Reviving a Forgotten Classic Agenda

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Known Agenda prior to the Florida Derby | Lauren King

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Breeders on both sides of the Atlantic have become so childishly dogmatic about sealing off their respective bloodlines–as dirt or turf, and “never the twain shall meet”–that even a GI Kentucky Derby might not suffice to open some eyes. It is almost as though they have forgotten the mutual transformations achieved by the likes of Nasrullah and Northern Dancer. To those who remain a little more open-minded, however, Known Agenda (Curlin) has already rebuked some lazy assumptions with his breakout score in the GI Florida Derby last Saturday.

Plenty thought they knew their own agendas when peremptorily striking a line through Hip 193 in their catalogs at Saratoga in 2019. The late Gerry Dilger, indeed, cautioned the breeders–Vinnie and Teresa Viola's St. Elias Stable–that their colt had been bottom of the list for viewings at his Dromoland consignment.

“This is a really well-bred horse,” remarks John Sparkman, bloodstock adviser to St. Elias. “Very well-made, correct, beautiful walker. All the stuff that you'd want. So I asked Gerry, 'Why won't people look at this horse?' 'Well, I asked them that,' he said. 'It's because he's out of a turf mare.'” Sparkman pauses and gives a wry chuckle. “Somehow, I think he looks pretty good on dirt.”

Now it goes without saying that Known Agenda's sire–much like Tapit, who is also heavily involved on the Derby trail this year–is a big hitter with a two-turn dirt resumé that lacks only a blanket of roses. Hence a fee ($175,000) exceeded in America only by the mighty Gainesway gray ($185,000) and champion Into Mischief ($225,000). Among 13 to date at Grade I level, Curlin already counts winners of the other two legs of the Triple Crown, in Exaggerator and Palace Malice; while his juvenile champion Good Magic was beaten only by Justify (Scat Daddy) in the Derby. So Curlin is blatantly eligible for the first Saturday in May; and at 15, moreover, is under a little less pressure from Father Time than Tapit, who has four more crops.

Curlin last year | Sarah Andrew

Curlin and his sire Smart Strike (also through Lookin At Lucky and English Channel) have plainly made a major contribution, alongside Fappiano and company, to the evolution of the Mr. Prospector sire line. But the bottom half of Known Agenda's pedigree introduces some far less familiar flavors to the dirt Classic scene. Indeed, to be quite frank, Byrama (GB) (Byron {GB}) represents a stallion–a second-tier sprinter-miler trained by Saeed Bin Suroor–who made barely more impact in Europe.

Yet Byron's obscurity should be amply redressed, in America, by the familiarity of his aristocratic bloodlines, the grandams of his respective parents both being landmark matriarchs. The dam of Byron's sire Green Desert was by Sir Ivor out of Courtly Dee (Never Bend). And Byron's own dam, the European champion juvenile filly Gay Gallanta (Woodman), was out of a Group 1-placed daughter of Nureyev and Gay Missile (Sir Gaylord)–a half-sister, then, to Lassie Dear (Buckpasser) with all that entails. In other words, however ordinary his overall record as a sire, Byron's daughters remain entitled to recycle some of the greatest distaff influences of modern times.

In broad terms, Green Desert proved a less versatile influence than Danehill in their sire Danzig's international diversification–much like Mr. Prospector–from a speed brand toward additional aptitudes for turf and distance. Both on the track and at stud, Green Desert dealt chiefly in speed. He did come up with one extremely important European Classic influence in Cape Cross (Ire), whose best sons Sea The Stars (Ire) and Golden Horn (GB) won both the Derby and the Arc; and whose best daughter Ouija Board (GB) won the Oaks and produced Derby winner Australia (GB) (Galileo {Ire}). But Byron himself produced his keynote performance in the G2 Lennox S. round the sharp seven furlongs at Goodwood; while his outstanding achievement as a stallion, the redoubtable Gordon Lord Byron (Ire), won his three Group 1s in sprints.

Gordon Lord Byron made over 100 starts and Byrama also proved herself pretty sound, winning five of 29 through four seasons. She was talented, too, turning herself from an £8,000 buyback at the Doncaster breeze-ups into a Grade I winner. Having begun her track career in a small English stable, she was scouted romping in a £3,000 sprint maiden in the north of England and transferred to Simon Callaghan in California. Here she almost exclusively targeted synthetic surfaces, winning the Vanity H. and failing only by a neck to land the GI Madison S. She again failed to meet her reserve at the 2013 Keeneland November Sale, albeit this time at the rather more elevated sum of $725,000.

