Between a Rock and a Hard Place

What is also interesting is that “A” nicks far outweigh any other category. This is perplexing, as it seems to me, that an “A” nick should be the nick that occurs least frequently. We certainly know that superior runners occur least frequently. It seems that by sheer numbers alone the “A” nicks are doomed to failure. What am I missing?

The above is a comment from Ned Williams. Here is my reply:

You are not missing anything. You are correct that A nicks being 40% of the entire sale (as opposed to 13%-15% of the overall population) sticks out like a sore thumb. And you are probably also correct that A was doomed to failure by its sheer numbers.

What people have a hard time grasping is that the Keeneland September sale is a pretty good sale overall. Even the pedigrees offered on the final day of the sale are not bad pedigrees (relative to the entire population, which is a comment on the lack of quality in the entire population). Sales foals are generally better than the entire population. The Keeneland September sale is better than most sales. Therefore, it is not really surprising to me that 40% of all nags sold in the 2010 Keeneland September sale were A nicks.

I have secured the links to the original cheatbooks for the 2010-2011-2012 OBS August yearling sales. That sale is much lower down on the scale than Keeneland September. Should not have nearly as many A nicks (although you never know). Might be a better population to study for that reason. A nicks might fare better in that environment. Will see. Worth a look.


Some other foolosophical reflections on the subject of nick ratings. As I understand it, TrueNicks tries to base their nick ratings on the sire-broodmare sire combination. If the computer finds enough foals to fit that description, they do base their ratings on that combination. Below is a quote from the TrueNicks explanation in the 2010 Keeneland September cheatbook:

“The TrueNicks program is designed to establish a rating within a minimum number of
generations from the sire/broodmare sire cross. As soon as a cross has met statistically significant thresholds, a rating is calculated. The farthest the TrueNicks program will go to calculate a rating is to the third generation of the horse (or prospective mating) in the sire line, and the fourth generation of the horse (or prospective mating) in the broodmare sire line. Ratings beyond those parameters would be meaningless and will yield a No Rating score.”

This written explanation does not specify what constitutes “statistically significant thresholds” (perhaps it varies), but I am guessing about ten foals. The only problem with that is that ten foals is really not a very big sample upon which to base a rating. And not many sire-broodmare sire combinations have 50 or 100 foals or more upon which to base a rating.

If the computer does not find enough foals, it goes back another generation or two (or more) to find enough foals and uses the total number of foals found for that particular combination. The only problem with this is that going back another generation or two (or more) makes any predictions based on that combination much more weakly correlated to the foal in question. If you have learned anything at all from this blog, I hope it is that “influence” recedes much more rapidly than most people think with each generation farther back you go.

So if you are in the business of making nick ratings scientifically (which not all of them do; some of them just skip the scientifically), you are in between a rock and a hard place. You can make a rating based on ten-plus foals, which may not be every reliable because that is really not enough foals. Or you can go back another generation or two and make a rating that way, which may not be very reliable because it is several generations removed from the foal in question.

In extreme cases you may not be able to make any rating at all because even going back several generations you can not find enough foals bred similarly to the foal in question. It must be pretty galling to discover that this not rated group actually had pretty good results (especially since buyers paid the least amount of money for them).

Here is something people may not understand about nick ratings. They are basically past performances. And as sellers of mutual funds are fond of saying, past performances are no GUARANTEE of future results.

Here is where I differ foolosophically from the makers of nick ratings. The latter might say, “This is an A+++ nick. It should improve your chances of getting a stakes winner by 100%.”

And I might reply, “Don’t think so. Maybe 10%-20%. Nowhere near 100%.”

So it is a question of degree. It makes perfectly logical sense to expect a mating (or a similar mating) that has worked well in the past to work well again. The question is HOW MUCH better results should you expect????? I think the makers of nick ratings exaggerate the amount of improvement they can deliver (not to mention its predictability). They exaggerate the importance of nicks.

