What accounts for the proliferation of great horses in England and their shortage in America? One factor may be the U.S.’s liberal use of drugs that are banned in almost every other racing jurisdiction. Horses win major races with the help of medications, go to stud, pass on their infirmities to their offspring and weaken the breed. The theory appears to be confirmed by the high attrition rate of colts in the Triple Crown series.
But the indisputable explanation for Britain’s ascendancy is its possession of superior thoroughbred genes. The U.S. owed its former supremacy to the same factor. In the years during and after World War II, top European thoroughbred stock was exported to the U.S. and transformed the breed on this side of the Atlantic. Nasrullah arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and by the 1970s his mark was everywhere. He was an ancestor of eight Kentucky Derby winners in the 1970s, including Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid.
Yet U. S. racing was at its peak, the balance of power slowly began to shift. Britain’s Robert Sangster and his associates recognized that the Maryland-based Northern Dancer was as prepotent a stallion as Nasrullah had been. Europeans began to dominate U.S. yearling sales to acquire offspring of Northern Dancer and his sons, such as the brilliant Danzig. They bred their mares to these same stallions. As the prices for yearlings and stud fees reached astronomical levels, American breeders didn’t hesitate to sell these precious pedigrees.
Sangster bred his mare Fairy Bridge to Northern Dancer in 1980 and the mating produced Sadler’s Wells, who went on to became the best sire in the world and the greatest in European history, begetting more than 320 stakes winners. He sired Epsom Derby winner Galileo, now the most valuable stallion in the world, who in turn sired Frankel.
Prince Khalid Abdullah bred a mare to Danzig, and the mating produced Danehill, who became the most prolific sire of stakes winners in history by shuttling between Britain and Australia. His son Dansili begat Harbinger, who in 2010 earned a 140 Timeform rating (the ninth-best ever.)
Thanks to its acquisition of the best U.S. genes in the 1970s and 1980s, Britain now has the pedigree power to produce the best horses in the world. American racing fans will surely look on these developments with regret, wishing that we had could be thrilling to the exploits of a superhorse like Frankel.