’s parents, many professional breeders will tell you that the split is close to 60/40, with the dominate and more determinant genes coming from the mother. “I think some of them would be as high as 70 percent because the more dominant mares, you can look at the progeny and they are consistently good,” Lacy explains. While it seems simple, a mother’s ability to pass on this crucial piece of DNA could be one reason why so many stallions who appear well-qualified often produce fewer winners.

According to Lacy, what drives the racing industry is the quality of the stock, and mares are central to that legacy. When attending sales, it’s the thrill of finding a quality broodmare that brings in the crowds. “Even professionals are in awe of the big mares” Lacy says, “It’s like watching Dali’s and Monet’s.”

So, what should you look for this Saturday when placing your bets? While you’re sure to see the name of the horse’s sire, keep reading on to the right. Follow the line of pedigree and take a look at the sire of the dame. If you’re familiar with thoroughbreds — or even if you’re not — you’ll most likely recognize the grandfather’s name as many will probably have competed in the Derby themselves. Of course, none of this is an exact science and there are exceptions and variables, but it’s called gambling for a reason.

If your horse comes in first, the odds are good that they got it from their mama.


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