Hope for the best

It is urban legend that I got my start doing human genealogy by tracing Thoroughbred horse pedigrees when I worked at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in the early 1970s. I was already familiar with the five-generation pedigree chart before I got there, which was a great help as I typed (pre-computer days) the pedigrees for every horse on a farm with more than 1,000 horses. My boss, “Bull” Hancock, had a ring binder that held two half-page sheets of five-generation charts. The stallions’ sheets were in the top half of the binder and the mares’ sheets in the bottom half. When the time came to plan a mating, Bull could flip the sheets matching mares to stallions.

Actually, one doesn’t really “trace” a Thoroughbred pedigree (by the way that’s Thoroughbred with a capital “T”) because the breed has a closed pedigree book. This means that every Thoroughbred horse registered today must ultimately trace its ancestry back to one of three stallions imported to England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729).

These exotic “hot blood” horses were bred to the local “cold” blood English horses and produced exceptional racing creatures. In the beginning any mare was acceptable and there were additional imported stallions, which kept the gene pool open, but about a century later the Stud Book (with a capital “S” and “B”) was closed to new blood. Very careful records, far exceeding any human genealogy, have been kept on these horses and today DNA tests are also used. It is all in a computer database now – real “push button” genealogy.

Very careful records, far exceeding any human genealogy, have been kept on these horses and today DNA tests are also used.

Thoroughbred breeders, of course, use their five generation charts a little differently than we humans do. They are trying to create a future offspring that can run faster and longer than any other horse. Except in those cultures where royal pedigrees are still followed, humans are not generally trying to breed children based on ancestors, although every published genealogy is a distant relative of a stud book. The American “melting-pot” is keeping our overall gene pool wide open.

For horses, though, inbreeding is a fact. Usually, the closest acceptable inbreeding is “4×4,” meaning that the same ancestor appears twice in the fourth generation (great-grandparents). Looking at a pedigree chart longer than five generations gets repetitive – one ancestor duplicated in the fourth generation means four ancestors duplicated in the fifth (that horse’s parents’ times 2), sixteen in the fifth (4x2x2), sixty-four in the sixth (16x2x2), and so forth. Multiple “4×4” or “5×5” crosses are common.

There is a whole industry based on advising a breeder how to choose the right mating for a mare. Thank goodness we human genealogists don’t have to deal with “nicks” – popular crosses of stallion lines with broodmare stallion lines (the most famous being Secretariat, who was a result of the then-popular Bold Ruler–Princequillo cross). Of course, genetics is far too complicated to be reduced to a nick or any other such theory, but breeders keep trying.

On the other hand, my boss, Bull Hancock, an industry giant responsible for some of the most successful race horses in his time and for pedigrees that still influence superior bloodlines today, was famous for his common sense, pragmatic approach: “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.”

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

28 thoughts on “Hope for the best

  1. Great post Alicia. One can only wish that human lines were as easy to discern. I love the urban legend of how you got your start in genealogy, as even if it’s fiction it seems a noble origin. It’s also great that a Thoroughbred never has to wonder who their Gateway ancestor might have been!

    1. Oh, for a 3-ring binder on the parents and ancestors of my 3G Grandfather! What an interesting story Alicia shared.

    1. When someone paid $300,000 for the right to breed their mare to a stallion, believe me, they kept careful records! Now, of course, there were always a few matings that took place “behind the barn,” but just like human DNA, horse DNA is eliminating that problem!

  2. I, also, was aware of genealogical records, since my grandfather and father had had registered Holstein dairy cattle since the 1920s. Each animal had a form which listed sire, dame, and these were kept up to date. When I became interested in the 1970s with family genealogy (my mother was into this “big time”), I already understood the pedigree charts, etc.

  3. My husband was born and raised in Lexington. His former father-in-law was a breeder. The last time we were on Claiborne was in June 1989 where we got to see Secretariat just a couple of months before he died. Great memories! I believe the industry around Thoroughbred genetics and pedigrees may be even more intense (and lucrative) than those around humans.

    1. Andi, Definitely more lucrative if you have the right horse. I typed individually, the 25 stallion contracts for Nijinski II when he was syndicated for a then world record of $5M. I haven’t been back to Claiborne since 1972, but they are now on all the social media, so I keep tabs via Twitter and Instagram. I’m not sure, but I think the building that was the office when I was there is now the gift shop — if it survives at all.

