Letter to the Editor: Middle-Distance Focus is a Breeder's Best Bet

Bradsell was one of only two three-year-olds to win a Group 1 sprint in Europe last year | Racingfotos

Following from the excellent feature by Emma Berry in discussion with Harry Sweeney in Thursday's TDN, I felt compelled to write in. I, like many breeders and fans alike, was disappointed when the news of Adayar, Hukum and Westover's departures filtered through. Through various debates/heated discussions with my colleagues and fellow industry members, the usual argument was thrown back – would you use them yourself? Are they commercial?

Harry Sweeney's comments sparked a different debate in my mind. Theoretically we are all supposed to be breeding with the aim of producing top-class horses. By breeding for speed and the commercial market, are we really giving ourselves the best chance of achieving that goal? The Return of Mares suggests the majority believes it is, however the statistics suggest the opposite is true.

In 146 runnings of the Group 1 sprints in Europe over the past 30 years, 71% (103)  have been won by older horses with just 29% (43) won by three-year-olds and under.

Let me make it clear that this is not to blame the connections of Hukum, Adayar and Westover who have simply looked for the best opportunity for their middle-distance stars in Japan. Only a fool would argue that these horses would be given a better chance at stud in Europe than they are going to enjoy in Japan. We all seem to know it's wrong so the question is why does it keep happening? Harry Sweeney rightly pointed out that there are only two Group 1 races at sprint distances in Japan in the JRA. Are today's breeders aware that there is only one Group 1 sprint for three-year-olds only in Europe? There are 11 Group 1 races over 10f-plus restricted to three-year-olds. If that's not enough to encourage breeders to move away from cheap speed and precocity, add in races over a mile or further and the number of age-restricted Group 1s for your three-year-old is 17. And if that's still not enough, what about the following:

  • The only Group 1 sprint for three-year-olds only is over six furlongs so if your three-year-old sprinter is a 5f specialist, he/she will be taking on older horses from the day they turn three.
  • In 2023, Bradsell and Shaquille were the only three-year-olds to win one of 14 Group 1s over 5f-6f in Europe.
  • In the past 20 years, only three three-year-olds have won the King's Stand Stakes.
  • Four three-year-olds won the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Stakes in the 20 years prior to it becoming restricted to four-year-olds and older in 2015 following the formation of the Commonwealth Cup (the only G1 sprint for three year olds only).
  • Eight three-year-olds have won the July Cup in the past 20 years.
  • Five three-year-olds have won the Prix Maurice de Gheest in the past 20 years  .
  • Four three-year-olds and one two-year-old have won the Nunthorpe in the past 20 years.
  • Nine three-year-olds have won the Haydock Sprint Cup in the same period.
  • In six runnings as a Group 1, the Flying Five Stakes has been won twice by three-year-olds.
  • The Prix de l'Abbaye has been won six times by three-year-olds and once by a two-year-old in the past 20 years.

Granted it may not be quite as black and white as Japan's lone pair of Group 1 sprints. However, that's at JRA tracks only versus the entirety of the Pattern in Europe. If the perceived time and patience, and thus extra cost, is your deterrent from breeding middle-distance horses the evidence suggests a change of direction. The best chance of striking at the highest level is undoubtedly with middle-distance horses and if you're not trying to give yourself the best chance of being the best then what's the point? Harry's reasons behind Japan's key focus seem equally applicable here in theory but for some unfortunate reason, not in practice.

Laura Joy, Ireland

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