Thursday, December 31, 2009

Making a New Year's list

With the end of 2009 (thankfully) upon us, year-end sire lists have been on my mind for a variety of reasons. The entertaining contest between Roman Ruler and Offlee Wild for leading freshman sire has come down to the last day of the year with Roman Ruler a few hundred dollars ahead--or is he? Both the Thoroughbred Times and Blood-Horse lists credit Roman Ruler with $1,939,951 and Offlee Wild with $1,939,243 before racing in the U.S. begins today.

Both the Times and the Blood-Horse acquire those figures from the Jockey Club's database but they do it in rather different ways. The Times counts earnings from all 18 countries for which the Jockey Club receives complete racing in digitized form. The Blood-Horse counts earnings from some countries but not others, according to a logic that is frankly outdated and outmoded. The two ways of counting happen to agree on these two horses, but not on other sire lists, not by a long shot.

For example, both organizations list Giant's Causeway as leading general sire, but TT credits him with earnings of $15,895,171 and BH with $11,027,789. As we've mentioned before (read it here) the Blood-Horse counts earnings from Dubai and Europe, but not Japan or Southern Hemisphere countries, and Giant's Causeway's offspring have earned substantial amounts--about $4.8 million--in those countries. Seems to me one should either count all foreign earnings or none at all. There's a logical argument to support doing it either way, there's even a logical argument for counting Northern Hemisphere earnings but not Southern Hemisphere--the shuttle sire problem, you know. But I've yet to hear anything approaching a valid argument for counting some foreign earnings from the Northern Hemisphere but not others.

But regardless, Giant's Causeway will be leading sire, right? Not so fast. Leading sire by North American earnings only (the "none at all" option mentioned above) is....wait for it.....Smart Strike.....for the third consecutive year. Giant's Causeway had a great year in North America, but ranks fourth according to earnings on the continent where he primarily stands, about $800,000 behind Smart Strike, with A.P. Indy and Distorted Humor in second and third. Smart Strike ranks third on the Times list (behind second-placed Street Cry, another who does well abroad) and third on the BH list (behind second-placed Distorted Humor).

The difference in countries being counted also shows up if you run the freshman sire list by North American earnings only. All of Offlee Wild's freshman earnings are in NA, but Roman Ruler's NA total is only $1,895,313, apparently because he has a winner in Mexico and a winner in Puerto Rico......which apparently are not part of North America....Got that?

All this probably is not going to matter this particular year because Offlee Wild has a runner today--and a good one, stakes winner Heavenliness--and Roman Ruler does not. The smart money has to be on Offlee Wild, no matter how you count it.

This is all very confusing, but not any more confusing than the situation in Argentina. Recently I noticed that the lists of annual leaders in Argentina according to earnings by racing season and the official lists on maintained by the Stud Book Argentino differ markedly. Then my friend Ned Moore, an Argentine bloodstock agent, adviser, and all around raconteur who lives in Virginia most of the year, reminded me that the official sire list in Argentina has always been based on calendar year rather than the Argentine racing season, which runs from July 1 of one year to June 30 of the next. I knew that!

This makes even less sense than counting some foreign earnings but not all. The Argentines have been doing it that way since 1883, however, so I somehow doubt that they're going to change their minds now just because I don't like it.

Those Argentines! They need to learn to count like us good, straightforward Americans! Or is that North Americans?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

White wonder

Something kind of wonderful happened in Japan about 18 months ago, but, so far as I can tell it has completely escaped the notice of the American media. If I've missed something, let me know, but I've Googled it and searched on the appropriate websites, and can't find any coverage in the American racing press.

In June of 2008 at Kawasaki (yeah, that's right) Racecourse, a filly named Yukichan won a race called the Kanto Oaks. Never heard of it? Well neither had I until I ran across Yukichan, but it qualifies both for black type and as a stakes race according to international cataloging rules.

What makes this kind of wonderful is that Yukichan is white. If you click on the two links above you'll see that not only is she pure white, but quite an attractive filly who moves like a good horse both on both dirt and turf. She totally dominated her opposition in the Kanto Oaks (which perhaps would be on the level of a winter stakes at Turfway Park), winning easily by eight lengths under great Japanese jockey Yutaka Take, who barely moved on her. Yukichan has placed in two other, better, stakes.

I'm pretty sure this is the first time a Thoroughbred registered as white has won a stakes race anywhere in the world. Now personally, I've never been particularly enamored with white Thoroughbreds since, genetically, coat color is not an indicator of anything except coat color, but some folks just go absolutely gaga over them, so I'm surprised that no one over here seems to have picked up on this pretty filly's accomplishments.

"Yuki" means snow in Japanese and "chan" is an endearment often tacked onto Japanese names, so Yukichan would mean something like Snow Darling in English, which is appropriate enough.

The most interesting question about Yukichan is how she came to be white in the first place. Her sire, Kurofune, by French Deputy, was a very high-class racehorse, winning six of 10 starts, including the Japan Cup Dirt-G1 on dirt and the NHK Mile Cup-G1 on turf, which earned him champion 3yo colt honors in 2001. Kurofune's stud record is spotty, with only six stakes winners from about 500 foals, but two of them are Japanese champions.

Kurofune's color is classified by the Jockey Club's misleading "gray or roan" designation. Don't get me started, but since gray and roan coat colors are caused by different alleles of the color genes (true roan is very rare in the Thoroughbred), that designation is even more ridiculous than "dark bay or brown".

Anyway, Kurofune's coat color, whether he is a true gray or a true roan, also doesn't have anything directly to do with Yukichan being white. If my understanding of coat color genetics is correct, Kurofune has to be a carrier of the overo gene to be able to sire white offspring, and whether he's gray or not has nothing to do with that. Kurofune's coat color (almost certainly gray) comes from his dam, Blue Avenue, whose dam, Eliza Blue was a gray by the gray horse Icecapade. No sign of white horses there, on the surface at least.

Yukichan's dam, Shirayyukihime ("white snow" in Japanese), on the other hand, is also registered as white. The question is, how the hell did that happen? Her sire was the immortal Sunday Silence, whom the Jockey Club insisted was dark bay or brown, though anyone with normal human color perception would call him black. Not only that, but Yukichan's year-older full brother White Vessel is also white. He has won 3 of 13 starts, but is not a stakes horse.

Shirayukihime's dam, Wave Wind, by the bay Topsider, was also registered as dark bay or brown. The author is intimately familiar with Yukichan's third dam Storm and Sunshine, a lovely, feminine version of her sire Star de Naskra, a horse who raced for and stood at Pillar Stud while I was general manager there. Storm and Sunshine was a very good filly, winning 10 of 19 starts, including the Test-G2 and Post-Deb-G3.

Storm and Sunshine was a solid, mahogany bay, as was Star de Naskra, but her broodmare sire Drone was gray--for what that's worth.

Obviously the overo gene that causes white horses can hide for generations, but often it shows up in modified form somewhere in the horse's pedigree as particularly extensive or unusual white markings. Obviously I don't know exactly what every horse in Yukichan's pedigree looked like, but if there's any sign of white before Shirayukihime popped up, it certainly isn't obvious.

And of course it really doesn't matter. Yukichan is a lovely filly with at least a modicum of talent, and a pretty good pedigree. She would be an asset in most broodmare bands, regardless of color.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Native Dancer's ankles

A few more notes from Dan Scott's memories of Native Dancer.

Native Dancer was about 16.2 and exceptionally heavy and muscular at maturity, but he was always "the big horse", especially in his own mind. Geisha's son dominated his companions as a weanling and yearling in the paddocks, bullying them when he felt like it, and he was always the first horse to the gate every night.

While in training, Native Dancer famously suffered from osselets, an ailment one never hears mentioned anymore. (Osselets are basically an arthritic bony enlargement on the front of the front ankles). According to Dan, however, the condition was far more cosmetic than painful, but trainer Bill Winfrey loved to talk about them to the press, just to mess with their heads. He often stood Native Dancer in an ice bucket at the front of his stall even if he didn't need it so that rival trainers would think he was less fit than he really was.

Native Dancer came by his ankle problems honestly, though. He was not only massively heavy, but he had short, upright pasterns and a round, pounding action. With that combination, it is remarkable that he stayed as sound as he did for 22 starts. He won 21 of them, of course, losing only when short of work for the Kentucky Derby. Much has been made in retrospect of some minor traffic trouble Native Dancer encountered going into the first turn of the Derby, but the truth was that Winfrey had been forced to rush his preparation after deciding to fire his ankles fairly late in the winter.

