By Chris McGrath
Right, that's enough ranting for now. In the course of this series, I've repeatedly professed bewilderment and alarm over the damage to the Thoroughbred gene pool threatened by a witless stampede towards unproven newcomers, and the no less puerile impatience with which they are promptly abandoned. But we won't revisit those complaints today. Embarking on this final instalment, dealing with those stallions talented or lucky enough to have come out the other side with a viable stud career in Kentucky, we'll just offer one simple consolation.
Because if you're one of the few breeders more interested in a fast horse than a fast buck, then you've probably never had it so good. Not only do you tend to find yourself competing with horses bred for the wrong piece of wood (the auctioneer's gavel, rather than the winning post). Sometimes you can also expect to be charged less for the kind of blood that works in the real proving ground.
True, the cream that rises to the very top tends to be equally effective in the ring and on the track–and to be priced accordingly. But today we'll finish off the series (albeit with a look at regional sires still to follow) with seven stallions, at different levels of the market, whose proven merit remains undervalued.
In surveying half-a-dozen intakes up to this point, we've been as exhaustive as possible, in the interest of fairness to stallions largely still trying to make a name for themselves. But nobody needs telling why Into Mischief or Tapit are standing at the fees they do, so let's just crack on and round up some of the less usual suspects. One or two are old friends, but deserve revisiting after again performing well in 2019.
HARD SPUN (Danzig–Turkish Tryst by Turkoman), $40,000 Darley at Jonabell
Value can be found at every level of the market. This farm stands a remarkably efficient sire of stakes performers in Midshipman (Unbridled's Song), whose stats in 2019 confirm that he punches well above weight at $8,500. In terms of bang for your buck, however, perhaps not even he can quite match this guy.
It's not as though Hard Spun needed a total reset after that brief sojourn in Japan in 2014. He had covered 141 mares the year before; was welcomed back to Kentucky by 155 the year after; and has more or less maintained that kind of volume ever since. But something has to explain how a stallion in his prime, now 16 years old, remains available at two-thirds of the fee he was able to command in 2013.
That may not be the case for very long, however. The first crop he sired on his return to Kentucky were sophomores of 2019, and included three Grade I winners–Spun To Run (Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile); Hard Not To Love (La Brea S., and looking better than ever in the GII Santa Monica S. last weekend); and Out For A Spin (Ashland S.)—as well as $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational winner A Thread of Blue. Meanwhile he also had a leading juvenile in Green Light Go, winner of the GII Saratoga Special S. and runner-up in the GI Champagne S; plus a Group 1 winner in Australia.
Hard Spun ended the year fourth on the general sires' list, behind three sires each standing at $175,000 or more. And, being five years younger than his farm's premier stallion Medaglia d'Oro, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him eventually elevated into the six-figure elite himself.
Remember that Hard Spun throws us a very short lifeline to his breed-shaping sire, belonging to an even later crop than War Front. His Darby Dan bottom line, moreover, features a Roberto half-sister to 1974 champion Little Current as close up as his second dam.
And remember, too, that Hard Spun showed corresponding throwback virtues in his first career, holding his sophomore form through a relentless campaign–from his GIII Lecomte S. romp in January to the GI Breeders' Cup Classic, where he chased home Curlin. In between, he took a solid supporting role in all three legs of the Triple Crown, notably as runner-up in the Derby, and dropped back to seven furlongs for his elite score in the GI King's Bishop S.
That versatility has come through in his stock, too, making him a diversifying influence after the fashion of Danehill, another son of Danzig. Short or long, turf or dirt, with Hard Spun only class comes as standard.
LOOKIN AT LUCKY (Smart Strike–Private Feeling by Belong To Me), $20,000 Coolmore
He continues to lose commercial ground with Munnings, who started at Ashford the same season–yet it is Lookin At Lucky who keeps turning up a really big horse. Yes, he had a frustrating start to his stud career, with serial near-misses at the elite level. But no sooner did champion Accelerate retire to stud than Lookin At Lucky promptly produced Country House.
Typical, really, that the Kentucky Derby winner should have been damned with such faint praise: controversially awarded the race, and lucklessly denied the opportunity to confirm his merit thereafter. But even second past the post in the Derby should be considered a feather in any stallion's cap, and Lookin At Lucky had already had one of those.
As it is, while Munnings continues to upgrade his books (now in the 200-club) and fee, Lookin At Lucky somehow continues to struggle with the ludicrous reputation of not being a “sales sire.” Which, given his propensity to produce top-class runners, begs the question: what exactly can all these experts be looking for at the sales? As it is, his yearlings retailed at an average $41,266 last year, down from $52,910.
In fairness, Munnings is now making all the progress everyone has been anticipating, as his bigger and better books kick in. He certainly looked value at $20,000 this time last year, and is duly up to $30,000, with Venetian Harbor and Finite giving him a strong early hand for the GI Kentucky Oaks.