Byrama won the 2013 Vanity | Horsephotos

But a private deal was then agreed to make Byrama one of the first handful of mares Sparkman acquired for the nascent St. Elias breeding program. He knew the recesses of her family well, not least for producing Lyphard's son Pharly (Fr), sometimes a pronounced stamina influence in Europe.

“We wanted to build up a broodmare band,” recalls Sparkman. “And, when you're starting out something like that, and you believe in statistics and science and all that good stuff, then you're going to try to start with high-class racemares. She's slightly on the small side, 15.3h: a little smaller than a lot of people over here like. But immediately, just the look of her head, neck and shoulder reminded me of [Green Desert's damsire] Sir Ivor, something I really like to see in a horse.”

Byrama was kept in training, switching to Bill Mott, and added three more graded stakes placings on turf before retirement. Her first two foals, by Tapit and Liam's Map respectively, mustered a single start between them. The early evidence was that she needed a bigger mate, while Curlin would also bring in an extra line of Sir Ivor as grandsire of his second dam.

“She's a very elegant mare,” Sparkman explains. “And Curlin, he's not what most people would call a beauty, he's a bit of a workmanlike horse. Sometimes those things work out.”

The mare boards at Lane's End, where her Curlin colt was foaled and raised until transferred to Dilger for the sale. The lamented Irishman loved him, but we have already seen how the market responded. Ultimately he was led out unsold at $135,000.

“It's short-term thinking,” says Sparkman. “People latch onto one thing and they just refuse to think any other way. And we happen to benefit this time.”

But fate had reserved one more twist to keep him in the St. Elias program. He was sent to Eddie Woods and was on course for the Gulfstream Sale a year ago this week, only for the pandemic to intrude.

“I was really quite happy when the sale got canceled,” Sparkman recalls. “Eddie had been saying, 'Don't let this horse go cheap.' He wasn't going to work in :10 flat, but he was going to work well. Anybody was going to be able to see what he had.”

Vinnie Viola plants a kiss on Known Agenda | Lauren King

That said, Known Agenda has taken a bit of time to show his hand this winter. True, he broke his maiden beating no less a colt than Greatest Honour (Tapit), but he still had a bit to learn about the game. He appeared to resent the slop in the GII Remsen; and then got involved too late in the GIII Sam F. Davis. Todd Pletcher regrouped, applied the blinkers, and Known Agenda tore up a Gulfstream allowance field by 11 lengths. He was back in business, and nobody in the camp was surprised to see what he did in his rematch with Greatest Honour last Saturday.

“Basically, he had been unfocused,” Sparkman says. “We knew the talent was there. But until this last race, he did not like being inside of horses. More than anything, he just needed to grow up. He was mentally immature. We went through the same thing with Vino Rosso [Curlin] as a 3-year-old. The talent was there, but you never knew if he was going to focus that particular day or not. It took him until he was four. Hopefully, this horse is coming around a little bit quicker.”

After delivering Known Agenda, Byrama produced a Bodemeister filly who was culled cheaply as a weanling in 2019; likewise, her daughter by Always Dreaming, as a short yearling at Keeneland in January. She is due to Kitten's Joy but her next date is obviously back with Curlin, and it is safe to assume she won't be going anywhere else, anytime soon.

2017 Florida and Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming | Coady

The Always Dreaming cover, of course, was in support of a young stallion who has already given St. Elias experience of the Miami-Louisville Derby double. And someday, no doubt, Known Agenda will also be given the chance to contribute to the breed-shaping record of their trainer as a maker of stallions (not least previous Florida Derby winners Scat Daddy and Constitution).

As and when that happens, what will Byrama introduce to the genetic package? Well, her mother Aymara (GB) (Darshaan {GB}) won only a maiden at 12 furlongs, but does introduce a strain that will surely serve Known Agenda's cause in the demanding tests now beckoning. For Aymara is by a great European broodmare sire, whose daughters transmit just the kind of Classic quality and stamina you would expect from the son of one Epsom Derby winner (Shirley Heights {GB}) and the grandson of another (Mill Reef): witness the likes of Derby winner High Chaparral (Ire) (Sadler's Wells), St. Leger winner Milan (GB) (also by Sadler's Wells) and Arc winner Marienbard (Ire) (Caerleon).

