Top racehorses are made, not bred

Updated: May 4, 2011, 11:17 AM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the May 16, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

We're coming up on the first Saturday in May, so it's time for me to reveal a little secret. Ready? The entire sport of horse racing is based on a bogus premise: that you can pay champions to sire champions.

[+] EnlargeZenyatta
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty ImagesSmart investors are beginning to realize that racing fillies -- like Zenyatta (above) and Rachel Alexandra -- is better than turning them into broodmares.

Shocking, I know. As we'll probably hear a few thousand times in the lead-up to this year's Kentucky Derby, one of the bedrock principles of Thoroughbred racing is that bloodlines are destiny. Every railbird and his cousin has a theory about which genetic traits are most important to search for when you're in the business of acquiring and mating horses. (If you've got a week to blow and a bottle of aspirin, google "Rasmussen Factor" to see what I mean.) Owners, trainers and jockeys all compete relentlessly for horses with the most successful ancestors. "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best," an old saying goes.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.