By Andrew Caulfield
Thanks to Bill Finley’s Op/Ed piece last Thursday, the topic of lack of runners in the U.S. has been much discussed in recent days. The Jockey Club’s figures show that the average field size has fallen to fewer than eight runners per race since 2011 and that a modern American racehorse can be expected to make little more than six starts per year, compared to an average of 10.88 in 1965 and 8.28 in 1985.
If you are wondering why I picked those last two time points, it’s because two of last weekend’s American graded winners descend from Irish-bred mares which, at around those times, were proving themselves as tough as they were talented.
Heart To Heart, the GI Gulfstream Park Turf S. winner who has made 34 starts in six years of action, has Fair Astronomer as his fourth dam, whereas Flameaway, the admirable Scat Daddy colt who landed the GIII Sam F. Davis S., has Flame of Tara as his third dam.
Fair Astronomer, born in 1960, was a fine example of the type of fairy tale which racing sometimes throws up. With a dam who never raced and a second dam who won two races under Pony Turf Club rules, Fair Astronomer failed to attract a bid when offered for sale as a yearling. Yet by the end of 1962 she had established herself as the fastest 2-year-old filly in Europe, having won six of her nine starts, gaining victories in Ireland, England and France.
As all of her starts were over five furlongs, the favorite distance of her sire Star Gazer, it seemed likely that Fair Astronomer would prove to be a sprinter. However, she had changed trainers and country after being sold for 8,000gns and her new trainer had different ideas. The filly spent most of her second season racing between a mile and a mile and a quarter, winning four of her nine starts and boosting her Timeform rating from 123 to 125.
Because she was racing before the introduction of the Pattern Race system, Fair Astronomer was sometimes asked to carry big weights in valuable handicaps. On her debut as a 4-year-old (when she combined racing with conceiving her first foal) she finished a neck second of 45 runners (yes 45) under top weight in the Lincolnshire H.
Despite proving less effective as a broodmare, Fair Astronomer established a female line which has yielded several Grade I winners, including Malhub (Golden Jubilee S.), Mourjane (Arlington H.), Deputy Commander (Travers S.), Donna Blini (Cheveley Park S.) and Gentildonna (Japan Cup and Dubai Sheema Classic). Now Heart To Heart, a son of English Channel, has added his name to the list (I will return to English Channel later in this article).
Flame of Tara, the third dam of Flameaway, was also given a thorough testing, as might be expected of a filly trained by Jim Bolger. To be brief, she won the first three of her four juvenile starts before boosting her Timeform rating to 124 as a 3-year-old, when she won two Group 2 races–the Coronation S. and Pretty Polly S.–which now carry Group 1 status. She won over a mile and a half as a four-year-old, when she boosted her career totals to 21 starts.
Flame of Tara’s legacy has also been substantial, with her greatest gift being her daughter Salsabil, who was gaining her third classic success when she defeated the colts in the Irish Derby. It is going to be interesting to see how far the versatile Flameaway stays. Although his sire Scat Daddy won the Florida Derby, his reputation as a sire is largely based on such fast performers as Lady Aurelia, Caravaggio, No Nay Never and Acapulco. It is in Flameaway’s favor, though, that his second and third dams won at around a mile and a half and that his dam Vulcan Rose is a daughter of the Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.
A recurring theme in the TDN commentaries in recent months has been the belief that turf racing is growing in popularity. Scat Daddy, of course, enjoyed considerable success as a turf sire, even though he raced only on dirt, and Flameaway has now won on all-weather, turf and dirt.
Heart To Heart is much more a turf specialist, with all but one of his 14 victories coming on the grass. This is hardly surprising in a son of English Channel, a stallion whose entry in the Blood-Horse Stallion Register puts his total progeny earnings to November last year at $31,403,483. Significantly it also records that no less than $22,782,348 of that total has been earned on turf, thanks to the likes of The Pizza Man (GI Arlington Million, GI Northern Dancer Turf S.), Interpol (Northern Dancer Turf S.), Johnny Bear (Northern Dancer Turf S.), Al’s Gal (GI E.P. Taylor S.), Parranda and Skyring. They have helped him achieve a top-ten finish among North America’s leading turf sires in each of the last five years, even though some of his crops have been comparatively small by modern standards. He had only 52 named foals in his second crop, foaled in 2010 and 55 in his 2013 crop.
Of course, there has also been the occasional important success on dirt and all-weather, such as V.E. Day’s GI Travers S., Strait of Dover’s Queen’s Plate and Blueskiesnrainbows’ GII San Pasqual S.
English Channel is standing his 11th season in 2018 and his fourth at Calumet, having spent his first two years at Hurricane Hall and the next five at Lane’s End. His fee has been constant at $25,000, which is a reasonable amount for a champion son of the accomplished Smart Strike, sire also of the 150,000-dollar Curlin.
At 15.3 hands, English Channel isn’t a big horse and his connections always thought that turf would be his surface. He made all 23 of his starts on turf and–rather like his sire Smart Strike–gradually developed into a major force at four. English Channel won three Grade Is from nine to 12 furlongs as a 4-year-old, before adding another three Grade Is the following year, when his impressive victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf clinched the Eclipse Award.
His broodmare sire Theatrical (Ire) was another champion turf performer (and another who was at his most formidable as a 5-year-old). Although his reputation as a highly effective stallion rested firmly on his turf runners, Theatrical also sired the occasional Grade I winner on dirt.
There seems to be no reason why English Channel cannot continue to shine, provided he gets strong enough support. His first crop–his biggest at 107 named foals–contained the impressive total of seven graded stakes winners and his third, numbering 87 named foals, contained a similarly attractive total of five graded winners. Now that Heart To Heart has won the Gulfstream Park Turf S., every one of those five (V.E Day, Al’s Gal, Johnny Bear and Interpol being the others) has won at Grade I level, which is surely something to brag about.