Breeders digest some unpalatable truths

Greg Wood listens to the producers of Britain's racehorses airing their thoughts
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The Independent Online
It is the question every punter's father dreads - "Daddy, where do racehorses come from?". A tricky one this, since there are plenty of people, even some who follow the sport closely, whose knowledge of the breeding industry which feeds our racecourses is painfully limited, and it is a traditional answer - the one involving a gooseberry bush - which comes closest to the truth. Racehorses emerge from behind the clipped hedgerows and tree-lined avenues of Britain's stud farms, and for anyone wanting to discover a little more about life in the paddocks, yesterday's AGM of the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association was the place to be.

Without wishing to generalise, there are certain qualifications required for a career as a breeder - specifically, land and money - which tend to rule out a significant percentage of the population. The men and women who arrived at yesterday's meeting were hardly a broad cross-section of British society, but the discussion which followed offered a fascinating insight into the issues and problems which exercise minds in what can be an obscure industry.

The implications of foetal sexing and artificial insemination, the latest infections from the United States, the rateable values of stud buildings, and the problem of hot-air balloons all received an airing, with the balloonists being found guilty of that ultimate crime, frightening the horses. Technology, meanwhile, now allows vets to predict, with at least 90 per cent accuracy, the sex of an unborn foal, which is a vital piece of information for anyone buying - or selling - a pregnant mare, since filly foals are worth, on average, about 40 per cent less than colts. Breeders are keen that such relevant knowledge should be freely available at bloodstock sales, but a representative of Tattersalls seemed less than convinced by their arguments.

In addition, of course, the meeting followed the rule that, whenever two or more racing professionals are gathered together, the British Horseracing Board shall receive a thorough going-over. Leading off with what he hoped would be seen as "constructive criticism" was Rhydian Morgan-Jones, the retiring TBA chairman, who called on the BHB to "assume the mantle of leadership and act now to redirect us to a prosperous racing and breeding industry." He insisted that, "contrary to any misguided message that might be assumed from the welcome surge in bloodstock prices, all is not well".

Lack of leadership from the BHB was a persistent complaint from the floor, while other speakers speculated on how the voice of the breeders might make itself better heard. Morgan-Jones himself welcomed increasing co- operation between breeders, owners and trainers on racing's powerful Industry Committee, although his comment that this association represents "the major investors in this industry" merits closer scrutiny. In fact, there are only two groupings which put more into racing than they take out - owners, who are well-represented in racing's administration, and punters, who everybody ignores as long as the cash keeps flowing. Everyone else, from the breeder and trainer to the bookmaker, is in it for the money, which can be worth remembering when the insults start to fly.

This is not to say that the majority of the audience at yesterday's meeting was anything but thoughtful, experienced and wholly committed both to their horses and racing and breeding in general. One comment, however, on the subject of fox-hunting and the possibility of its imminent abolition, demands to be recorded.

"Young people, children," the speaker began, "often have their first experience of horses when they are taken on a pony to a fox-hound meeting. When that is no longer possible, where will their interests lie as they grow up? And what influences might they then receive from other children from industrial conurbations when they are at school?"

A belief that it is possible to have fun around horses without killing anything, perhaps? Perish the thought.