By Chris McGrath
It is beginning to feel as ingrained a New Year ritual as the concert in Vienna: the raising of a toast not just to another record year for Into Mischief, but to the way his reign has become an apt symbol of our times.
After all, the whole point of marking the turn of a year-it's just another leaf in the calendar, really, just one more sunrise in the indefinite (but never infinite!) sequence we are apportioned-is to take a step back and see whether we can discern a fresh footprint in the sands of time. So many trends unfold too gradually to be observed, but so long as this horse is around it seems that we will continue to witness history in the making.
For in bestriding the general sires' list for the fourth consecutive year, Into Mischief gives us a snapshot not just of his own sheer potency, but of the industry we live and work in today. On the one hand, he must again be credited with unprecedented achievement: once again he has beaten his own earnings record, this time soaring to $28.17 million after tipping $25 million in 2021, and miles clear of the $22.51 million that had already raised the bar in 2020. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge the role of sheer quantity alongside the undoubted quality that has both driven and followed the steep elevation of his fee.
Through December 29, Into Mischief had fielded a bewildering 475 individual starters in 2022. Gun Runner–who admittedly started out with the advantages that eluded the young Into Mischief, as a Horse of the Year with mares eligible for a $70,000 fee–has banked just over half as much prizemoney ($14.84 million) from just 137 starters from two crops. That works out at $108,320 per starter, against $59,314 for the champion.
So we must immediately venture a polite question: is the sire who again shattered records in 2022, though indisputably one of the game-changers of the modern breed, even the stallion of the year?
Look, we all understand the numbers game as it is played these days. Gun Runner himself was up to 248 mares last spring; and of the dozen others to have entertained as many as the 202 mares equal to Into Mischief's fee, which had just been increased to $250,000, eight have yet to send a single runner into the gate.
But the fact is that his fertility and libido, indices of prowess almost as remarkable as his genetic effectiveness, have long enabled Into Mischief to maintain industrial turnover even as his fee catapulted from its famously low starting base. Sure enough, 234 individual winners in 2022 exceed the 221 that gave Into Mischief a record in his first year as champion, albeit not quite matching up to the staggering 261 he clocked last year. (No other stallion has ever hit 200.)
But if we are looking at the most prolific champion sire in the story of the breed, the remarkable fact is that his efficiency has never been eroded. In terms of the production of elite stock, his 2022 ratios keep Into Mischief more or less in step with Curlin, whose own sensational year places him third on $19.43 million (from 263 starters, earning an average $73,949). Into Mischief's 26 black-type and 15 graded stakes winners respectively came at 5.5 and 3.2 percent of starters; Curlin had a dozen and 10, at 4.6 and 3.8 percent. (All these figures, by the way, are accessible on the TDN database and correct through December 29; the final record will require some updating with plenty of good sport on New Year's Eve.)
By this kind of gauge, however, nobody can hold a candle to the start made by Gun Runner. With only two crops on the track, he has risen as high as sixth but the real story is here, in his ratio of elite stock. His 28 stakes operators in 2022 represent 20.4 percent of starters; while at the most demanding end of the spectrum, he had 10 horses placed in Grade I races at an incredible 7.3 percent-double his nearest pursuer on those terms, Arrogate, whose four Grade I horses all actually won at that level and represented 3.6 percent of his starters.
It must be acknowledged that Gun Runner's second crop of juveniles has hitherto failed conspicuously to come anywhere near the record returns of their predecessors. His debut crop produced 31 juvenile winners, six in stakes, and banked $4.32 million; this lot stand at 18 winners, none at black-type level, and $1.43 million. Given the way Gun Runner thrived in maturity, of course, his own template would have made that appear a very solid base but for the freakish standards he had set himself. What's really encouraging, either way, is that the surprising precocity of his first crop has indeed proved to be only a foundation.
Gun Runner's first sophomores have included four individual Grade I winners and their collective bank of $13.41 million, from 90 starters earning an average $149,007, puts him clear even of another thriving young stallion, Not This Time, who banked $7.09 million from just 65 sophomore starters (averaging $109,105).
Not This Time, naturally well clear on the third-crop table, is up to 10th in the general sires' list with $12.68 million from 163 starters in 2022, and his ratio of stakes action (14 winners at 8.6 percent of starters; 28 black-type performers at 17.2 percent) remains exceptional. His basic strike-rate of winners-to-starters, tipping 60 percent, was also exemplary.
The stock bequeathed by Gun Runner's tragic classmate Arrogate, after a contrastingly slow start, made exactly the kind of progress anticipated for his rival granted maturity and a second turn, similarly ending the campaign with four elite scorers. Another to match that feat was American Pharoah, consolidating his own reputation among relatively young sires, but in terms of Grade I winners they were all looking up at a stallion who has really stood the test of time.
With six in 2022, including three at the Breeders' Cup, Curlin remains one of the biggest of the big hitters as he turns 19. In 2021, don't forget, he had been the only stallion to muster five Grade I winners. He was third then, too, having been runner-up in 2019 and 2016: over recent years, then, perhaps this is the best champion stallion we've never had. In 2022, moreover, one of his sons sired the GI Kentucky Derby winner; and another, Good Magic, has narrowly missed the freshman crown. Curlin is now priced commensurately with this ever more impressive resume, up to $225,000 from $175,000.