Native Dancer was a short horse in the Derby, but finished a closing second to a very good front runner in Dark Star. Would he have won with one more race under his belt or more time between his three preps? If we could rewrite history, I would bet on it.

In the end it was not ankle problems that ended Native Dancer's racing career, but tender feet. He raced only three times at four, winning the Metropolitan Handicap in his only stakes effort before recurring foot bruises forced Winfrey to call it a career. Tom Fool's unbeaten season had robbed Native Dancer of Horse of the Year at three, but voters awarded him something of a career honor by making him Horse of the Year at four despite his brief, relatively inconsequential campaign. No one doubted he was the best racehorse in America in 1954.

Native Dancer stood at Alfred Vanderbilt's Sagamore Farm in the beautiful rolling hills north of Baltimore, Maryland. I first visited Sagamore in 1969 during my grad school years at Johns Hopkins University. Sadly, that was after Native Dancer's death, but his son Restless Native was there.

Native Dancer was a very good sire, especially considering where he stood, far from the best mares in Kentucky. He sired 43 stakes winners from 306 foals (14.1%), an exceptional percentage in any era. His daughter Hula Dancer (bred and owned by Gertie Widener) won eight of nine starts and was one of the greatest fillies in French racing history, though largely forgotten today. Raise a Native was brilliant, inheriting Native Dancer's massive physique and upright pasterns, but his tendons were tied in behind the knee, which led to a bow after only four starts.

Native Dancer's Derby winner Kauai King was probably one of the worst winners of that great race on record, making it to the winner's circle only because neither Buckpasser nor Graustark could run. Dancer's Image, of course, deserved to win the Derby, Butazolidin or not.

Native Dancer's genetic legacy, though, looms larger than his own stud career, partly because of his daughter Natalma's son Northern Dancer, of course, but more because his genes bear repeating. The constant crossing and recrossing of the Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector stallions that now dominate our gene pool means that Native Dancer's name appears at least once--and often three or four times--in the pedigree of virtually every stakes winner that crosses the finish line.

Not bad for a horse with "bad ankles".

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A short walk to Native Dancer

Frank Mitchell's recent blog on the influence of Native Dancer (read here)reminded me of the story behind the great gray son of Polynesian.

My house at Pillar Stud, which I managed during the 1980s was located on what had once been Gallagher Stud, and I lived in what was known as Gallagher House. Gallagher was directly across Russell Cave Pike from Dan and Alice Scott's farm. Dan was the son of Harrie B. Scott Sr., manager of Faraway Farm, where Man o' War and War Admiral stood, for the Riddle and Jeffords families. In the 1940s and '50s Dan and Alice, both wonderful people, boarded Alfred G. Vanderbilt's mares, including Native Dancer's dam Geisha, by Discovery.

Alfred Vanderbilt had purchased Discovery as a three-year-old in 1934, and he developed into one of the best horses of the Depressioin era, gaining renown as a great weight carrier and earning Horse of the Year honors in 1935. Discovery was a good but far from great sire of racehorses, but his daughters eventually occupied a unique place in Thoroughbred breeding history as the dams of top racehorses and/or sires Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Intentionally, Traffic Judge, Hasty Road, and Bed o' Roses.

Discovery was Vanderbilt's foundation sire, and, as a result, Vanderbilt's self-confessed breeding strategy was to breed a Discovery mare to anything. Didn't matter very much to him.

Vanderbilt's maiden winner Geisha produced the decent filly and good producer Orientation, by Questionnaire, in her first season at stud, but she had been difficult to load on the van to take her down Iron Works Pike to Greentree Stud where Questionnaire stood. She was scheduled to go back to Questionnaire in her second season at stud, but she categorically refused to get on the van and could not be covered.

As it happened, Vanderbilt's cousin Gertie Widener stood her 1945 Preakness winner and '47 champion sprinter Polynesian at Gallagher Stud, then owned by Ira Drymon and his son Jimmy, who managed Mrs. Widener's mares. Since Polynesian was a first class racehorse, an excellent specimen, and right across the road, Dan Scott suggested to Ralph Kercheval, Vanderbilt's manager, that Geisha should be walked across Russell Cave Pike and covered by Polynesian, instead of risking life and limb to get her on a van.

The result, of course, was Native Dancer.

When I lived at Gallagher House during the 1980s, I bought a gelding by Crimson Satan out of Raise a Pocket, by Raise a Native, as a riding horse for my daughter Cassie. Named Satan's Pocket, he had been useless as a racehorse because of a breathing problem. Satan's Pocket was not a big horse, but he looked very much like his maternal grandsire Raise a Native, Native Dancer's best sire son.

Satan's Pocket definitely had a mind of his own, like his great-great grandam Geisha, and set yours truly off on his backside more than once. Let's just say he had a talent for "stumbling" at awkward moments.

Satan's Pocket and my son's half-Shetland pony from Tennessee were stabled side by side in what had once been the two-stall stallion barn behind Gallagher House where Polynesian once stood.

Somehow that seemed appropriate.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Late to the dance

Due to the circumstances detailed in my previous post I did not participate in the debate over whether Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta should win Horse of the Year--much less whether the Eclipse Award voting rules should be changed so that there could be co-honorees.

Of all the bad ideas that have cropped up in Thoroughbred racing--many of which, sadly, were implemented--changing the voting rules surely was one of the worst. Sure, let's put the fix in so that both horses can win, that'll show the public how dedicated we are to playing by the rules. I was horrified when the idea came up (and let NTWA President Tom Law know my feelings), amazed when one of the three voting blocs actually approved it, and delighted when the other two scuttled the idea.

The Horse of the Year vote is a bit more problematic. I do have a vote, and I know who I'm going to vote for, but it's probably a bit unfair to publish that before the fact. Once the voting deadline has passed, then it's full disclosure time. Suffice to say that both mares are good enough to win in an average year.

There are several other championship categories that are even less clear cut. Champion 3yo colt is pretty clear, as are, obviously, 3yo filly and older mare. Just about every other category, however, lacks a definitive, clear leader. Sure, Zensational is probably the favorite for sprinter, She Be Wild for juvenile filly, and Lookin at Lucky for 2yo colt, but none are a certainty with Kodiak Kowboy, Hot Dixie Chick and Buddy's Saint probably getting lots of votes in those categories. Gio Ponti seems obvious for turf male, but Presious Passion won some votes in the BC Turf, and Conduit will probably get a few as well. Older male is a complete mess. Gio Ponti probably earned some votes in the BC Classic, but who else really proved he's worth a vote? Was Midday impressive enough in the Filly and Mare Turf to win?

All in all, it's actually one of the most interesting Eclipse Award ballots in years.

Friday, November 27, 2009

End of hiatus

It has been a long month. It's also been a short month.

You know how it goes--sometimes when there's too much to do in a week or a month, it seems to take forever when it's happening, but then seems to have flown by after it's over. That was my November. Three different writing deadlines that overlapped Breeders' Cup and Keeneland November.

Then came the fun part--the birth of my first grandson Eli on November 13 (adorable photo above). That, of course, required a visit to Chicago to get to know the little guy.

Suddenly the month is almost gone and I've posted nothing to this blog. Somehow I trust no one has lost any sleep over that. I haven't.

But I should have time now to resume posting on a more regular basis. Right now I'm looking forward to the running of today's Clark Handicap at Churchill. That race might well resolve the contest for champion older male with Macho Again, Einstein and Bullsbay in the field. And for whom do you vote if Blame beats all three of them? Gio Ponti might have something to say about that.

Back to work!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The name game

I have never found another breeder or owner as consistently clever at naming his horses as was the late Alfred G. Vanderbilt Jr., but Maria Niarchos-Gouaze has surpassed herself with her name for her current star two-year-old Eightfold Path, who won the Prix Eclipse today in France.

Eightfold Path, who was winning for the second time in three starts in the Eclipse, after finishing third in the Prix de la Rochette a few weeks ago, is the first foal of the Niarchos family's French champion 2- and 3-year-old filly Divine Proportions, by Kingmambo. For those who did not study Renaissance art, Divine Proportions is another name for the golden ratio, a mathematical-philosophical concept that has influenced great art at least since classical Greece. You can click on the link to read the way-too-complicated Wikipedia explanation, but basically, artistic representations based on the divine proportions are believed to be more aesthetically pleasing, and indeed artists have been using the golden ratio as a template at least since Phidias carved the friezes of the Parthenon.

