Sikura: Surface Tension is Superficial

|

John Sikura | Keeneland photo

By Chris McGrath

Feet up, lolling back in his chair, it would be hard to sit behind a desk with a more casual mien than John G. Sikura. But not for a moment does that glint of steely engagement fade from his gaze, from those windows onto a mind–forever questing, forever questioning–that must be counted one of the most acute and independent on the contemporary American Turf.

“You have no idea what’s going to work until it works,” he says with a shrug. “You can have all the opinion you want; you can’t predict success. But you can react to it. Once it works, then you go back. Or… you can stay in your ways, and never win, and be irrelevant. That’s a choice as well.”

And that, in the end, is the great consolation of a game where the purest of all market forces should, at least in principle, be quality. Yes, Sikura’s is a business where you can be wrong even when you’re right. If enough people want to spend their money on a misplaced premise, then you can go broke trying to offer them something better. But if people are breeding to the wrong stallions, or buying the wrong yearlings, then that is ultimately going to tell on the racetrack.

To borrow the description of a rival Kentucky studmaster, offered with ungrudging admiration, Sikura reliably “marches to his own beat.” And when you look at his record, and the roster he has put together at Hill ‘n’ Dale, you cannot help but think that it will pay to fall in step. So the reason we’re taking his time, on this occasion, is to learn more about his determination to dismantle the industry’s mechanically prescriptive approach, in recent times, to bloodlines as either “turf” or “dirt.”

The transfer to Hill ‘n’ Dale of Kitten’s Joy (El Prado {Ire}), the standout among American grass stallions, has coincided with the rise of his son Roaring Lion as the premier European colt of his generation; while Sikura has meanwhile launched a transatlantic turf star in Flintshire (GB) (Dansili {GB}). But he feels that getting domestic and international support for stallions of this kind, not least given the rapid expansion of the American turf program, is only half the battle. He also wants European breeders to reconnect with the sort of blood he funnels through the rest of his roster.

“Here’s what I find curious,” he says. “Arguably the greatest team ever assembled is Coolmore. And, as M.V. Magnier said this summer, their operation was built on the backs of the American dirt horse. The same is true of all the major European lines today. In fact it’s become second nature for me, every time I see a Group winner in Europe, to look at the first three dams listed in the TDN. And nine times out 10, in those three dams you’ll find an American racemare, with a strictly American pedigree. Bold Forbes, something like that, something you’d never think. And they’re converted, over one or two generations, to the ultimate achievers on the turf.”

In other words, there’s a proven model of success; a chance to go back and try what has worked already. While Sikura is less certain that a European turf pedigree can make the inverse transformation, he considers it unarguable that what is perceived as an American dirt pedigree can be parlayed into elite proficiency on grass. He cites some of the most feted producers in Europe.

“You look at Doff The Derby,” he says. “By Master Derby. There couldn’t be a more American dirt horse pedigree. Trace back on Misty For Me (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), or Peeping Fawn (Danehill). I can’t tell you why a horse suits one surface or another. Is there a physical attribute? Is there a genetic attribute? Seems to me that when horses are equally good on both–that’s called greatness. Horses like Candy Ride (Arg), More Than Ready, Storm Cat. War Front. Scat Daddy had as pure an American pedigree as they come, and he became probably the most important international horse of his time. You would think that there should not only be an acceptance. It should be a quest.”

This conviction fuels Sikura’s enthusiasm for the two very special ladies who respectively headline the Hill ‘n’ Dale drafts for the forthcoming November sales at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland. Lady Aurelia (Scat Daddy), of course, was one of the first to grab and shake the lapels of European breeders regarding the prowess of her sire; while Lady Eli (Divine Park) captured the American imagination as much as any turf mare of recent years.

“Besides her supernatural brilliance, physically Lady Aurelia is a great specimen and she is bred to produce a horse for any surface,” Sikura enthuses. “All they’ll need is a starting gate. She’s the kind of mare that can start her own line, breed her own stallion. She’s a remarkable, historic achiever. In recent times, nobody had been bold enough even to go and try what she did in Europe–never mind go over and dominate, repeatedly. The best turf horses in the world, consistently, are European-based. And she humbled them all.

“And then Lady Eli, she has a European pedigree under the second dam, the third dam. She beat the best, nationally and internationally. Forget that she’s by Divine Park. Performance: that’s the evidence revealed. She could get a horse to win the Arc, she could get a horse to run here. I think both mares are without borders, without boundaries.”

Lady Aurelia’s career, of course, showed how thoroughly the Americans have now reversed European condescension about insularity. In recent years most European operations–with the telling exception of the one already singled out by Sikura, for its grasp of the importance of genetic cross-pollination–have become culpably reluctant to roll the dice on dirt at the Breeders’ Cup. In the same period, in contrast, the Americans have been coming over to Royal Ascot to beat the locals at their own game, in their own backyard.

“I think success begets success,” muses Sikura. “And after Wesley [Ward] was bold enough to try it, and succeed, now more and more people are going over to Ascot and finding it the greatest experience in racing: the pageantry, the line-up. But slowly all countries are starting to recognise that we’re all in this together. I think you’re going to see a lot of marauding from continent to continent. This is about: ‘May the best horse win. Bring your best, we’re ready.’ That’s what racing should become.”

True, he says he regrets that connections of Winx (Aus) (Street Cry {Ire}) never risked her reputation at Ascot; and urges the Japanese to keep removing barriers to open competition. After all, their pre-eminent sire Deep Impact (Jpn) (Sunday Silence) is another witness to the merits of exporting American dirt blood to a largely turf environment.

