Why Can't We Create A Real Sport Horse Database?

Mar 22, 2007 - 10:00 PM

For about as long as I can remember, whenever we old-school American horsemen get together, someone raises the “Bonne Nuit question.” It goes something like this: “I wonder if there’s another Bonne Nuit out there somewhere. There almost has to be, don’t you think? But he’ll probably live and die undiscovered.”

Bonne Nuit, foaled in 1934, was the great jumper sire of 40 to 50 years ago and the great-grandsire of Gem Twist. I rode two Bonne Nuit grandsons at the advanced level in eventing,

30-some years ago: House Guest, by Night Lark, and Farnley Rob Roy, by New Twist. And the reason a modern-day Bonne Nuit will live and die undiscovered is because the American sport horse industry lacks a comprehensive database and tracking mechanisms.

If you’re an owner or breeder of racing Thoroughbreds, every bit of information you could possibly desire about every registered Thoroughbred is instantly available to you. Even better, so is totally comprehensive data about that horse’s sire and dam, and siblings, even “his uncles and his aunts,” way back into the 19th century. For the Thorough-bred breed, as it pertains to racing, the information highway is an open eight-lane high-speed superhighway.

But for the American sport horse breeder or owner, the information highway is a muddy, rutted dirt road, with numerous potholes, detours and dead ends.

Let’s say that you’re looking for a horse to purchase as a green hunter, and you discover an attractive young gelding at a sales barn. The seller said that he “thinks he’s done some little unrecognized schooling shows back in Indiana.” But he or she doesn’t know his sire. Or his dam. So you don’t know about the athletic achievements of any other horse in his family, nor do you know what this horse has actually done himself. You don’t even really know his age.

He doesn’t have any kind of universal number, he doesn’t have any kind of papers linking him to any sort of database, he isn’t branded or micro-chipped, and as far as you know, he hasn’t been DNA tested. You have to trust your own instincts and the seller’s word.

Now, let’s turn it around. Let’s say that you happen to own either the sire or the dam of this youngster. Most likely, you don’t know where that youngster is, what he’s done, or what he’ll achieve in the future. As an Ameri-can breeder, this horse is as useless to your breeding plans and your marketing efforts as if he’d never been born.

The entire Thoroughbred racing industry is predicated upon the assumption that since athletic performance is usually linked to pedigree, then all data about both sides of that link must be readily available, either for free, or for a modest fee, to any and all interested parties.

But in the American sport horse world, no single organization tracks horses through all the stages of their competitive careers and links those performances to those horses’ pedigrees, assuming the pedigrees are known. The U.S. Equestrian Federation (where I was formerly chairman of the Breeders’ Committee) does a little bit of this, but not on a broad or comprehensive scale. The U.S. Eventing Association (of which I was twice president) is trying to build a database, but only for event horses. The U.S. Dressage Federation is doing the same, but only for dressage horses, and so on.

If you own a registered Morgan, you can find your horse’s pedigree, but you’ll be hard-pressed to discover what links there may be between his pedigree and, let’s say, his family’s performance in combined driving.
Basically, with a few bright spots, American riders, drivers, breeders, stallion owners and prospective purchasers are flying blind.

“Can anything be done?” is probably the wrong question to ask. Lots of people who understand databases and tracking procedures have assured me that this part isn’t the problem. Basically, they say, there must be one universal number per horse, linked in a database to a unique physical identifier for that horse, either a microchip, a tattoo or a freeze brand, and also a DNA sample. Once these are done, anything the horse does from that day forward in any competition can be entered into a database.

There are problems, of course, beginning with creating the database in the first place, then creating the means of horse identification, and then requiring that each and every horse entered into each and every competition be registered with the governing body under whose rules the competitions are being held.
All this is going to cost money, and the USEF, if that’s whose leaders decide to take on this enterprise, is going to pass on these costs to the exhibitors.

Another objection to this concept is one that no one will admit to. Plenty of people don’t want all this information made public, because they don’t think it will help them or they have something to hide. The horse they’re selling may not be as represented, or he may be ineligible for a certain level of competition, all situations that an accessible database would reveal.

Some years ago, David Hopper, a knowledgeable horseman if ever there was one, told me that he’d seen some very good jumpers by a fairly obscure Thoroughbred stallion named Anticipating. More recently, I discovered that Karen O’Connor’s advanced “super pony” Theodore O’Connor is by Theodore, a son of Anticipating. Pan American Endurance gold medalist Connie Walker’s VSF Otis is also by Theodore. Last week I noticed that 2005 Maryland Hunt Cup winner Make Me A Champ is out of an Anticipating mare. Three top horses in three unrelated disciplines, but no one knew it until Anticipating had died.

Probably the scopiest advanced event horse I ever rode was Foxed Again, by an obscure full brother of Affirmed named Silent Fox. I recently discovered that Meika Decher’s advanced mare Foxy Forever was also by Silent Fox. That stallion probably only had a tiny number of eventing offspring, but two made it to advanced! What are the odds? But no one knew it, and Silent Fox is now dead too.

Could either Anticipating or Silent Fox have become “the next Bonne Nuit?” Nobody will ever know, because neither stallion got his chance during his lifetime.

Database experts have assured me that it’s now quite possible to create a sport horse database that could be simple, inexpensive and effective. The question then becomes whether the leaders of the USEF, or its affiliates, or some combination of them, will do what it takes to put such a system in place.

I hope that any of you who feel strongly about this issue will speak up, or write letters, and ask to be heard. The Jockey Club did it decades ago, the Germans did it (and they rule the sport horse breeding world), so why can’t we Americans do it too?

Denny Emerson

Category: Columns
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