By Sid Fernando
If you are a student of pedigrees, you'll know of Franco Varola and Abram S. Hewitt. If not, take my word for it that they were two giants in the field of pedigree research, and both were excellent writers. Varola, an Italian whose first name was Francesco, is known for two iconic books, “Typology of the Racehorse” and “The Functional Development of the Thoroughbred,” both of which examined influential stallions by aptitude and classified them as “chefs-de-race” within the dosage framework originally developed by Lt. Col. J.J. Vuillier at the beginning of the last century; Hewitt, an American, is a major name among pedigree writers in North America and is the author of the classic “Sire Lines.” Hewitt worked with Dr. Steven Roman and Leon Rasmussen in the early days of classifying chefs for American racing.
Rasmussen was another pedigree giant and outstanding writer who penned the longtime “Bloodlines” column for Daily Racing Form, and he frequently referred to Hewitt as the “doyen of American turf writers,” a testament to his respect for Hewitt.
Hewitt and Varola published their books at the time Rasmussen was writing his column for DRF. Varola's “Typology” came out in 1974; Hewitt's “Sire Lines” was published in 1977; and Varola's “Functional Development” was released in 1980. All three men communicated with one another through letters during this period, which coincided with a 16-year-old–me–sending a note to Rasmussen in 1976 about a stallion he and Hewitt had been discussing as a potential breed shaper. Long story short, I never expected Rasmussen to reply, and when he did, it began a longtime pen pal relationship that developed into a lifelong friendship, which even included a family trip with my wife and two young sons to visit Leon and his wife in Los Angeles.
Leon died of cancer at 88 in August of 2003. On a solo visit to the Rasmussens at their Los Feliz home about a year or so before that, Leon told me he didn't have much time left. “They found this growth behind my ear, pal,” he said. Leon then took me into his office and showed me about eight cardboard boxes he'd packed, addressed to me in Brooklyn. “I'd like you to have all my racing correspondence, if you don't mind?” I said I was honored, but not to expect me to attend the funeral. He saw I was visibly shaken by his news. “Let's get some Chinese food and martinis, then, and celebrate now,” he said, and we did. That was the last time I saw Leon in person, and I kept my word to not attend his funeral.
Unfortunately, I wasn't a good steward of that cache. I went through each letter over a period of a few years after Leon died, and it was fascinating reading. Leon detailed notes about his trip to Dormello to see legendary breeder Federico Tesio's operation, for instance, and there was correspondence with many of the greatest breeders and owners of the last century. All of it perished during a storm that flooded my basement, and all I had were my memories, I thought.
Vaguely Noble and Caro
Just the other day, as I was preparing to move from Brooklyn to Tampa, I found some correspondence from Leon that I'd brought upstairs years ago to write about but had forgotten to do: letters between Varola and Hewitt from 1977. Hewitt had given copies of them to Leon.
They are captivating historical artifacts that illuminate the relationships of Varola and Hewitt with some notable breeders and horses, and they reveal how some matings were planned. I'm going to be specific here for space reasons and I quote the writers to only discussions they had about imports Vaguely Noble (Ire), who was controlled by Nelson Bunker Hunt during his stud career at Gainesway during the John Gaines era; and Caro (Ire), who started off at stud in Europe but was then moved to Brownell Combs's Spendthrift in the late 1970s. Caro was the champion sire in France in 1977, but his sire line went dormant for a period after he was long gone, resurging in North America only years later, first through California-bred Indian Charlie and then through the latter's son Uncle Mo, one of the best young sires at stud today. Vaguely Noble's sire line has all but disappeared here, but during his career he was one of the great transmitters of stamina, which is something of an anomaly for U.S.-based stallions nowadays.
By the Hyperion-line Vienna (GB), who was owned by Sir Winston Churchill, Vaguely Noble was a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, and he came to Kentucky after Gaines purchased a quarter of the horse from Bunker Hunt and his partners, Robert and Wilma Franklyn.
At the time, Hewitt was doing the Bunker Hunt matings, which he wrote about to Varola in a letter dated Jan. 15, 1977. Varola, who lived in Rio de Janeiro from March to September and in Rome from October to February, was late getting the letter, which had been sent to Rome and then was forwarded to Rio.
In a reply dated Apr. 13, Varola responded, after explaining the reasons for the tardy reply [I'm reproducing the exact language they used with no edits for punctuation or style]: “I do appreciate the magnitude of the job which you have undertaken on behalf of Mr. Bunker Hunt, involving as it does 176 mares, which is more than double any single similar job I have undertaken in the past. I am sure however that you will derive great personal satisfaction from it, and I wonder if you would care to send to me some of the tabulated pedigrees of matings which you may have devised for one reason or another, and if you would be further agreeable to my quoting some of these matings in my coming book.”
On Apr. 19, Hewitt responded: “You probably already know that Bunker Hunt has bred virtually all the good racers by Vaguely Noble. The program has been basically simple. Since Vaguely Noble was a very high-class horse who stayed exceptionally well, he was bred to very fast mares, who typically came from 'speed' strains. This has balanced out very well.
“One of my hobbies has been to listen to horses' hearts. Vaguely Noble has much the best 'staying heart' of any sire in Kentucky; Secretariat is also exceptional.
“Doing the matings for the Hunt Stud is enjoyable. However, I have by no means a free hand. Mr. Hunt likes to move matings around, like moving chess pieces. In addition, he owns a controlling share in Vaguely Noble, Mississipian, Ace of Aces, Youth, Empery, and Sir Wiggle. This means that I am very restricted in the use of 'outside' sires which I would like to patronize. To some extent, I have been permitted to do so, and must say, that the foals of these 'outside' sires are on the whole superior to the others, except for 5 or 6 by Vaguely Noble.”
