Breeding Digest: Stronghold Rewards Wallers' Perserverance

Eric Waller leads Stronghold into Santa Anita Derby winner's circle | Benoit


The GI Kentucky Derby picture may seem polarized by two more charismatic talents, but any neutral who ekes a living from bloodstock now has an alternative rooting interest. For among the colts entering those 20 coveted gates, the first Saturday in May, there will be no better symbol than Stronghold (Ghostzapper) of what it takes to last the course in the appallingly expensive, demoralizing, perplexing, maddening and addictive vocation of Thoroughbred breeding.

The GI Santa Anita Derby winner carries the silks of Eric and Sharon Waller, who bred his third dam Swiss Diva (Swiss Yodeler) from a Mr. Leader mare they acquired (after she had been a $12,000 RNA at Barretts in 1998) primarily because she shared a third dam with Distorted Humor.

Their very entry to the Californian Turf had been poignant. In 1995, Sharon's brother, a former jockey, asked them to take on a pregnant mare while he battled a brain tumor. Gradually they took to the breeding game themselves, typically upgrading a handful of mares with Kentucky covers before returning them to Harris Farms for state-bred eligibility.

Swiss Diva became the first star for a program that has ever remained modest in scale. She won all three juvenile starts, including the California Breeders' Champion S. by 8 1/2 lengths, and was later graded stakes-placed. Her second career, however, appeared to offer only discouragement and even despair.

Swiss Diva herself succumbed to a ruptured cecum during her first foaling, a Henny Hughes filly named Diva's Tribute. The foal was only days old when suffering an injury that meant she could never race, so she was patiently restored and preserved for breeding. Having been astutely paired with the young Into Mischief, Diva's Tribute savaged her foal and had to be discarded in 2015 before any such disaster recurred with her next one, a daughter of Jimmy Creed named Spectator. (Albeit remotely, Jimmy Creed looped the family back to a shared nexus behind his sire Distorted Humor).

The Wallers advised her $4,700 purchaser Richard Barton of the challenges that needed addressing in Diva's Tribute, and he was rewarded for doing so when selling her on for $175,000 at the 2022 Keeneland November Sale. Spectator had meanwhile become an accomplished performer for Phil d'Amato, winning the GII Sorrento S. by daylight on her second start and placed in the GI Del Mar Debutante S., before chasing home Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute) in the GI Santa Anita Oaks the following spring.

Just when it appeared that this family was redressing the heartache it had brought the Wallers, they hit a fresh nadir in 2021 when they lost Spectator in delivering her first foal, a Ghostzapper colt. But they sent him to d'Amato, named him Stronghold, and are now enjoying due reward for persevering through challenges that would surely have exhausted the fortitude of most.

Stronghold has himself overcome adversity even to earn a Derby gate on a circuit dominated by a barn obliged to forfeit so many of the starting points available in California. After an artful sidestep to New Mexico on his reappearance, he has now beaten all comers in the West Coast's premier rehearsal.

In the process he has volunteered himself as another potential heir to his splendid sire. Especially after McCraken was thwarted by fertility issues, Ghostzapper had appeared in danger of depending on his daughters for his legacy, notably the dam of Justify. But now he has Mystic Guide and Loggins starting out, with Stronghold looking eligible to contest the succession in time.

The Wallers, meanwhile, have managed to retrieve a strand of the female line. The last foal bred by Barton from Diva's Tribute, before selling her, was an Improbable filly he offered at Fasig-Tipton's California Sale last fall. The Wallers signed a $200,000 docket for Spectator's half-sister, and the very next day they were at Churchill Downs to see Stronghold break his maiden.

The runner-up there was none other than Resilience (Into Mischief), who won the GII Wood Memorial on Saturday–just hours before Stronghold beat another Into Mischief colt, Imagination, at Santa Anita. Imagination cost one of Baffert's superpower syndicates $1.05 million as a yearling. So while it's difficult to picture a Jimmy Creed mare helping Stronghold through a 10th furlong, the Wallers go to Louisville as an inspiration to numberless smaller breeders. It will not just be California that they represent on Derby day.

Resilience Channels Precarious Lake Legacy

As we've just seen, Resilience has been keeping some good company en route to his Aqueduct breakout. He was actually beaten in all three maidens he contested as a juvenile, evoking an era when people sought physical and mental seasoning in competition rather than in bullet works. In the one won by Stronghold, over the Derby course last fall, they had GIII Lecomte S. winner Track Phantom back in third. Track Phantom and Resilience have since shared a stretch call in the GII Risen Star S. with subsequent trial winners Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) and Catching Freedom (Constitution).

All these battles have helped Resilience mature to fit a name that also aptly represents the long commitment of his connections. For this is another project a long time in the making. While only a second-generation homebred, the span of years actually exceeds the four generations behind Stronghold. That's because he's out of the last foal–and, after a monotonous production of colts, the only daughter–of Tranquility Lake (Rahy), who was purchased by Martin and Pam Wygod for $250,000 as a yearling at Keeneland back in 1996.

Resilience | Sarah Andrew

They were never going to miss her there, as by that stage her late-developing half-brother Benchmark (Alydar) was beginning to work off the $475,000 he had cost them as a weanling in the same ring in 1991. Benchmark would go on to win three Grade IIs at six before standing at their River Edge Farm in Buellton, California, where he sired champion sprinter Points Offthebench.