Eightfold Path's sire, Giant's Causeway, is named for one of the natural wonders of Ireland, a volcanic basalt formation near Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, that looks something like a giant staircase leading into the ocean. According to Irish legend, mythical Irish giant hero Finn McCool built the Giant's Causeway as a pathway to Scotland. In fact, the other end of the formation crops up at Fingal's Cave on Staffa Island off the coast of Scotland.

According to the teachings of Buddha, the Noble Eightfold Path is basically the path to enlightenment or awakening, one of the Buddha's four noble truths. With all that arcane knowledge--obviously possessed by Mme. Niarchos-Gouaze--the path, as it were, from Divine Proportions along the Giant's Causeway to the Eightfold Path is, well, clever, erudite, charming, and (I can't resist) just divine.

For me, the best names have always been those that incorporate the meaning of both the sire's and dam's name in a clever, euphonious, meaningful, and--if possible--humorous way. Alfred Vanderbilt still holds the title for the all-time best in the humorous category, naming his otherwise forgettable 1968 colt (later, sadly, gelded) by Tom Fool out of Last Leg, by Native Dancer, ....wait for it....Dirty Old Man.

Vanderbilt, of course, gave great names to far more famous horses, including Social Outcast (Shut Out--Pansy, by *Sickle) (hey, it was the '50s) and Native Dancer himself (Polynesian--Geisha, by Discovery).

So what's your favorite name?

Monday, October 5, 2009

More Stars

Thanks to Sid Fernando for pointing out that video of the 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was already up on Youtube yesterday....I added a link to my original post on the victory of Sea The Stars, but I also went back and looked at the race again. The Youtube version is actually far better than the live feed on HRTV.

Looking at the race again did not change my opinion of Sea The Stars at all, but it did let me see some aspects of the race I had not been able to see on HRTV, aspects which confirmed my previous opinion in a couple of different ways. The first thing I noticed is what a truly rare feat Sea The Stars performed about 250 meters from the finish. Mick Kinane has maneuvered Sea The Stars off the rail and he is rallying between Stacelita and Dar Re Mi. He is moving fastest of the three, but visually only very slightly faster than Dar Re Mi. If he had maintained that pace, he would likely have finished perhaps a length ahead of Dar Re Mi...which would mean he would have been in a photo finish with the placed horses.

At that point, however, Dar Re Mi, who is drifting in, bumps Sea The Stars slightly, and actually pushes him slightly off balance. His response is dramatic and electrifying. As Kinane throws a cross at him, Sea The Stars visibly throws in an extra effort, an emphatic jump to the right and forward, and he accelerates a second time, and within five strides is three lengths in front. You can see for yourself here during the live action at about the 2:15 minute mark. The best view, however, is the close-up, head-on view at about the 6:50 mark.

This is not the first time, Sea The Stars has accelerated a second time to win a race. Watch what he has to do to beat Rip Van Winkle, the best horse he has faced, in the Eclipse Stakes in July. At about the 3:50 mark, Sea The Stars has already accelerated once to take the lead. Rip Van Winkle, coming from a couple of lengths behind, closes to within a neck or half-length at the furlong pole, but Sea The Stars accelerates again to win by a little more than a length.

That ability to accelerate twice is very rare, and, for me, confirms Sea The Stars's place in the 140 Timeform class.

The other thing I wanted to see in the Youtube replay was exactly what happened to Youmzain and Conduit, the second and fourth. In truth, both overcame trips that were actually worse, in terms of position and route, than that of Sea The Stars. Conduit is the horse in the white silks who is alongside Sea The Stars on his outside for most of the trip. Youmzain is the horse in blue and white who is directly behind Sea The Stars for most of the race. At the top of the stretch, however, Sea The Stars gets through on the inside, Conduit goes widest of all, and Youmzain splits one horse inside of Conduit.

Basically Sea The Stars turned into the stretch alongside Conduit and about two lengths in front of Youmzain. He accelerated more quickly and took the shorter route home, but ended up about the same distance in front of Youmzain as he had been 2 1/2 furlongs earlier.

In terms of absolute form, you simply can't get away from this fact. Look back at the 2008 Arc when Zarkava beat Youmzain by two lengths. Zarkava's run is nowhere near as visually impressive as Sea The Stars, but notice how Youmzain, who enters the stretch several lengths in front of her, gets trapped on the rail and has to come around fading horses late. He should have finished closer, but would never have beaten Zarkava.

I am in no way implying that Zarkava was as good as Sea The Stars. Her 133 Timeform rating, (equivalent of 136 for a colt) fully reflects her ability relative to Youmzain, who is an extremely reliable yardstick. But my point remains. If Zarkava only ran to a 136 equivalent beating Youmzain last year, why is Sea The Stars victory over the same horse worth more this year?

Well, in my book, it IS worth more, mostly because of the way Sea The Stars pulled for the first half mile, but don't tell me he had a harder trip than Youmzain or Conduit, because he didn't. I'd still rank him at 140.

And by the way, Tony C....I always thought Dancing Brave was slightly overrated. Equal to Vaguely Noble who beat Sir Ivor by three lengths in the 1968 Arc? Two pounds better than Nijinsky II? I don't think so!


Here's an interesting viewpoint on the subject of Sea The Stars's place in history from Sam Walker of the Racing Post.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stars shines in the Arc

Sea The Stars was typically brilliant in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe today, but it might be interesting to evaluate his performance strictly on form lines once again. The question is what is the form worth on paper and how much credit should he get for the considerable difficulty—partly created by his own behavior—of his trip.

Sea The Stars won by two lengths, with Youmzain, Cavalryman, and Conduit heads apart in second, third, and fourth. Dar Re Mi finished fifth, about 3 ½ lengths behind the winner, a length in front of Fame and Glory in sixth.

It was the third straight year that the 6-year-old Youmzain has finished second in the Arc. Last year he was rated 131 by Timeform, his highest career rating, and there is no reason to believe that he should be rated any higher this year. The Arc was his fifth start of the year, and, though he has run consistently well, he has not won a race in 2009.

Cavalryman won the Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris in June and the principal French Arc prep, the Prix Niel, three weeks ago. I do not have a current copy of Timeform's weekly “black book” ratings, but it is impossible to imagine him being rated any higher than 130 on his previous performances.

Conduit has repeatedly proven his class, winning the St. Leger and Breeders' Cup Turf last year and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes this year. Timeform rated him at 130 last year, and it is likely he might be rated a couple of pounds higher this year, but no more.

Dar Re Mi was rated only 119 last year, but has clearly improved at four, enough to be rated around 128, while Fame And Glory's previous performances would have earned him a rating around 130-132.

So, Sea The Stars beat three horses rated in the 130-132 range by two lengths, with two others also close to that range a bit further behind at one-length intervals. As with his previous best performances, on paper, that should equate to a maximum rating of around 135 to 136.

Two factors, however, lead one to believe that he should be rated several pounds higher. Ballydoyle's two pacemakers went off at a cracking pace, trying to sap Sea The Stars's stamina and set the race up for Fame And Glory. The riders on the good horses, however, ignored them, as indeed they should have, meaning that French Oaks winner Stacelita (who would have preferred softer ground) was the nominal leader, just ahead of the rest of the pack. The modest pace Stacelita set, however, meant that Sea The Stars was running over horses for the first half mile of the race, fighting jockey Mick Kinane and throwing his head about, trying to adjust his exceptionally high cruising speed to what amounted to a fairly slow pace for a race of this caliber.

Fighting the jockey for a half mile would sap the finishing speed of a normal high-class horse. Sea The Stars is not a normal high-class horse. At Longchamp, the field almost always fans out when the horses turn into the final straight about 2 ½ furlongs from home. Still, Kinane was extremely lucky that the race played out in this typical manner, and he easily found a seam for Sea The Stars.
Sea The Stars has repeatedly proven he can run a quarter mile in under 23 seconds at any stage of a race, and that is simply faster than any other European horse in training. He went about two lengths up with a furlong remaining, and basically cruised the rest of the way.

There is no doubt at all that Sea The Stars could have won by a wider margin if Kinane had driven him out to the post, but the question for form readers—and indeed for history—is how much wider? A length? Two lengths? Three? It is impossible to know, so one has to guess. For me, I could not go any higher than 140, and even that is a bit of a stretch.

