By Sid Fernando
Rich Strike (Keen Ice), upset winner of the Gl Kentucky Derby at 80-1, and Secret Oath (Arrogate), the powerful Gl Kentucky Oaks winner, are members of the first crops of their respective sires, both of whom were late-developing Classic-distance horses. Keen Ice and Arrogate each won his first stakes race at Saratoga in late August at three, in the Gl Travers S. at 10 furlongs. Keen Ice won the “Midsummer Classic” in 2015 at 16-1, defeating Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in a shocker. Arrogate won the race the next year at 12-1 by an astonishing 13 1/2 lengths, setting a track record of 1:59.36 in the process. At stud, neither was expected to make a notable impression until his first crop was three, and that's how things played out. Arrogate finished 10th among leading first-crop sires of 2021 and Keen Ice 12th. Neither was represented by a black-type winner last year.
It's a bit of a different story now. Keen Ice and Arrogate are the sires of two black-type winners apiece, which wouldn't be anything to shout home about, except they've accounted for the two most prestigious races for 3-year-old colts and fillies.
By Curlin, Keen Ice was raced by Jerry Crawford's Donegal, whose Mo Donegal (Uncle Mo) came from far back to finish fifth in the Derby behind Rich Strike. Crawford, a client of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, has a penchant for purchasing late-running 10-furlong horses, which I wrote about in this space two weeks ago, and Keen Ice, a $120,000 yearling, fit that profile. Initially trained by Dale Romans, Keen Ice was transferred to Todd Pletcher sometime during his 4-year-old campaign, and for Pletcher he won the Gll Suburban over 10 furlongs at five. However, Keen Ice only won three of 24 starts during his career, though he placed in numerous Grade l races for both Romans and Pletcher and earned $3.4 million. As a strict come-from-behind horse, he was frequently pace-traffic/trouble-compromised in races, most of which were usually too short for him. The 2017 edition of the Gl Whitney at Saratoga over nine furlongs is a case in point: Gun Runner, a son of Candy Ride (Arg), led for most of the race and won by 5 1/4 lengths; early on, Keen Ice trailed in last after a bad start but rallied for second.
Arrogate, a gray son of Unbridled's Song trained by Bob Baffert, was literally and figuratively a horse of a different color from Keen Ice. He had speed and the ability to carry it a distance, plus the acceleration to outrun opponents from anywhere in a race. He won his Travers leading throughout, but in a celebrated Gl Breeders' Cup Classic later that year against California Chrome, Arrogate impressively ran down his pace-setting older rival, who looked a winner in deep stretch only before Arrogate passed him to win. Keen Ice finished third, 10 3/4 lengths behind California Chrome, after getting bumped after the break and closing from far back.
Arrogate won seven of 11 starts, earned a North American record $17.4 million, and went to stud at owner Juddmonte Farms for $75,000, the highest fee among newcomers for the 2018 season. Gun Runner, who was retired to Three Chimneys, was second, with a $70,000 fee. Keen Ice began his career for $20,000 at Calumet, which had bought into the horse for his 5-year-old campaign. Keen Ice now stands for $7,500, Arrogate is dead, and Gun Runner, who led all North American-based first-crop runners last year, stood for an advertised fee of $125,000 this year, if you could get to him.
It's all about first-crop 2-year-old performances for the commercial marketplace, but the 10-furlong Classic in Louisville is another matter altogether.
Calumet's interest in Keen Ice was understandable for several reasons. The farm's present ownership has a keen interest in standing and breeding stayers, and champion turf horse English Channel, a staying son of Curlin's sire Smart Strike, was Calumet's best recent stallion.
Smart Strike, a son of Mr. Prospector, was known for reliably transmitting stamina; aside from English Channel and Curlin, his sire sons also include Lookin at Lucky, who like Curlin was a champion and Gl Preakness winner. Lookin at Lucky sired the 65-1 Derby winner Country House, who was awarded the Classic on the disqualification of Maximum Security in 2019.
Likewise, Curlin, who wasn't highly placed on the 2012 first-crop list, is a conduit for stamina; his sons and daughters have been particularly active in the runups for the Derby and Oaks through the years, and in 2021, Malathaat won the Oaks. This year, Nest was second to Secret Oath. Curlin got Gl Belmont S. winner Palace Malice from his first crop and Gl Preakness winner Exaggerator a few crops later, and he's one of the most reliable stallions for siring Classic-type runners.
