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 The Blood-Horse counts earnings from some countries but not others, according to a logic that is frankly outdated and outmoded.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.