Dirt Genes Put Turf Star Up to the Commercial Mark

Three time Grade I-winning turf star looks to make his mark at Lane's End Coady 

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The commercial travails of turf stallions in Kentucky have become notorious. But there are a couple of aligning trends that give Up to the Mark every right to make a breakthrough when he starts his new career at Lane's End in 2024.

For one thing, there appears to be a growing consensus that opportunities for grass horses will only increase over the years ahead—even as those coming round to that opinion find their options much reduced by the loss of Kitten's Joy and English Channel. At the same time, Up to the Mark is blatantly entitled to help breeders rediscover the reality that stallions are far more adaptable, in terms of racing surface, than has lately been allowed by characterisation of their genes or racing careers.

For the fact is that Up to the Mark has already confounded such prescriptive thinking once. On pedigree, you would say that he was born for dirt. True, his sire Not This Time is heir to a mighty influence for versatility as well as class and toughness, in Giant's Causeway. But both Not This Time, in his brief career, and his half-brother Liam's Map (Unbridled's Song) harnessed those attributes to the Tartan Farm dash condensed by their mother's inbreeding to Ta Wee (Intentionally). Up to the Mark's own first three dams, moreover, are by sterling dirt brands in Ghostzapper, Capote and Fappiano.

Sure enough, albeit not until he was three, Up to the Mark began his career with a debut sprint success on dirt at Saratoga. Yet it was only after four subsequent reverses on the main track that a light came on, with his switch to turf at Gulfstream at the start of this year. He never looked back, just finishing too late when third on his Grade I debut but then running up a brilliant hat-trick at that level over nine, 10 and eight furlongs respectively.

In the last of those, he nailed Master Of The Seas (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}) at Keeneland. The runner-up then served as an eloquent proxy when winning the GI Breeders' Cup Mile, while Up to the Mark himself instead explored uncharted territory at Santa Anita in a vintage edition of the Turf. It's fairly uncommon for domestic turf horses to measure up to the best of the specialists from over the water, but you could argue that only an audacious rail ride, on a truly accomplished European champion, sufficed to thwart the finish of Up to the Mark.

This, then, was one of those rare occasions where our “second sucks” sport actually thought more of a horse for losing. It's hard to conceive of a scenario where he might have gained more from the Breeders' Cup without winning. His latest victim at a mile showed the merit of that form in one discipline; while Up to the Mark himself, pushing boundaries in a fashion you seldom see nowadays, reiterated his sheer class even as he introduced breeders to latent reserves of stamina.

Up to the Mark gets his first of three Grade I scores in the Turf Classic S. at Churchill Downs | Coady

Having announced his recruitment before the Breeders' Cup, then, Lane's End could hardly have been more gratified by the way things turned out.

“I think the thing that attracted us to Up to the Mark in the beginning was just the dominant way that he won his Grade I at Churchill Downs at a mile and eighth,” said the farm's Bill Farish “And then he came back in the Manhattan and did the same thing. I mean, to draw away from those Grade I fields the way he did really appealed to me. Being by Not This Time, and having so much dirt in his pedigree, he showed what a brilliant turf horse he was. And then to take a summer break, and come back and win backing up to a mile in a Grade I at Keeneland was just phenomenal.

“And then everybody saw what he did in the Breeders' Cup, in maybe the best rated race in the world this year. To run against that field, and really run a winning race, and only get beat by a brilliant ride by Ryan Moore, I think the Breeders' Cup did a lot to enhance his reputation. Because he would have been very competitive in the Mile, he'd have been right there. So to have that kind of versatility, and carry that speed the way he did, I just couldn't be more excited about him.

“There was no downside to running him in the mile-and-a-half race. If he did it, it was historic: to win [Grade Is] at a mile, mile and eighth, mile and a quarter, mile and a half. And I still think that if the race was a mile and a quarter, he wins it.”

Moreover that talent is underpinned by a physique that always set the horse apart.

“So to get him at the farm and see his physical presence more critically has been very encouraging,” says Farish. “He was a $450,000 yearling in that first crop of Not this Time, so before they were fashionable. I think he's also a very intelligent horse, and hopefully he'll be passing all those attributes on. He's still maturing, but has a beautiful head on him and really a great presence: just that physique that yearling buyers love. He really has that fast look to him, and great shape to his top line. I think breeders are going to love what they see as he lets down and continues to mature.”

Farish acknowledges the incongruous development of the horse's track career, given his pedigree. Remember that the second dam Capote Belle won signature dirt dashes in the GI Test S. and GII Prioress S., though interestingly another of her daughters by Ghostzapper (i.e. a full sister to Up to the Mark's dam) secured her stakes success/graded-stakes placing on turf. Unsurprising, then, to find that a daughter by Storm Cat (a sire-line obviously extended by Up to the Mark himself) should have produced a grass runner as gifted as Catapult (dual Grade II winner, GI Breeders' Cup Mile runner-up) when paired with the chlorophyll-trademarked Kitten's Joy.

Up to the Mark in the winner's circle at Belmont for the GI Manhattan S. | Sarah Andrew

“I think it surprised everybody a little bit, just how good he is on the turf,” Farish remarks. “But he really is a world-class horse. He definitely looks very much like a dirt type, but it's kind of hard to say that, having watched him run on the turf. That must be what we should be looking for, for a turf type!

“He's got dirt top and bottom, so I think he's going to be a very versatile sire. That's one of the things that really attracted us to him. But really, I was taken by his dominance, just by his raw ability. And I think you've got to start with that, if you're going to have a great stallion.”

The clincher, for enlightened breeders, will be that his turf accomplishments arguably come at a perverse commercial price. For $25,000, in the current environment, represents a pretty restrained pitch for a horse of incontestably elite caliber.

“Yeah, there was quite a bit of debate about it,” Farish admits. “Because, you know, he's a world-class horse by a meteoric young sire. To start at $25,000, when he's a three-time Grade I winner and top Breeders' Cup horse, is great value for breeders. We're so excited about what he can do, starting out at that fee, because everybody can get to him.

“I think breeders are going to get very good value, because of the turf aspect. But pure, raw ability-wise, this is a phenomenal horse. I just think it's really a great opportunity to breed to a horse of this quality.”

This farm, of course, has a laudable history in terms of breaking down barriers in the transatlantic gene pool. And here's a horse with mileage far beyond the domestic market.

“I think he really will appeal to European breeders,” Farish says. “I always go back to Kingmambo, because he was such an amazing stallion, probably the most versatile that we've ever had. He won Group 1s in England, Ireland, France, Japan and the U.S. and, very early in his career, [got horses] on dirt and turf. And I'm hoping this is another Kingmambo.

“There's plenty of speed in the pedigree and I think his turn of foot is really what sets him apart from a lot of American horses. He really had that tremendous burst, and could deliver it at [any distance]. And that's just so exciting to me. He really is a full package.”

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