This Side Up: Big Pedigrees Support Oaklawn’s Headline Sophomores

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Mr. Big NewsCoady

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Poor old Mr. Big News (Giant’s Causeway). He very quickly turned into yesterday’s news, didn’t he? The dust had barely settled on his breakout success, in the Oaklawn S. Saturday, when his trainer supplanted him with a rather less welcome headline of his own.

True, Bret Calhoun’s Class B violation–reported in Wednesday’s TDN–was a relatively modest affair. Though cannabidiol is the second most active ingredient in marijuana, it is evidently considered fairly innocuous. In view of his overall record, and mitigating circumstances, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stayed two-thirds of Calhoun’s 30-day suspension; and otherwise confined themselves to a $500 fine; together, of course, with the disqualification of the filly in question at Ellis Park last summer, who happens to be in the same Allied Racing Stable ownership as Mr. Big News.

Now it must be said that this colt–who now has an automatic slot in the GI Arkansas Derby, if he wishes to take it up–had already struggled for attention. Because whenever you see the frontrunners implode after contesting manic early fractions, the way they did in setting up this 46-1 shocker, it’s hard to resist two equally uncharitable instincts. One is to wonder why so many jockeys, for whom “a clock in his head” is supposed to be more or less a professional requisite, should appear to favor a sundial over a stopwatch. The other is to dismiss peremptorily the merit of those horses who–whether thanks to the superior timing of their riders, or simple incompetence to lie up with that kind of pace–swoop to pick up the pieces in the stretch.

Now we all know that the melodramatic acceleration apparently achieved by such horses is an optical illusion, exaggerated by the way those up front are slowing down. But that does not entitle us to treat them all with equal disdain. By rights, every horse sheltered from the pace might come crowding through late, yet, you tend to find that only two or three are responsive enough to pounce with real verve. So while the race is plainly set up in their favor, those that take advantage do showcase a legitimate brand of talent.

On Saturday, however, Mr. Big News not only “socially distanced” himself from a :22.07 opening split; he was also flattered by the misfortune of favorite Thousand Words (Pioneerof The Nile), who did the splits leaving the gate. You can only hope that Thousand Words didn’t wrench anything too badly, the Albaugh Family Stable having endured adequate disappointment through a similar episode with Dennis’ Moment (Tiznow) at the Breeders’ Cup. But I still feel that Mr. Big News deserves a headline or two.

Yes, a lot of people see Farmington Road (Quality Road) developing into the more feasible contender, by such time as a race masquerading as the GI Kentucky Derby might be staged in September. He was bearing down on the winner late, after all, and he’s a May 14 foal. Personally, however, I’d be wary of treating that lug in behind, deep in the stretch, as residual greenness. He may simply have been reacting to the kind of misuse of the stick that you see in too many high-profile American races.

Mr. Big News himself was at least given time to respond, which is an absolutely vital element in any humane regulation of whip use. That said, he was himself unbalanced by each and every strike, requiring his rider to switch the whip four times through the stretch. So while both these horses have a similar profile–requiring three and four starts respectively to break their maiden, before finishing on the heels of the protagonists in different divisions of the GII Risen Star S.–you can only hope they are mastering a vocation they will be allowed to love.

One thing is certain. If Mr. Big News can consolidate from here, then he has a pedigree that entitles him to a pretty exciting fulfilment of one kind or another. Whisper it, but if they can stage a GI Belmont S. at some point, he would already look an interesting type. Or he absolutely has grass as an option, down the road, if he doesn’t quite make the top grade on dirt. And, either way, he has a lot more stallion eligibility than you might expect in a $95,000 yearling.

For one thing, he represents a rare combination–and, on dirt, possibly a unique one–of two of the greatest triumphs of Coolmore’s second empire (i.e. the one identified with a second genius named O’Brien). Mr. Big News is one of the few remaining legacies of the late Giant’s Causeway, whose one-and-a-half remaining crops, after his present sophomores, represent books of just 31 and nine; and he’s out of a Galileo (Ire) mare.

