I well remember the sense of satisfaction I experienced when I was able to fill in the last couple of gaps and could proudly gaze over my own complete set of General Stud Books. It would have been in the late 1960s, when the series had reached Volume 35. I had acquired a veritable treasure trove – the records of more than two centuries of thoroughbred production, from the dawn of the breed down to the present day. What a boon to a guy whose fascination for racing history had been developing since his pre-teens!

I loved – and continue to love – the GSB, which has grown to 47 volumes and remains the most essential reference tool in my overgrown equine library. I’ve always marvelled at the ingenuity of the fellow who devised the layout for the first volume, establishing the lucid style that has been followed by every succeeding editor – and by those in the many other countries who took up the sport of thoroughbred racing and recognised the need for records of production.

The GSB has been published by Weatherbys since its first appearance in 1791, but it was not a Weatherby who compiled the data for the first few editions of the initial volume and who died in harness in 1808. That man was William Sidney Towers, and he did a marvellous job, gathering material from a variety of sources, resolving issues over dubious pedigrees, and setting out his data in a format that anyone could understand and appreciate.

What he produced must be recognised as a remarkable ground-breaking achievement: the thoroughbred has a longer authenticated history than any other species

There was nothing ‘official’ about the register he compiled, so nobody was obliged to supply him with information; he had to persuade breeders that it was in their best interests to provide it. What he produced must be recognised as a remarkable ground-breaking achievement: the thoroughbred has a longer authenticated history than any other species. In England it was not compulsory to register human births and deaths until July 1837; few of us are able to trace our own family trees back to the mid-18th century, but we can do that for virtually every thoroughbred.

I belong to a web group some of whose members are devoting an immense amount of time and effort to expanding knowledge of the early thoroughbred, and much has been achieved through access to information that was not available to Towers. But it should be stressed that the discoveries have generally been about adding to the record; it is amazing how few actual errors have been found in the originator’s work. As he said in his preface to the 1791 volume, he was at pains to “rescue the Turf from the increasing evil of false and inaccurate pedigrees”, and he succeeded in his admirable mission, largely as a labour of love.

Credit where it’s due
James Weatherby, shamefully, failed to identify Towers in print as the originator and first compiler of the GSB, lamenting only to remark on the fact that the man’s death had meant a huge increase in his own workload to be able to bring out an updated edition in 1814. More than a century and a half elapsed before Towers was identified and could be credited for his massive contribution to thoroughbred lore.

Much as I delighted in owning a complete set of the GSB, which satisfied the historian in me as a record of the past, I was bound to acknowledge that a series published at four-yearly intervals could never be up-to-date. To satisfy my curiosity about the present and the future, I needed the publications that came between the volumes, the annuals we know now as Weatherbys Return of Mares.

The GSB dealt primarily with what the females in the breed had produced, and in the pre-computer age learning from it what individual males in the breeding population had been up to would have been a laborious and time-consuming exercise. The Return of Mares provided that information in basic form, and from 1970 onwards the coverage has been substantially expanded – as it has needed to be, while books of the busiest stallions have grown from the low 40s to, in some cases, 300-plus.

The issue that went on sale last month, effectively the third supplement to the GSB’s 47th volume, is as fascinating as ever, and not just as a reference to which mares had been consorting with which stallions and how many mares those stallions have been covering. There is also some particularly interesting statistical analysis of what is happening currently in the breed, and to my mind the tale it tells is anything but satisfactory.

It might, though, bring delight to those at the BHA who believe, bizarrely, that the UK needs 1,000 more horses in training by 2020. The cutbacks in breeding activity that became inevitable when the global economic recession bit are being reversed, and while the numbers are – thankfully – still nowhere close to the record figures posted at the height of the excesses, the trend is again upward.

Live foal production, as at September 30 each year, peaked in Great Britain at 5,713 in 2008, reached a new low of 4,227 in 2012, but crept back up to 4,466 this year. Ireland’s peak was 12,022, reached in 2007, and after two very sharp drops the tally for the following four years was always in the high 6,000s to low 7,000s. In 2015 the figure is 8,205.

It was apparent to market professionals at Books Two and Three of Tattersalls October Sales that we are already into another phase of overproduction

Does this mean that the industry might be on course to produce all those extra foals that the BHA mistakenly wants it to produce? My answer to that is a confident ‘no’, because it was apparent to market professionals at Books Two and Three of Tattersalls October Sales that we are already into another phase of overproduction. There were insufficient buyers for the crop foaled in 2014, a fact blatantly obvious in the lower reaches of the market.

It is a fact of life that when crops grow, more bad horses are the outcome. We don’t get more horses capable of recording a 100+ Timeform rating; the elite numbers remain much the same. And while prize-money for the lesser specimens of the breed remains as low as it is, there is little incentive to invest in them.

When supply outstrips demand for the product, the first and most logical move is to take mares with poor credentials out of the breeding population. Sadly, we now have a situation in which males with limited qualifications are serving as stallions and, in many cases, covering substantial books. If common sense were to be observed, a horse would have to qualify for the role of stallion – at least in the cases of those intended for Flat race production – as is the practice in Germany, where there is a genuine attempt to cultivate soundness and quality.

But sections of the industry are content to carry on regardless of what should be obvious, with stallion masters now fulfilling the role of the blind leading the blind. I was delighted to read Henrietta Bedford’s recent letter to the Racing Post, in which she alluded to some of the fees announced for stallions in 2016 as ‘ridiculous’.

Stallion masters are operating on the basis of never giving a sucker an even break

Is there a single stallion priced in the high five-figure bracket or above at a realistic level? I doubt it. Sure, such horses may be able to offer evidence of quality production or may be considered reasonable prospects to get quality stock, but that quality will never amount to more than a small percentage of their total output. When those stallions are covering over 100, perhaps over 200, mares, breeders should be aware that the chances of their mare producing one of the real stars of the crop are slim indeed.

Huge prices for horses covering huge books mean, to my mind, that stallion masters are operating on the basis of never giving a sucker an even break.