At the time of these letters in 1977, the Bunker Hunt-bred-and-owned Dahlia, a member of Vaguely Noble's first crop, had been retired and covered for the first time, by Bold Forbes. Foaled in 1970 and raised at Claiborne for Bunker Hunt, Dahlia was one of the best of her generation, which included Secretariat, Forego, and Allez France in the same crop. She raced until she was six, winning 15 of 48 starts and nearly $1.5 million. Like many of Bunker Hunt's homebreds, she'd started off in Europe, where she won the G1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S. against older males at three, among other races of note, before returning to the U.S. full time as an older mare. Dahlia was a champion in England, Ireland, and the U.S.
As Hewitt noted, the mating that produced Dahlia was based on the idea of using a fast and precocious mare. Her dam Charming Alibi, a daughter of Honey's Alibi, was a tough and fast California-bred who won stakes races in the Midwest, making 13 starts at two and 71 altogether. There was nothing blue-blooded about her pedigree.
In 1976, the last year Dahlia raced, Bunker Hunt won the G1 Epsom Derby with the Vaguely Noble homebred Empery, whose dam was the champion Peruvian-bred mare Pamplona II. She'd previously produced his 1970 French 1,000 Guineas winner Pampered Miss, a daughter of Sadair. Like Charming Alibi, Pamplona didn't come from a fashionable sire line, but she had performance on her resume, plus production, at the time she was bred to Vaguely Noble.
Bunker Hunt also won the G1 French Derby in 1976 with Youth, a son of Ack Ack. He must have been one of the Bunker Hunt homebreds that Hewitt liked by an “outside” stallion. His dam was Gazala II, a daughter of Dark Star–the horse who defeated Native Dancer in the Kentucky Derby. Gazala, a small, unimpressive, and delicate mare, won the French 1000 Guineas and the Oaks for Bunker Hunt in 1967, displaying terrific acceleration. She was by far Dark Star's best runner. Before Youth, Gazala had produced the Vaguely Noble colt Mississipian, the champion 2-year-old colt in France in 1973, and after Youth, she foaled the Vaguely Noble colt Gonzales, who won the G1 Irish St. Leger in 1980.
Hewitt wrote to Varola again July 29. By this time, he'd digested Varola's “Typology of the Racehorse,” difficult as that was, he noted, and was experimenting with Varola's diagrams within Vuillier's framework of dosage. He wrote: “I have been doing a certain amount of investigating with the use of your diagrams, with the added use of the names of key American stallions which do not appear in your tables; and in addition to this I have tried assigning numbers to each name in accordance with the Vuillier dosage method. The results to date have been quite illuminating.
“Mr. Hunt, [sic] horse Vaguely Noble, for instance, works out at a consistency figure about 2 1/2 times the average, suggesting a lack of brilliant offspring and the probability of somewhat late maturity. This has proven to be the case. In fact, all of his best stock have been from mares with a high turn of speed and tending towards early maturity.”
Hewitt then turns his attention to Caro, whose first foals were 4-year-olds at this writing. Caro, by the way, was a horse that Leon frequently described as a product of a “fish and fowl” mating, because he was by the sprinter Fortino (Fr) out of a stayer, Chambord (GB). Hewitt suggested that the same analysis he'd used for Vaguely Noble didn't provide an accurate reading of Caro's aptitude to that point in time. “Caro, which has made such a brilliant start at stud in France,” he began, was showing more brilliance at stud than was expected, he said, to paraphrase. “This is somewhat surprising to me in a horse that was as late maturing as Caro was and showed as little sheer brilliance as he did.”
What Hewitt didn't know when he wrote that to Varola was that Varola himself had planned Caro's mating for his owner and breeder, Countess Margit Batthyany, a prominent European breeder whose family owned the famed Gestut Erlenhof in Germany.
Varola's reply from Rio Aug. 31 first expressed dissatisfaction with Hewitt's methodology of mashing up his work with that of Vuillier's, and then of Hewitt's opinion of Caro. He wrote: “As regards assigning numbers in Vuillier-like fashion, I am very much more doubtful. I am afraid there are already a lot of numbers in my own basic method such as it is, but the main reason is that since my task is to spot functional types, this is something that is done mainly on personal impression and without any interference of numbers in the initial stage of the analytical process.
“For instance, my own view of Caro [whose dosage diagram was, by the way, designed by me personally back in 1966] is that he has turned out to be exactly what we had hoped at that time he would be, that is a sire with distinctly Intermediate vocation and destined no doubt to influence future pedigrees on the distaff side as well. By the way, I do not agree that he was a horse without brilliance. It was rather a case of a horse of high genetic potential, which tends to manifest himself on the racecourse with good class but without ever attaining the status of a smasher. Big Game was another such example.”
This months-long conversation of two giants of the pedigree world offers more than an insight into Vaguely Noble, Caro, their connections, and the thought processes of the protagonists. For one, it's a record of the early development of dosage in this country; Hewitt, Dr. Roman, and Rasmussen would chisel some of Varola's work into practical usage through Dr. Roman's easily accessible diagrams and formulations, which were first introduced in “Bloodlines” in 1981.
There's something else we are privy to only in hindsight. Caro's breeder and owner Countess Batthyany had Nazi ties and was implicated in a massacre of Jews, which I wrote of in 2018 here. Hewitt, who among many other accomplishments was also a notable owner and breeder, was part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)–which later became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–during WWII and was a Nazi hunter. Varola was an Italian living in Rio de Janeiro, a destination of Nazis after WWII. I have no knowledge that he was associated with Nazis or Nazi sympathizers, other than the revelation that he planned the matings of Countess Batthyany.
What if Varola and Hewitt knew of the other's background and their respective associates as they wrote to each other? Maybe they did, but in these letters they confined their discussions to horses.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.