Caravaggio's Homecoming Offers Wider Renaissance


Caravaggio | Sarah Andrew


No doubt about it, bringing Caravaggio to the Bluegrass when he had barely started in Europe was quite a gamble.

Presumably, after all, much of the good work since done by his first crop, conceived and largely racing over the water, will be passing the notice of many Kentucky breeders. But I have a hunch that they may end up using him in a rather more sophisticated way than European commercial breeders, and that he may ultimately achieve a good deal more as a result.

Not that anyone would have any complaints if the gray were simply to carry on the way he has started in Europe. Caravaggio was repatriated late last year to Ashford, the farm where he was foaled and raised, after three seasons at Coolmore's headquarters in Ireland. In the meantime, he has already assembled seven black-type performers–and now his first Group 1 laurels, through Tenebrism in the Juddmonte Cheveley Park S. at Newmarket last Saturday.

If he is worried about losing any of that momentum, perhaps one evening Tale of the Cat should ask him round for a neighborly bourbon or two. The Ashford veteran could assure him he has seen it all before. True, a stallion of real merit in Declaration of War couldn't quite meet the challenge, exported to Japan four years after his arrival on the farm. But things didn't work out too badly for Giant's Causeway, another who had started with stints in Ireland and Australia.

Of course, there remains one glaring difference between that pair and Caravaggio. Each had put up an unmissable performance right under the nose of American breeders, ending his career with a spectacular near-miss when making his one and only dirt start in no less a race than the GI Breeders' Cup Classic.

The case for Caravaggio, in contrast, has had to be entrusted to the instincts of the marketplace. His pedigree, for a start, could not have been more resonant: by Scat Daddy out of a Holy Bull mare. And success in the two premier Royal Ascot sprints for his generation, as juveniles and sophomores respectively, is nowadays a pretty universal distinction. But let's go beyond that veneer, encouraging as it is, and assess the substance of what Caravaggio has imported back to his roots.

Now here's something to consider right away. Caravaggio's Kentucky relaunch, in the spring, was assisted with a fee cut from €40,000 for his final season in Ireland to $25,000. And with Kentucky breeders yet to see his first indigenous foals, a delicate call will have to be made on Caravaggio's fee for 2022.    When another son of Scat Daddy, No Nay Never, made a comparable impression (virtually identical record, to this point, at Group level) with his first crop in 2018, the Coolmore team in Ireland were able to catapult his fee from €25,000 right up to €100,000. That kind of thing would hardly be expedient, for Caravaggio, while still needing traction from his new base. So the chances are that he could remain available, next spring, on terms that represent a real bargain relative to his growing prestige in Europe.

Significantly, that final European fee of €40,000 actually represented a marginal increase on €35,000 in his two previous seasons, bucking a trend bleakly familiar in commercial breeding on both sides of the ocean–and an eloquent tribute, as such, to the impression made by his first stock into the ring.

His weanlings had averaged the equivalent of $125,595, the best of his intake in Europe and with a stellar clearance rate (31 sold of 33 offered). Then, as yearlings, they again topped the European freshman averages, 64 of 81 finding a new home at the equivalent of $132,258. Given that he had covered 217 mares in his first season, this was a pretty persuasive yield.     Some of us will never be comfortable with the “industrial” system, either here or in Europe, but at least Caravaggio had shown himself capable of meeting the quantity challenge by producing quality with adequate consistency.

So, yes, it was quite a roll of the dice to reboot a project that was going so well. On the other hand, Scat Daddy's legacy was about to be further contested (or congested) at Coolmore, with his son Sioux Nation and grandson Ten Sovereigns entering the fray as affordable alternatives to the soaring No Nay Never. In contrast, the Ashford duo Justify and Mendelssohn, while operating at different levels of the market, shared a similar profile as potential Classic influences without necessarily offering the other Scat Daddy trademark of precocity and speed.

You can certainly perceive that in the powerful build of Caravaggio, in chest, forearm and gaskin. But this also brings us to the most fascinating dimension of Caravaggio's transfer. For to conflate his freshman performance with those of his new American peers is to highlight an extreme and widening difference in the European and American markets.

In TDN's sire database, the filter for stallions standing in North America currently brings Caravaggio into the domestic freshman table in third place by prize money. That's pretty outstanding, given the notoriously uncompetitive purses typically contested by his stock so far, certainly in Britain.

But while he has fielded more elite operators than barnmate Practical Joke, and nearly as many as the freakish Gun Runner, American breeders will notice straightaway that he has mustered them from as many as 67 starters already from 122 named foals. Even the precocious Practical Joke has so far launched no more than 41 of 118, while Gun Runner–who put together his Horse of the Year campaign at four–has put just 34 of 109 through the gate.

Unfortunately this kind of thing has become routine in Europe, where commercial farms in Britain and especially Ireland have targeted a huge juvenile program about as pertinent to Classic racing as sprint maidens at the Keeneland spring meet. Among those in Caravaggio's intake, Ardad (Ire), whose son Perfect Power (Ire) won his second Group 1 prize on the same card as Tenebrism last Saturday, has unleashed 50 of 73 named foals. Cotai Glory (GB) has fired 70 of 101 bullets, and Profitable (Ire) 74 of 106.

