Archive for April, 2013

If ever there was a horse that epitomises the Anzac spirit in the modern era, it is Courage Under Fire.

Courage Under Fire in action

Courage Under Fire in action

Aptly named, Courage Under Fire was a racehorse loved and respected in both New Zealand and Australia for his heart, gait and sheer willpower which overcame his pint-sized (14.3h at a push) frame.

He was born (1995) and developed in New Zealand, owned by Australian Greg Brodie, and raced at the top level in both countries.

He was simply a superb racehorse as a 2, 3 and 4yo, winning 24 out of 24 starts in a run that reminds us currently of Black Caviar – and “The Pocket Rocket” was just as much a crowd pleaser.

A really lovely summary of his racing career by Adam Hamilton can be found here on the excellent Addington Raceway Timeline webpages, written when Courage Under Fire retired.

The admiration he had earned “under fire” on the racetrack continued on both sides of the Tasman Sea when he went to stud.

He’s left 10 crops of foals so far (2002-2012) – it’s a milestone worth celebrating. His NZ bred foals have just topped the 1000 mark, and in Australia now exceed 500 and many more to come I hope! His oldest progeny are now 9yos. He’s got the ability to leave really good horses, and to inject a needed element of speed and toughness. And he hasn’t stamped his small size.

His popularity in Australia as a sire is undiminished, and he is still getting full books there, with good supplementary bookings for his chilled semen coming from New Zealand.  He first stood at Nevele R in New Zealand for several years, then after a stint under the Stallion Station he has found a home more recently at Alabar Australia. He is currently standing at a $6000 service fee which indicates how well he is regarded at this stage of his career.

His siring career could be headed in the same direction as his damsire the great Vance Hanover, carving out a great reputation over a long period, not leaving a major siring dynasty in his own right, but likely to provide some very good broodmares in the future.  Many of his best sons are geldings – Pembrook Benny, Sleepy Tripp, Smolda.

Thoughts on Anzac Day

Completely on a different tack, I’d like to give a tip o’ the hat to the horses who have literally performed under fire through many different wars. Forget the awful Spielberg movie and search out some of the real stories to be found about these horses and their handlers.  I hate war for what it does to people, to animals, to the environment. It’s a soul-destroying aspect of life, and its only good side is the other part of the human condition it reveals – courage, resiliance, and humanity shown by individuals against all odds. That’s what I think about on Anzac Day.

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Number 3 of my 4 solutions for the New Zealand standardbred breeding industry is to place a limit of 100 on all NZ available stallions for the next 3 years (i.e. number of NZ mares served regardless of where the sire stands).

Many people will say there is no point in even raising this issue, because it was done and dusted many years ago when there was a legal ruling based, presumably (because I cannot find any easy reference to it) on the “restraint of trade” argument. That was the end of the matter.

But I believe a short sharp period of limited books will, in conjunction with the other 3 solutions I’m putting forward, provide a bridge to the future for our Kiwi standardbred breeding industry.

The restraint of trade argument is a strong one that carries much weight in Western economies. To be valid, any restraint must be agreed to by both parties (for example in an employment contract), the extent of the restraint needs to be reasonable, and generally there needs to be some benefit in it for both parties.

Restraint of trade is balanced by other commercial laws directing competitive behaviour and preventing cartels, anti-competitive practices, mergers that over-dominate competitive markets, plus consumer protection laws.

These things are presumably intended to set some parameters within which” the market” will usually sort itself out.

And many in the breeding industry will say that is what will happen again here, with a fertile sire like Bettor’s Delight eventually over-supplying the market and breeders moving on to other sires once the average market price takes a downward turn. It’s happened before with Vance Hanover, Sundon, In The Pocket and Christian Cullen. Maybe but given the long cycles of breeding and the current dire straits of the breeding industry, are we willing to wait and see? There are some features of the current situation – the huge dominance of one super sire for several years now; the reduced pool of broodmares; the financial situation of harness racing in general – which means we have to turn the history channel off and get out of our armchair.

So let’s start from the assumption that my proposal is not about a law change, but a change of mindset.

A change from laissez faire reliance on “market forces”, hoping they will trigger changes in time to prevent some very negative flow-on affects.

A change in attitude from “she’ll be right, we’ve seen this all before”. And letting another 3 years slide by to see if it turns out that way.

The aim is to slice the cake more equitably without over-influencing breeders’ choices, during a period where the industry is in danger of contracting to insignificance. Tweaking the market rather than totally controlling it.

What we need is a proactive willingness from stallion owners, breeders and studs. Because in hard times, it is collaboration rather than competition that pulls us through.

