Smart Digging Strikes a Rich Seam


Rich Strike | Coady


Well, if it was hard enough to make sense of his performance, then don't expect things to appear any more conventional when you look at the pedigree of Rich Strike. His grandsire and dam share the same paternity. His mother was discarded a couple of years ago for $1,700; his half-sister was claimed only last month for $5,000; and his sire's only previous stakes winner had emerged in Puerto Rico.

But if communal incredulity over the GI Kentucky Derby must have been flavored with extra piquancy for the breeders of the winner, who lost him to a $30,000 claim at the same track last September, then the bigger picture might yet permit them ample consolation.

Most obviously, albeit in somewhat haphazard fashion, a 10th Derby winner has refreshed the record established by Calumet Farm in its heyday as the premier Classic brand of the Bluegrass and highlights the wholesome aspirations sustaining its regeneration.

Eight Calumet homebreds won the Derby between 1941 and 1968, under Warren Wright, Sr. and then his widow Lucille, but the one subsequent success prior to Saturday had poignantly come in the same year, 1991, that the farm declared bankruptcy–courtesy of Strike the Gold, whose name obtains a curious resonance now that the baton has been seized by Rich Strike.

The Kwiatkowski rescue eventually paved the way in 2012 for Calumet's lease to Brad M. Kelley, who immediately found a horse to condense his priorities–not just for the renewal of the Calumet legacy, but also for a maverick challenge to the short-termism he evidently believes to be undermining the modern American Thoroughbred. Oxbow exhibited a teak constitution in campaigning without pause from October through July, taking in seven states and six different distances. At stud, admittedly, Oxbow struggled for commercial traction, but last year he came up with one of the key Classic protagonists in Hot Rod Charlie, who had changed hands for $17,000 as a short yearling.

Now Calumet has achieved virtually the same thing with Keen Ice. He, too, had to demonstrate rare physical resilience in soaking up four campaigns, the first three for Donegal Racing before Calumet entered partnership. And while his only two wins outside maiden company included one that nobody could sensibly take at face value, when shocking a Triple Crown winner in the GI Travers S., he banked $3.4 million in 24 starts, 15 at Grade I level. Much like his son last Saturday, he was never happier than when able to reel in a hot pace.

The Calumet model will always be too idiosyncratic for many commercial breeders, so presumably a monster opening book of 176 for Keen Ice featured a significant contribution from the farm's home herd. The average achieved by the resulting yearlings fell short of a (rather stiff) opening fee of $20,000 and traffic was quick to slide, through books of 73, 43 and 48. Keen Ice is now down to $7,500, the same as Oxbow, who himself was supported with 187 mares in his fourth book but was down to 15 three years later. Now, for a second year running, an ostensibly “uncommercial” Calumet sire is demanding renewed attention–this time with a Derby winner at the first attempt.

Calumet has more to celebrate than regret, then, despite allowing Rich Strike to slip from their racetrack program. Okay, so nobody should be running a horse under that kind of tag if he is 17 lengths better than the grade. But the team will definitely be hoping that Rich Strike can corroborate his breakout as well as did, say, Mine That Bird (Birdstone) when he proceeded to run Rachel Alexandra (Medaglia d'Oro) to a length in the GI Preakness S.

Keen Ice, after all, is earlier into his career than was Oxbow when Hot Rod Charlie made us ask how much he might owe to sire (his dam having already produced an Eclipse champion). If Keen Ice has really done very little besides this jaw-dropper, then there remains a feasible case for saying that his stock will only just be finding their stride with maturity. He has managed 20 other winners this year already, at a 27% ratio that stands up to the likes of Practical Joke, Connect and Caravaggio among rivals in the intake maintaining a higher fee. And while the Calumet breeding program can hardly match such quantity with seamless quality, it will be reliably oriented towards mares that pack in slow-burning assets of robustness and staying power.

That willingness to play a long game, to remain stubbornly out of step with the fast-buck breeders who mate to sell, not run, is predicated on a faith that the Thoroughbred will ultimately have to adapt to a very different environment: one where trainers must can the pharmaceuticals, and where turf/synthetics are no longer commercially toxic. Kelley and his team, on that basis, will hope someday to do exactly what Keen Ice's son did on Saturday, and catapult from the neglected margins to the heart of the action.

Quite apart from promotion of his sire, then, they have another reason to hope that Rich Strike may have hit a genuine seam of gold–and that's to vindicate the kind of thinking that governs Calumet matings. Because here, too, Rich Strike is not an orthodox project.

True, one of the greatest breeding operations in history recently came up with a European champion with inbreeding of equally daring proximity: Enable (GB) (Nathaniel {GB}) is by a grandson of Sadler's Wells out of one of his daughters. Moreover Juddmonte had previously produced GI Pacific Classic winner Skimming by matching one son of Northern Dancer, Nureyev, with a daughter of another in Lyphard; while their sister matriarchs Viviana and Willstar were by Nureyev out of a daughter of Nijinsky (also, of course, by Northern Dancer). So if duplicating a noble influence as closely as the second and third generations was good enough for Prince Khalid, it should be good enough for the rest of us.

In this instance, Calumet chose to double down on Smart Strike–who gave us the sire of Keen Ice, Curlin, as well as Rich Strike's dam, the accomplished Canadian filly Gold Strike. That was an extremely hygienic choice. Smart Strike has proved a fine sire of sires. The farm's lamented English Channel, in his sphere, absolutely bore comparison with Curlin, while Lookin At Lucky is criminally undervalued as a sire of Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winners now down to just $15,000. But the key to thickening out a pedigree with Smart Strike is surely the depth of his own family, as a half-brother to Dance Smartly (Danzig) out of one of the four champions foaled by one of the great misnomers, No Class (Nodouble).

