(Photo : Horse Magazine/Thoroughbred Heritage)
THE RELEVANCE OF NICKS
by Alan Porter
It would be fair to say that Tony Morris has been the doyen of British commentators on breeding since I was a school boy, a statement that is put into perspective by the fact that I’m now well on the way into my sixth decade.
Consequently, I would be second to none in my regard for his knowledge of breeding and racing history, but I do have to disagree with his recent column “The Debatable Importance Of The Nick”, where he refers to nicking as “a flawed concept” that has become “the new Figure System, a nonsense foisted on an industry whose gullibility remains much as it was when Bruce Lowe presented fiction as fact over a century ago”.
Before there is a chorus of “He would say that, wouldnʼt he?” I will make it clear that Iʼm not an unbiased observer.
Along with Byron Rogers, Iʼm co-designer of the , and with The Blood-Horse Publications in America, we are co-owners of the TrueNicks programme. With that bias now declared, it must be further stated that if there wasnʼt clear and compelling evidence for itʼs value, this nick rating system at least, would not have seen the light of day.
I havenʼt worked in the industry quite as long as Tony, but Iʼve been aware of nicks and the potential usefulness of an opportunity based nicking programme for many, many years.
As an eminent turf historian, it is no surprise to see Tony raise the crosses of Bend Or with Macaroni mares and Phalaris on Chaucer mares as examples of nicks, but it is surprising to see him then dismiss their significance as a product of propinquity (or to put it another way, the cross did well because it was tried a lot, and in these specific cases, tried a lot with high-class material). At this point, weʼd have to counter by saying that it takes a lot more than frequency, even with the best material, to make a successful nick.
If propinquity were the sole requirement, then the Buckpasser / Bold Ruler cross would have been a stellar combination, the mighty Buckpasser retiring to Claiborne Farm, where Bold Ruler held court as North Americaʼs dominant sire. Well, Buckpasser did sire 1,000 Guineas heroine Quick as Lightning out of a mare by Bold Ruler, but it took 33 foals on the cross to get her, one other Stakes winner and a bunch of complete nonentities.
Evaluating the cross from a statistical viewpoint, it was a profound “anti-nick” with Buckpasser siring 16% Stakes winners to starters out of all other mares and Bold Ruler mares producing 10% Stakes winners to all other stallions, while the Buckpasser / Bold Ruler cross resulted in 8% Stakes winners to starters. In fact, the cross produced 0.42 (or less than half) as many Stakes winners as one would have expected on the basis of what the main protagonists did when covered by other sires and broodmare sires.
It is impossible to conduct the same precise analysis on the Bend Or / Macaroni or Phalaris / Chaucer crosses, but it is still easy enough to form a conclusion as to whether or not a true affinity existed. The book Racehorse Breeding Theories suggests that Bend Or sired about 25% of his foals out of mares by Macaroni.
Using Great Thoroughbred Sires of the World as a guide, Bend Or sired 19 horses that would now be the equivalent of Stakes winners. Nine of these (48%) were out of mares by Macaroni, including seven of the top ten. Remove the horses that Bend Or sired out of Macaroni mares from his record and there would be no Ormonde who, as Tony says, was greatest runner of the 19th century, nor Bona Vista, the male line ancestor of Phalaris. With a strike-rate getting on for twice that of opportunity and the quality of the best foals bred on the cross, there is not much doubt that Bend Or / Macaroni qualifies as a genuine positive nick.
Moving on to Bona Vistaʼs great-grandson, Phalaris, Racehorse Breeding Theories suggests that around 15% of his offspring were out of Chaucer mares. Yet the cross produced eleven of the 36 Phalaris offspring that would be regarded equivalent to Stakes winners, which is 30%, or twice as many as might have been expected.
Granted, he did get Derby and 2,000 Guineas victor Manna, and the Oaks heroine Chatelaine, out of non-Chaucer mares, but take out Fairway, Pharos, Fair Isle, Colorado, Caerleon, Sickle, and Pharamond II (all out of Chaucer mares), youʼd be left with Plantago, Warden of the Marshes and Museum – good horses in their day, but scarcely names that echo down the corridors of time – as the best of the rest of his get. In fact, if you remove the horses he sired out of mares by Chaucer, you might even conclude that the influence of Phalaris on the breed would be negligible.