Besides Byrama, Aymara did produce seven other winners, though only one of real note: the Group 3-winning juvenile Klammer (GB) (Exceed And Excel {Aus}), whose principal distinction was to advertise the freakish nature of the colt who thrashed him by 10 lengths in the G2 Royal Lodge S. (Horse name of Frankel {GB}.)

Aymara's own dam Chipaya (GB) (Northern Prospect) otherwise produced only a minor winner from just three other foals to race. That was disappointing, as she was a useful performer, winning three consecutive sprints as a juvenile–in fields of 22, 21 and 19!–and later adding a Listed race over a mile at Ascot, besides also placing in Group company in Italy. (Her sire Northern Prospect, incidentally, introduces another strain of Mr. Prospector to Known Agenda: Curlin being a grandson, and Byron's damsire Woodman, a son.)

When Chipaya was racing, you would have said that this was a pretty interesting family. Because she was out of a mare with a most intriguing genetic profile. Though by one forgotten son of a great stallion (Upper Nile, a son of Nijinsky who won the Suburban H. the day the great Forego faded into retirement) out of a mare by another (Bold Ruler's son Blade), this mating was evidently predicated on the fact that Blade's dam was a full sister to Round Table, the damsire of Upper Nile.

A lot of dust has obviously settled on that seam of gold, only disturbed really by the half-sister to Chipaya who produced G2 Norfolk S. winner Winker Watson (GB) (Piccolo {GB}). But this double dose of Round Table's sire Princequillo can only fortify the foundations for Known Agenda when you consider how he recurs elsewhere in the pedigree. We've already noted a duplication of Sir Gaylord (out of Princequillo's great daughter Somethingroyal) behind Byron, through Sir Ivor and Gay Missile; and that Curlin's second dam is by a grandson of Sir Gaylord. And you can also throw into the mix Curlin's sire Smart Strike, whose fourth dam is by Princequillo; while Darshaan's grandsire Mill Reef was out of a Princequillo mare.

Whatever comfort you might discover there–and personally, I don't think you can ever find too much Princequillo, even if nowadays you obviously have to dredge pretty deep–the pedigree overall certainly has old-fashioned merit. As we said at the outset, modern breeders appear to have renounced the kind of transatlantic cross-pollination that has repeatedly reinvigorated the breed in the past. If Known Agenda can progress from here, then, he could become a really important signpost.

Whether on dirt or turf, Classic racing is about carrying speed. To win the Derby, Known Agenda will need to summon reserves of stamina latent in his European grass family, extending to Byrama's fifth dam Commemoration (Fr) (Vandale {Fr}), the third dam of Pharly. “It doesn't get much stouter than that,” agrees Sparkman. “But it's short-term thinking, like I said. People just can't seem to see beyond what's right in front of them.”

Be all that as it may, Known Agenda's calling card at stud will present him first and foremost as a son of Curlin. Other young heirs to the Hill 'n' Dale stallion already include the Classic protagonists noted earlier–Good Magic, Exaggerator and Palace Malice–as well as Connect, Keen Ice, Global Campaign and Vino Rosso himself. Palace Malice has set an encouraging pace, coming up with a Breeders' Cup winner at the first attempt in Structor; and matched his sire last weekend by producing a Derby candidate of his own in GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks winner Like the King.

St. Elias was part of a partnership that purchased this Curlin colt for $1.2 million in September | Keeneland photo

The St. Elias team appeared to double down on Curlin at the yearling sales, in partnership recruiting five of his sons for an aggregate $2.675 million. Sparkman said that was not a deliberate strategy, “just the way things worked out”, adding that St. Elias has sent four and three mares respectively to Curlin in the past couple of seasons.

Curlin is precisely the kind of speed-carrying dirt influence who could salvage the programs of those European breeders who have found themselves cornered by the hegemony of Galileo (Ire). Their failure to experiment, as such, is no less reprehensible than that of the American investors who passed up Known Agenda as a yearling because of his turf family. If he can win the Derby, then, let's hope that horsemen on both sides of the ocean will follow Viola and his team to bold new horizons.

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