Nonetheless it's hard not to feel affronted on behalf of his studmate, who outpunched him at the top end in 2019 despite fewer runners (187 against 256). Both had eight graded stakes performers, but Lookin At Lucky had three winners at that level (Munnings two) and three Grade I performers (Munnings one). Munnings admittedly had the better year at basic black-type level, but there's no denying it: when Lookin At Lucky gets a good one, the sky is the limit.
Which is no less than you would expect, of a horse who won championship laurels at both two and three. For a $20,000 stallion to be consecutively represented by the winners of the GI Breeders' Cup Classic and GI Kentucky Derby, and yet remain stalled in this way, tells you everything about the perversity of the commercial market.
At least it looks as though the end-users have cottoned on, his book having moved back up to 134 in 2019 from just 76 two years previously. And they will have the last laugh on the track.
DIALED IN (Mineshaft–Miss Doolittle by Storm Cat), $20,000 Darby Dan
A clip in fee belies a year of excellent consolidation by the champion freshman of 2016, a status he had achieved (by both prizemoney and winners) from $7,500 covers.
His opening fee was duly doubled for 2017, and moved up again to $25,000 for 2018 after he again distinguished himself–joint-top or top for both black-type winners and performers–even among an intake that flashed some very conspicuous first sophomores. But whereas Bodemeister, for instance, proved unable to build on Always Dreaming and has since been exported, by last year only The Factor (more on him in a minute) in this group exceeded the 18 black-type and eight graded-stakes operators mustered by Dialed In.
Importantly, moreover, The Factor had 283 starters against just 131 for the Darby Dan dude. That translates to a stellar ratio in both those categories–almost exactly in step, in fact, with that achieved by the year's champion sire Into Mischief.
So here's a stallion who is absolutely following through on his flying start; and who will imminently benefit from a massive boost in terms of ammunition. His current sophomores graduate from a book of 105 in 2016; as champion freshman, however, he covered a staggering 231 mares the following year. That means he will be able to launch an armada of juveniles through the months ahead, with another 284 covers across the next two years to keep the momentum going.
And remember that we're talking about a really flamboyant individual—whether standing up or running (as highlighted, in a light career, by the GI Florida Derby). And, in terms of pedigree, he has a flawless “stairwell” through his third generation: besides the familiar interplay of Secretariat's daughters Weekend Surprise and Terlingua, respectively with Seattle Slew and Storm Bird, we have Mr Prospector with matriarch Up The Flagpole; and Mt. Livermore with Daring Bidder, who was responsible for GI Santa Anita Derby winner Dinard (Strawberry Road) as well as Dialed In's champion second dam Eliza. In other words, it doesn't matter what hits and what misses. Whatever percolates can only be class.
Dialed In's fee cut presumably reflects a dependence, hitherto, on Gunnevera as his only real source of headlines on the big stage. But that breakout Grade I success just a matter of time and, with reinforcements about to pour over the horizon, this could prove a smart moment to get involved.
THE FACTOR (War Front–Greyciousness by Miswaki), $17,500 Lane's End
Here's a vivid gauge of this guy's progress in 2019: ranked by black-type horses, he was seventh among active stallions behind only Into Mischief ($175,000); Tapit ($200,000); Curlin ($175,000); Medaglia d'Oro ($200,000); War Front ($250,000); and Speightstown ($70,000). By earnings, moreover, he was the only one among the top 20 sires in Kentucky still standing under $40,000; and the only one besides Uncle Mo who remains as young as 12.
Like Hard Spun, The Factor has had to regroup after a year away in Japan. His was an absence that certainly made the heart grow fonder, leaving behind so many maturing talents that he topped the third-crop sires' table in 2018. And after returning from Hokkaido last spring, he again topped his intake by nearly every index.
Before his migration, however, he had experienced some rather paradoxical fortunes. His first crop of yearlings had been so warmly received at the sales that, most unusually, he was given an immediate fee hike from $15,000 to $25,000. But some of them, presumed to be precocious dashers, were probably pressed too impatiently by their trainers.
That caused the initial buzz to fade for a while, until The Factor had time to demonstrate that his stock instead majors in the soundness and mentality to keep thriving. One of those first yearlings, for instance, was Cistron–who last year won his first Grade I at the age of five. Cistron, having been graded stakes-placed on turf before finding his metier in dirt sprints, also evidenced another of his sire's developing trademarks: versatility.
That figures, with The Factor combining two potent international influences as a son of War Front out of a Miswaki mare. He had to settle for 80 mares on his return and won't have any American yearlings to sell this year, which doubtless contributed to a temperate policy over his fee (nudged only to $17,500 from $15,000). The resulting window of opportunity for breeders, however, may not last long.
SKY MESA (Pulpit–Caress by Storm Cat), $15,000 Three Chimneys
You can set your clock by this guy. His nine stakes winners in 2019 once again came at a remarkable rate, especially for this level of the market. And though he has now turned 20, they also featured an auspicious emphasis on youth–crowned by GI Spinaway S. winner Perfect Alibi.