I do not deny the existence of nicks. I merely think that their ability to deliver better results (not to mention the predictability of those results) has been exaggerated. Their importance has been exaggerated by people who are trying to make $$$$$$$$ doing so.

Those are some thoughts you might want to keep in mind as you go about your business of buying and/or selling at the Keeneland September yearling sale (or any sale, for that matter). Good luck at the sales!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


That concludes this five-part series on nick ratings. Many of you seem to have missed the most important one, post number two. So here is a link back to that post if you want to use it.

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8 Responses to Between a Rock and a Hard Place

  1. ned williams says:

    So the conclusion I draw from all of this (and my look at the true nicks site) is a pretty simple one, there are some “Nicks” that are proven to produce better horses at a higher rate than average crosses. These “Proven Nicks” have history behind them and have been replicated many times. Unfortunately, most of the nicks generated have too few first generation foals/runners to give me any confidence or skip a generation or two which gives me no confidence.

    All of this leads me back to Racehorse Breeding Theories. Is it possible that the NR group could have such a high success rate because they were foals of “vigorous outcross” or no (or very little relatedness) amongst the sire and first dam? I understand that nicking is not about relatedness, and if enough people tried the outcross (if it were successful) it would be a “good nick”.
    However, are these crosses not rated mostly because they are outcrosses? If so, does it mean that outcrossing is actually the “best nick”? I am not trying to mix apples and oranges here just a trying to get my arms around the high success rate of the NR group.

    A lot to think about and there are readers of this blog far wiser than I who I would love to hear from.
    Thanks for the research and commentary.
    Always good to stretch the brain!

    • ddink55 says:


      Two of the 11 stakes winners were outcrosses (Gypsy Robin and Window Boy, though the latter’s sire Include was inbred). That is about 18%, which is right in line with the overall percentage for the entire population (about 16%).

      Three of the 11 were inbred to Northern Dancer (Grace Hall, Rocket Twentyone, and Lulu Wong). Grace Hall was also inbred to Mr. P. Street Life was inbred to Mr. P.

      The other four were all inbred to other names (Intentionally, The Axe II, Nasrullah, Riverman, etc.).

      I am counting anything 5×5 or closer as inbred. If you count anything 4×4 or closer as inbred, the only one that qualifies is Grace Hall (4×3 to Mr. P.). That is about 9%. I think the entire population is about 25-30%.

      So if you look at it that way (counting only 4×4 or closer as inbred), yes, you can say that these 11 stakes winners were less inbred than the overall population. Their pedigrees (especially their broodmare sire lines) are off the beaten path. They were not rated because the computer could not find enough foals that were bred similarly (even going back several generations). You might think of them as iconoclasts, pedigrees that are the antithesis of conformity.

      Which brings me to another foolosophical reason for distrusting nicks. If you believe in nicks, you are always trying to “conform.” Conformity becomes your goal. It is refreshing to me to see a group of horses with good results using the opposite approach, that of nonconformity. Although that was probably more a matter of necessity than choice. If you have a mare by Siphon, for example, no matter what sire you breed that mare to, the foal is almost guaranteed to be not rated.

      Don’t know if that helps you any. Would like to see good results from not rated from another sales population before getting too excited about them as a group.


