An 'Ultra' Compliment to Twirling Candy

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Rombauer proves best in the Preakness | EquiSport Photos

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Curious how we can always explain what makes a pedigree work once a horse has shown he can actually run. They call it “ex post rationalization” or sometimes “hindsight bias”. Working backward from a high-functioning racehorse, you isolate whatever elements of the page flatter your prejudices and methodology, and triumphantly announce that you have found the key to the genetic engine. You could, of course, perform pretty much the same exercise with countless slow horses whose antecedents contain equally plausible elements. Funnily enough, however, we don't bother doing that quite so often.

It feels very wholesome, then, when horses come along “to keep us honest”. And certainly that tendency to self-validation has been challenged by the first two legs of the Triple Crown, respectively won by a $1,000 yearling by Protonico and now a colt whose first four dams are by Cowboy Cal, Afleet, Vigors and Knightly Manner.

We are familiar, of course, with Classic winners whose families have arcane seeding–try American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), whose equivalent parade comprises Yankee Gentlemen, Ecliptical, Tri Jet and Crozier–and I do think we should gratefully embrace the vigour sometimes latent when stagnant reaches of the gene pool are stirred. That principle aside, however, the material otherwise available to Rombauer (Twirling Candy) surely adds fresh luster to two names in his background whose merit has already been established at this kind of level.

One of these is his granddam, Ultrafleet, who must now be saluted as a truly remarkable mare. Her fame has hitherto hinged on two foals by Avenue of Flags: the millionaire sprinter California Flag, and the “Queen of the Hill”, Cambiocorsa, whose branch of the dynasty has since given us the tragic European champion Roaring Lion (Kitten's Joy). But now Ultrafleet's unraced daughter by Cowboy Cal has given us a GI Preakness S. winner, a feat that clearly demands a fresh look at bloodlines so unpromising that John Fradkin had to pay only $10,500 for the future matriarch as a yearling.

First, however, let's congratulate Rombauer's sire Twirling Candy on this vital consolidation of his candidature as principal heir to Candy Ride (Arg), a contest lately heated by the likes of Gun Runner, Mastery and Unified.

Twirling Candy | Lane's End

At 14, Twirling Candy has reached a stage where he is no longer trying to get established but aspiring toward the elite echelons largely populated by older stallions. Since joining his sire at Lane's End, he has barely missed a beat. Yes, he had the standard bump in the road, required to negotiate a couple of smaller books pending the advent of his first runners in 2015. With 25 winners from 45 juvenile starters, however, his freshman success secured him 159 mares when restored the following year to his opening fee of $15,000 (had dipped to $10,000).

That first crop, with GII San Felipe S. winner Danzing Candy as pathfinder, ultimately yielded two Grade I scorers who sketched out what has meanwhile become his calling card: a remarkable versatility. One was the sprinter Finley'sluckycharm; the other, the five-season, two-turn scrapper Gift Box.

Rombauer's breakout means that Twirling Candy–about to launch his seventh wave of juveniles–has consecutively mustered Grade I winners from his 2016, 2017 and 2018 crops, following Concrete Rose (the prolific turf router sold for $1.95 million at Keeneland last November) and Collusion Illusion (who, as a dirt dasher, confirmed their sire's range in the GI Bing Crosby S. a couple of months previously). Even before that pair raised the bar, Twirling Candy had covered 171 mares at $40,000 last spring–which, by the commendably restrained standards of his farm, basically amounts to oversubscription. Sure enough, he was one of few Kentucky stallions to maintain his fee in the pandemic economy.

The diversity seen in his stock, in both surface and discipline, was amply advertised in Twirling Candy's own career. He won the GII Del Mar Derby on grass before breaking the track record in the GI Malibu S.; and later switched to synthetics to win the GII Californian S. before stretching out for narrow defeats at 10 furlongs back in Grade I company.

That was all consistent with his roots: Candy Ride himself funnels plenty of chlorophyll, from both Argentina and France, while Twirling Candy's damsire is Toussaud's GI Arlington Million winner Chester House. His granddam brings into play one who transcended all environments, in Danzig, but then the next dam knots together three undiluted dirt icons: by Seattle Slew out of an Alydar half-sister to Affirmed. As such, the 2021 Triple Crown trail has yielded a touching postscript to the epic 1978 series, through her owners' decision to console Alydar with Won't Tell You, the dam of his nemesis.

The Fradkins (fourth and fifth from left) join Rombauer in the winner's circle |MJC photo

We'll never know whether Rombauer might himself have had a Triple Crown on the line, if only trainer Michael McCarthy had managed to persuade owner-breeder Fradkin and his wife Diane to run in the GI Kentucky Derby. That race didn't really set up in a way that would have played to Rombauer's strengths, but it's poignant to reflect that all these damaging headlines might conceivably have been confined to a Derby runner-up!

Be that as it may, Rombauer is a spectacular new bloom on the Ultrafleet family tree. Fradkin bought her with the spoils of his very first dabble in ownership, a 7-year-old gelding claimed after finishing last, with a swollen ankle, at Hollywood Park in 1993. Freshened up by Ron Ellis, the old boy resurfaced at Del Mar two months later. They didn't see which way he went, and his owner was hooked.

Just days afterward, Fradkin could be found at the Keeneland September Sale. He assumes that his bid was the only one that took a roan filly by Afleet, bred by William A. Purdey, past a $10,000 reserve.