Take a look at the race here and decide for yourself

The most recent European-trained horse rated that highly is Dancing Brave, who earned a 140 rating in 1986, and, indeed, their records are very similar. Dancing Brave defeated the previously unbeaten Bering (who finished the race with a cracked knee) by two lengths (officially 1 ½, but clearly more than that) in that Arc. Like Sea The Stars, he had lost only once previously, when his jockey Greville Starkey, who did not believe Dancing Brave would stay 1 ½ miles, anchored him at the back of the field in the Epsom Derby and his brilliant finishing speed could not quite catch Shahrastani.

Dancing Brave beat Shahrastani (130) in the 1 1/2-mile King George when ridden more intelligently by Pat Eddery, and Shahrastani finished fourth in the Arc, beaten 4 lengths. Bering was rated 136, and Triptych, who finished third in the Arc, 132.
Sea The Stars is the best horse trained in Europe since Dancing Brave, and, as such, probably is worth of a rating around 140. That is considerably higher than one can rate any horse who has run in America this year, including Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. The one American performance that might arguably be in the same category is Rachel Alexandra's six-length defeat of Summer Bird in the Haskell, but the Monmouth track so consistently favors front runners that one has to take that margin with a large rock of salt.

Trainer John Oxx has always talked cautiously of running Sea The Stars in the Breeders' Cup Classic. If he does run, and if he handles the synthetic track at Santa Anita, he would not have to be at his very best to beat his American foes. Only Rip Van Winkle, who gave Sea The Stars his only real scare this year in the Eclipse Stakes, looks like a worthy opponent.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Giant with a cause

When the Thoroughbred market went south in the late 1980s, American breeders turned en masse against foreign-raced stallions. Despite the fact that both American and European sire lists had been dominated by European-raced horses in the 1980s, despite the fact that horses like Blushing Groom (Fr), Caro (Ire), Riverman, Lyphard, *Vaguely Noble, and Nijinsky II were among the most commercially successful stallions with the highest stud fees of the decade, American commercial breeders decided that the solution to their problems was to stop breeding to foreign-raced horses and concentrate on American sires who had raced primarily or exclusively on dirt.

As a result, the only really high-class, European-raced horse I can think of imported to these shores for the last 20 years or so is Giant's Causeway. And, no, North Light does not count. He was an Epsom Derby winner in a substandard year. Perhaps a reader with a better memory can remind me of another really top European runner given a chance at stud over here in the last two decades?

So who is currently the leading sire in America, whether by worldwide or North American earnings only? Giant's Causeway of course.
Giant's Causeway did have certain advantages. Since he was by Storm Cat out of an American Grade 2 winner, Mariah's Storm, by Rahy, he was perceived as having a “dirt” pedigree. The best 10-furlong horse of his year in Europe, he had also performed brilliantly in his lone appearance on dirt, beaten only a head by Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs.

Giant's Causeway also has had the advantage of covering enormous books of mares at Ashford Stud in Kentucky. His current $3.5-million lead over Tiznow on the worldwide earnings list is partly due to the fact that as of September 20, 2009, he has 327 runners this year compared to 144 for Tiznow. Distorted Humor, who is third has 255, while Fusaichi Pegasus, another Ashford sire who is generally considered a failure in the U.S., is fourth (mostly due to his Australian-sired runners) with 327 runners as well.

Giant's Causeway has also benefited from the evolution of American racing surfaces. Of the $54-million his offspring have earned worldwide to date, $33-million (61%) has been earned on turf. His offspring have earned $5.6-million of the remaining $21-million on synthetic surfaces. Thus, Giant's Causeway's progeny have earned 71.5% of their total earnings on surfaces other than dirt.

That certainly looks like a rock-solid confirmation that Giant's Causeway is not a dirt sire, but it may also be the result of something akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Owners and trainers expect the Giant's Causeways to be better on surfaces other than dirt and give them more opportunities on those surfaces.
What breeders, trainers and everyone else appear to have forgotten is that a truly top-class horse is usually a top-class horse on any surface. Yes, any horse can have slight preferences for firm going instead of soft, grass instead of dirt, synthetics, or any possible combination. But as a general rule, the differences are not that great, and most good horses will learn to adapt given the opportunity. With a wide range of opportunities these days, one cannot blame trainers for trying to run their horses on the surface they think is the very best for him.

Breeders have also forgotten that throughout the history of American breeding top-class European-raced horses have repeatedly transformed the American Thoroughbred. Imported sires dominated American sire lists for decades until Americans basically stopped breeding to them in the late 1980s.

Last week at the Keeneland September yearling sale, I asked a prominent European buyer why he had all but stopped buying in America. The answer was simple. Current European sires—Galileo, Montjeu, Pivotal, Oasis Dream, Monsun, Dansili—are simply better than current American sires. Their offspring do not require drugs to run. They produce a higher percentage of Grade 1 winners. And they win in America, while American-sired horses seldom win major races in Europe anymore.

Thirty years ago, Claiborne Farm, Gainesway, and other American breeding farms would have been in hot pursuit of Europe's current wonder horse Sea The Stars.

Does anyone believe they have any real interest these days?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Seeing Stars?

2009 may be the year of Rachel Alexandra in the U.S., but many European pundits believe they also have an all-time great on the scene in Sea The Stars. The handsome Cape Cross colt scored his fifth consecutive Group 1 win of the season on Saturday, beating Irish Derby winner Fame and Glory in the Irish Champion S.

The Irish Champion was Sea The Stars's seventh consecutive victory in his eight starts—he finished a green fourth in his first start behind two subsequent stakes winners and this year's Dante S. second.

Each of Sea The Stars's seven wins has been characterized by an ability to cruise along behind the leaders and then unleash a dramatic, decisive turn of foot in the final furlong. The Irish Champion was no different. Aidan O'Brien has been trying to beat Sea The Stars all season and he threw two pacemakers and two of his three best 3-year-olds at Sea The Stars on Saturday.

The pacemakers set a very fast pace over yielding ground with Ballydoyle's 2008 champion juvenile and '09 dual Group 1 winner Mastercraftsman cruising in third. On the turn, Johnny Murtaugh moved Ballydoyle's first string, Fame and Glory up on the outside of Sea The Stars with the obvious intention of getting first run and testing the champion's stamina to the fullest.

It didn't matter...Mick Kinane on Sea The Stars merely followed Fame and Glory through, then simply sprinted past with 100 yards to go, winning by 2 ½ lengths. The performance reminded me a lot of Sir Ivor's performances in the 1968 Epsom Derby and Washington D.C. International. In each case, the winner made some of the fastest horses in the world look slow with a remarkable turn of foot.

That ability to accelerate in a stride or two at the end of a race and produce an 11-second furlong is very rare and it is always visually impressive. But what does it actually mean in terms of form? British turf writers are comparing Sea The Stars favorably to *Sea-Bird and Brigadier Gerard, the two highest-rated horses in the history of the authoritative Timeform ratings. *Sea-Bird earned a 145 (pounds) rating in 1965 and Brigadier Gerard was rated 144 in 1972. *Tudor Minstrel also received a 144 in 1947, but that is apparently so long ago that no one cares anymore, or perhaps everyone but us curmudgeons has forgotten.

Brigadier Gerard won 17 of 18 starts from 1970-72, beaten only by Roberto under an all time great ride by Braulio Baeza in the '72 Benson and Hedges Gold Cup. In the 1972 2,000 Guineas, Brigadier Gerard beat another all-time great, Mill Reef, by three lengths. Mill Reef, who needed a longer distance to be at his very best, was rated 141 by Timeform.

*Sea-Bird won 7 of 8 starts in 1964-65 with a visually impressive style very similar to that of Sea The Stars. In the 1965 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, *Sea-Bird beat Reliance by six lengths with *Diatome five lengths further away third, accumulating all of that record-equaling margin in the last furlong and a half with a devastating turn of speed. Reliance had won all of his previous races including the French Derby, and *Diatome subsequently scored a comfortable victory in the D.C. International. Timeform rated Reliance 137, Diatome 132.

It is clear from those details that *Sea-Bird and Brigadier Gerard earned their high ratings through performance, but, realistically, what kind of rating has Sea The Stars actually earned this year? In succession, he has beaten Delegator by 1 ½ lengths in the 2,000 Guineas, Fame and Glory by 1 ¾ lengths in the Epsom Derby-G1, Rip van Winkle by a length in the Eclipse, Mastercraftsman by a length in the Juddmonte International, and Fame and Glory by 2 ½ lengths at Leopardstown.
Those are all good horses, and worthy classic horses in an average year, but with the possible, marginal exception of Rip van Winkle, does anyone really believe that any of those horses he has beaten is worth much more than 132 or 133 on the Timeform scale?

