wenty-two pregnant mares sold for $1 million or more apiece during last year’s Keeneland November breeding stock auction. Only two of those horses were over the age of 10.
“We’ve seen a shift in the market to what we like to call the young and the beautiful,” said Tom Thornbury, Keeneland’s associate director of sales. “Younger mares are currently in vogue because they are loaded with optimism and haven’t yet disproved themselves as producers. When mares get to double digits in age they become out of fashion even if they have produced a long list of winners and maybe even a stakes-placed or stakes-winning horse.”
But while buyer demand for middle-aged and older mares has decreased, they can be a good investment for breeders who do their homework...
Rob Whiteley has been a fan of middle-aged mares for years. They were an important part of his commercial breeding strategy when he ran billionaire financier Carl Icahn’s Foxfield operation.
“It’s something that I caught on to very early,” Whiteley said. “I just kept seeing older mares cranking out quality racehorses.”
In 1992, when Blush With Pride was 13 years old, Foxfield purchased the 1982 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner for $200,000 at the Keeneland November auction while she was in foal to Lomond.
“She was a great race mare from a quality family, and she was a terrific individual physically,” Whiteley said. “But mostly I bought her because I thought I could breed her differently than she had ever been bred before. I had Deputy Minister specifically in mind.”
That mating didn’t happen until 1995, but it resulted in the production, the following year, of Better Than Honour, who would go on to capture the 1998 Demoiselle Stakes (gr. II) and to produce two Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winners: Jazil (2006) and Rags to Riches (2007). Foxfield sold Better Than Honour for $750,000 at the 1997 Keeneland July select yearling auction.
Whiteley also had a plan when Foxfield purchased grade II winner Rokeby Rose at the 1992 Keeneland November sale. At that time, the mare was 15 and she was barren after being covered by Red Ransom, but Whiteley believed she would be a worthwhile investment if she could be bred to Silver Deputy. Foxfield sold her first foal by that stallion, Eishin Mandan, for $145,000 at the 1995 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July select yearling auction. The second time Rokeby Rose was bred to Silver Deputy, she produced Silverbulletday, who earned $3,093,207 and was a champion in 1998 and 1999. Foxfield sold Rokeby Rose while she was carrying Silverbulletday for $42,000 at the 1995 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November select mixed auction.
More recently, Whiteley has built up his Liberation Farm broodmare band with the purchase of middle-aged producers.
“I can’t compete in the marketplace for young mares that have black-type pedigrees,” Whiteley said. “So, in order to buy into quality families given my limited capitalization, I go after mares that are out of favor for one reason or another. Fortunately, for me, middle-aged mares generally are out of favor in the marketplace, and I’m especially grateful because I can obtain quality bloodlines at a huge discount. The downside is that if they haven’t already produced a stakes horse, the window to turn them around is quite short and they become old pretty soon. mare, but there are times when a mare But the flip side is that I can produce my has been blank for a couple of years and I own young quality broodmare prospects might still think she is still a great value if that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able I can determine the circumstances.” to afford if they give me fillies before shutting down.”
"There's nothing in the laws of nature that says a mare is going to produce her big horse in her first five foals."
When deciding which middle-aged mares to purchase, Whiteley considers a variety of factors.
“I look at them like I would any other horses; I look at their presence, their athleticism, and their conformational makeup,” Whiteley said. “The depth of quality in the female family is very important. Race record matters a lot to me unless they have proven they can produce a quality runner. But I don’t penalize them if they haven’t (produced a quality runner) because there’s nothing in the laws of nature that says a mare is going to produce her big horse in her first five foals. I also look at the apparent reproductive health of the mare, but there are times when a mare has been blank for a couple of years and I might still think she is still a great value if I can determine the circumstances."
Whiteley also tries to evaluate the overall health of any middle-aged mare he is considering acquiring.
“I think their appearance is quite revealing—if they’re in good condition, if they have energy, if they have an alert look to their eye,” he said. “They’ll pretty much tell you whether they are OK or not. Horses mature and age just like people do, according to their own genetic makeup and individual differences. A wide range of differences does exist. Some age quickly and some retain youthful characteristics for many years. The test for the breeder is to be observant enough to know which is which.”
When writing Buying Sale Yearlings, Plain and Simple, which was published earlier this year by the Consignors & Commercial Breeders Association, Whiteley addressed the perception of many horsemen that foals out of older mares have reduced potential.
According to Whiteley, young mares produce more stakes winners than old mares for a couple of reasons: (1) Young mares, at the start of their careers, have more opportunities (meaning that, as a group, they are typically bred to higher-priced stallions, whereas older mares are generally bred “down” to lesser stallions). (2) Young mares, as a group, have fewer “missing years (years when they don’t get pregnant)” and, therefore, produce more foals.
Whiteley also listed numerous examples of top runners that had been produced from older mares, including 1973 Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year Secretariat, twice European Horse of the Year and dual North American champion Ouija Board, 1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Wild Again, and 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup.
“I’m a commercial breeder, and I need to make money to stay in business,” Whiteley said. “But my main goal is to breed quality racehorses that will win many times, and I know that old mares in good shape can produce those horses as well as younger ones...”