Body & Soul: The Other 1984

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Alysheba wins the 1987 Kentucky Derby | Horsephotos

By Robert D. Fierro

Funny how the brain, and sometimes soul, reacts to the passing of an era or a legacy. Sometimes one tosses hands up, turns eyes skyward, and thanks the most favored ruler(s) of the cosmos. At other times the passing may not grab one’s attention at first, but of a sudden (like meeting a deadline), it pops into the brain and the “little grey cells,” to paraphrase Hercule Poirot, start to process.

Such is the case with the passing last month of Thunder Gulch and Elusive Quality, two accomplished racehorses and sires whose imprints are large, and who owe their existence to their two remarkable sires, Gulch and Gone West, respectively. The latter two had the distinction of being born in a year that perhaps rivaled international anxiety almost as much as Y2K would sixteen years later: 1984.

George Orwell’s somewhat poorly projected apocalyptic year notwithstanding, this crop of American-bred colts was a sight to see on the racetrack. You had Alysheba, champion at three and winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, who was upset in the Belmont S. by Bet Twice. You had Capote, juvenile champion of the previous year, and Java Gold, who won Grade I races at two and three. Then there was Cryptoclearance, seemingly indestructible multiple graded winner at three, four and five, and a bevy of others who etched their skills into racing fans’ psyches–Afleet, Ascot Knight, Homebuilder, Leo Castelli, Lost Code, Pentelicus, Polish Navy, Seattle Dancer and Slew City Slew. Quite a crew.

This correspondent had the honor and privilege of watching most of them closely on the backstretch as well as on the track–a member of that crop bred, syndicated and managed by your correspondent by name of Omar Khayyam was stabled at Belmont Park and had the moxie to finish a close fourth to Leo Castelli, Gone West and Shawklit Won in the GIII Colin S., a major Belmont Stakes prep. These were very good horses, and our ownership group did not need the perspective of time to drop our collective jaws at the end of that race.

What struck us during those heady days was how different-looking most of these horses were from each other and, upon further inspection, how their pedigrees matched up. Interestingly, this was the era in which Mr. Prospector established himself as an epochal sire, and four of his sons were Afleet, Gone West, Gulch, and Homebuilder, who all had the same versatile racing profile; while his son Fappiano was represented by distance-loving Cryptoclearance and the speedball Pentelicus. Mr. Prospector’s great Raise a Native sire-line rival at stud was Alydar, the sire of Alysheba.

Later, the perspective of time and the introduction of biomechanical analysis has given an eyebrow-arching insight into why only two of these colts went on to establish sire lines of their own–and how we have come to witness the end of one as the other goes from strength to strength. (Caveat: Cryptoclearance’s son Ride the Rails begot Candy Ride (ARG), but that was a one-off, so to speak.)

From a pedigree perspective, the money was always on Gone West, even though in truth most considered Gulch to be a better racehorse (look up the records). The pedigree bias was clearly because of their dams’ families. Gone West’s dam was Secrettame, a nice but not spectacular stakes winner by Secretariat, Mr. Prospector’s contemporary who by 1984 was considered somewhat of a disappointment as a sire. Secrettame brought one of the great heritages to the breeding shed: Her siblings included Tentam and Known Fact, outstanding milers on opposite sides of the Atlantic and very good sires. Their dam traced to Alope, whose daughter Aloe gave us Knight’s Daughter, she responsible for Round Table and Monarchy, a very influential sire and broodmare respectively.

On the other hand, Gulch’s pedigree was more street-fighter than cricketeer. His dam Jameela was one of the toughest fillies of the late 20th Century, winning 27 of 58 starts including 17 stakes–including a pair that were Grade Is in New York. She was by Rambunctious, a son of Rasper II whose line included that stallion and two other hard-knockers on the track and at stud in Rock Talk and Talc, stalwarts of the Maryland and New York breeding programs, respectively, in the 1980s. Beyond Jameela, however, the family highpoints were mostly local Mid-Atlantic in scope.

However, what Jameela and her tribe brought to the battle was pugnacity. One could watch her be challenged and imagine she was ready to knock her rivals off their stride without touching them, much as an accomplished roller derby queen might approach the task. Her son was no slouch in that respect, often nailing rivals who might arch an eyebrow at the upstart and then simply huff a “by your leave.”

An examination of the hidden reasons these two established themselves as the sires-of-the-crop lies in their biomechanical profiles. This may be a tough sell to many who saw Gone West and Gulch daily on the track or who visited the breeding sheds at Mill Ridge and Lane’s End, respectively: They were the same size, had basically the same dimensions in their measurements, and were as close to being fraternal twins by Phenotype as one could hope to get. They also were very close in size and scope to the same group of stallions–such as Exclusive Native, Lypheor, Buckaroo and Wild Again–who are the “average-sized” horse that blends best with mares of varying physical types.

O.K. then, one might say, how come it appears that last year’s retirement of Gulch’s classic-winning son Point Given and last month’s passing of Thunder Gulch have ended Gulch’s male line while Gone West is still going strong through Elusive Quality and Speightstown? Part of the reason might be pedigree, part of the reason might be marketplace dynamics, part of the reason might be that the Gulch line was more diverse in size and Phenotype, while the Gone West line adhered more to the average.

No matter what the reason, few observers at the time would have bet these two in an exacta on who would lead their exceptional crop into the stallion success record books, Mr. Orwell aside.

Bob Fierro is a partner with Jay Kilgore and Frank Mitchell in DataTrack International, biomechanical consultants and developers of BreezeFigs. He can be reached at [email protected].

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