No, I didn't think so.

Clearly, Sea The Stars is a great racehorse, the best we have seen in Europe in more than a decade, but *Sea-Bird? The Brigadier? Mill Reef? Not yet anyway. On paper at least, he has consistently produced a performance worth somewhere between about 134 and 138 on the Timeform scale, where a length translates into about 2 pounds. That's in the Timeform ballpark occupied by such as Nijinsky II and *Vaguely Noble, which is heady enough territory for almost any horse.

Consistency is admirable, but it is not the same thing as absolute, all-time great ability. The all-time greats, the *Sea-Birds, the *Ribots (Timeform 142), the Secretariats, are capable of completely running away from rivals who have proven themselves to be racehorses of the 132 to 135 class on the Timeform scale.

Good as he is, Sea The Stars has not yet done that.

They don't call me the Pedigree Curmudgeon for nothing.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

It depends on what "is" is

Every time a yearling by Tiznow came into the sales ring during the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings, announcer Terrence Collier repeated that Tiznow was then the leading sire in North America.

Well, that depends on your definition of “North America.”

No, I am not being Clintonesque here.

Collier was quoting the general sire list published on the website of the Blood-Horse magazine. The question is, exactly what is that sire list based on? Which countries' race results are included in that list? The United States and Canada? Mexico? Puerto Rico? Any other countries?

The Blood-Horse website does not tell you, but unless their standards have changed in the last few years, their “North American” sire list includes money earned in the five major European racing countries (England, Ireland France, Germany, Italy), plus the United Arab Emirates....but not Japan or other major racing venues. (Presumably the standards are listed in the weekly magazine sire lists, but the author is not a subscriber, so perhaps one of our readers can enlighten us?).

In fact, there is no way that Tiznow could have been atop the North American sire list at that point without the earnings of Well Armed in the Dubai World Cup-G1. In fact, if one restricts the sire list to earnings in North America only (U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, but not Mexico), then Tiznow currently stands in 20th place on the North American sire list, and could not possibly have been in first place the second week in August.

The Thoroughbred Times website is at least more informative. (Full disclosure—the author still works part time for Thoroughbred Times and is certainly biased in their favor). Giant's Causeway stands almost $3-million clear of Tiznow, who ranks second on that list (and indeed Giant's Causeway was well clear at the time of the Saratoga sale on the Thoroughbred Times list), which is based on earnings in North America, plus 17 other countries, including Japan. The Thoroughbred Times list includes earnings in all 18 countries (including the US) for which the Jockey Club database includes complete racing data.

At the very least, that is a far more logical approach than the Blood-Horse's inclusion of only North America, Europe and the UAE. Both magazines began including Europe in the late 1980s as the data became available. Everybody added the UAE when Cigar won the first Dubai World Cup in 1996. How could you possibly not include the complete earnings of the all-time leading American-trained money-earner?

The Blood-Horse decided, however, that they would not include Japanese earnings even when they became readily available. Supposedly the rationale at the time was that Japanese purses were so high that they would in some way “skew” the results.


I fail to see the logic of including some purses that are markedly higher than North American purses (as in Dubai) and excluding others (namely Japan). It seems to me the only argument concerning a leading North American sire list should be whether one includes only earnings in North America or one includes everything available.
One can argue either side of that question, but I have yet to see a valid argument for anything in between.

For the record (courtesy of Thoroughbred Times database...It's available, but they don't run it on their website), here are the current top ten sires by North American earnings only, as of 9/3/09:

Sire Strs Wnrs SWs Total Earnings
Giant's Causeway 142 62 11 $5,886,465
A.P. Indy 126 62 13 5,710,951
Medaglia d'Oro 95 43 7 5,647,349
Distorted Humor 217 108 11 5,500,685
Smart Strike 193 78 10 5,141,563
Stormy Atlantic 234 99 13 4,638,666
Unbridled's Song 153 61 9 4,623,808
Tale of the Cat 201 88 8 4,535,586
Birdstone 50 24 4 4,302,615
Malibu Moon 205 84 10 4,149,495
Empire Maker 100 47 4 3,985,213
Yes It's True 219 120 4 3,971,007
Northern Afleet 204 113 4 3,888,482
Dynaformer 111 45 6 3,795,177
Yonaguska 171 91 5 3,781,409
Unusual Heat 130 61 7 3,727,213
Pulpit 153 68 6 3,707,677
Lemon Drop Kid 115 66 12 3,658,110
Not For Love 196 87 8 3,657,464
Tiznow 125 54 6 3,600,042

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cultural bias

If they both retired to stud tomorrow, which horse would command the higher stud fee, Summer Bird or Quality Road?

The correct answer is Quality Road. Why? Well it is mostly based on industry biases and seemingly permanent, almost willful misconceptions about what is important in determining the stud potential of top colts.

Remember five years ago when Smarty Jones and Birdstone retired to stud? Smarty had won a minor stakes at two, the Kentucky Derby-G1 on a bad track that blatantly favored runners near the front of the pack, and the Preakness-G1 at three. Birdstone had won a G1 (the Champagne) at two, beaten Smarty Jones in the Belmont-G1 and won the Travers-G1 at three. Smarty Jones began his stud career at a stud fee of $100,000. Birdstone started off at $10,000.

Both were rather small, unimpressive individuals, correct enough, but not physical specimens who would have brought high prices at yearling or juvenile sales, regardless of their pedigrees. Three Chimneys had a waiting list for Smarty Jones, despite his high stud fee, but Gainesway struggled to fill Birdstone's book. Eighty-five foals resulted for Smarty's first crop versus only 70 for Birdstone.

True, part of the reason for the discrepancy in stud fee and book size was Smarty Jones's popularity with the racing public. The main reason, though, was pedigree. Smarty was from Elusive Quality's first crop, and the latter was a beautifully bred horse who had made himself a salable entity, mainly because of Smarty. Birdstone was by Grindstone, a better racehorse than Elusive Quality, but a proven failure at stud, Birdstone excepted. Birdstone possessed the better female family, but breeders did not care. Though not everyone was sold on Smarty's potential, breeders were willing to take a chance, banking on his presumed commercial appeal.

The results, of course, speak for themselves. Smarty's first crop includes, to date, only two minor stakes winners. Birdstone's first crop features five stakes winners, including two of the three best 3yo colts of the year, Summer Bird and Mine That Bird. In retrospect, Birdstone had everything breeders should require--except an impressive physique--in a stallion prospect...mainly his race record. He was a Grade 1 winner at two and a classic winner and Travers winner at 3. What more should one want? (Full disclosure--the author turned down Birdstone for a client's mare, despite an excellent pedigree match because of his size and unimpressive physique. He has since come to his senses).

Since then, of course, Elusive Quality has sired Raven's Pass and other top runners, confirming his quality as a stallion. Quality Road is a big, impressive individual from a very high-class family, and he has established track records at both 6 1/2 and 9 furlongs. Summer Bird is a good-looking, medium-sized horse, unraced at two, who has won two of the four most important races for three-year-olds and is from the same family as top sires Relaunch and Tapit. Either of these colts may yet go on to secure the 3yo male championship and earn a more lucrative stud career, but right now, Quality Road would be the choice of most breeders because he is perceived as the horse with superior speed.

Life just is not fair, whether one speaks of racehorses or of men. But which horse will have the higher stud fee in 2010, Smarty Jones or Birdstone?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Let's be honest about it

It has been a difficult month.

The cliché about death and taxes has been too true of late. We've had too much of the former and face too much of the latter on receivables that haven't even been collected yet due to the economic recession, presumably. Time to move on.

Let's see....several recent events that deserve comment.

Yes, the Saratoga select sale was up, but the results were a bit deceiving...though happily so. The catalog—meaning both the pedigrees and the individuals—were at least 30% better than in 2008, but average price rose only 10%. Does that mean that the level of the market was actually down 20%?

Well, that's probably not fair. In a sense it's not even fair to compare the two sales. Fasig-Tipton's new ownership made a new beginning at Saratoga with their renovations to the area behind the pavilion and recruitment of a more international catalog and buyers bench. Consignors sensed something positive was happening and sent better horses with better pedigrees, and more of them.

Saratoga 2009 proved that in a shrinking market a boutique sale could work once again. The line for entries to the 2010 sale is already forming. The danger for Fasig-Tipton will be the temptation to take too many horses too soon. Give it time. Give it room to breathe and grow naturally.

