In a 1970 interview, Peter Burrell spoke of his observations about racehorse breeding. As the director of the National Stud in Newmarket, England, for seven years by that point and a Thoroughbred owner and breeder himself, Burrell was well-qualified to remark on solid theories for successful breedings and even why the formula to create a top-notch racehorse was difficult to formulate or duplicate, even as many breeders attempted that feat.

I once visited a farm in central Kentucky where the stallion manager mentioned that every attempt to produce a top racehorse is breeding for an outlier. Even knowing how tall the odds are stacked for a horse reaching the upper tier of racing just to be competitive at that level, alone become a graded stakes winner, I had still never considered it in terms of breeding for outliers but of course that is what is happening. And that is why any breeder involved long enough realizes the element of luck has its role as much as good planning, given that even full siblings to top horses may not have anywhere near the talent of a more illustrious horse produced by the same sire and dam.

Burrell elaborated upon that outlier thought I heard a stallion manager express, and it was interesting to read his observations from his 1970 interview. The question posed to him in the interview was specifically about difficulty in breeding a Derby winner, which is 1 1/2 mile race in England.

Burrell answered, “The Derby distance and course require a very special kind of horse. It is the distance, really, I think, that is so crucial. The nub of it is this: it is comparatively easy to produce horses that can go really fast for distances up to a mile, even up to a mile and a quarter. It is also comparatively easy to produce horses which will stay distances of two miles or more at a good pace. But what you are asking here in a Derby winner is a horse who can go very fast for more than a mile and a quarter. A good Derby winner can sprint and can stay a mile and a half. You are asking, therefore, for a very special, a very peculiar type of animal.

Now this is where the natural processes insist on coming into the breeding process. With all animals, nature is always trying to produce a norm. When the breeder mates a sire and a dam whose combined qualities give him the peculiar progeny he requires to win the Derby, nature, as usual, steps in and tries to arrange that the progeny are not peculiar but revert to normal type. This is the probable reason for the disappointing results from mating Derby winners with Oaks winners. A possible method of breeding for the Derby would be to put a sprinting mare, let us say, to a staying stallion, hoping to produce a great intermediate. The records show that overwhelmingly the chances are that those two animals will produce stayers like the sire, sprinters like the mother, or something not very conspicuous between.

…In your quest for a Derby horse, which is in a sense a freak horse, nature is working not with you, but against you. This is the process known as ‘retrogression to the mean.’ “

Reading Burless’ comments, which he said had basis in scientific principles that could have been elaborated upon further but basically boiled down to the retrogression statement above, it made it more evident how extraordinary it is when a horse like Man o’ War or Secretariat comes along, given nature’s “preference” for a horse to be ordinary. Perfect still, to be what the species is intended to be, but not necessarily what a racehorse breeder may have hoped for. And yet, some breeders have still found better than average success with certain crosses in producing a fairly consistent number of outlier horses. As a pedigree enthusiast, it is intriguing to read of insights into breeding like this.

Another point I found worthy of reflection was made by James Gill to conclude his book Bloodstock: Breeding Winners in Europe and America. He wrote, “People engaged in the breeding, training and riding of horses are forever telling the punter that his sport is really an industry, as, indeed, he knows it must be, when, year in, year out, he sees all the good three-year-old colts syndicated by their prudent owners and packed off to stud in the hope that they will sire other horses too good for all but the briefest racecourse careers. Yet, not so long ago, Paul Mellon and John Hislop showed that it is still possible for sporting owners of great horses to achieve on the track a glory which will live in the racing man’s memory long after he has forgotten the dreary succession of half-tried colts dispatched, on accountant’s orders, to the stud. The day the grey men convince the public that racing is an industry, pure and simple, is the day that it will die. And then there will be some hard-up breeders.”

Reading Gill’s comment, it is definitely more common that top horses are retired young to perpetuate the breed, hopefully. Those will naturally get noted more because they attract media and fan attention. With racing at all levels, from claiming to graded stakes, there have to be horses running beyond age 3. No immediate future for them in breeding, supposing they are not geldings. So, it does not seem that this trend of retiring many top horses young is creating hard-up breeders. I’ve also seen evidence of how slim the profit margin can be even in top stables from race earnings alone; it is not an easy business to make ends meet in and it is possible standing a promising young horse will pay greater dividends than racing him.

And, as much as fans identify with top racehorses to feeling a marginal sense of ownership borne of affection, it must be remembered these horses are private commodities and owners don’t owe it to racing to keep them in training if insurance costs and risk outweigh reward. I too greatly appreciate when horses have long careers like Whitmore, Cigar, Monomoy Girl, and Zenyatta, purely from a fan standpoint. It is truly one that seems to identify racing more as a sport than an industry (especially given that often such moves as racing horses beyond age 3 can be referred to as a “sporting gesture”); even so given the value of horses at the top level there is no doubt it is an industry. Most owners love to see their top runners have fan followings, but economic realities dictate having horses race beyond three is not always practical. Still, I identify with what Gill wrote. When a horse appears to just be coming into his own and enthusiasm has built with each race, it is hard not to miss that horse on the track and wonder what further heights he might have reached. I always look forward to progeny of horses I liked but it is still hard to top getting to cheer on a favorite horse through more than two seasons of racing.


The Faber Book of the Turf. Edited by John Hislop and David Swannell.

Bloodstock: Breeding Winners in Europe and America. James Gill.