In the general list, however, Curlin finds himself sandwiched between two whose standing partly reflects another aspect of our much changed landscape. Quality Road, runner-up with $20.84 million, and Tonalist, fourth with $16.73 million, respectively owe 48 and 65 percent of their hauls to the desert plunder of a single horse, Emblem Road and Country Grammar being the latest to menace with distortion the longstanding system for identifying the champion sire.
We have had a glimpse of what can happen in 2017, when Unbridled's Song secured a posthumous title exclusively through Arrogate's lucrative wins in the GI Pegasus and G1 Dubai World Cup in the first quarter, but for which he would have finished 44th. One of Into Mischief's principal services, then, has been to restore a correlation between prizemoney and consistent merit. Even when he had Authentic, who banked 32 percent of his total in 2020, he would have been champion without his Horse of the Year; and the same would clearly be true this time round, when his premier earner Life Is Good has contributed 12 percent.
All that said, we are glad to record our esteem for both the Lane's End pair: Quality Road has definitively broken into the elite, on the track as in the ring, actually producing his 2022 black-type winners and performers at a marginally superior rate to both Into Mischief and Curlin; while Tonalist amply deserves his day in the sun, having long punched above weight at a fee that trades 20 Tonalist covers to one by his neighbor. With half a dozen other graded stakes operators besides Country Grammer, in fact, in 2022 Tonalist has had action in that sphere at a ratio that essentially matches even the feted Munnings, who achieves a third consecutive top 10 finish, while comfortably surpassing many other sires commanding much higher fees.
If Into Mischief can avoid a desert ambush-someday a single horse will strike gold in both Saudi Arabia and Dubai to anoint as champion a sire meanwhile discarded to South America-then he must have half an eye on the storied seven-year streak of Bold Ruler himself, now that he has eclipsed the three-year sequences since run up by Tapit (2014-2016) and Danzig (1991-1993).
Even now, remember, Into Mischief remains on a rising tide. The extra “stretch” bestowed by his classier mares has already produced consecutive Derby winners conceived at $45,000 and $75,000, and the latter fee also sufficed to conceive Life Is Good, himself now retiring as a six-figure cover. Into Mischief's next two crops of juveniles emerge from books of 250 mares at $175,000 in 2020, and 214 at $225,000 in 2021.
It feels inevitable, then, that Into Mischief will ultimately overhaul Tapit as the leading North American stallion of all time, by earnings; at the present rate, indeed, he might still do so even if he suddenly decided tomorrow morning that he doesn't like girls anymore. In the meantime, however, having endured his first ever year without a Grade I winner in 2021, Tapit resumed business as usual with three in 2022, Flightline and friends taking him to seventh on $14.7 million (from 229 starters at $64,219 apiece).
Mention of Danzig obliges us to remind ourselves how he became champion freshman in 1984 with 11 winners from 13 starters. These included nine stakes horses and three Grade I winners including the champion juvenile. Two made the Derby podium the following May. How the world has changed. But there's little point dwelling here, yet again, on the inundation of the modern marketplace with stock by unproven sires. We know most will prove duds; while we also know that some first books, being typically the biggest and best a stallion will ever have, will duly maintain the cycle of demand by producing top runners.
This year's rookies have certainly played their part, no fewer than six of them featuring among the top 10 in the overall juvenile sires' table. Their internal competition has been fiercely contested, but Bolt D'Oro has closed out the year strongest of the three protagonists and appears poised to claim the title. Good Magic and Justify have both beaten him to a fourth graded stakes winner, and the former also has an elite scorer to his credit in Blazing Sevens, but 15 black-type performers overall for Bolt d'Oro represent an outstanding 19 percent of starters.
His $2.76 million obviously doesn't measure up to the freakish tally posted by Gun Runner in 2021, but would have beaten the runner-up and has also surpassed Nyquist in 2020. Obviously Bolt d'Oro had plenty of volume to work with, so the likes of Army Mule and Girvin meanwhile deserve much credit for excelling from a narrower base. Similarly, Oscar Performance, an intriguing prospect with so much room at the top on grass right now.
Leading North American stallion by 2022 turf earnings worldwide is Medaglia d'Oro, though it must be said that he owes around half his tally to his personal ATM in Hong Kong, Golden Sixty. Confined to North American and European theaters, the leading grass stallion would instead be the late English Channel for the third year running-just one more measure of the poignant vacancy created by his loss, along with that of his old rival Kitten's Joy.
Dollars and cents only tell us so much, of course, and the perennial mysteries of this game will abide in 2023. Into Mischief himself initially seized his crown from finishes of 35th, 13th and fourth, earning his stripes as he went, with a little help from some pioneering incentive schemes. The man who presided over his rise, the late B. Wayne Hughes, knew that no champion (even Flightline) is ever 100 percent guaranteed to make it; and equally that not even the most neglected young stallion, like Into Mischief when reduced to 50 mares at $7,500, ever has zero chance. And that, whatever the biggest spenders think they can learn from the Old Year, is also what gives us all some kind of chance as we start a new one.
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