Tranquility Lake proved similarly hardy in her four-season, $1.6-million track career, crowned by Grade Is in the Gamely H. and Yellow Ribbon S. She then produced two Grade I winners on turf by Storm Cat, After Market and Courageous Cat, though neither of those had yet emerged when Sheikh Mohammed paid $9.7 million for their brother Jalil (Group 2 winner on dirt in Dubai) as a yearling.

Easy to imagine, then, how warmly the Wygods received Tranquility Lake's belated 2014 filly by Smart Strike. Meadowsweet showed plenty of ability in a six-race career on grass, winning a couple of photos and a creditable fifth in the GI Del Mar Oaks. She was then covered according to her value, as sole conduit for her dam. Her first son, by Quality Road, was gelded and claimed, but with her second she has contributed to the relentless upgrading in the quality of Into Mischief's books.

Touchingly, Resilience runs for a partnership between the Wygods' daughter Emily Bushnell and Ric Waldman, who was so closely associated with the stallion who “made” Tranquility Lake. The one sorrow is that Russell Drake, who managed River Edge for 43 years and helped scout Reslience's granddam, is not here to share the ride. Drake died in June 2022.

It's unsurprising that Resilience is only finding his feet now. His dam was unraced at two, while both Tranquility Lake and Benchmark thrived with age. But their own mother (by Danzig) actually only raced at two, compressing 10 starts into that single campaign and precocious enough to run third in the GIII Schuylerville S.–so there's some latent dash, even without Into Mischief.

Happily Meadowsweet, having meanwhile produced a brother to Resilience currently pre-training in Florida, recently came up with a sister. With luck, then, the fragile legacy of Tranquility Lake can now extend into another generation.

A Rose With Deep Roots

The same conveyor belt of classier mares that brought him Meadowsweet also resulted in Into Mischief's 21st elite scorer, days after Laurel River became his 20th.

The success of Leslie's Rose in the GI Ashland S. was yet another example of what can be achieved by patient cultivation of a family. But it also showed that actually this often proves the best route to commercial dividends. If you don't just rush from rookie sire to rookie sire, you can make your mare a coveted source of genes.

Much like Resilience, moreover, Leslie's Rose represents a combination of Into Mischief and grass royalty, her dam being by Galileo (Ire) himself. But this has been a long project, with many a blind alley, and confirms the far-sightedness that makes John D. Gunther one of the most admired breeders of his time.

Leslie's Rose | John Gallagher/Coady Photography

The third dam of Leslie's Rose, Dial A Trick (Phone Trick), was one of the first yearlings Gunther bought as a long-term breeding prospect, for $85,000 way back in 1991. She never made the gate, and her first foals achieved little, albeit one, Expanse (Distant View), was stakes-placed after selling for a yearling for $25,000. An initial attempt to sell Dial A Trick stalled at just $13,000.

But then her daughter by Langfuhr, Wildwood Flower, won her first three starts including a dirt sprint stakes at Golden Gate Fields; and her next foal, Eye of the Tiger (American Chance), ran fifth in the GI Kentucky Derby before winning a couple of graded stakes. Expanse was meanwhile proving the one that got away: she produced two Saratoga Grade I scorers, Afleet Express (Afleet Alex) in the Travers S. and Embellish the Lace (Super Saver) in the Alabama S.; besides multiple graded stakes-placed Reporting For Duty (Deputy Commander).

After cashing out Dial A Trick for $630,000, Gunther still had Wildwood Flower to borrow that momentum. Her own visit to the sire of Afleet Express yielded GI Florida Derby winner Materiality; while My Miss Sophia (Unbridled's Song) ran second in the GI Kentucky Oaks before herself producing a Grade I winner on grass in Annapolis (War Front).

With the Dial A Trick dynasty now in full bloom, Gunther sent Wildwood Flower to Europe. And while three foals by Galileo did nothing on the track to reward that adventure, the unraced Wildwood Rose (Ire) has shown the yields available to those playing the long game with sufficient flair.

Her first foal, a Speightstown filly, made $900,000 as a yearling (sadly broke down on her second start); and her second, by Into Mischief and co-bred with Eurowest Bloodstock Services, brought $1.15 million from Whisper Hill Farm. Her name, of course, is Leslie's Rose–the latest flower from seeds sown over three decades ago. You don't do something like this without suffering a few scratches on the way, but between thorns and roots, you end up with something that can survive the fitful winds of commercial fashion.

A Sweet Twist to Candy

Sire of the weekend was surely Twirling Candy, a nose away from three graded stakes when Cugino in the GIII Transylvania S. just missed joining Where's My Ring (GIII Gazelle) and AG Bullet (GIII Monrovia). The Lane's End sire also had stakes scorer The Donegal Clan.

Where's My Ring | Sarah Andrew

Three of these four are from Twirling Candy's 2021 crop, his first conceived at $40,000. He's meanwhile consolidated to $60,000 and, at 17, is established as a versatile source of class while remaining more accessible than the six-figure artillery.

His weekend's work was characteristic, divided between grass and dirt and one and two turns. That's just as one would hope, for such a nicely blended pedigree. His sire Candy Ride (Arg) introduces turf strains from Argentina and France to Mr. Prospector's Fappiano line; while his damsire is Chester House, the GI Arlington Million-winning son of Mr. Prospector and blue hen Toussaud (El Gran Senor).

His granddam is by the international influence Danzig, but the next dam entwines Triple Crown icons: by Seattle Slew out of an Alydar half-sister to Affirmed. I have always loved the way Alydar was consoled with the dam of his nemesis, and perhaps some flavor of that sweet gesture survives in Twirling Candy.

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