Now I won't labor unduly a point I've made so often before, about the trouble Europeans are storing up for the breed with this infatuation with sharp and early types; or the way their commercial contempt for stallions more competent to sire Epsom horses will eventually create a vacuum ideal for dirt stallions that could carry their speed two turns. But I do suspect that Caravaggio could actually benefit from a less frantic approach among American breeders, whose mares may draw from his pedigree something of the versatility, as an influence, we saw in Scat Daddy himself.

Judging from Caravaggio's first crop, European breeders have been using a pretty coarse formula. His speed has been sought to pep up staying mares. Sure enough, he has already managed to get 14 youngsters out of Galileo (Ire) mares onto the track.     True, none of these has yet won–but dual Group winner Agartha (Ire) is out of a 14-furlong winner by the sturdy force Dylan Thomas (Ire).

That's all fair enough, so far as it goes. Caravaggio was so vividly blessed with speed that no attempt was ever made even to test the water for a Classic mile. Having won his first two starts in the spring, he started hot favorite for the G2 Coventry S. at Royal Ascot, and duly dished out a thrashing to the most forward animals in the crop–headed by Mehmas (Ire) (Acclamation {GB}).

Though restricted to just one more juvenile start, an easy Group 1 success at microscopic odds, Caravaggio returned to Ascot at three to beat a very strong field for the G1 Commonwealth Cup. Possibly he hadn't quite absorbed that effort when losing his unbeaten record next time, and muddy ground hampered him thereafter; but there was no doubt that this was a brilliant, dashing talent.

Tenebrism herself vindicates what was much his most glamorous opportunity: a date with Immortal Verse (Ire) (Pivotal {GB}), a dual Group 1 winner at a mile, who realized a European record 4,700,000gns at the Tattersalls December Sale in 2013. Their daughter got Caravaggio off the mark at the first attempt, with a 'TDN Rising Star' debut at Naas in March, but then disappeared until last weekend. Still green out of the gate, as a result, Tenebrism accelerated stylishly from the rear and her pedigree gives her every chance of seeing out a mile, too: Immortal Verse is out of Sadler's Wells half-sister to that versatile creature Last Tycoon (Ire) (Try My Best), with the rest of the maternal line sown by a series of copper-bottomed stamina influences.

What we need to see now is whether a more refined equilibrium can be achieved by the mates Caravaggio is receiving in Kentucky.

In producing a series of Royal Ascot sprinters as well as a Triple Crown winner on dirt, Scat Daddy clearly draw on the diversity of his genetic background. We honor his sire Johannesburg as a rebuke to Europe's dismal timidity, since, regarding the main track at the Breeders' Cup; while Scat Daddy's second dam was by Nijinsky (who also, incidentally, gave us Johannesburg's celebrated fourth dam State).

As for Caravaggio's maternal line, besides being pegged down by a fourth dam by the essential Princequillo, it ties together some of the most dynamic strands of the modern dirt Thoroughbred.

His stakes-winning dam, who has also produced My Jen (Fusaichi Pegasus) to win a Grade II sprint on dirt, is by Holy Bull out of a Relaunch mare. That means she duplicates top and bottom a trade-off between Nerud/Tartan Farms speed and the turf stamina and robustness of The Axe II. Relaunch is by Intentionally's son In Reality, out of a mare by The Axe II. As for Holy Bull, his sire Great Above was out of Ta Wee, the champion daughter of Intentionally and Aspidistra; while his dam was by The Axe II's son Al Hattab.

Relaunch, of course, was a brother to the third dam of Tapit–whose damsire, Unbridled, famously entwines several Nerud-Tartan brands in his turn, most notably by replicating his fourth dam Aspidistra as the mother of Dr. Fager, one of whose daughters gave us Unbridled's sire Fappiano.

So while Caravaggio appears to be briskly meeting his brief in Europe, his return to Kentucky creates the opportunity for some really intriguing genetic consolidation.

Mares by Tapit or his sons, most obviously, would match up Relaunch against his sister; while those representing the Unbridled line would offer equally tempting symmetries. How about a daughter of Liam's Map, for instance? He's a grandson of Unbridled, with a granddam closely inbred to Ta Wee. (With a dam by Holy Bull, moreover, Caravaggio can double down on Aspidistra through Quiet American, for instance, not least as damsire of all those lovely Bernardini mares.)

Note that one of the few members of Caravaggio's first crop to have gone through the U.S. system is Her World, out of an Unbridled's Song mare. She made $400,0000 at Keeneland last September, and last month won a stakes sprint at Monmouth by six lengths on debut for Wesley Ward.

Okay, so that happened to be on turf. But the bottom line is that here's a young stallion with the potential to contribute to one of the vital challenges facing the breed today: namely, the reintegration of the transatlantic gene pool after a catastrophic schism between dirt and turf. This needs to become a two-way street, with dirt stallions again siring Epsom horses as well. But if a dual Royal Ascot winner can meanwhile parlay his brilliance through dirt mares, then he will illuminate the encroaching gloom in precisely the fashion developed by his namesake with a paintbrush–in a technique, accentuating the light among the dark, that just happens to be known as Tenebrism.

For as Caravaggio's once-dark coat becomes ever lighter, ever more charmingly dappled, perhaps he will also bring a deeper change of complexion to the breed. He has made an immediate impression in Europe, from fairly broad brushstrokes. Now, perhaps, American breeders can bring some subtler shades into the genetic palette.

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