  2. Ned Williams says:


    It certainly helps. I assume nobody besides Byron was kind enough to send you the nicks for this September Sale. As you stated earlier, this sale is one of the very best as far as quality from top to bottom. Most all these horses are bred with the intention of being attractive sales horse. This, without question, raises the level of sire power found in the sale. However, I have always looked at Keeneland, September as a sale for everyman. It has horses for nearly every buyer …from the sheiks to the Neds! What is still hard to imagine is that if True Nicks is accurate in their statistics about the scarcity of A nicks in the overall Thoroughbred population, there must be one heck of a lot of people out there breeding a lot of bad nicked horses. While Keeneland, September is a good sale, I am still surprised by your research. The numbers of the various categories alone are not at all what I anticipated, your performance analysis was more along the lines of what I may have guessed.
    One suggestion I would make to True Nicks would be to stop the whole shenanigans regarding how the Nicks are graded. The A+++, A++ ,A+, A, to B+, B, C+, C, D+,D etc seems to weigh things toward the “A” nick (I have never seen a B+++ or a C++, please correct me if I am off here). It all starts feeling like semantics when you start to deal with degrees of “A’s” We all went to school and most of us were never all that concerned if our grade was an A or an A+ or an A++ (not to say that I had any). Why not a simple Numeric value, 10 being the best right on down to 0. The number grade would have some correlation to success of the cross. My guess is that since stallion owners pay the bills by listing their stallions with True Nicks, it is counter intuitive to the owners of True Nicks to hand out a lot of poor nicks for certain stallions. It is may be more palatable for a stallion owner to see a B nick than a 6 out of 10 (or a failing 60, to keep it in the school perspective) for a given mare. We may be seeing a little “grade inflation” by True Nicks to keep the Stallion owners happy. This would account for the large number of “A” nicks.

    • ddink55 says:


      You are correct that there is a certain amount of grade inflation going on with regard to the A Nicks and that a lot of it is motivated by trying to please stallion owners. If you look at the actual TrueNicks reports, they do have a numerical rating. The explanation they publish shows how the numerical rating translates into a letter grade. Perhaps they should list both the numerical rating and the letter grade in the cheatbooks and elsewhere.

      I agree with you about the September sale. It has horses for nearly every buyer. The overall population is a lot worse than most people think. I can believe that the incidence of A Nicks in the overall population really is as low as 13%-15%. I may have seen some B++ and C++ ratings. Not sure though. Will keep an eye out for them as I go through other sales.

      Believe it or not, ENicks have even worse grade inflation (an even higher proportion of A nicks). No one has responded to my challenge, and I don’t really anticipate that anyone will.

      I think it would be a good idea if someone sent this challenge directly to ENicks. Otherwise they could claim (perhaps correctly) that they never saw it. However, this challenge should not come from me or Byron but from a more neutral party such as yourself. Think you can handle that???? Go to the Enicks website, which probably has a link for Contact Us. Send them a link to “Put Up or Shut Up,” along with a short note of explanation.

      Appreciate it if you can handle this.

      Passingly yours,


  3. ned williams says:

    E-mail has been sent asking them to participate in the study.

  4. ned williams says:

    I received this gracious response from e nicks president Sid Fernando. I am unsure if they provide their nicks for the sale in a book or internet format. In a separate e mail he provided me with the free app. Looking up the nick for every horse in the sale seems quite impractical at this point. I am not sure what to think.

    Dear Mr Williams,

    The individual Werk Nick Ratings for the September sale are on our website and available for anyone to view (and purchase, in cases where stallions are not enrolled in eNicks). You are more than welcome to retrieve them at your time and cost. However, please note that our Best of Sale recommendations—some of which are C and D nicks, too—are available to our retained clients free of charge and to others at a cost only.

    I will counsel you on this: nicks are a starting point in pedigree analysis but in no way should they be used as the sole quantifier of a pedigree’s worth; it’s for this reason that I noted that we have recommended to clients September sales yearlings that have Werk Nick Ratings as low as Cs and Ds. Likewise, our LyonScore System also will sometimes recommend horses with nicks that are not considered optimum.

    Finally, unlike the company you mentioned, we also offer the GeoNick, which looks at a nick for a specific geographic location (N America, Europe, Australasia ), as we are cognizant that our global nick may not sometimes tell the full story.

    Kind regards,
    Sid Fernando
    WTC, Inc.

    • ddink55 says:


      Thanks for taking care of this. I am certainly not going to pay them any $$$$ for their shit. And it sounds like I would have to if I wanted to find ratings for every nag sold. Therefore, this is probably not gonna be worthwhile doing. However, I might look into it some more at a later date if I feel like it. Thanks again.


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