It stands to reason. The classic dirt virtues–the grit, the ability to carry speed through two turns–absolutely confound the prejudices of Europeans, whose idea of commercial “speed” is so much cheaper, so much less likely to produce a Classic horse. Those who persist in those prejudices then resort to tarring of all American stock with the same brush: medication. That is enough to make Sikura roll his eyes.

“The drugs thing, I think it’s a tiresome subject,” he says, exasperated. “Any scientist will tell you it’s not possible for an animal that has a 20-plus year reproductive lifespan to change their genetics because Lasix made offspring weak and vulnerable. You can say what you wish, but when they go over and beat you, your excuse is no longer valid. I’m not pro-drugs, I’m not giving an opinion on the subject, I’m just saying that we have a global Thoroughbred. And the guys that are the most successful recognize that–and it underpins their success.”

The problem is that perceptions, for all stallions, can be self-fulfilling. Take Curlin (Smart Strike), whose litany of dirt champions has taken him to a fee of $175,000, but who has been given barely any opportunity in Europe.

“All he needs is an exposure,” Sikura insists. “I think if he got 20 European mares he’d be as successful on the turf as he is on dirt. Everything about his pedigree says all he needs is a chance: Bates Motel, Sir Ivor. Smart Strike is a great indicator. If he gets that chance, he can be the world’s best sire. And I think it’ll happen. He just needs some representation.”

Europeans are on more familiar territory with Kitten’s Joy, though even the discovery of Roaring Lion–his second G1 Eclipse S. winner in three years–for just €160,000 has not appeared to prompt the stampede you might expect.

“This year will be the sixth he will have led the American turf sire list,” Sikura says. “That’s remarkable; that’s dominant, a one-off, doesn’t happen. And from limited exposure to Europe, he’s proven now that there’s no barrier to him whatsoever.

“Europeans have to look at all the Kitten’s Joys now. His statistics, in many cases, are above what are considered the elite sires of Europe. And compare what it costs to breed to Frankel or Dubawi, or to buy the best Galileos. Here, with him, you can probably buy the one you love. So there’s value, there’s performance, and you have something I think is on an upwards trend.

“Because while he’s not a young horse, the whole concept is relatively new. Ken Ramsey made the horse: he bred his own mares, irrespective of what they looked like, he claimed them, he had his formula, he knew the horse. It takes multiple years of being successful for people to take notice of a horse like this. Since he’s come here, it’s the first time he’s had a broad base of outside support, more commercial mares, some different pedigrees.”

If Kitten’s Joy remains a relative bargain, even squeezed back up to $75,000 in 2019, then how about Flintshire at just $15,000 as his first weanlings head to the sales? Winner of five Grade I races and $9,589,910, he has the backing of an elite partnership still featuring owner/breeders Juddmonte. (See the TDN video feature on Flintshire.)

“Flintshire has all the attributes you’d get from any ‘unproven’ horse anywhere in the world,” declares Sikura. “He lacks nothing. There’s no reason he can’t be a great sire. That Juddmonte pedigree. The performance: it’s elite, a world traveller, sound horse, great turn of foot, everything. He has much chance to do it as any horse standing in Europe.”

As Kitten’s Joy himself has shown, the domestic pool makes it hard for a perceived turf sire to stand out. But it is an article of faith for Sikura, with stallions, that “the genetic switch” is either on or off.

“Think of the stallions that were coddled, hand-picked, and didn’t work,” he says. “If they make it, they make it: Pivotal, Candy Ride. If you’re a good sire, you’re going to get runners. I would argue that the quality of their initial horses, when no one has heard of them, will be as good as in the eighth crop. It’s just one will bring 20-grand and one will bring $700,000.”

This is the man, of course, who had both Medaglia d’Oro (El Prado {Ire}) and Candy Ride (Arg) (Ride The Rails) in their early days. Medaglia d’Oro was then a big beautiful horse with no pedigree. He is now one of the most coveted sires in the world and, be it noted, equally likely to get you a champion on turf or dirt.

Perhaps no Hill ‘n’ Dale stallion should be in greater demand with Europeans, then, than his son Violence.

“That horse is a centimeter away from being the smash young sire of North America,” says Sikura. “He’s had winners at all the major tracks this year, and they’ve lined up to breed to him every year. Whatever your fee is, they line up out the door. He’s one horse away from being a breakout sire. I’d hope he can be the next Medaglia d’Oro. That’s a mouthful to say–but he gets turf horses, he gets dirt horses, they’re big, robust, great frames, they’re talented. And he’s a Grade I winner, hailing from a great American dirt family.”

And that’s the point. That background should work for everyone, either side of the ocean. But you know what they say about leading a horse to water.

“Okay, what’s right today can be wrong tomorrow,” concludes Sikura. “Things change. Lines work, they get dormant. You have to be constantly moving and turning and acknowledging. But a good horse will be versatile. Look at Blushing Groom: great stallion on both surfaces. And Northern Dancer–well, he settles all arguments. Kentucky Derby winner, and without him we wouldn’t have a business. We might be selling horses, but we’d be working by day and selling horses by night for fun. He created everything.

“If you don’t like the American Thoroughbred, you don’t like to win. And you don’t have an appreciation for history. And you’re not being honest. If you want to be insular about your way, talk about Lasix, talk about what you want–but make sure you ignore the facts when you give your opinion. Because the facts will contradict you.”

 

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.