Identifying a Thoroughbred from Down Under

How I found Jubilee’s Identity: A companion to “Long Live Jubilee

Registered Thoroughbreds from Australia and New Zealand can be identified by the freeze brands that they sport on their left and right shoulders. Like the lip tattoos that were used on American Thoroughbreds until 2020, the freeze brands are primarily a way to ensure that horses entered in races are actually the animals they are claimed to be.

The systems employed to derive a Down Under freeze brand and an American Thoroughbred lip tattoo are quite different. American Thoroughbreds have tattoos that begin with a letter followed by either four or five numbers. Every Thoroughbred born in a particular year has the same letter at the beginning of his tattoo, and the letters cycle through the alphabet: 2016 is T, 2017 is U and so on. The only exception to this is that horses born in another country and imported into the United States have an asterisk in place of the initial letter. Starting in 2017, horses also have had a microchip implanted in their necks, and as of 2020, lip tattoos have been discontinued, leaving the microchip as the American Thoroughbred’s only means of permanent identification.  

In Australia and New Zealand, the large breeding farms have their own registered symbol or set of initials that is branded onto the left shoulder. This mark is called the cypher brand. Smaller or private breeders who have a foal or two per year often don’t have their own cypher, in which case they will use the cypher that is registered to their veterinarian. This was the case with Jubilee: she had the initials GC on her left shoulder, which is the mark registered to the veterinarian Graham Carthew, now retired, who founded the Vets on Riverbank in Otaki, New Zealand.

In addition to the cypher brand on the left shoulder, Australian and New Zealand horses have a set of numbers on their right shoulders. The bottom number is the last digit of the year they were born: in other words, a horse with a 0 could be born in 1990 (like Jubilee) in 2000, in 2010 or 2020. The top number indicates the foal’s “drop” number: Jubilee has a 48, which means that she was the 48th foal that Graham Carthew branded in 1990. The breeding farms and veterinarians maintain their own records, and send them to the central registry: The Australian Thoroughbred Stud Book or New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing. All Thoroughbreds in Australia and New Zealand are also microchipped: this began for foals born in 2003 in Australia and in 2004 in New Zealand.

Australia and New Zealand are a long way away, but a fair number of OTTBs from those countries do end up competing in America in various disciplines, most especially in eventing and polo. Famous examples include Boyd Martin’s Neville Bardos, the Australian former racehorse who was named the USEF Horse of the Year in 2011 – look closely at pictures of him, and you will see the renowned Woodlands Stud emblem on his left shoulder, with the numbers 160 over 9 (for 1999) on his right shoulder.

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing is especially committed to the welfare of horses after the track, and the registry has a form on their website allowing you to submit freeze brand information. If they have the horse in their registry they will send you the name, pedigree and racing information for free. The Australian Studbook makes this process more opaque, but they will also do brand research for you – many of their studbook services have a fee and the listed fee for brand research is $75.  Visit studbook.org.au (Australian Studbook) or nztr.co.nz (New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing.)