Limiting sires’ books over a short period will result in:

  • A wider distribution of the service fees paid by breeders across studs and sire owners, which enables a healthy diversity of industry players to survive – and that protects the competitive environment of the future.
  • A wider range of quality sires who will have a chance to prove themselves at stud, because history tells us that we cannot really predict who will become a top sire.
  • A more diverse future broodmare pool, racing stock and even potential sires.
  • A stronger representation of different types and new sires at yearling sales, giving more representation to breeders who are willing to look “outside the square”. A sire needs 20 yearlings across the sales to really break into the perception of buyers as a commercial stallion.
  • And more active, adventurous thinking (hopefully) on the part of breeders when they choose a sire for their mare, instead of just following the crowd and singing the mantra “best to the best”!

So how could a book limit work in practice?

The number of sires affected is very small – probably Bettor’s Delight the most,  Mach Three and perhaps American Ideal significantly, a little bit for those sires who sit around 100 mares anyway, such as Gotta Go Cullect and Changeover, Washington VC and maybe a couple of others whose stocks are on the rise.

So initially the impact of any agreement would fall on the owners of Bettor’s Delight. And if agreement needs a sweetner,  it could be that a transition which recognises the reduction from a higher income, so it may reduce to a maximum of 175 in Year 1, 150 in Year 2 and 100 in Year 3.  Mach Three is owned by the Muscara family, but it may be that the loss of services to him results in a shift of more services to other sires they also own.

Fact is, in each year a book limit may provide a relatively small number of additional services split around other current or new sires – perhaps around 250.  The shift would initially favour other popular sires until they also reach the 100 book limit, and then breeders would need to look further afield.

Who would benefit then? There are several quality stallions who hover around the 50/60 mare mark, and are currently at a make or break point but need more time (i.e. more progeny at 3+ years) to gauge yet how good they are as sires; and there are top sires available by frozen semen or shuttling who are at risk of being withdrawn from the market because they can’t get the numbers here to justify their costs.

Book limits by agreement for a short period might not be a game changer, but it could put a “salary cap” type requirement on the “players” in our industry. It’s not a new concept in sport, or industries that look to the wider interests and not just the immediate return.

They’ve done it in America, the bastion of the free market place, so it must be possible!

Just out of interest:

Some of the general principles and pros and cons of limiting numbers of mares that a stallion can serve are canvassed in numerous articles and forums about live service vs artificial insemination, especially comparing the thoroughbred industry (which of course doesn’t allow AI foals to be registered in The Stud Book) and our standardbred industry which embraced AI many years ago. This blog on The Breed blogsite in 2009 provides quite a neat review of the pros and cons and differences between the thoroughbred and standardbred approaches – and is worth going to just to read the fantastic quote at the end of the blog from North American harness racing figure Stan Bergstein.

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In this blog I look at the second of my 4 suggestions for the standardbred breeding industry in NZ – Creating meaningful breeders bonuses related to first win or all wins of all NZ-bred horse.

There’s a bit of confusion about the aim of breeders bonuses. Too often the idea gets mixed up with mare credit schemes and incentives for owning fillies and mares. These are very important to the future of the industry and growing the pool of mares.

But in many of the proposals coming forward,  the reward goes to owners of the offspring or future breeders, rather than the original breeder of the horse.

Current breeders have four opportunities to get a return on their high risk investment:

  1. By selling the offspring.
  2. By selling the broodmare.
  3. By retaining a foal to race (and therefore changing role to “owner”, and future rewards count as owner’s rewards)
  4. By winning the extremely limited and hard to get breeders bonuses currently available (e.g. winning the Breeders Crown)

What stands out is the “one-off” nature of all these rewards. Getting a financial return often ends the financial connection with that horse as a breeder.

So in reality breeders have few and fragile opportunities to recoup the years of costs and risks they have carried for each foal they produce and each broodmare they look after.  Let’s look at a comparable situation for owners, trainers and drivers.

Let’s dramatically reduce race meetings held, and allow owners to line their horse up for three races only per season where the stake money is huge but the chances of winning the race are just the same as now.  Would they go for that? I doubt it.

Let’s say we ask trainers to carry all the costs of training a horse and get paid in full only at the end of the horse’s career. Ha! Can’t see that one flying with trainers, unless they have a stable full of top racehorses.

Or say we ask drivers to drive for no cost, but at the end of each year have owners obliged to pay a one-lump sum to their drivers, based on how well horses driven by that driver have performed – but that judgement is up to the owner to decide, perhaps with input from the trainer.  Can’t see much support for that one either!

But the industry expects the breeder to carry this sort of risk and cost for several years, and to have their “one lump sum” payment left in the hands of “market forces” i.e. a sale.

What’s the alternative? Not an alternative, because selling is still the best way for breeders to cover their costs in a timely way. However a sales price can be a fickle way of predicting future performance.

Instead I propose a secondary, small income stream for breeders through breeding bonuses that are either

  • paid (in a smaller amount) per win of the horse bred, regardless of ownership and regardless of where the race is run, or
  • paid (in much larger amount) for the first win on the horse bred regardless of where the race is run.