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to remount the soapbox to complain about people being too prescriptive about the presumed aptitude of particular bloodlines for particular surfaces. Nor am I even going to revisit the even more pernicious oversimplification, whereby pedigrees are defined more or less entirely through sire-lines.

Sure, with those two titans looming over his page, we can talk of stamina and turf. After all, the set-up of Saturday’s race on the slop summoned from Mr. Big News the kind of finishing kick we traditionally associate with grass. (Note how that push-button turf finish is nowhere in Europe more common than in France, where, paradoxically, the other trademark is very often a slow pace.) But for now we can shelve all these possibilities with Mr. Big News and dwell instead on much the most conspicuous feature of his family tree: the replication, top and bottom, of a genetic powder keg.

For that Galileo dam of his, Unappeased, is out of a mare named Angelic Song–the only unraced sibling of four parented by Halo and the great broodmare Ballade. The other three all gained championship laurels: Saint Ballado, posthumously, as leading sire when his son Saint Liam was Horse of the Year in 2005; Devil’s Bag, with an Eclipse Award as 2-Year-Old Male of 1983; and Glorious Song, who had won her Eclipse as Older Female three years previously, when also Canadian Horse of the Year. Glorious Song has proved no less significant a broodmare than her dam, most notably through her sons Singspiel (Ire) (In The Wings {GB}) and Rahy (Blushing Groom {Fr}). And Rahy’s many distinctions as a broodmare sire include Mariah’s Storm, the dam of Giant’s Causeway.

As a result Mr. Big News has the full sisters Angelic Song and Glorious Song in harmony on his page, 2 x 4. Their dam Ballade is a key nexus in the family tracing to Skylarking II, who had already delivered a Classic winner in France when included in an exchange deal between John W. Galbreath and Prince Aly Khan for a number of mares to commute across the ocean every few years.

Skylarking II ended up staying in Kentucky, however, after the prince’s death in a car accident in 1960. That same spring she foaled a filly by Swaps, who would become the Darby Dan foundation mare Soaring.

Though the branch under review actually left the farm soon afterwards, the European influences would continue: Soaring’s first foal Miss Swapsco was by Mahmoud (Fr)’s son Cohoes; while her own first foal, in turn, was by the imported Herbager (Fr). (Herbager’s dam, it’s worth recalling, was extraordinarily inbred: both her parents were in the same crop of the same sire, a St Leger winner named Firdaussi (GB).) This was Ballade, who was sold as a yearling to E.P. Taylor for $55,000 before winning a couple of races at a level too modest to indicate her subsequent prowess as a producer.

Darby Dan own’s debt to Soaring instead came through other daughters, notably Far Beyond (Nijinsky), who produced the linchpin Wings Of Grace (Key To The Mint), dam of two Grade I winners including the cherished Soaring Softly (Kris S).    Unfortunately another of Far Beyond’s daughters was sold: the remarkable Battle Creek Girl (His Majesty), whose 15 winners included Tricky Creek, the sire of that modern matriarch Leslie’s Lady. (Somehow, Tricky Creek’s role in the background of Into Mischief and the rest is always studiously overlooked.)

Anyhow, returning to Ballade; and, specifically, to her daughter Angelic Song. Unappeased, the dam of Mr. Big News, was her last foal in 2009, as well she might be, as her 16th in 17 years. No fewer than seven of these had been sired by Sadler’s Wells, headed by Sligo Bay (Ire), a Group-placed juvenile for Ballydoyle. Sold to continue his career in the U.S., he earned his place at stud in Canada with his GI Hollywood Turf Cup success. (Sire of Canadian champion Lexie Lou, he was pensioned last year.)

