Pedigreed livestock breeders have three means of achieving success. They can breed for genetic improvement. They can breed for profit. Or, they can breed for popular acclaim. While no horseman, Scotland's John Elliot, a respected livestock breeder, writes, these issues are addressed in A Racing and Breeding Tradition–The Horses in the Life of The Aga Khan, a book new off the press. The chapter on The Aga Khan's Thoroughbred breeding operations captured Elliot's attention. His editorial in The Scottish Farmer states, “It wasn't the sumptuous binding, the high quality paper or the beautiful pictures which were the attraction.” It was the breeding program!
Despite all technological and environmental advantages today's Thoroughbreds run little faster than Thoroughbreds did a century ago. Has the Thoroughbred horse reached its physical potential? Or, Elliot asks, have the relatively close bloodlines led to the breed's regression?
It is well known some land is superior for breeding race horses, just as some land is superior for breeding Holstein cattle, Charolais cattle or Merino sheep. Centuries before their bloodstock arrived in Europe, the pedigree of a race horse was of importance to Bedouin tribesmen. However, no amount of calculation can predict the outcome of a given mating.
The Aga Khan's grandfather bred the best to the best, then inbred, and thereafter would strategically outcross. This will surprise few draft horse breeders, for such a breeding strategy has been common practice in heavy horse circles.
Following an extensive study of Thoroughbred pedigrees in Europe, Colonel Jean-Joseph Vuillier developed his dosage formula, which states a few stallions and one mare appear repeatedly. Vuillier “based his analysis on the percentage of genetic influence of these elite few Thoroughbreds.” These special Thoroughbreds, Vuillier maintained, appear but every twenty or so years.
In Scotland, Collessie Cut Above has been one such Clydesdale. In North America, Justamere Showtime dominated the Percheron breed for over twenty years; just as the Belgian breed was dominated by Conqueror for years. England's Shire breed was dominated for years by Hillmoor Enterprise. Vuillier was spot on!
George Lambton, The Aga Khan's Irish trainer, clashed with his French trainer, Colonel Vuillier, who advanced a mathematical formula for breeding Thoroughbreds. This formula is based on points. Vuillier awarded points to key animals in the pedigree of prospective sires and dams, to ascertain which stallion should be bred to which mare. In sharp contrast, Lambton based his assessment on the breeding potential and conformation of a selected sire and dam.
Elliot writes, “What is undisputed is that when The Aga Khan's two advisers did agree on a stallion to breed to a mare, the Thoroughbreds selected were horses of outstanding merit.” I am sure Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire breeders agree, for the dominant Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons or Shires that surfaced in each breed were toppers.
Breeding for genetic improvement, breeding for profit and breeding for the showring, are arts. Many horsemen master one, fewer master two, those successful in all three are rare. Matilda G. Wilson, Meadow Brook Belgians of Howell, Michigan, belonged to this elite, for she mastered all three. So too did Reg M. Black, Blackhome Percherons of Moorefield, Ontario.
At least this is how I see it!