Breeders bonuses are a much surer way of rewarding actual success.

They reward breeders of horses who may not have sold for true value at the time but go on to perform well, and recognise the role the breeder has in laying a part of the foundation for this success.

When I say “income stream” I am thinking of the principle, rather than the amount. It is an ongoing return dependant on performance, not a payment that would provide an independent income as such.

How can it be funded? Options include:

  • an annual fee (per mare bred and perhaps matched by stallion owners for any available sire)
  • a tiny percentage of all total stake money paid into one  breeders bonus pool
  • an annual subscription so only breeders who want to be part of the scheme pay in, but only their horses trigger a bonus
  • an additional fee paid at foal registration time (by the current owner who will usually but not always be the breeder)
  • a fee paid as part of the entrance fee to yearling sales, and bonuses only paid to the breeders of yearling sales racehorses
  • an optional fee paid at branding time

Or a mix of these, or other suggestions people have. But we mustn’t let the mantra “There is no money” hold us back from looking at options and doing the sums.

Administrative concerns would mean the onus has to be on breeders in the scheme to update their account details, which is why an annual subscription, however low, can help ensure details are current.

The key thing is that the breeder’s bonus comes back to the breeder, not to the current owner. Even mare credits should surely go to the broodmare’s owner or the breeder of the foal, rather than to the current owner of the racing filly/mare who earns it.

I was disappointed to see in the NZ Standardbred Breeders Assn survey on “options for encouraging breeders to stay in the industry” that options for breeder’s bonuses had the bonus returning to the owner. And most of the other options were about mares/fillies racing opportunities and mares credits, which often do not reward current breeders except in a “by association” way. It’s great breeders are being asked, but I wish the options list had been less prescriptive (See survey options at end of this blog).

Yes, the future winning performance of a horse will enhance it’s family’s reputation. But that doesn’t always flow back to the breeder – look at what the sibling of very good 2yo colt Isaiah sold for at this year’s Australasian Yearling Sale as just one example. The building of a family can take years and generations, and sometimes too late for the breeder who most contributed – they may well have sold the mare or quit the industry.

There are a number of breeding schemes in practice around the world. I am hopeful the NZ Standardbred Breeders’ Assn will see the survey as just a wee toe in the water, and come up next with a discussion paper on how various international schemes work, pros and cons, and possible applications for NZ breeders.

Rewarding current breeders has to be a priority.

A coordinated, across-the-board breeding bonus scheme is needed.

What we don’t need is more one-off prizes for the elite races that most good racehorses and their breeders will never to able to achieve.

Options listed in the NZSBA survey mentioned in this blog, which asked breeders to order in preference:
1. Reduced HRNZ fees for DNA testing, branding and foal registration;
2. Financial bonus for winning NZ bred and owned horse i.e same owner/breeder.
3. Financial bonus to the breeder only regardless of ownership
4. Financial bonus paid to owners for winning fillies and mares only
5. More 3YO 4YO and 5YO fillies and mares races at for the lower and medium rated horses
6. One off financial bonus for horses’ first New Zealand start in a race – fillies and mares only, paid to owners.
7. One off financial bonus for horses’ first New Zealand start in a race – all horses, paid to owners.
8. A scheme that puts a winning bonus into a trust for a mare’s future breeding career and redeemable for the first mating.

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I’ve never been keen on embryo transfers except when the mare is unable (for whatever reason) to carry naturally.  I worried about us getting into a ‘factory farming’ situation where the complex mix of nature (genes) and nuture (early upbringing) was lost in the hurry to make money above all.

I’ve changed my mind. Not my principles, just my mind.

I believe the ability to breed two foals per season from one individual mare creates opportunities for the breeder and the industry overall which just cannot be discounted. And I believe two foals should be the limit.

Of course, the idea will be discounted. I am sure there is a piece of obscure government legislation, some racing industry committee or board, or just a clause in HRNZ rules that requires everyone to unanimously agree on changing from the status quo…well, I’m not interested at this stage about why we CAN’T do this. I am only interested in discussing whether it will help our breeding and overall harness racing industry, given the decreasing number of foals and breeders we have.

It’s not exactly going to open the floodgates – but it may help the flow.

