Posts Tagged ‘harness racing update’

I like people to have opinions. But I don’t like irrational, dogmatic viewpoints that can hold back the development of our industry.

That’s why I was cheering to myself as I read the article in the Harness Racing Update newsletter of 28 March by Dean Hoffman “Embryo Transfer Foals Often Shunned”.

It confronted the belief that foals born via enbryo transfer are inferior to those born via their genetic dam.

Some years ago I was also against embryo transfer, thinking that going with nature is better in the long run. It was only when I forced myself to do some more research on the topic, to think it through logically, and to look at how “natural” and “unnatural” processes are applied unevenly across horse breeding, that I changed my mind.

What surprised me most in this journey is the absolute lack of reasonable arguments put up against embryo transfer by those who object to it. I struck this personally when I advocated that breeders should have the option of breeding two foals from one mare per season (with some clear parameters set). I found many breeders supported the idea strongly. Others said they were against it, but I could find not one person who could put up a logical reason why they were against it. The most I could get was “It isn’t natural.” Well, strictly, that’s correct. In the same way that artificial insemination and frozen semen being flown across hemispheres is not natural. And in the same way that many mares will have a twin foal artificially “popped” at a very early stage, for the good of the mare and remaining foal. And I guess the pacing gait itself is not truly natural. But “That’s not the same.” Isn’t it?

Mare and newborn foal

Nature and nuture – it’s not one or the other.

What is the influence of a surrogate mare?

Let’s have a look at the argument that the natural (genetic) dam gives more to her foal than just the genes. It is true that a foal receives very important nuturing through the embryo stage in terms of what the mare eats, and maybe through physical/chemical/hormonal responses of the mare to stress. Similarly when the foal is at foot, the behaviour of the mare can have a huge impact on a foal, from the risk of being kicked by a bad tempered or easily frightened mare, to a mare that doesn’t like being suckled or has milk quality issues, to following bad or good habits by imitating what mum does. (My mare Zenterfold has a habit of raising her front leg and “pawing” the air when she is anxious or fed up, and this is something that I have seen passed on to several of her foals including Destination Moon, The Blue Lotus and Thephantomtollbooth, and even the latest Rock N Roll Heaven weanling. But whether that is some hard-wired genetic trait or just copying an observed action during early formative months spent close to the mare, I have no idea.)

What seems to be important, then, is the quality of the mare that carries the foal. If there are good reasons why a well-performed, well-bred mare isn’t going to make a good “natural” mother in that breeding season – it might be temperament, age, the fact she is racing, illness or injury, a history of slipping foals or poor milk quality,  etc – then embryo transfer is a sensible (but not cheap and sometimes not easy) option. Surrogate mares are chosen because of the qualities they offer – good temperament, healthy, high quality milk and so on.

Combining good genes with a more reliable surrogate mare makes a lot of sense in those sorts of cases – which will always be a small percentage of breeding.

However those against embryo transfer often make wild generalisations about ET foals not performing well, or not selling well. The reason many have not sold well is to do with the prejudice, as well covered in the Harness Racing Update article. And there have been many very well performed ET foals. Ironically the expense of ET probably means that the foal comes from a good mare/family. How well ET foals have performed compared to “natural” foals is a piece of research waiting to be done, but the numbers in New Zealand would probably be too small to draw hard-and-fast conclusions. What we do know is that there have been many examples world wide of top pacers and trotters earning very good lifetime stakes – indeed millions – who were ET foals.

What is so scary about ET?

ET not so scary

ET – not so scary when used to improve our breeding industry and protect our mares.

It’s my guess that some people associate embryo transfer with creating “egg banks” where multiple embryos might be up for sale from top mares, or perhaps there is a confusion with cloning. Some mention the “weird” scenario of having same-aged half-siblings all from one mare racing against each other competitively in a race. Oh, sort of like we have with multiple half-siblings by Bettor’s Delight, Mach Three or Changeover etc right now…. Hmmm. Yet what’s good for the gander appears to be outrageous for the goose!

The downsides to multiple foals are easily catered for with common sense criteria and rules (see earlier link).

Interestingly, the Harness Racing Update article highlights that opposition of trainers to ET foals makes them harder to sell. I’m not sure if that has been the case at New Zealand yearling sales – it used to be, but I will try to check back in terms of prices over the years and see what the story is. We all know how trainers often prefer one or two sires, and how some top trainers will not even look at stunning yearlings that are outside those favourites. It’s their prerogative of course. But when it comes to ET foals I doubt if future owners give a damn, so long as the foal grows into a winner.

So my plea is for all of us – trainers, breeders, and owners – to keep an open mind and debate with real arguments rather than gut feelings, lack of knowledge or simple prejudice. None of us can afford to put blinkers on.

It’s a good topic to talk about now, when breeding numbers are falling and our industry is needing to plan for the future. The future use of ET is no more scary than AI used to be. It’s just a matter of being proactive and setting rules that are good for all, including the mares.

And applying principles across male and female horses fairly, as covered in a previous blog.





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Following my last blog about marketing harness racing to a wider market, Harness Racing Update has another interesting article in its 19 April issue (at http://www.harnessracingupdate.com).

“The USTA has decided not to make a financial contribution to Jeff Gural’s efforts to put a select group of harness races on national television, a major blow to the proposed series.Gural had secured air time on the CBS Sports Network for several races, including the Little Brown Jug, the Meadowlands Pace and the June 28 stakes-laden card atPocono Downs.
Eventually, his plan was boiled down to include just the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug and he asked the USTA to put up $75,000 to help cover the payments to the network.”

UTSA voted 13/1 against putting money in, as they felt the proposal unfairly advantaged just two race tracks. Read the full article here.

What they appear to miss is that mainstream audiences are only going to be interested in the top races, not some equitable spread of meetings. Which is why in New Zealand, mainstream TV sometimes gives coverage to the Melbourne Cup or (if we are really lucky) the NZ Trotting Cup. It’s news-worthy.

It’s also the thin edge of the wedge. And that’s a wedge we need to hammer further in with some clearly thought out strategies and sponsorships. Other sports get a round-up in the main TV news every day, but horse racing never gets a “best race finish of the day/week” or even a mention of Derby, Oaks, major cup winners.

We have to ask ourselves why not. I think one answer is that we cannot decide what we are – a sport, an industry, an entertainment. And if we don’t know, it’s harder to mainstream programmers and news producers to understand where reporting on horse racing fits into their schedules.

I’ll discuss this in a future blog – our identity crisis. It is at the centre of a lot of our problems.


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