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