Small Breeders, Big Success: Breeding to Win with a Small Program

A large broodmare band is not required for a winning racehorse breeding program.

If you were to take 50 top-tier mares and breed them to a selection of leading sires, you would almost surely end up with a few accomplished stakes winners. Of course, you would also end up with a hefty bill for stud fees, veterinary care, feed, nomination payments and much more.

While the major breeding programs certainly churn out their fair share of stakes horses, so do the “little guys” who succeed with just a handful of broodmares and a limited budget. How do they do it?

Just as there is no quick and easy system to profiting in the stock market or flipping real estate (despite what smooth-talking pitchmen might claim on TV), there is also no magic formula for success as a breeder of racing American Quarter Horses. Those who have found success, however, do seem to share many of the same traits – patience through trial and error, family involvement, willingness to take advice, and a specific mare or stallion line to anchor their program. A little dose of luck never hurts, either.

Racing breeders Margo Schares, Ralph Fales and Meridith Copeland offer advice to smaller operations that only raise a handful of racehorses every year.

Plan On Being In The Game For The Long Haul

The breeding game takes time, patience and a bit of luck, but if you stick with it, you have a better chance of seeing success.

“You can have the best horse, best trainer and best jockey, but you also need to have luck, because anything can happen,” said Colorado breeder Margo Schares, whose lone broodmare, Smokin Corona, has produced three stakes winners and the earners of more than $460,000. “To have success, you really need to do this for a long time and be in it for the long haul.”

While much of Margo’s success is due to her one mare, Arizona breeders Ralph and Carrie Fales can chalk up much of their success to their former stallion Rocky Jones, a son of Moon Lark whose blood runs through many of their broodmares.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have had our hands on some good horses, and Rocky Jones is becoming a real broodmare sire,” said Ralph Fales, who has been breeding for more than 25 years. “One of his daughters produced (millionaire and multiple champion) Rylees Boy.”

Look For Great Mentors

Those who have been in the game for the long haul have plenty of experience and wisdom to offer.

A commonality among many successful small breeders is the involvement of family and the passing down of wisdom and bloodlines from generation to generation. One such example is Meridith Copeland, the granddaughter of the late accomplished breeder Gwendolyn Eaves, whose program included two AQHA Dams of Distinction, Our Third Delight and her daughter Fortune Of Delight. Despite having a small program and not always breeding to the most expensive stallions, Eaves produced champions A Delightful Dasher, Hes My Dasher, Dean Miracle and Tres Seis. Copeland is carrying on her grandmother’s legacy as Eaves Horses Family Ltd.

“I’ve had great mentors,” said Copeland. “I learned so much from my grandmother, of course, and people like David and Susan Mackie (who raced All American Futurity (G1) winner Falling In Loveagain) have given me great advice.”

Focus On A Bloodline That Works

All three breeders found something that worked, through the descendants of either one mare or stallion. And by sticking with that line and not selling them all off, they were able to enjoy a fruitful program over a long period.

Experience in any field cannot be gained overnight, and Schares and Copeland both said they relied heavily on their father and grandmother, respectively, and still use some of the wisdom that was passed down. Of course, that’s not an option for someone from a non-racing family, in which case these breeders advised seeking the counsel of those with experience in the industry.

“I didn’t just decide one day I wanted to breed racehorses,” says Schares. “I stood around watching my dad and several others in the industry who I have ultimate respect for, like Marvin Willhite, Tom Bradbury and Butch Wise, to name a few. People like that can be great teachers.”

Find The Right Mares

With a small broodmare band, there is added importance in selecting the right mares, because the failure of a few could drag down the whole program.

For the Fales family, who have a 15-acre ranch and lease another 40 acres, they like to find mares that are tough and will produce durable foals that run early. Much of the grittiness, Fales said, comes through the bloodlines of Rocky Jones.

“You get that little bit of toughness in there and those horses might be a little tough to get broke when they are that gritty and have that kind of determination, but you can’t buy that and can’t teach that to a horse,” he said. “We just love that trait.”

Schares’ broodmare band is actually a solo act. Smokin Corona, a daughter of Corona Cartel, won four of her nine career starts, including the 2002 Cherry Creek Futurity and the Mile High Derby (then G2) in a track record time for 400 yards. Schares and her father owned Smokin Corona’s dam and granddam, and their commitment and familiarity with that bloodline is now paying off.

