'Mounting expectations' in thoroughbred breeding (or, Why every stallion wants a 'Mega-book')
Now here’s a colorful topic you’ll be sure to enjoy: sex among our animal brethren…and its efficacy. Ordinarily, this is not a topic you’d think to relate to animal welfare, but in the bizarre world of thoroughbred horse racing, anything’s possible.
Remember back to when Barbaro’s fate was front-page news? Much was written about his breeding prospects and whether his owners were gunning for reproductive glory now that sheer speed was out of the question. Mine was one of those voices countering the cynical view that the Jacksons were struggling to keep this horse alive so as to recoup their financial losses through baby-Barbaros.
That’s because thoroughbred stallions must “cover” thoroughbred mares to produce offspring eligible for registration with the almighty Jockey Club (sort of the AKC of thoroughbred racing, though some of you will likely reject that comparison). And Barbaro’s injury would have certainly precluded this kind of activity.
“Cover” is a less-than-sexy term that refers to the reproductive act in which mares are mounted and “naturally” inseminated by stallions—as opposed to the now-ubiquitous “artificial insemination” that’s fair game in every other husbandried species.
It’s been a point of contention for years (at least since I was in vet school in the 1990’s) among animal welfare-minded folks. Their view is that this practice is unnecessary, dangerous and physically taxing for the animals. While that may still be true from the mare’s point of view, a new study suggests that for stallions, more mounting is mo’ better.
If a stallion were to follow the traditional recommendations of the Jockey Club, he’d be allowed a paltry 40 mountings in the five-month breeding season, each representing another notch in his “book.” If he had his druthers, however, he’d likely cover well over a hundred. It’s a fact more thoroughbred people are starting to come around to. They’re now beginning to set aside tradition with the idea that a stallion who covers more yields a larger percentage of live births per mounting.
The study, printed in the May 15th issue of the JAVMA, was co-authored by one of my Penn Vet professors, I’m proud to say. Drily humorous, it confirms these anecdotal findings and suggests that stallions should get out a little more.
Previous recommendations relating to the limit of 40 mares made sense back when transportation was more of an issue than it is today and shouldn’t we listen to the horse’s physiology anyway? If he can improve his potency with a little more nookie, shouldn’t he be given the chance?
All kidding aside, I’m very much in favor of AI in thoroughbreds. There’s no earthly reason why stallions need be kept intact and randy for decades just so they can prove themselves in the traditional way. And mares need not suffer the heft and occasional inujry an over-sexed, under-bred stallion can easily inflict.
The Jockey Club holds fast to tradition for reasons we’ve already seen fit to dispense with in other prize animals breedings—namely, the possibility of fraud. Ever heard of DNA testing? I’d warrant that even expensive labwork is no match for the maintenance and transport of stallions and mares all over the world—just so they can give a good live show to those certifying the process.
So how about it, Jockey Club? Turn ‘em loose. I’d happily give a newly-gelded stud a great home—one where he doesn’t have to physically prove himself 120-plus times a year to earn a coveted “Mega-book.”