One small incident on the last day of the sale bothered me a bit. Fasig-Tipton put Man o' War on the cover and used his image and reputation in their advertising. There is only one small problem with that. Man o' War was sold at Saratoga, but not by Fasig-Tipton. I knew that at least some FT officials knew that to be true, and when I mentioned the fact to Dan Pride, the company's new chief operating officer, he agreed and pointed out that nowhere in the advertising, etc., did it say that the horse was sold by Fasig-Tipton. He implied that any misconception was in the eye of the beholder and was not the fault of the company.

I like Dan Pride, a fellow Tennessean, a lot. His presence has added a lot of energy and a focus on classy presentation to the company's sales.....but misleading advertising is not classy. Sorry my friend Dan, but I do not believe that kind of advertising is as classy as the product the company aspires to sell.

I like Rachel Alexandra a lot too, and she is obviously a very classy filly. Her time figures and margins of victory have proven that she might be a truly great filly. But the emphasis at this point should be on “might”. The rest of this crop of three-year-old fillies is clearly far short of inspiring. None of the top three-year-old colts have yet faced their elders, so it is impossible to say with any certainty at this point just how much credit she should get for a six-length beating of Summer Bird.

The rush by much of the racing press to crown her as an all-time great, therefore, is a bit embarrassing. Is racing so desperate for heroes that we have to over-hype every good horse that comes along? (For example....Curlin—truly not picking on Jess Jackson here, pure happenstance of ownership) Unrealistic, excessive press is just as bad as no press at all. It sets up the public for one more huge disappointment if Rachel Alexandra ever falls short of those unrealistic expectations.

But if comparisons to Ruffian or even Dark Mirage and Desert Vixen are premature, it is clear she is a very good filly. Racing should certainly take advantage, as best we can, of her brilliance, but, I would offer the same advice to racing's promoters I'd offer Dan Pride (equally unsolicited).

Let's be honest about it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The sire of sires effect

I rarely participate in discussions on internet bulletin boards. In part that is a holdover from the time when I was a full-time employee of Thoroughbred Times. Anything I said at that time could have been interpreted as representing Thoroughbred Times, and that would not do at all, so I simply never commented, even in cases of factual error.

Three-plus years into the semi-retirement it is nice to feel the freedom implicit in “freelance”. I am still not inclined to comment frequently in online forums, whether on Thoroughbred racing or other obsessions, because too frequently they turn into flame wars that benefit no one.

Occasionally, however, the urge to correct factual errors or potentially misleading statements overpowers that probably wise reticence. One recent discussion on the tb_breeding_theory board on Yahoo brought me reluctantly out of my curmudgeon cave, brandishing facts.

The discussion began with a question about the comparative rarity of inbreeding to Northern Dancer through his daughters. That eventually led to a broad generalization by one member (a good guy who I doubt intended it the way it came out) that implied that great sires of sires, including Northern Dancer, were not good broodmare sires.
Since I knew the inference that might be drawn from that statement was untrue, I felt duty-bound to step into the fray, and produced the following lists of the accomplishments as broodmare sires of some of the sires mentioned (the sires of sires are in bold face, the produce of their daughters in red--damn I hate that I don't know HTML code!):

Phalaris Among leading BMS England
Picture Play 1,000 Guineas, great foundation broodmare
Mid-day Sun Epsom Derby, champion 3yo
Godiva Epsom Oaks, 1,000 Guineas, ch 3yo filly
Windsor Slipper Undefeated Irish Triple Crown winner, ch 2yo, 3yo
Emborough Leading sire Australia
Delville Wood Leading sire Australia
Enfield Among leading sires Australia
Brown Betty 1,000 Guineas
Sind Leading sire Argentina
*Easton Coronation Cup, good sire
Plassy Good SW, sire of Vandale
Burudun Leading sire Argentina

Nearco Leading BMS England 3 times, leading BMS France
*Prince Taj Leading sire in France twice
Rising Flame Leading BMS Japan, among leading sires Japan
*Arctic Prince Epsom Derby, good sire
Averof Leading sire South Africa
Tamerlane St. James's Palace S., Grandsire of Monsun
Count Rendered Among leading sires NZ
*Khorassan II Among leading sires Aus/NZ
*Miralgo Champion 2yo England
*Tulyar Epsom Derby, St. Leger, champion 3yo
Saint Crespin III Arc, among leading sires England
Forest Row Leading broodmare sire Chile
*Vaguely Noble Arc, leading sire England
Charlottesville French Derby, Leading sire England
Sheshoon Ascot Gold Cup, Leading sire France
*Aggressor II King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S.
Ambergris Irish Oaks,
*Rose Royale II 1,000 Guineas, ch. 3yo filly
Sybil's Nephew Leading sire South Africa
Test Case ch. 2yo colt England, among leading sires NZ

*Nasrullah among leading BMS US 5 times
Boucher St. Leger
Poker Broodmare sire of Seattle Slew, Silver Charm
Turkish Trousers ch. 3yo filly
Tell Sire of good NZ sire Pompeii Court
Talking Picture ch. 2yo filly, great broodmare
Pakistan Leading sire NZ
Hornbeam Leading BMS England
*Sovereign champion 2yo filly England
Lacquer Irish 1,000 Guineas
Drumtop Great turf filly, dam of Topsider

Bold Ruler among the leading BMS US twice (7 champions, 119 SW)
Christmas Past champion 3yo filly
Intrepid Hero Hollywood Derby, United Nations H.
Sovereign Dancer Among leading sires, sire of Louis Quatorze, Gate Dancer
Quick as Lightning 1,000 Guineas
Posse St. James's Palace S., good sire in England
Intrepidity Epsom Oaks, Prix Vermeille
Autobiography Champion older horse
Targowice Leading sire France
Home Guard 2nd leading BMS Italy, good sire

Northern Dancer Leading BMS US (5 champions, 159 SW)
Tap Dance City Takarazuka Kinen, $9.5-million
Vega champion 3yo filly Japan
Muhtarram champion older horse, underrated sire
Eillo Breeders' Cup Sprint
Silk Prima Donna Japanese Oaks
Ryafan champion turf mare
Rhythm champion 2yo colt,
Not for Love good Maryland sire
Arazi champion 2yo
Noverre champion miler
Aptitude champion older horse
L'Enjoleur Canadian HOTY
Southern Halo 8-time leading sire Argentina, sire of More Than Ready
L'Alezane Canadian HOTY
Narita Brian Japanese Triple Crown winner
Ravinella 1,000 Guineas
Signal Tap Successful sire in Brazil
Nedawi St. Leger, among leading sires Brazil

Bold Ruler excepted, all those horses rank among the greatest broodmare sires of the 20th century. They were not, on the other hand, particularly successful as
broodmare sires of least not in the obvious sense. If you read over those lists, you will notice that all of them sired the dams of leading sires--just not in areas where their own sons were dominant sires. For example, the only great sire out of a Northern Dancer mare is Southern Halo, who was dominant in Argentina, but, More Than Ready excepted, failed in the US. Only one Northern Dancer-line horse (the mostly moderate Oak Dancer) has ever led the Argentine sire list.

So what might account for that fact? It seems logical that when a sire becomes accepted as a great sire of sires and large numbers of his sons go to stud in a given area, those sons make it very difficult for sons of daughters of that same sire of sires to gain any traction as sires. For example, Northern Dancer had so many great sons at stud that breeding those sons to sires out of daughters of Northern Dancer would create inbreeding closer than most breeders are willing to accept.

On the other hand, in a breeding area where sons of that sire of sires have not penetrated the gene pool, there is room, as it were, for the genetic influence of the sire of sires to be passed on through his daughters. Thus, Southern Halo could become a dominant factor in Argentina, a country where male-line descendants have enjoyed markedly less success than almost anywhere else on the globe.

I'm not sure myself exactly what I think of this hypothesis. It's something I'll be mulling in the nether reaches of the brain stem for awhile, but, if true, the implications are obvious for stallion importers in regional markets.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vuillier and the Triple Crown

Before they proved they were top-class runners, the pedigrees of the three winners of America's 2009 Triple Crown races would not have been described as fashionable. Indeed, Mine That Bird famously sold for only $9,500 as a yearling, while neither Rachel Alexandra or Summer Bird were offered at public auction.
Fashion be damned. As shown by the data below (please forgive my ignorance of how to make the columns come out neatly in HTML code), their pedigrees are actually well within the norm of contemporary top-class pedigrees.