So let’s tick off what the benefits could be:

For breeders

  1. It allows a potentially greater and more frequent return on investment (the broodmare) over her limited productive years. Therefore it makes a good broodmare a sounder financial investment (even allowing for the cost of embryonic transfer and an additional carrier mare), and gives the breeder more opportunity in a shorter period of time to discover the ability of the mare as a producer.
  2. It gives breeders the chance to spread their risk among a wider range of sires. For example, a breeder may go to a “tried and true” top commercial sire with one foal and a risky but exciting new sire with the other. Or perhaps a compatible but less commercial sire, and keep the foal to race. So newer or well priced sires may benefit from this proposal, and get access to better quality mares.
  3. It allows breeders more chance to get one healthy foal, and perhaps a foal of the sex they prefer. The high risk nature of breeding means that any significant conformation problem or injury, or even getting a filly rather than a colt, can prove a real disappointment to the breeder and impact hugely on the likely sales result or racing outcome. Double the chance does not double the risk – it may not half it, but it can reduce it significantly.
  4. More breeders using embryo transfer will bring down the costs of the process, and therefore cost will be less of a barrier.
  5. It creates a new ‘career option’ for mares who are not commercially bred but have the qualities to make really good carriers and ‘surrogate mums’ to their foals. Some mares may have a top record and carry great genes but are not the best at delivering and raising foals. And some mares may not have top (or desired) breeding, but have the good nature, physique and quality colostrum to add value to a foal. Rather than creating the ‘factory farming’ scenario I was worried about, embryo transfer can create a market (lease or sale) for mares who may otherwise be lost to us – and they could still be available to breed in their own right if required. Some breeders will already have mares more suitable to be surrogate mums than to continue as commercial broodmares.
  6. The limit of two foals per mare per season (and from different sires) means that the market will not be inundated with “doubles”. This is not a cloning exercise. It is likely that numbers will be a very small proportion of total foals initially. So breeders will not be ‘competing against themselves’ and the overall genetic pool will not be unduly affected. Much less affected, indeed, than it is by the tsunami of sperm coming from highly popular sires!

It is easy enough to note ET at registration of foals – an administrative hassle no doubt, but what isn’t. And in any subsequent notation a simple (E) after the name could provide the flag required for those who want to know and for the record the surrogate mare’s name should be recorded.

Who would take up an option like this? Not heaps of breeders, initially. But more as the merits sink in. Probably it would appeal to the biggest breeders, and also the smallest. The latter being people like me, who have a really good mare but rely on her results for any re-investment in breeding, which makes expanding a slow and fragile venture.

Of course some breeders may want to breed a mare twice every second year.  The mare is not exhausted from breeding and there are many who believe resting a mare can produce a quality foal.

So for the industry:

  1. It creates a way of increasing foal numbers without necessarily increasing the number of mares bred – it helps stop the downward spiral of breeding numbers.
  2. It creates opportunities for less proven “higher risk” sires to get progeny on the ground, and perhaps from a better class of mares. It may well be a requirement to breed a mare to two DIFFERENT sires in any one season, if embryo transfer is being used, to encourage this to happen.
  3. It creates more services/service fees for the studs and sire owners, both of whom are important for our industry’s success.
  4. It has the potential to raise the quality and (ironically) the diversity of our breed.
  5. It does not impact negatively on the product (race horses) as perceived by the investing punter.

What do you think?

And before you say: “it’ll never fly” just remember that pigs don’t, but bumble bees do!

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I’m not interested in harness racing surviving the current downward trends in stakes, horse numbers, attendances, and betting figures.

I’m interested in it reinventing itself to become an exciting industry to be involved in for the future.

Merely surviving becomes a goal in its own right. And that is when the bell starts tolling.

We can’t afford to hunker down and wait for “things to change” or more money to miraculously appear. We need to be actively pursuing ideas that will position us well for that moment, or indeed help make that moment happen and then capitalise on it.

We hear it said loud and clear: There is no money.

But when ideas start to flow in a positive way, when we really get brainstorming with an open mind, we can create opportunities and energy. That’s what can attract any money that is around.

So here are 4 radical solutions to re-energise the NZ breeding pool (I will look at each one in more detail over the next month of blogging, including how they might be funded.)

  1. Allow breeders to breed 2 foals from an individual mare (no more than 2) per breeding season.
  2. Create meaningful breeders bonuses related to first win or all wins of all NZ-bred horse.
  3. Place a limit of 100 on all NZ available stallions for the next 3 years.
  4. Attach winners’ credits to breeders of fillies (transferable only to current owners)

First up I’ll look at why I have changed my mind about embryonic transfers – and how this idea could grow our pool of broodmares as well as our number of foals.

And if you haven’t read it previously, check out my ideas for making our racing product more interesting and attractive. I rated heat racing and rewards for times as two possibilities – and look what happens, HRV gives the new Great Southern Star series a format that culminates in two heats and a final on the same night, plus rewards fastest placed heat times with additional berths in the final. Yes, it can be done. Many of our current race meetings (even at the highest level) lack the structure of an exciting event, and this is one way to attract punters and attendances. We were all shocked at the demise of the Interdom Trotting Series. The nay-sayers were out in full force as the alternative format came to light. BUT the new format has really added value – congratulations Harness Racing Victoria!



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