Sadlerʼs Wells out of all other mares and the percentage of Stakes winners produced by the Darshaan mares with offspring by Sadlerʼs Wells when bred to all other stallions, we find that the Sadlerʼs Wells / Darshaan cross produced 4.5 times the percentage of Stakes winners as the individuals concerned did when bred to all other mates.
While the trio of crosses mentioned above are some of the best-known nicks, there are in fact any number of sire / broodmare crosses that have demonstrably outperformed opportunity, producing a considerably higher proportion of Stakes winners, than have the same sires and broodmare sires when bred to all other sires and broodmare sires.
That is not a theory, just a plain statement of fact.
Tony also casts doubt on the genetic basis for nicks, stating that, “No parent transmits the same set of genes at every mating”. While that is undoubtedly true, it is also clear that for example, a son or daughter of Sadlerʼs Wells out of a mare by Darshaan will have a potential gene pool, which in the immediate generations is a minimum of 75% identical to that owned by High Chaparral, Ebadiyla, Yesterday, Islington, et al, and therefore much more likely to inherit similar beneficial gene-groupings than the offspring of Sadlerʼs Wells, with, for example, Habitat or Alleged. Given the various forms of genetic interaction potentially caused by epistasis, polymorphisms, ex-expression and other factors that do not correspond to a simpleMendelianmodel, it would take very few genes (or more probably genegroups) to be passed on relatively consistently from the sire and broodmare sire for positive factors for athletic performance to inherited with considerable frequency (and when we consider that the Sadlerʼs Wells / Darshaan cross has produced better than 24% Stakes winners to runners from no less than 110 starters, it is a pretty logical supposition). With regard to crosses involving sirelines and broodmare sirelines, it is clear that the specific genetic contribution from the initial ancestor is likely to decrease with every generation removed.
However, one of the most surprising things we discovered when calibrating TrueNicks on a population of over 100,000 horses, is the correlation between Stakes success and a high-nick rating does not significantly decrease with distance removed.
It is likely what is reflected is not individual genetic contribution, but the tendency for sire lines to have similar affinities. This might be best expressed by a simple analogy with algebra.
If sire A does well with mares by both B and C, there are good chances that B and C might well have shared affinities, thus a stallion bred on a cross of A and B, might do well with mares by C, and a stallion bred on a cross of A and C might do well with mares by B. Therefore if we look at the strike-rate of all Sadlerʼs Wells sons with mares by Darshaan we find that the strike-rate is still well in excess of 10% Stakes winners to starters, even though it involves some less than stellar Sadlerʼs Wells sons, such as King of Kings and Entrepreneur (in fact, the cross has done more than five times as well as would have been expected, taking into account frequency and class).
Moving from nicks to nick ratings : Tony calls the concept of a nick (and presumably, by association, a broader sire line/broodmare sire line affinity) a theory. In fact an opportunity-based nick rating is no more a theory than is a ruler. It is simply a measure of what has happened when a sire or sireline has been crossed by mares by a broodmare sire or from broodmare sireline.
Tony concludes by urging breeders to “concentrate on the practical rather than the theoretical if they are serious about producing high-quality racehorses”.
Tony and I are not without some common ground. Where we concur is that the problems start when people begin to try and breed nick ratings rather than racehorses.
The nick, which itself should be subject to intelligent interpretation regarding the quality and type of Stakes winners produced, is but one component of a successful mating. From a pedigree standpoint, along with consideration of potentially beneficial inbreeding and line breeding (which again can be now often statistically evaluated), it helps create a short-list of potential sires, but there are a myriad of other factors that enter the equation, among them potential aptitude, conformation, temperament and, more often than not, commercial factors. There are times when one compelling element, or a number of elements lead us to chose a cross that is not necessarily particularly highly-rated, but at least that decision can be made with full possession of the relevant information.
That some sires and sirelines cross more successfully with certain broodmare sires and broodmare sirelines – and vice versa – is not a theory, but a simple and easily demonstrated fact. An opportunity-based nick rating simply acknowledges that fact, and reflects the degree of success relative to frequency of attempts and class of material used.
Extract from European Bloodstock News