As we move towards the breeding season, there is an onus on breeders to produce something as good as what they’ve got and preferably better.

However, as any will tell you, it’s easier said than done, despite strenuous efforts to try to make it happen. That said, it’s seldom a lottery and there will be precious few livestock breeders whose breeding policies can be considered random and at the top end, strategic planning and serious selection criteria prevail.

Yes, a few superstars will appear out of the blue, but not many and there will be no guarantee that they will make a significant contribution to breeding programmes of the future. As sires and dams, they may enjoy limited success and their siblings unlikely to live up to expectations.

History has stated that there are no certainties, something which gave rise to the old adage, ‘breed the best to the best and hope for the best.’

However, things have changed critically over the past half century in the livestock industry as scientists stepped up to the mark; the study of genetics related to performance has grown considerably as financial implications have funded major developments.

While genetics refers to the study of individual genes and their roles in inheritance, the less familiar term of genomics is a branch of molecular biology which, simply put, takes a more comprehensive look at how they form and work when brought together. Equine breeders are well acquainted with the former while farmers are already embracing the latter in a bid to step up efficiency within their breeding policies and improved profit margins.

The use of genomic tools to study patterns of DNA within the Thoroughbred was highlighted in a recent article in the Racing Post, by Professor Emmeline Hill, chief scientific officer at Plusvital, a commercial company involved in equine science including an extensive genomic research program.

Her latest work, in collaboration with University College Dublin, centres around the potential threat of in-breeding to the Thoroughbred. The research work involved the analysis of more than 10,000 DNA samples of a random selection of Thoroughbreds from several countries across the world.

Although generally accepted that the mare tends to be the more influential half of the partnership, we know that Thoroughbred breeders over centuries have favoured the use of high performance stallions.

However, it still comes as a surprise that the research shows that some 97% of the horses tested had traces of the highly successful Canadian racehorse and consequently influential sire, Northern Dancer. Within the European horses, 35% had the UK’s leading sire and first son of Northern Dancer, Sadler’s Wells in their pedigrees and Australian horses had arguably the most successful sire of all time, a grandson of Northern Dancer, Danehill, in 55% of their pedigrees.

Professor Hill was careful not to to be overly critical of Thoroughbred breeders, as I’m sure her company has plans to work successfully with them by further adding scientific support to their existing expertise on the subject, something which has already started to happen within that industry. After all, it is widely known that in-breeding, the mating of two closely related individuals, is known as one of the successful ways to double-up on desired characteristics.

Furthermore, the use of outcross stallions on highly in-bred mares also seems to be a recognised policy for successful breeding. In-breeding also brings together undesirable characteristics and it is to these that Professor Hill offered a cautionary note when she highlighted the increasing risk of reduced fertility, conformation defects and health issues within the breed.

By making available the use of DNA-based tools that individual breeders can use to reduce the problem of using genetically diverse stallions for their mares, she also offered the Thoroughbred industry the means to monitor in-breeding. As she suggested: “Pedigree is not powerful enough to help anymore.”

There is nothing new in the concept of popular names repeatedly appearing in the pedigrees of the Thoroughbred horse, bearing in mind that its development is attributed to the three Eastern sires – the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and Godolphin Barb.

These stallions were imported to Britain around the turn of the 18th century as race horses themselves, or as improvers for the less active and speedy indigenous horses. It took until 1793 before the breed’s first stud book (known as The General Stud Book) was published by Weatherby's and has been maintained by them ever since.

Interestingly, Scottish interests are represented in the first volume in which an entry is made for The Elgin Grey, presumably one of several Arab horses brought by the 7th Earl of Elgin and Kincardine for his estate at Broomhall, near Dunfermline.

It was a long journey by road and boat from Constantinople where the 7th Earl was British Ambassador. Records at Broomhall prove that he was the first recorded breeder of Arab horses in Britain and bred them most likely for racing at a stud near Gravesend. They also show that they were leased to local breeders in Fife, most likely to improve the local horse population.

Within the highly commercial world of Thoroughbred industry, I am sure that it will grasp any opportunity where profit is concerned, although there are some scientific approaches which look likely never to be embraced, such as embryo transplant and artificial insemination.

This contrasts greatly from the pedigree cattle industry where I note an American-bred Aberdeen-Angus bull, SAV America, sold for a staggering $1.51m at public auction in February, 2019.

With performance records based on weight gain over a 205-day period placing him in the top 1%, his value lies in commercial semen sales which are estimated to bring in five times his cost during the next few years. Siring tens of thousands of offspring has no appeal to the exclusive Thoroughbred industry.

Unlike the Thoroughbred, the development of the modern sports horse has marched hand in hand with technology as values within that industry continue to rise. Continental Europe has been the main driver, with a much larger commercial market in mind based on stallions which are used for breeding while still competing. (Thoroughbred stallions normally retire for stud duties following a successful career usually on the flat.)

The use of artificial insemination itself has escalated the availability of top class sires to the most modest of breeders who are intent on breeding their own winner and for whom distance now presents no barrier to achieving their goal. Embryo transplant has long-since become an option for the wealthier and more progressive breeders.

The grading process within the European breeds would also be unacceptable in the Thoroughbred world, which was even exempt from the old-fashioned stallion licensing scheme which was operated in Britain – such has been the political power of this elite group of breeders.

There’s no mistaking that the costs involved are enormous, as are the risks, so it’s no wonder its reference to ‘an industry’.

Within the world of the performance horse, breeding is also a serious matter as witnessed by the recent elite sale held during the KWPN (Dutch Warmblood Society) stallion grading at Hertogenbosch. Danish investor, Andreas Helgstrand, paid the top price of €175,000 for one of the selected dressage stallions, while the runner up was €90,000.

The average for dressage stallions was €50,000 and €25,000 for showjumper's, with a top price of €72,000. Six stallions made over €50,000 and 16 were sold abroad. I understand there’s a purchase to look out for more locally as one named Mister Sonderbygaard, by Hardwell, was sold to Scotland.

I watched much of the event via a live Internet link, as did the rest of the world, which brought the Dutch Warmblood into households round the globe.

It’s difficult to believe that the oldest working stallion in its stud book is alive and well here in Scotland. Hemmingway, sire of one of the premium stallions forward for grading this year, remains a major sire of top horses in all disciplines.

At 31 years of age next month, he continues to hold court at the Scottish AI Service, which is soon to move from its base at Winchburgh, West Lothian.