Taking some random examples, among many stallions too accomplished to be embarrassed by the comparison, Sky Mesa's 20 black-type performers last year came at a level or superior ratio to Candy Ride (Arg), Malibu Moon, Pioneerof the Nile, More Than Ready, Street Sense, Kitten's Joy and Empire Maker. Nor was this a flash in the pan, with his cumulative stats similarly placing him ahead of numerous big hitters.
Sky Mesa's problem has always been converting consistent quality to headline success at the highest level. In fact, Perfect Alibi was his first Grade I winner since a couple graduated from only his second crop. But he can't do it on his own, and has to make do with the kind of mares who deal at this level of the market. So if really high peaks are infrequent, the whole mountain range overshadows many bigger names and fees.
It's not hard to figure why that should be: Sky Mesa was an unbeaten Grade I winner at two, with a sensational pedigree and looks to match. Certainly any breeder would be glad to have one of his daughters in the herd. Another to unite Secretariat's premier legacies as broodmare sire, A.P. Indy and Storm Cat, he has a page weighted top and bottom by distaff names for the ages. You couldn't prove a mare at a better fee.
MIDNIGHT LUTE (Real Quiet–Candytuft by Dehere), $15,000 Hill 'n' Dale
An Eclipse Award reiterates the stature of the flagbearer, but Midnight Bisou does not lack competent escorts. Her sire's three other graded stakes winners in 2019 included Midcourt, now on a roll–in the skilled hands of John Shirreffs–that has GI Santa Anita H. written all over it, his recent success in the GII San Pasqual S. being his fifth in six starts. Overall Midnight Lute's nine stakes winners and 15 black-type performers came at a better clip than many flourishing sires standing at a higher fee, from Uncle Mo to Union Rags.
On the track Midnight Lute was breathlessly fast, almost literally, parlaying his innate class into the white-knuckle speed to win the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint twice. But his pedigree entitles his stock to the kind of two-turn quality we see in his headline acts. His damsire is a paragon among distaff influences, while his third dam is by Sea-Bird out of an Italian champion who entwined several venerable European bloodlines.
Though now 17 and in a notoriously tricky bracket of the market, Midnight Lute has at least been granted fresh momentum by Midnight Bisou. In 2017, he was cut from $25,000 to $20,000 and covered 56 mares. The following year he was cut again, to his present fee, and moved up to 93; and then to 118 last year. So he's hanging in there, and end-users in particular can be confident that he will reliably continue to earn his stripes. If you want to breed yourself a racehorse, this is a really solid play.
GET STORMY (Stormy Atlantic–Foolish Girl by Kiri's Clown), $7,500 Crestwood
Last year he was favoured by the most helpfully named of advertisements in dual Grade I scorer Got Stormy, a $23,000 yearling ($45,000 2-year-old) who broke the Saratoga track record as the first female winner of the GI Fourstardave H. in 1:32 flat, besides also finishing second in the GI Breeders' Cup Mile. But Get Stormy is no one-trick pony, with four other graded-stakes performers in 2019 headed by dual Grade I-placed Clyde's Image, himself a $24,000 yearling.
Though he is viewed absolutely as a turf sire, I have a bit of a crackpot theory about Get Stormy. Physically he has all the bone and power you seek in a dirt horse and it might be wrong to typecast him at what remains an early stage of his career. Last year 71 of his 106 starters raced on turf; but this group accounted only for 26 of his 48 winners (leaving 22 winners from the remaining 35). Similar story in 2018: 75 of 114 starters raced on turf, but included basically only half his total winners at 27 out of 53 (leaving 26 winners from the other 39). Even allowing for the fact that some of these others scored on synthetics, I just have a feeling that he's not being given adequate opportunity on dirt.
Get Stormy himself certainly carried his speed relentlessly, the premier hallmark of dirt racing, having made the running for all three of his Grade I wins. Obviously the Storm Cat line is associated with versatility and while there's plenty of grass in his pedigree, it's a healthy mix overall: his damsire is by Foolish Pleasure, for instance, and his sire's dam is by Seattle Slew. In terms of sheer quality, moreover, he also carries Claiborne champion and matriarch Moccasin 4×5. Anyhow that constitution of his (won graded stakes four years running) would be worth replicating for any discipline of racing.
So let's forget prescribing any rules for Get Stormy and just recognise how he's upgrading the limited material he can expect at this level of the market. Got Stormy herself, for instance, is out of a $4,500 Malabar Gold mare who raced in Puerto Rico.
Just imagine what Get Stormy might achieve with the mares lavished, at more industrial farms, on newcomers who will never make the grade. As it is, he is in excellent hands; and last year already expanded his book from 47 to 86. And that was before his first big star had remotely hit her full stride.
The barometer says Stormy, but that means a sunny outlook for breeders.