By Andrew Caulfield
It looks as though we are destined to wonder what might have been whenever we hear Eskendereya's name.
As a racehorse this son of Giant's Causeway appeared to have the 2010 GI Kentucky Derby at his mercy, after he had won all three of his starts earlier in the year. He had been notably impressive in taking the GII Fountain of Youth S. by eight and a half lengths and the GI Wood Memorial by nine and a half. Unfortunately, just a week before the Derby, Eskendereya was found to have a slight filling in his left front leg, from the ankle to the knee.
Trainer Todd Pletcher announced that the colt was “too special of a horse to take any chances.” Pletcher added that “I haven't
felt like his last couple of gallops have been up to what we normally see. I was hoping that maybe it was attributed to the sloppy track, but we're going to do some more diagnostics later in the week when some of the swelling and filling goes down in his leg. Hopefully it's nothing that would be career ending.”
Pletcher was to be disappointed. Eskendereya's retirement was announced only a week after the Kentucky Derby, the cause being cited as a soft-tissue injury. The comments of co-owner Ahmed Zayat make interesting reading, as he described Eskendereya as a “once in a lifetime horse.” That needs a bit of adjustment now, after American Pharoah's brilliant efforts.
Zayat owned Eskendereya in partnership with the late Jess Jackson, and Zayat anticipated that this partnership had the fire power required to transform the colt into a leading stallion:
“We are excited about the future and are confident that he will continue to thrill the racing world by siring the best future progeny,” Zayat said. “Mr. Jackson is the perfect partner for such a beloved horse and I look forward to working with him as he has proven to be a true sportsman and a credit to our industry. He has tried to create the best breed and bring back the legacy of American racing. He has over 100 broodmares and I have 50, all top broodmares. Between us we are trying to bring stamina back in racing, not just speed. It's very important that I'm staying in, both emotionally and financially.”
However, Jess Jackson was to die less than a year later, leaving his widow Barbara Banke to head the Stonestreet Stables operation. Of course Stonestreet also owns 80% of Curlin, of whom Banke said at the start of September that their strategic plan is to ensure that “the world's highest-rated racehorse becomes amongst the world's most important stallions.”
In these circumstances Eskendereya had become rather overshadowed, especially when he was still awaiting his first graded winner, from two crops of racing age. Consequently, it wasn't too surprising when it was announced at the end of September that Stonestreet had sold Eskendereya to the Japan Bloodstock Breeders' Association (JBBA). The 8-year-old had spent five years at Taylor Made, with his 2015 book falling to 70 mares from 139 the previous year.
“Mrs Banke and Stonestreet have done a tremendous job of supporting Eskendereya from day one,” said Taylor Made's Ben Taylor, “and I don't believe they ever intended to sell him. But the Japanese have always been very interested and came to see him every year. They recently submitted an offer that was accepted by Stonestreet.”
Of course there is an old theory that giving a stallion a one-way ticket to Japan is the surest way of invigorating a stallion's career. This theory found support from Empire Maker, who was sold to the JBBA in November 2010. By the end of 2011 Empire Maker ranked eighth on the leading sires' list, with the help of two Grade I winners, and he did even better in 2012, when his nine graded winners helped him up to second place.
It isn't beyond the realms of possibility that Eskendereya's fortunes will also take a considerable turn for the better–leaving us wondering what might have been had he remained in Kentucky.
Since his sale, he has been represented by his first graded winner from his first crop, with the very useful turf filly Isabella Sings taking the GII Mrs Revere S. This crop also contains Eskenformoney, runner-up in the GII Gulfstream Oaks and GIII Monmouth Oaks, and Conquest Pacemaker, a stakes winner on turf.
The early signs are that Eskendereya's second crop is destined to outclass its predecessor. There have already been stakes successes for the fillies Right There and Sombree and now the progressive Mor Spirit has followed up his second in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. with a smooth victory over Grade III winner Toews On Ice in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity. That said, if Eskendereya is to maintain his progress he will have to do so with a comparatively small third crop, numbering 68 live foals.
Bearing in mind that Eskendereya won only one of his three juvenile starts, it is reasonable to expect his progeny to improve with time and distance. Although he never had the chance to prove his stamina, there was little doubt that he would have thrived over the Triple Crown distances. His first two dams were sired by those Triple Crown stalwarts Seattle Slew and Alydar. Also, his third dam Stellar Odyssey had Kentucky Derby winners as her sire and half-brother, as she was by the 1964 winner Northern Dancer out of Queen Sucree, dam of the 1974 winner Cannonade. Stellar Odyssey was also a half-sister to Kennelot, dam of the 1985 Kentucky Derby runner-up Stephan's Odyssey.
With so much potential stamina in his pedigree, Eskendereya was likely to benefit from some speed in his mates. Sure enough, Mor Spirit is out of Im A Dixie Girl, a precocious daughter of a precocious stallion. Im A Dixie Girl was a sprint stakes winner in August and September of her juvenile season, which also saw her finish second in the GIII Astarita S. Although her sire Dixie Union was by no means a one-dimensional 2-year-old, he won four of his six starts at that age. It is well worth pointing out that Dixie Union's broodmare daughters are having a very rewarding time with their 2015 2-year-olds, with their stakes winners also featuring the very promising GII Remsen S. winner Mohaymen and the fast British Group 2 winner Besharah.
Mor Spirit's second dam, the Virginia-bred Im Out First, packed 10 starts into her first season, but proved durable, gaining her four stakes victories at the ages of four and five. She was very effective over 1 1/16 miles, so Mor Spirit has a fair chance of staying a mile and a quarter.
Im First Out's half-sister Zenith was a non-winner at two, but developed into a graded-placed stakes winner at four. Zenith went on to produce the very smart 2-year-old Great Hunter, who contested the 2007 Kentucky Derby. This is also the family of Curlin's daughter Stellar Wind, winner of the GI Santa Anita Oaks and second in the GI Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Mor Spirit's fifth dam Indian Nurse established a thriving family, thanks mainly to her daughters Native Nurse (dam of the Grade I winners Love Sign and Melodist) and Hill Indian (ancestress of the Grade I winners Star of Cozzene and Matty G.).