Archetype Mine That Bird Rachel Alexandra Summer Bird
Blue Larkspur(100) 56 88 104
Bold Ruler(157) 128 128 128
Buckpasser(108) 32 0 160
Hail to Reason(94) 0 256 0
*Mahmoud(118) 104 168 152
Man o' War(116) 108 132 168
Mr. Prospector(256)640 256 128
*Nasrullah(243) 240 144 208
Native Dancer(199)352 224 256
Nearco(279) 280 280 288
Northern Dancer(296) 512 512 640
Phalaris(178) 170 218 164
Plucky Liege(118) 111 148 125
*Princequillo(151) 144 160 192
*Ribot(75) 0 192 0
Seattle Slew(120) 0 0 0
War Admiral(85) 60 56 136

The data presented above are based on research by the author on a new implementation of the Vuillier dosage system published in the December 13, 2008 issue of Thoroughbred Times. The dosage numbers in parentheses represent the average genetic contribution of the archetypes listed to the pedigrees of the winners of the most important races in America since the institution of the Breeders' Cup in 1984. (You can read the article by clicking on the link titled “A new understanding of Vuillier dosage” on the right hand side of the page.) The numbers in the three unfortunately jagged columns are the dosages of the same archetypes in the pedigrees of Mine That Bird, Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird.
The archetypes chosen for display here are actually the ones that produce the most varied dosages among these three pedigrees—their pedigrees are virtually identical on the other most significant influences on contemporary pedigrees. Indeed they are close to identical on a few of the archetypes included here as examples, like Bold Ruler, Nearco and Seattle Slew.
Naturally the widest variations in dosage are on the youngest archetypes listed, like Buckpasser, Hail to Reason, Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer, *Ribot and Seattle Slew. That is the way pedigrees work. The genetic influence of the most significant sires and dams gradually stabilizes as time passes and their names recede further into the background of pedigrees.
The Vuillier system, though, gives a holistic view of pedigrees and offers tremendous insight into the direction one should take with matings.
For example, the pedigrees of Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird are complementary in many ways. Rachel is above the norm in Hail to Reason, *Mahmoud, Phalaris, Plucky Liege and *Ribot, while Summer Bird is either below the norm or at least lower than Rachel in all five of those influences. Conversely, Summer Bird is high in Blue Larkspur, Buckpasser, Man o' War and *Princequillo, while Rachel's pedigree is less saturated with those powerful influences.
In a conventional pedigree presentation, it is easy to see that both Rachel Alexandra and Summer Bird have plenty of Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector in their pedigrees, but it is simply impossible to see the imbalances in more distant but still vitally important ancestors. The Vuillier system makes those imbalances obvious.
The Vuillier system is based on the assumption that a mating that produces a pedigree more similar to the pedigree of the winners of the best races is more likely to produce another winner of those same races than one that does not. Indeed that is the same assumption behind other popular mating systems like nicking and even biomechanics (in an indirect way).
That is the beauty of the Vuillier system, and the implementation I devised with the help of Simon Morris at TesioPower and described in the linked article. It provides the ultimate in flexibility in applying those insights.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ladies weekend?

This weekend should belong to racing's leading ladies on both coasts.
Rachel Alexandra is set to run in the Mother Goose at Belmont Park and champion Zenyatta risks her unbeaten record under 129 pounds in the Vanity at Hollywood Park.
How many female potential racing fans know this? Has Thoroughbred racing, Belmont Park or Hollywood Park tried to reach sports-minded women and horse-loving young girls with ads?
Well, I don't live on either coast, so I can't answer that question myself, except to say that I have been watching Wimbledon on ESPN and haven't seen anything there. And if I did live in New York or California, past experience says I would see nothing directed at potential female fans there either. Heck the last time I went to a Breeders' Cup in New York (Tiznow, Fantastic Light, etc.), I didn't see a single ad on local TV advertising racing's championship event and barely any signage except right around the track. That did a lot of good.
There are a lot of reasons for the declining popularity of Thoroughbred racing, but there is absolutely no doubt that the sport's ineptitude at promoting itself ranks near the top of the list. Racing's powers that be killed perhaps the most effective ad in racing history (the original Lori Petty Go Baby Go ad), apparently because they thought Petty looked too much like a lesbian. They were a lot more comfortable with the painful Rip Torn ads that followed.
Rachel Alexandra in particular offers an opportunity to pull in female sports fans because she has already beaten the boys. We may live in a post-feminist world, but the battle between the sexes never ends, and women everywhere ALWAYS pay attention when a girl beats the boys at their own game—no matter what game it is.
If Thoroughbred racing is aware of this, I have seen no signs of it from my outpost here in the hinterlands of Tennessee. Anyone out there on the coasts seen any evidence?
Rachel Alexandra did racing a huge favor by winning the Preakness. Will that moment of glory be just another wasted opportunity?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Speed kills...but tactics win races

Thoroughbred racing is not simply about which horse is the fastest—but that's a damned good headstart.
That is the lesson to be gleaned from the adventures of American trainer Wesley Ward at the just concluded Royal Ascot meeting. Ward took six horses to Ascot and ran them in seven races. He won a listed race and a Group 3, and finished second in a Group 1, earning a total of about $217,000.
Ward is something of a specialist with fast 2-year-olds and five of the six horses he took to England were juveniles. Ward is also a smart and observant man, and he perceived that European-trained horses simply are not trained to break from the gate as quickly as are American-trained runners.
Four of his five juvenile runners at Ascot had led from the start in their most recent starts in America. Those four had run the first quarter-mile of those races in :22.64 (Strike the Tiger), :21.70 (Jealous Again), :22.17 (Yogaroo), and :22.71 (Honor in Peace). The fifth, Aegean, had run the first quarter of her maiden victory on the lead in :22.14. European juveniles never go that fast at the start of their races.
Ward and American jockey John Velazquez reasoned that their horses would naturally outbreak their European counterparts, and if they let them run an American-style race, the European horses might be taken out of their game. If that happened, even with Ascot's uphill finish, the American horses could win.
It worked brilliantly for the first two juvenile races. Strike the Tiger led all the way in the five-furlong Windsor Castle Stakes on opening day, and Jealous Again simply scorched her opponents in the prestigious Queen Mary Stakes-G3 on day two, winning by five lengths.
European jockeys may not be one-trial learners, but they are not stupid. After those two lessons in early speed, they stayed closer to Ward's other three juvenile runners and swamped them in the end.
Ward's only older runner, the 4-year-old Cannonball, is a confirmed come-from-behind turf sprinter, a listed winner who has been narrowly beaten in Grade 3s—in other words, not a Grade 1 horse in America. Cannonball found himself well behind early in the five-furlong King's Stand S.-G1 on opening day, but, with Velazquez scrubbing on him practically from the spring of the latch, he finished with a purpose along the stands rail, winding up sixth, beaten about six lengths.
He ran much the same race in the six-furlong Golden Jubilee-G1 on closing day, hustled along at the back of the field from the start, but closing relentlessly all the way to the line to finish a neck second to Art Connoisseur.
Royal Ascot is the most prestigious race meeting in England and attracts the very best English, Irish, and (sometimes) French racehorses, but no one would have ranked any of Ward's horses anywhere near the top of their divisions in America. With the possible exception of Cannonball, the Ascot results did not change that perception.
So does this mean that—at least over sprint distances—the best American horses are that much better than the Europeans? Not so fast. Speed kills, but intelligent tactics can win races. All credit to Strike the Tiger and Jealous Again for being fast enough to run away from their opponents early in their races and brave enough to keep going up the final hill. Aegean, however, had beaten Jealous Again in the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes-G3, but she could never get away from her field at Ascot and was simply outrun at the finish. The European jockeys declined to be embarrassed again.
Still, Ward's triumphs—and the $217,000 he earned with what are probably second-rate horses—should encourage other American trainers to venture abroad with better horses. Americans have too long been spoiled by having higher purses than most of the rest of the world. Especially for top-level races, however, that is no longer true.
European, Dubaian, South African, and Australian trainers have raided valuable races all over the world for many years now with little to no opposition from American trainers. How much longer will American owners allow the Todd Pletchers, Bobby Frankels, and Steve Asmussens to ignore the money to be plundered abroad?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Amazing speed

Did anyone else notice this rather interesting statement by trainer Aidan O'Brien from the June 19 issue of Thoroughbred Daily News in their story on the Yeats's fourth consecutive victory in the Ascot Gold Cup?
“He's very clever and has gone wise, but the boss [John Magnier] pointed out the other morning that, in his last work, he put in four 11 1/2-second furlongs one after another. When a stayer can do those times, all the class has to be there.” (, but you have to be a subscriber to read)
Four 11 ½-second furlongs. That equates to breezing a half in :46....without much doubt uphill (have you been to Ballydoyle?). And without any doubt whatsoever, not as fast as he could have gone that half mile if he had been asked for all his speed.
We're talking about an 8-year-old horse probably a week out from winning the world's greatest race for stayers, a race run over 2 ½ miles, for the fourth consecutive year. Breezing a half in :46 at Ballydoyle has got to be something like the equivalent of breezing a half in :45 over an American dirt or synthetic track. Again, we're talking about an 8-year-old horse that I guarantee you every American (and virtually all European) commercial breeders would dismiss as a plodder, simply because he won over 2 ½ miles.
Please explain to me why that attitude makes any sense at all in terms of genetics.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Do we have to go through this every year?