  4. We were involved with purebred dogs long before I became interested in human genealogy. Our dogs’ “baby books” included extensive family trees, so, like you, I was well acquainted with the format before I started tracing my human family.

  5. Our Aberdeen Angus also came with pedigrees. One of my mother’s great joys was naming her new “babies.” Picking the right bull, at the right price, was sometimes an embarrassing discussion to my teen-age ears.

    1. I have the honor of having named one Thoroughbred foal. The farm kept (keeps) a log of suggested names (complicated rules about what names are available/acceptable). My contribution was for the son of “Round Table” out of the mare “Face the Facts.” I suggested “Bicker” and he became a decent race horse.

  6. I don’t know how you did it (actually I do) but you combined my two (three if you count reading about it) favorite things, in this post: horses and genealogy. I have the pedigrees for my two Appendix Quarter Horses. As you may know they are cross bred, American Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred, and frequently used for racing as Quarter Horses. My gelding and my daughter’s mare both go back to all three foundation stallions. The online pedigree services are fascinating. Thanks for bringing it up.

    p.s. There are interesting DNA aspects which become obvious when considering coat color in Thoroughbreds. Historical pedigrees show sires such as Bend Or, Birdcatcher, and the Tetrarch have occasionally passed on rare color mutations with different colored spotting, usually small spots. Thoroughbreds are supposed to be solid colors with limited white markings.

  7. Alicia, I always read and enjoy your posts. This one really hit home for me. It actually is true for me that Thoroughbred pedigrees did lead to my interest in my own ancestors. I was always a fan of racing as a girl, and when I was out of school and earning, I bought my first off track Thoroughbred. I sent his lip tattoo to a pedigree company and I was hooked.

    Boston Prince was not much of a racehorse and had some trust issues, but after a year or two, he allowed me to show in hunter classes, and did rather well. I even taught my nieces how to ride on him. He was always kind to riders under jockey weight.

    I started thinking why not create a pedigree chart for myself? At the time, in the early 70s, I didn’t even know genealogy was an actual field. I knew so little about my family beyond my grandparents. My mother died when I was 16, and her father was killed in an accident before she was a year old. I queried my father about his side of the family, but all he could tell me was what his grandfather had told him. We were English, Irish, and “old Yankee stock.”

    So many wonderful discoveries and long lost cousins later, I credit old Prince for guiding me.

    1. Anne, I found a copy of Thoroughbred Record magazine at the vet’s office while there with the cats. Subscription was $12 50, I think. I save 25 cents a week until
      I had the amount. My first issue was of Carry Back winning the Derby. 1960.

      1. Thanks so much for this story! I especially enjoy reading about the early to mid-19th century racehorses. One of my earliest research projects as a new reference librarian was on Sir Archie (including his genealogy)–from then on I was hooked! Wrote a brief bio entry for a database a few years ago for Boston, one of Sir Archie’s grandsons, who was born here in the county where I live and took part in one of those famous “North-South” matches during the 1840s–man, those horses ran fast in 3 and 4 mile heats! Amazing to read about. Always enjoy your posts, so interesting and informative.

  8. Alicia, I was in Lexington about that time attending Transylvania College. Didn’t pay much attention to horse genealogies but it was a real treat in Fall and Spring to find someone with a car who could drive us out to Calumet Farm to study in the warm sunny weather.
    There was a paddock where they kept stallions (one at a time) and we learned pretty quickly that we should not go too close to the fence. We were just college kids and none of us had any experience with horses except all those teenage novels with horses as the main character.
    Did you work with the horses, too? Your work will be preserved for the ages. Somewhere, even though we now use computers. Looking back to college days without computers feels really strange. We literally had no computers in the whole school except Admissions and the Dean’s office. And then they produced those huge spreadsheets…Card Catalog in the library.
    Genealogy today is a whole horse of a different color. (Pardon my yolk!) grin
    Judy

  9. Alicia, thanks for your post. I am trying to find info on horse registrys. My 5x grandfather had two horses listed on his inventory who were identified by there sire. I would love to know if they were race horses, or some other thoroughbred. He died in southern Ohio, not far from Cincinnati in 1815. Any ideas on how I could find out more on his horses?

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