The Mr. Prospector horse Fappiano is also responsible for a notable stamina branch, primarily through Derby winner Unbridled–the sire of Empire Maker and Unbridled's Song. The branch through Empire Maker includes Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Derby winner Always Dreaming. Derby winner Real Quiet is a son of the Fappiano horse Quiet American. Another Fappiano branch through Cryptoclearance leads to Candy Ride and his high-flying son Gun Runner, whose first crop contains among others Gl Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife, Gl Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba, and last year's champion 2-year-old filly Echo Zulu, who lost for the first time in the Oaks.
Unbridled also sired the first-crop Derby winner Grindstone, who wasn't much of a stallion but did sire the Belmont and Travers winner Birdstone. The latter, in turn, sired two memorable first-crop runners: 50-1 Derby winner Mine That Bird and 12-1 Belmont S. winner Summer Bird.
Unbridled's best sire son Unbridled's Song was generally a transmitter of more speed than others from the line. Though his daughters have become outstanding producers of high-level runners, his sire sons have been found wanting, and Arrogate was considered the potential heir until his untimely death in 2020. That mantle now belongs to Lane's End's Liam's Map.
When stallions like Arrogate and Keen Ice retire, the general thinking of stud farms and breeders is to send them faster and more precocious mares to balance their late development and stamina. Juddmonte, for instance, was actively looking for these types of stakes-winning mares for Arrogate, who was unraced at two.
Ironically, Secret Oath is from a mare that doesn't fit this profile, though her dam was a well-performed runner.
Secret Oath, who was bred and is raced by Briland Farm, is from the Quiet American mare Absinthe Minded, a multiple Graded-placed black-type winner of $607,747. Secret Oath is therefore inbred 4×3 to Fappiano on the sire-line cross (both sire and broodmare sire trace to Fappiano). Her dam failed to win in three starts at two, and she didn't become a stakes winner until she was four, when she also placed in the Gl Apple Blossom. She won two more black-type races at five, when she again placed in the Apple Blossom.
Rich Strike is the 10th Derby winner bred by Calumet, but the first for the farm's current ownership. Like Secret Oath, Rich Strike is out of a stakes-winning mare – Canadian Classic and Graded stakes winner Gold Strike, a daughter of Smart Strike. Like the Oaks winner, the Derby winner is inbred on the sire-line cross, in his case quite closely, 3×2, to Smart Strike. The latter, by the way, is also the broodmare sire of Mine That Bird and his half-brother Dullahan, another Donegal runner, who was third in the Derby. Dullahan was sired by the Unbridled's Song stallion Even the Score and was bred similarly to Mine That Bird, as both were 5×3 to Mr. Prospector on the sire-line cross through Unbridled and Smart Strike.
There is precedent for the close inbreeding of Rich Strike in other Calumet Derby winners from the past. Iron Liege, for example, was 2×3 to full brothers Bull Dog (Fr) and Sir Gallahad lll (Fr), and Tim Tam was 3×3 to Bull Dog, so perhaps it was a calculated decision to inbreed to Smart Strike so closely in Rich Strike's case. At the least, his dam had to be one of the better mares to visit Keen Ice in his first year at stud.
Calumet had purchased Gold Strike, a champion Canadian 3-year-old filly, for $230,000 in 2015, and at the time she was already the dam of Llanarmon, a Sky Mesa filly who'd won the Gll Natalma S. at two. Llanarmon went on to place in the Woodbine Oaks and also won the Carotene S. at nine furlongs on turf. Gold Strike was herself a Grade lll winner who'd won the Woodbine Oaks and placed in the Queen's Plate against colts over 10 furlongs, which gives Rich Strike plenty of stamina on both sides of the pedigree.
In fact, Rich Strike's pedigree probably contains much more stamina than necessary for the U.S. racing ecosystem, but a confluence of factors in the Derby, including a rapid early pace– the first quarter of :21.78 was faster than the :22.76 set by champion sprinter Jackie's Warrior in the Gl Churchill Downs S.– and an inspired ride helped to showcase it.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.