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?


  1. Kingmambo is another European horse that was given a chance but then he was by Mr P out of Miesques, so Americans new the pedigree pretty well anyway.

    Also when you consider that at Keeneland your top 4 buyers consistantly over the last 10 years have all been European it's amazing to me that more American farms don't use European sires?

  2. Duh! Kingmambo is the obvious horse I should have remembered. I had the strong feeling I was forgetting somebody, but it wouldn't come. Kingmambo has better percentages than GC, of course, and is more consistent. Obviously, the reasons he was given a chance are very similar to the reasons behind Giant's Causeway's appearance here.
    Thanks for the reminder Kevin.

  3. "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."

    What does the above mean, John?

    If you are referring to the truly rare, top-class runners – those that come along once a decade or so – then I'm with you. But such horses are so rare, that in practical terms it is meaningless to consider them when discussing breeding. If, on the other hand, you are implying that most good (say Group/Graded quality) horses are capable of adapting to radically different surfaces, then I'm afraid you've veered off the tracks, as that would be an unsupportable position.

    Also, though he obviously failed at stud, Dayjur was given a chance in the '90's as well. And Quest for Fame and Zilzal (two more failures) also narrowly fit into your 20 year window, and were certainly high-class racehorses.

  4. they have the interest in Sea the Stars but not the money.

  5. Tony C, it appears this may be an issue where we may have to agree to disagree.

    The death of El Prado reminded me that there have actually been three highly successful foreign-raced sires during my 20-year time frame--El Prado, Kingmambo, and Giant's Causeway. The key concept here is that all three were successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Dayjur and Zilzal, on the other hand were bad sires everywhere, whereas Quest for Fame is a much more difficult case, of whom more in a moment. But I would hope you would see that Dayjur and Zilzal favor my argument more than yours, since my basic argument would be that a good sire is likely (not certain) to be a good sire anywhere. Likewise, a bad sire is generally a bad sire anywhere. And yes, there are always exceptions, usually in my opinion, for conformational reasons.

    Quest for Fame, a tall, narrow, crooked horse, stood 7 seasons at Juddmonte in Kentucky, shuttling to Australia each of those years. He was so much more successful in Australia that he moved there permanently in 2000. At Juddmonte he sired 13 stakes winners from 232 foals, 5.6%, best of whom was Del Mar Oaks-G1 winner Famous Digger. What success he had in the Northern Hemisphere was pretty much restricted to turf and longer distances. In Australia, he sired two brilliant juvenile champions and seven Group 1 winners. I can't explain that, but perhaps an Australian reader can.

    Anyway, I realize it is a controversial point and that many may disagree, but I stand by my main contention....American breeders dismiss foreign-raced stallions at considerable peril to their future commercial prospects. About 1/3 of the money spent at Keeneland September each year is foreign, and that percentage would be higher if those buyers found more prospects by sires that raced in Europe.

    In the late 80s when Sheikh Mohammed and Sangster/Magnier mostly withdrew from the American market for economic reasons it made sense to breed exclusively to American horses. That is obviously--to me anyway--no longer the case.

  6. John,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. It's been an incredible oversight that I haven't been closely following yours.

    I would tend to agree that American breeders shun foreign-raced stallions to their own disadvantage.

    As a handicapper, for I don't have horses at the track yet, I do believe that the horse who is equally good on dirt, turf and/or synthetics is a really rare animal. Maybe it's simply what's been asked of them, or the way it's been asked, but dual- or treble-surface runners (with little or no drop-off in switching surfaces) are a very small percentage of the racing population.

  7. John,

    I'm still not sure that I fully understand your point. I say that because it is difficult to make a considerable investment in a stallion prospect that is unlikely to be popular with American owners and trainers.

    Yes, El Prado and Giant's Causeway, two versatile sires of good-class runners, have been successful both in the U.S. and abroad. But the likes of Kingmambo, a sire of turf horses with rare exceptions, has had a disproportionate impact abroad, as might have been expected.

    The sires that you (and I and many others) remember fondly, such as Caro (Ire), Riverman, Lyphard, *Vaguely Noble, and Nijinsky II, were also disproportionately represented abroad.

    I don't dispute that some of the most important sires in modern U.S. breeding history were originally imported, but the commercial successes of the ones above had relatively little to do with an American appetite to breed to them and race their offspring here; their runners succeeded on the racecourses – mostly abroad – and so they became commercially successful.

    I'd love to see more European raced stallions brought to the U.S., and with the trend towards synthetic surfaces, we will probably see that to a degree. But given the state of the broader economy, and the likelihood that it won't be changing anytime soon, I'd be surprised to see any top European racehorses imported to stand here in the U.S. in the near future.

  8. Arazi was another given a chance, but he falls into the Dayjur, Zilzal category that you noted ... i think that over the time span that you note, while US breeders concentrated on dirt horses, Sadler's Wells and his sons ascended as the defining sources for European classic stock. They have been joined by the Danehills, Pivotals, Green Desert-line sons, Monsuns, etc., while we can only answer with Kingmambo, Giant's Causeway, and Dynaformer (late in his career) for their racing programs. Therefore, as you noted, there isn't much incentive for Europeans to buy here aside from the horses noted, whereas in the past we did have the stallions they'd buy -- many of them raided from their farms with our strong dollar, like Caro, Nureyev, Sharpen Up, Blushing Groom, etc.