Target Races At A Regional Level

While every breeder dreams of watching one of their foals hit the finish line first in a Grade 1 race, the reality is that even top breeders with nearly unlimited resources and access to any pedigree only achieve that high occasionally.

Fales and Schares said it’s important for breeders to target races at the regional level, which can often serve as a stepping stone to more lucrative races.

“We’ve won the Desert Classic Futurity (a stallion progeny stakes at Turf Paradise) in 2010-2012, but we start trying to win that race three years ahead of time,” said Fales. “We breed to stallions that are going to be eligible to that race and to mares that are going to have babies that mature early, so we are pointing to that race long before they conceived. It’s not an accident that we’ve done so well.”

Earning black type at the regional level can improve the mare’s catalog page and make her offspring more attractive if a breeder does decide to sell her offspring at auction. Schares’ horses are mainstays in Colorado-bred races at Arapahoe.

“I like to run in my own backyard and play in my own sandbox,” she said. “I think Midori N Smoke might be good enough to play in another sandbox but that’s not always the case.”

Find the right stallion for each mare. This trio of small breeders said that simply breeding to higher-priced studs is not a guarantee of or a requirement for profitability. That’s good news for those looking to breed on a budget.

“When my grandmother started breeding, she never really looked at what was marketable at sales or what stallions everybody wanted,” Copeland said. “She would look at the stud price and what the horse had done, and she was big on investing in the ‘smaller’ or newer stallions. She experienced some success that way. There was no line breeding; it was a true gamble. She didn’t care if people wanted that mating or not.”

Copeland has modified that strategy to some extent, because she does sell at auction and needs to consider what the market wants, but the success of her grandmother’s runners on the track proved that it doesn’t always take an elite sire to produce an elite racehorse.

Copeland’s success is built around her lone broodmare. And while that mare’s sire, Corona Cartel, was one of the breed’s most successful stallions, he was unproven when she signed the stallion contract.

“I was actually a Holland Ease (the sire of Corona Cartel) fan but when I saw Corona Cartel, I just thought he looked like a racehorse, so I went with him,” she recalled. “It was before everyone really knew what he was going to be.”

No breeder has a crystal ball to determine whether a young stallion is going to pan out, but often their services can be had at a discount compared to those who are already established.

“(My grandmother) never bought into a syndicate because we don’t have the number of mares to justify that expense, nor do we want to put all our eggs in one basket,” Copeland added. “When we got Tres Seis, that changed things a little bit since he became a stallion, and that gave me some freedom to experiment.”

Decide When To Use Embryo Transfer (Or Not)

When Copeland’s grandmother began in the breeding business, there was one decision she did not have to make: whether to use embryo transfer to produce multiple foals from one mare (or allow a recipient mare to carry a foal for an older mare or one that has foaling problems).

The upside to embryo transfer is that the potential for profit and success on the track goes up, but the downside is that so do the expenses for the procedure and care of the extra foal or foals.

“I sell the embryos and then have one foal for myself that usually goes to auction, so I have limited my risk,” said Copeland, who currently has four broodmares. “The best thing I can do is sell an egg and make my profit upfront and then the buyer can breed to a stallion that I might not be able to afford.”

Learn When To Cull The Herd

A larger breeding program can carry on with some unproductive mares, but that might not work for a smaller program.

“We are not big on keeping a large number of broodmares,” Copeland said. “If they can’t pay their way, it’s very hard to keep them.

“I’m going to give them until they are 10 years old and see what they do,” she added. “But if somebody calls and says they want this mare for a price I can’t turn down, then I’m going to sell her.”

Fales, who has about 10 broodmares, said he also will move on a mare that is not producing, but he tries to keep that problem in check by preventing it in the first place.

“Most of our selections have been made before we breed them, and we might sell some (before breeding them),” he said. “We try to thin it out before we even start breeding. And if we see that the mare is not producing durable foals with straight legs, then we might try to move her on to somewhere else, but most of the time, we won’t even have a mare like that in our band because we’ve bred these and know their history.”

By Denis Blake with Daina Behe
Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association