Every year that passes without an American Triple Crown winner seems to amp up the criticism of the series. Trainers, pundits, owners....everyone seems to have ideas to “improve” the Triple Crown.
What is wrong with it as it stands?
The primary problem critics seem to have is that no horse has won it since Affirmed in 1978. Is that, in fact, a problem? Or is it an opportunity?
As racing's popularity has declined many within the sport seem to have fixated on a Triple Crown winner as an anodyne for the sport's problems. Why? How is a Triple Crown winner supposed to solve our problems? Yes, a triple hero (or heroine) would probably draw more television viewers to their subsequent performances for the remainder of their racing career. That period would likely extend, at most, another four months until that year's Breeders' Cup.
Any male winner (except possibly a gelding) of a Triple Crown would almost certainly retire at the end of their three-year-old season. Any female winner, well what else could she possibly accomplish by staying in training?
The racing world appears to believe (or perhaps just hope) a Triple Crown winner would serve the same function for racing that Tiger Woods serves for golf, Kobe Bryant or Lebron James for basketball, or Peyton Manning for football. Superstars sell tickets. But Woods, Bryant, James, and Manning can sell tickets (as well as shoes, cars, and soft drinks) largely because they have been superstars for many years. That simply is not going to happen with racehorses...except in extraordinarily rare cases like Yeats's four consecutive Ascot Gold Cups.
So, it seems probable that a Triple Crown winner could provide racing with a temporary publicity boost, but then what? Have the caretakers of the sport (such as they are) shown any marked ability to leverage the obvious assets we already have? How many times have the powers that be ignored or perverted the ideas of daring thinkers like Fred Pope? Would actually having a Triple Crown winner be a better marketing opportunity than the annual possibility and the obvious difficulty of the achievement are now. Racing has an opportunity to leverage those aspects every year, but they do not do so effectively.
So, if the value of a publicity boost seems to be overvalued, are their other valid reasons for supporting either of the two changes in the Triple Crown put forward most frequently: 1) increasing the intervals between the three races; or 2) reducing the distance of the Belmont Stakes.
America's Triple Crown has been crammed into a five-week interval in May and June for about 70 years. From 1919, when Sir Barton completed the first sweep of the Triple Crown until 1978, when Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, that was not a problem. Thousands of good, sound horses raced three times—or often more—within a five-week period, regardless of whether they were running in classics or not.
Not long after Affirmed retired, however, American training methods changed. Emphasis shifted to spacing races further apart and running the best horses only in the best races instead of allowance preps. Allowance races are MUCH tougher nowadays than they were 30 years ago as the average ability of the breed has improved. Trainers are MUCH more protective of their winning percentages since owners now pay closer attention to those statistics in choosing trainers.
There is no doubt at all that changes in training methods have made winning the Triple Crown more difficult. Against the same group 30 years ago, Mine That Bird might well have won the Triple Crown (if you take Rachel Alexandra out of the mix) since Dunkirk and Summer Bird would almost certainly have run in the Preakness as well.
I simply cannot agree with those who would shorten the Belmont. That argument is based mostly on fashion and a misunderstanding of genetics. Just because 1 ½ mile races are currently out of fashion does not mean they are not valid and valuable exercises for racing. The sport already suffers greatly from way too many races that look just alike and cover the same narrow, boring range of distances, so why get rid of something that is different and thus more interesting? Makes no sense.
Trainers in particular argue that the modern American racehorse is not bred to run 1 ½ miles. Truth is, any horse can run 1 ½ miles, it's just a question of how fast. And, in terms of genetics, even sprinters can (and not infrequently do) sire 1 ½ mile horses. It's all about probability, and there are still stamina genes in the Thoroughbred genotype. A certain—though admittedly diminished—percentage of the breed will always be able to carry their speed further than others. Why should we be averse to identifying the best of those horses?
So, yes, if you want to make the Triple Crown easier to win, spread the races out over the calendar, yes, even shorten the Belmont.....if you want to make it easier to win.
But why on earth would you want to do that?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Off to Ocala

The first three juvenile sales of the year have done as well as could be expected. OBSC March may well do better than that. Obviously I haven't seen the horses yet, but over the last few years, the March sale has become something close to the 2yo sale equivalent of Keeneland September.

OBSC March is the biggest juvenile sale with a select group of individuals, and although the pedigrees are not as good, in general, as at Fasig-Tipton Calder, neither do the pinhookers have as much invested in the horses. Everyone knows now that a good horse can come from anywhere, and March has produced plenty of good ones lately, including, of course, Stardom Bound.

Buyers in general love the March sale because they feel like they have a chance to get a good horse for a (relatively--everything is relative in this business) inexpensive price. Sure, John Ferguson or his spotter Jimmy Gladwell will buy whatever they really want, but that will leave plenty of promising horses that don't fit the Darley pattern.

Although I love staying on the beach in Miami--what else do you think gets me through the winter in Tennessee--Ocala is fun in a different way. Everyone jokes about "Slocala", but in reality it's a nice, midsize town with decent enough amenities. It's a pleasant place to visit and I always look forward to seeing some new stallions while I'm there.

See you in Ocala!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What racing must do

The news that Magna is likely to be forced into bankruptcy within the next few months hardly comes as a surprise. Like so many financial ventures of the last 35 years, Magna's business plan—to the extent they can be described as actually having had a viable business plan (hint: not much)--hinged on leveraging assets and growth. Magna certainly leveraged the assets. They did not get the growth.

Magna apparently perceived expansion as the route to growth, buying up racetracks in an early frenzy of acquisition. Most often, it seemed, they acquired those assets without any clear idea of how to make a profit from them—acquisition for acquisition's sake. But Magna's ideas of how to profit from their racetracks were always fuzzy, even for Santa Anita, their original, flagship property. Frank Stronach reportedly believed in some kind of synergy between women shopping for Gucci bags and wagering on horse races.......Huh? I don't get that....never did....never will.

Of course that glib dismissal is unfair to Stronach on some level. At least he was trying something, which was more than one could say about most other racetrack owners, who seemed clueless about how to save their dying businesses. They still do. Casinos are a temporary patch, a parasite that will eventually eat the host. What other ideas to save racing have you heard lately?

In too many ways, Thoroughbred racing does not fit that well with the modern American lifestyle. The few racetracks that are really successful—Del Mar, Keeneland, Saratoga—are the ones capable of presenting truly boutique-quality racing in a uniquely attractive setting. All three of those racetracks are such uniquely attractive physical sites that people enjoy visiting them, simply for their beauty, even when there are no horses.

Sure, racing can contract, breed fewer foals, run fewer races, and possibly have a better chance of ultimate survival, but the truth is that there are always going to be far more bad to moderate racehorses than there are good ones. Horses that deserve to run in the big events, the only events of just about any type of sport that the public at large find interesting, worth watching, and betting on, will always be few and far between for any breeder, any owner, any trainer, any jockey.

And yet, that is what Thoroughbred racing and breeding must do—find a way to make those few horses, those few big events pay for all the rest.

Any ideas?

Welcome to my world

At long last, with the help of my step-son Jesse Cleary-Budge, I've managed to publish my website. It is fairly sparse right now, but hopefully over the next few months, I'll be able to add more features, more links, more information.

The overall plan is to use this website ( as both a business site and an informational site for readers. Periodically, I will link to articles that I publish in Thoroughbred Times magazine, where I serve as Bloodstock editor. I expect I will also find articles by other writers as well that are worth including in the links section as well.

If you have comments or questions, please feel free to send me an email via the link provided. I always enjoy hearing the ideas of others. How else are you going to learn something new?

Cheers! And welcome to my world.