Another of the Sadler’s Wells litter was Wolfe Tone (Ire), whose light career was crowned when he plodded into fourth in the marathon G1 Ascot Gold Cup. But Angelic Song did have a degree of success in Japan, too. Her stakes-winning daughter Lady Ballade (Ire) (Unbridled) produced a smart runner in Danon Ballade (Jpn) (Deep Impact {Jpn}), who has returned to stud in his homeland after trying his luck in Europe for a couple of years. And while Unappeased herself proved unable to win through a handful of Japanese starts, her genetic distinction (and a Speightstown cover) nonetheless qualified her to raise $675,000 from Don Alberto Corp. when sold through James Keogh at Keeneland November 2013.

She has been a bit slow to get going: her Speightstown filly made a solitary appearance, while a first Giant’s Causeway covering produced Lalibela to win on debut at Gulfstream, only to disappear after two further starts. But there’s no doubt that her ancestry allows Mr. Big News to build on his stakes breakthrough.

As we’ve already acknowledged, few will expect him to do so. Quite apart from the flattering set-up of Saturday’s race, they will consider his limitations to have been exposed on his previous start, when fifth to Modernist (Uncle Mo) at Fair Grounds. But the pace that day, in contrast, was so congenial to the leaders that very little altered ahead of him; and he kept on very willingly.

If Mr. Big News declines the gate he reserved for himself in the GI Arkansas Derby, then Saturday’s program also volunteered a couple who may be eager to fill the breach.

Winner of a local sprint in February, Pneumatic (Uncle Mo) produced a ‘TDN Rising Star’ display when stepped up to a mile in allowance company. (His form had already been reinforced earlier on the card, by an easy success for the horse he beat on debut.) He’s a Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred, and how: his dam is by their titan Tapit, from the family of their foundation mare Carols Christmas. A daughter of Whitesburg, who extended a fast, indigenous American sire-line, Carols Christmas was the dam of Olympio; second dam of Cuvee (Carson City); and third dam of Pyro (Pulpit) and Tapizar (Tapit).

In fact Pneumatic is out of a stakes-placed three-parts sister to Pyro, who won the GII Louisiana Derby, but ultimately got his Grade I in the Forego S. over seven furlongs. Certainly there’s plenty of natural dash to Pneumatic: he was just the right side of “energetic” Saturday yet retained enough fuel to quicken with flair in the stretch. He looks a really imposing type, too, his air of superiority compounded by the way he ran with his tongue impudently lolling.

He clocked a virtually identical time to Shooters Shoot (Competitive Edge) in a similar contest an hour earlier, but at much greater leisure. As it happens, Shooters Shoot was an unrewarding weanling pinhook (sank from $90,000 to $70,000 as a yearling) for Winchell Thoroughbreds; doing much better in the next cycle when sold as a 2-year-old by Cary Frommer for $300,000.

He’s a slower burn than Pneumatic, more in the mould of Mr. Big News: he took five starts to break his maiden, and was thrashed by the exciting Charlatan (Speightstown) in the fourth of them, but is now unbeaten in both starts at a mile. He showed all the grit of champion Storm The Court (Court Vision)–they represent the same connections, and apparently worked in tandem last year–in dragging the runner-up a city block clear of the rest, despite clocking a half-mile only a tick behind the sonic boom of the Oaklawn S.

Whether or not these horses can get into the Arkansas Derby may hinge on a division. There’s going to be no lack of demand, of course, but in principle this silver lining of a race would be a much better fit for the first Saturday in May without one. Having Charlatan on the margin is tricky, but can such a big decision turn on a single animal for now measurable only by the clock? (Rather than the aggregate of seven horses he has encountered in two starts.) It’s a call for the guys at Oaklawn, to whom the industry is already indebted sufficiently to approve of whatever they decide.

Of course, some of these names won’t remain big news for long, as and when we are restored to some kind of normality. For the time being, however, they together serve as another reproof to the complacency we have all now discovered in our past routines. True, these races are rather more competitive than usual, with opportunity so rare-as was most vividly apparent in the Oaklawn Mile on the same card, saturated as it was with authentic Grade I form. But I will never again take for granted any well-bred, improving sophomore, even when they are again daily spread from coast to coast. So let’s respect each and every one of them, while we are where we are, as legitimately Big News.

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