But that's only the start of the way this pedigree has been carefully inlaid. The success of Smart Strike's sire Mr. Prospector opened unexpected horizons for his only older sibling Search For Gold, a stakes-placed sprinter at two. And though his stud career proved little more than opportunist, Search For Gold resurfaces here as sire of Rich Strike's third dam, Panning For Gold, a minor stakes winner at the old Greenwood Raceway.

Panning For Gold was mated with another forgotten name, Dixieland Brass–a son of Dixieland Band who broke down when odds-on for the Florida Derby and ended up standing in British Columbia for R.J. and Lois Bennett of Flying Horse Farm–who had added her to the home broodmare band a couple of years before his arrival. The resulting filly was unraced, but it was her match with Smart Strike that produced Gold Strike for Harlequin Ranches: champion sophomore filly of Canada, on the strength of her wins in the GIII Selene S. and Woodbine Oaks, and now dam of a Kentucky Derby winner.

All six of Gold Strike's named foals prior to Rich Strike had been fillies, notably GII Natalma S. winner Llanarmon (Sky Mesa). The latter's endeavors ensured that Calumet had to pay $230,000 for Gold Strike, though already 13, when she was offered carrying a sibling to Llanarmon at the Keeneland November Sale of 2015. When she went to the same sale four years later, however, she was picked up for just $1,700 by Tommy Wente of St. Simon Place. At that stage, eight years after foaling Llanarmon, she had been either been fallow or produced unraced foals; Rich Strike himself was listed as an anonymous weanling colt by Keen Ice.

Wente has a remarkable eye for a bargain mare. Incredibly, in fact, Rich Strike only got into the Derby because he had one more qualifying point than Rattle N Roll (Connect)–bred by St. Simon Place after his dam was picked up for $20,000 at the 2016 November Sale. That mare was cashed out for $585,000 in the same ring last November.

As it was, St. Simon was represented in the GI Kentucky Oaks by Hidden Connection (also by Connect), whose dam was a $9,500 steal before similarly making her home run at $450,000 at Fasig-Tipton last fall.

Unfortunately Gold Strike has evidently become a difficult breeder, with no foal since. She is in the best of hands right now, being evaluated for breeding, but obviously the odds are steepening at the age of 20. Regardless of how things play out, hats off to Wente. Anyone can get lucky and do something like that once, but this guy has done it time and again.

One other foal bred during Gold Strike's residence at Calumet did make the track the year after she was culled. My Blonde Mary, a filly by Oxbow who has won three claimers in 29 starts, was hooked for a basement tag at Tampa Bay last month by trainer Douglas Nunn and Winner Circle Stables LLC. Doubtless they had spotted her half-brother grab third in the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks just a couple of days previously. Alert business, if so, for another creature of highly volatile value!

The real status of this family, not to mention his own stud prospects, may vary wildly according to what Rich Strike does next. Perhaps it will simply turn out that those Turfway synthetics were not to his taste, and/or that he has reserves of stamina that could only be drawn out, even at 10 furlongs, by the kind of ferocious pace that suited his sire. But if the jury must remain out, equally, on the lessons available in his pedigree, for now we must credit Calumet for achieving something so very conspicuous with such a “striking” blend of genetic flavors.

In addition to the Smart Strike overload, and the mirroring of Mr. Prospector with his brother along the bottom line, we should note extra seams of “ore” from their dam Gold Digger behind Keen Ice himself. His fourth dam, and absolutely pivotal to his appeal, is the Emory Hamilton matriarch Chic Shirine–a daughter of Mr. Prospector.

And actually there's another sliver of Mr P. lurking via the second dam of Awesome Again, damsire of Keen Ice. But the main service of Awesome Again, for those breeding to Keen Ice, is another extremely close reinforcement: his sire Deputy Minister is also responsible for the dam of Curlin. That gives a 3×3 footprint to one of the all-time broodmare sires. Almost as potent in Keen Ice, then, as Smart Strike in Rich Strike. This precious payload of Deputy Minister, combined with that Chic Shirine–Too Chic (Blushing Groom {Fr}) bottom line, will perhaps make Keen Ice especially attractive to anyone who wouldn't mind retaining a filly.

So Rich Strike and his sire each intensify one of the key influences on the modern breed. For both horses, what happened on Saturday may yet turn out to be too good to be true. In view of what Calumet stands for today, however, it would be extremely healthy if each proved able to build on this breakthrough.

You can be sure that some commercial breeders will no more buy into Keen Ice than they did Oxbow, following Hot Rod Charlie. But it's auspicious at least to see people challenged in such similar fashion, two years running. There may not be big bucks at ringside, yet, for the kind of hardiness, stamina and old-fashioned depth of pedigree sought by Calumet for their stallion roster. Perhaps, however, that might gradually begin to change as people see how these attributes, integral to the farm's original glory, remain just what you need for the first Saturday in May and that we will only need more of the same, if we continue cleaning up the game as we must.

Kelley and his team have realized that some of the least fashionable assets of the Thoroughbred are exactly what can make it most sustainable in an uncertain future. This particular Derby winner may or may not prove eligible to change perceptions and it won't necessarily be the Calumet team who find the stallions that ultimately end up doing so. But that won't alter the odds that the eccentricities of today may well become the orthodoxy of tomorrow.

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