Making no show in a handful of maiden claimers, Ultrafleet looked like becoming a painful lesson to her novice owner. Instead Fradkin decided on a fresh experiment: breeding. Through 25 years since, he has just maintained a couple of mares, one typically at Old English Rancho in California and another at Woodstock Farm in Kentucky. As commercial programs go, it could scarcely be more modest. And, as has by now been well chronicled, only happenstance caused Rombauer to join those few graduates to have been sporadically retained.

Jan Vandebos Naify with Cambiocorsa (left) and Vionnet (right) | Courtesy of Jan Vandebos Naify

One that did sell, early on, was Ultrafleet's 2002 daughter by Avenue of Flags, a $90,000 Barretts juvenile. As Cambiocorsa, she gained rather a cult following at Santa Anita, crowning a six-race streak out of the downhill turf chute with the first of two graded stakes wins. Cambiocorsa, in the loving hands of Jan Vandebos and her late usband Bob Naify, has subsequently done better still in her second career: she has produced two Grade II winners on turf, Moulin de Mougin (Curlin) and Schiaparelli (Ghostzapper), and three other stakes scorers including Grade I-placed Vionnet (Street Sense). Sadly Vandebos lost Vionnet in 2018, even as her first foal was evolving into a champion in Europe; and subsequently, of course, fate would permit Roaring Lion himself only a single season to recycle what had now come to seem royal genes.

Cambiocorsa's brother California Flag (in whom Fradkin retained a stake) was another prolific turf sprinter whose three wins in the GIII Morvich H. incorporated a track record; while Ultrafleet has also produced Shadow Raider, a graded stakes-placed, ten-time winner by Memo (Chi). But her penultimate foal, an unsold, unraced Cowboy Cal filly named Cashmere, appeared to be a dud.

Cowboy Cal! He was exported to South Korea for 2017, having mustered 125 winners from five crops of racing age. He could take with him a millionaire resumé on turf/synthetics, plus kinship to the top-class Behrens (Pleasant Colony), his dam's half-brother. On the whole, however, it surely reflects lavishly on Ultrafleet that a daughter of Cowboy Cal should now have delivered a Preakness winner.

Cashmere's first three foals are all multiple winners and one, Treasure Trove (Tapizar), was actually beaten only a length though last of five in the GIII Ben Ali S. at Keeneland last month. But if their hallmark has hitherto been toughness sooner than class, then the entry into the equation of Twirling Candy has changed all that.

True to the variegation of his genes, Rombauer started out on grass before McCarthy alertly proposed an opportunist crack at the GI American Pharoah S. His big move that day, circling the field to close down an always-handy winner, was made with such style that some of us played Rombauer at giddy odds for the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He ran creditably, without ever laying a glove on the winner, but reiterated that Twirling Candy adaptability when pouncing for the El Camino Real Derby on synthetics on his resumption. In hindsight, it was too easy for him to track the front pair in the GII Blue Grass S., a race that didn't really draw adequately on the stamina that tends to underpin acceleration off a stronger pace.

The popular California Flag (front), one of several overachieving members of this family | Sarah Andrew

But there we go again, rationalizing “ex post”! In which spirit, let's go back to the package that held so little market appeal, that fateful day when Ultrafleet entered the ring. We've noted the left-field names seeding Rombauer's family. But if the first four dams are by sires lacking clout, at least each one funnels some truly resonant blood: Cowboy Cal is by Giant's Causeway, and Ultrafleet's sire Afleet by Mr. Prospector; while the next two dams are by sons of Grey Dawn (Fr) and Round Table.

Canadian Horse of the Year Afleet established one of the more precarious branches of the Mr. P. empire (via Northern Afleet/Afleet Alex) and left for Japan soon after siring Ultrafleet. Looking at her pedigree as it appeared at the time, can we honestly rebuke the lack of interest? Sure, the family had a light sprinkling of stakes performers. But only when you get back to Ultrafleet's fourth dam, Albany Isle (GB), does something begin to stir.

And even that line has been through a couple of wastelands. Albany Isle did ultimately trace to one of the most potent tap-root mares in the story of the breed, but that was way back in Victorian times and her family had lately done very little (outside steeplechasing) to warrant her export from Ireland in the 1950s. Yet today she pegs down the pedigrees of such high achievers as Country House (Lookin At Lucky) and Rock Your World (Candy Ride {Arg}).

It was the GI Santa Anita Derby winner–himself, of course, a son of Twirling Candy's sire–whose switch from the Californian turf was supposed to have a seismic impact on the Classics this year. In the event, that trick has instead been played by Rombauer.

Perhaps we can see echoes of Ultrafleet's damsire Vigors, whose flamboyant charge won some of California's marquee dirt races, in the turn of foot that might otherwise be credited to Rombauer's grassy influences. It's also worth mentioning that Vigors was by a notable distaff influence in Grey Dawn, whose own sire Herbager moreover resurfaces in the top half of Rombauer's pedigree: Twirling Candy's grandsire Ride the Rails is out of a Herbager mare.

But really it's edifying to admit to ourselves that there was no obvious reason why Ultrafleet should have cost more than she did, and that little she has achieved since can be easily reduced to repeatable formulae.

What we do have is a nice mix of West Coast dash and hardiness, combined with plenty of turf flair out of South America and Europe. We have a stallion whose brushes work on any palette. And don't forget that Rombauer is still only an adolescent, really, after seven starts; that he was raised on the same small farm, Woodstock, as Derby third Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow); and that he has been expertly trained since. To be fair, that all makes some kind of sense–and maybe as much as we should ever hope to find.

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