We assume that by this time, all readers of this space know about “the birds and the bees,” so you have a general idea of where little horsies come from. However, you might be surprised at the amount of preparation is done before mommy and daddy get together.
Both Thoroughbred and Standardbred breeders (the owner of the mare who will become a “dam”) research pedigree lines on both sides of the future foal carefully. You always want to breed “the best to the best,” given practical limitations of money and sometimes geography. In addition, you look at the conformation of the mare, what she’s “built” like, and then try to select a complementary stallion – perhaps a prospective Thoroughbred mating will show success racing on turf on both sides, or the owner of a smallish mare might want to breed to a bigger stallion, to get a horse who has more brawn and will stand the rigors of training better.
Veterinarians and farm managers keep very careful records on a mare’s reproductive system and will be able to narrow in on the best few days of a given cycle when “making a baby” is most likely to occur. (The average pregnancy period for a horse is 11 months – more on that, and what times of year are usually the best to breed for racehorses, is in the next story.
So now that due diligence has been performed, it’s time for “the birds and the bees,” right?
Well, for the Thoroughbreds, it is. That sport requires “natural cover” – the mare must be shipped to the place where the stallion is based, and they must have a “birds and the bees” moment. Veterinarians check to see if the insemination of the egg is successful – there may have to be subsequent couplings of the horses. Over the past few years, Pennsylvania has seen an increase in thoroughbred mares bred throughout the commonwealth; this is credited to our lucrative breeders award program, bonuses, and the Race Horse Development Fund.
Standardbreds used “natural cover” as well until the 1950’s, when Hal Jones, manager of Pickwick Farms in Ohio, sought to ease off what seemed to be never-ending things to do at the farm by beginning widespread use of “artificial insemination” – the collecting of a stallion’s semen (using a “phantom mare” construction) for more efficient use of time by his staff. The popularity of artificial insemination (AI) grew quickly – the horses produced were of high quality, and then breeders with farms far away from the location of the most popular stallions (such as Pennsylvania’s own Hanover Shoe Farms) could have access to top studs through innovations such as coolant chests and Federal Express.
This is why the “Sire Stakes” concept has taken such hold in Standardbred racing – with universal accessibility of semen, one way of having the best sires, and attracting the economic benefits of having them, in their jurisdiction, was to have rich purse races restricted to the offspring of the state’s stallions. Pennsylvania’s program, strengthened through the expansion of gaming, is one of the leaders in North America, and its rules have often been used as a model in other areas.
So that’s a brief overview of the racehorse breeding industry and the big difference between Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. To learn more visit PHRA’s Breeding Basics page and the Breeding Glossary. Next, we look at “time”: what is the best time of year to breed racehorses, what is the best time for a foal to be born – and why?