By Andrew Caulfield
In the general scheme of things, I’m not sure how highly the seventh edition of the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic ranks. Second, beaten only a length, was the English turf horse Ibn Bey, fresh from his victory in the G1 Irish St Leger. Third, a further length behind, came Thirty Six Red, a GI Wood Memorial winner who ultimately retired as a winner of four of his 20 starts.
There wasn’t much wrong with the winner, though. In boldly charging through a narrow gap between Thirty Six Red and Ibn Bey, Unbridled emulated Sunday Silence by taking the Classic in the same year that he had won the GI Kentucky Derby. The only other to pull off this double in the same year is American Pharoah.
It must be highly reassuring to American Pharoah’s legion of admirers that Sunday Silence and Unbridled all left exceptionally rich legacies, with Unbridled’s being especially evident over the latest two days of Breeders’ Cup action.
Saturday saw the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies fall to Champagne Room, a granddaughter of Unbridled, by that talented sire of fillies, Broken Vow. Then the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile fell to Classic Empire, a colt by Unbridled’s grandson Pioneerof the Nile. And finally it was the turn of Unbridled’s Song to shine, with this son of Unbridled being responsible for the exciting Classic winner Arrogate. Unbridled’s Song had also made his presence felt in the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile, with his daughter Unbridled Melody suppling the winner in Tourist, her 5-year-old son by Tiznow.
It bears repeating that Unbridled’s Song had won the 1995 Juvenile, a race which also fell to another Unbridled colt, Anees, in 1999. And it was the Juvenile Fillies that supplied Unbridled’s third Breeders’ Cup winner when Halfbridled landed the 2003 race. By then Unbridled’s Song was already on the scoreboard, thanks to Unbridled Elaine in the 2001 GI Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and he went on to overtake his sire, with help from Midshipman (2008 Juvenile), Unrivaled Belle (2010 Distaff) and Liam’s Map (2015 Dirt Mile).
The Unbridled male line has also scored via his son Eddington, sire of GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Secret Circle, and Spanish Steps, a brother to Unbridled’s Song who gave us Little Mike (2012 Turf). Empire Maker’s tally of two successes, supplied by Royal Delta in the Distaffs of 2011 and ’12, has already been matched by his son Pioneerof the Nile, with Classic Empire adding to American Pharoah’s Classic triumph.
Classic Empire’s emergence as likely champion 2-year-old colt, plus the good run by Midnight Storm to finish third in the Mile, must have provided some welcome reassurance to the breeders who supported Pioneerof The Nile this year at his elevated fee of $125,000.
Making Pioneerof The Nile a six-figure stallion brought him into close competition in 2016 not only with his son American Pharoah (at $200,000) but also with his repatriated sire Empire Maker (at $100,000). Whereas American Pharoah was asked to cover 208 mares and Empire Maker 130, Pioneerof The Nile covered a book of 120 mares, compared to the 137 he had received at $60,000 in 2015. His fee has been adjusted to $110,000 for next year.
It is essential to remember that all the success being enjoyed by the WinStar resident is with comparatively cheaply-produced progeny from his first four crops, sired at fees ranging from $20,000 to $15,000. Pioneerof the Nile hasn’t always had numbers on his side, either, with Equineline crediting him with 330 foals in those first four crops. With his fourth crop being his largest, his statistics may currently be slightly distorted by the 73 members of this crop which have yet to race. Even so, his 16 black-type winners represent 5% of those 330 foals, and this figure should improve further as more members of the 2014 crop reach the track.
The most striking aspect of his record is that these four crops have already produced three Grade I-winning colts in Midnight Storm, American Pharoah and Classic Empire, as well as Cairo Prince, a one-time spring favorite for the Kentucky Derby, who would almost certainly have reached the top level had his career not been halted by an ankle injury. Prior to his disappointing effort when a hot favorite for the GI Florida Derby, Cairo Prince’s only reverse in four starts had been a nose defeat by the future Eclipse Award winner Honor Code. For the record, Cairo Prince covered 148 mares in each of his first two seasons at Airdrie, with his fee increased from $10,000 to $15,000 in 2016.
Classic Empire is therefore guaranteed to be popular when the time comes for him to take up stallion duties, but the prospect which interests everyone most at this stage is whether he can follow the example of Street Sense and Nyquist by adding the Kentucky Derby to his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory.
If he does so, it will be quite an achievement, as he was sufficiently precocious and sufficiently fast to make a winning debut over 4 1/2 furlongs in May and to land the GIII Bashford Manor S. over six furlongs in early-July. It may sound like a big ask to hope that this type of horse can progress well enough to win the Kentucky Derby, but don’t forget that Nyquist won over five furlongs in June and became a graded winner over 6 1/2 furlongs in early-August.
Classic Empire’s pedigree suggests that he has a far better chance of shining in the Kentucky Derby than many a champion 2-year-old. There’s his male line, for a start. Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby, whereas Empire Maker and Pioneerof the Nile finished second, having respectively won the Florida Derby and GI Santa Anita Derby along the way. Of course, Pioneerof the Nile has already supplied a winner of the Churchill Downs Classic, in the majestic form of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
American Pharoah is out of a granddaughter of Storm Cat and so is Classic Empire, as his dam, Sambuca Classica, is a daughter of Cat Thief. Like so many of D. Wayne Lukas’s horses, Cat Thief was expected to work for his living, packing 30 starts into his three years in training, including 13 as a sophomore. He was clearly very tough, as he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic on the 12th of those 13 starts (he was later asked to carry top weight in the GI Malibu S.). He had earlier finished third behind his unconsidered stablemate Charismatic in the Kentucky Derby, so the mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs should hold no fears for Classic Empire.
Sambuca Classica had distinct limitations as a racehorse, with just three third places to show from eight starts on dirt and all-weather. Fortunately, she has wasted little time in making amends as a broodmare, with three stakes winners from her first four runners. Uptown Twirl, her three-year-old Twirlng Candy filly, has won a pair of six-furlong stakes this year and sprinting was also the forte of her Fusaichi Pegasus gelding Anytime Magic.
If there is a weak link in Classic Empire’s stamina, it could stem from his second dam, In Her Glory, as she was a by the sprinter Miswaki. However, In Her Glory stayed well enough to finish third, beaten only a half-length and a head, in the GI Gazelle H. over a mile and an eighth, so she stayed reasonably well by American standards.
Classic Empire’s third dam, the Hoist the Flag mare Forever Waving, won a couple of dirt routes. She also had the distinction of being a half-sister to that outstanding filly Revidere, whose record stood at 11-8-2-1, including victories in the GI CCA Oaks over a mile and a half and the GI Ruffian S. over a mile and a quarter.
Breeders will ultimately like the fact that Classic Empire’s female line, descending from Alanesian, produced that very successful sire Harlan’s Holiday.