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Derby and Belmont Lessons On a Game Without Frontiers

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Master Fencer | Horsephotos

By Chris McGrath

We’ve all had plenty to think about, and some of us have had plenty to say, after Galileo (Ire) measured his incredible Epsom hegemony in the field assembled for the Derby last Saturday: 12 out of 13 runners either by the great patriarch himself, or by his sons and a grandson; and the other one out of a daughter of his full-sister.

Wherever you stand–whether you share the defeatist view that there’s no point trying to stem the tide; or suspect that the situation partly reflects a culpable neglect of stallions with Classic eligibility in favour of (ostensibly) commercial alternatives–everyone can surely acknowledge that the European gene pool would benefit from greater diversity. Arguably, it is now becoming as stagnant as when a dynasty founded by Galileo’s grandsire, a Kentucky Derby winner, exported the transformative properties of dirt horses bred to carry their speed two turns.

True, Roaring Lion (Kitten’s Joy) not only belongs to another branch of the Sadler’s Wells sire-line but also didn’t quite get home in the Derby last year, having been last off the bridle. But the subsequent Cartier Horse of the Year had been found by David Redvers for $160,000 as a Keeneland yearling. You would like to think that his example might encourage a little more of the cross-pollination that has historically, in energising cycles, caused mutual regeneration in transatlantic bloodlines.

Looking at the Classic run for the 151st time in New York on Saturday, and over the same distance, it seems slightly incredible that Tapit–seeking a fourth Belmont S. in six years, and represented by three sons including the favourite–has not been given more opportunity on grass by those European powers who would like to make a more consistent stand against Ballydoyle at Epsom.

From a tiny sample overall, last year Tapit came up with George Strawbridge’s Wissahickon, who outclassed 32 rivals under a big weight in the Cambridgeshire H. Though his continued progress on synthetics during the winter stalled on his latest start, there’s no doubt that he showed himself that day to have top-class potential for grass.

Wissahickon’s dam, by Nureyev, was a Grade I winner on turf, and had previously produced a Group 1 winner in Europe in Rainbow View (Dynaformer) and GI Arlington Million runner-up Just As Well (A.P. Indy). But at least he showed that Tapit, who has sired a couple of Grade I winners on grass in the U.S. in Ring Weekend and Time And Motion, can work with a bit of chlorophyll.

After all, his second dam Ruby Slippers was by Northern Dancer’s English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky and, if her son Rubiano had different strengths, he did go on to sire Starry Dreamer–who herself showed high-class form on turf before producing War Front.

If War Of Will can add the Belmont to the Preakness, he will not only reiterate that War Front is perfectly competent to sire dirt champions; he will also correct a parallel misapprehension in Europe, where he has largely made his turf reputation, that he won’t get horses to stretch out. Exactly the same point as was made by Justify in the race last year, as a son of Scat Daddy.

That tells us something, no doubt, about what it means to carry speed on dirt. But remember that the decisive kick at Epsom last Saturday belonged to a colt whose first four dams are by Danzig’s grandson Exceed And Excel, Gone West, Storm Cat and Alydar.

Further wholesome evidence, then, of the transferability of American blood to different disciplines, surfaces and distances. So often, reputed specialisations are self-fulfilling. Turf is the premier racing environment in Japan, so the progeny of Deep Impact are presumed to be turf operators despite having Sunday Silence as grandsire. But all these international transfusions should be a two-way street, and that has opened up a new Silk Road between Hokkaido and New York for the Belmont.

Now clearly NYRA didn’t offer a $1-million bonus for any Japanese winner of this cherished heirloom of the American Turf purely out of brotherly love. In return, they get access to the fabled goldfields of the Japanese pari-mutuel market–albeit only the most wide-awake wagers will be made from Tokyo before breakfast. (Maybe next year’s race will be staged under lights, after Saturday Night Live.)

Mind you, if Master Fencer (Jpn) were actually to win on Saturday, he might wake plenty of people from rather too comfortable a slumber. Because by embracing external competition–or so an idealist would tell us, at any rate–we learn more not only about others, but also about ourselves. And the sight of Master Fencer finishing as strongly as he did in the Kentucky Derby, onto the heels of the principals having been tailed off, was a little unnerving in one who had brought few pretensions to representing the elite of his generation back home. He only got his invitation, in fact, because three superior scorers on the Japan Road to the Derby had all declined.

But then we should be well familiar, by now, with the calibre of Thoroughbred the Japanese have been sending overseas in recent years. Almond Eye (Lord Kanaloa) was their fourth winner in the last six editions of the G1 Dubai Turf, and it is only a matter of time before the Japanese satisfy their craving for a first Arc after serial near-misses. At the same time, moreover, restrictions on foreign competition for their vast domestic prizes have been steadily relaxed–partly, no doubt, because everyone now recognises the standards required to plunder them.

Master Fencer’s sire-line is a good example of how the Japanese Thoroughbred has developed during that process. He is from the debut crop of one of those Dubai Turf winners, Just A Way, himself a graduate of only the second crop of Heart’s Cry. The latter had measured his international quality both in Dubai (won the G1 Sheema Classic) and England (beaten a length in the G1 King George & Queen Elizabeth S.).

As a son of “The One That Got Away”, Heart’s Cry is among those whose stock is potentially equipped to repatriate the Sunday Silence line to the U.S. Another is Hat Trick (Sunday Silence), whose son Win Win Win contested the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but Heart’s Cry is ahead of the game through Yoshida, who opened up new horizons when switched to dirt for the GI Woodward S. last year.

Heart’s Cry was a triumph of the Shadai breeding program, as a son of the transformative Sunday Silence out of Irish Dance, a homebred daughter of another imported stallion, Tony Bin (Ire), whose family tree was saturated with old English Classic influences. Irish Dance was out of a half-sister to My Juliet–

whose achievements, as a champion sprinter, helped another sibling to become the first $10 million yearling at Keeneland in 1983: the notorious dud, Snaafi Dancer. What fun, to find their dam My Bupers propping up a pedigree that really is worth millions!

The American influence is complemented in Master Fencer’s dam, a daughter of Deputy Minister, whose impact on the Belmont we celebrated on Wednesday, purchased as a yearling by owner-breeder Katsumi Yoshizawa at the 2005 September Sale for $110,000. She’s from a Virginia Kraft Payson family and the next three dams are by Broad Brush, Chief’s Crown and Northfields, so here’s another example of the healthy regeneration achieved by cyclical transfusions between continents. The Northfields mare, in fact, is Northern Sunset: dam of St Jovite, 12-length winner of the 1992 Irish Derby.

So let’s hope that the adventures of Master Fencer, from what was once the most insular of all racing economies, can help spur an era of free trade in talent and, above all, blood. If he lands the Belmont, everyone’s a winner. He carries off an extra million bucks; but who can put a price on the potential dividends for the American industry, arising from curiosity back home? At a time when protectionism is back on the political agenda, Master Fencer can show us all why–and how–we have to dismantle barriers to diversity.

 

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