By Chris McGrath
The shocking loss this week of the young gun Laoban, preceded just days earlier by that of the venerable Malibu Moon, could not fail to renew the kind of questions we should all keep asking themselves about how a stallion can make an enduring reputation.
Both had started out in a regional program, having shown only marginal eligibility for a stud career on the racetrack, before quickly earning migration to Kentucky. If that was just about all they had in common, then their different roles on two of the biggest commercial rosters will have made the exit of both deeply grievous for their respective farms.
Malibu Moon will be remembered as an important horse perhaps not so much for his genetic legacy, notable as it was, as for his founding contribution to the new Spendthrift. He arrived from Castleton Lyons in 2008 as one of just three stallions to relaunch a farm that has since presided over a revolution in commercial breeding. By that stage, he had already elevated his fee to $40,000, from an opening $3,000 under the estimable Pons family at Country Life Farm. Over the years that followed, Malibu Moon weighted down the roster as B. Wayne Hughes set about trying to float young stallions like Into Mischief.
That horse was famously launched into the backdraft of the financial crisis, with incentives that other farms considered ruinous until they started introducing similar schemes themselves. We'll never know whether Into Mischief might have fallen between the cracks in a more conventional environment. As it was, Malibu Moon remained the elder statesman even as the younger paragon established the viability to an experiment meanwhile expanding giddily in both quantity (to two dozen stallions) and quality (over the past couple of years Hughes has corralled a conspicuous series of upgrades).
Laoban, in contrast, was last fall drafted onto another industrial roster that had lately found itself in need of rejuvenation. The brutal loss two years ago of Pioneerof The Nile, at just 13, left all WinStar's top sires in the same veteran bracket as Malibu Moon: Distorted Humor was then 26, Tiznow and More Than Ready 22, and Speightstown 21. Tiznow has since been pensioned, and Distorted Humor is being managed with due restraint; but Speightstown has bucked one of the most witless prejudices around by actually earning a fee increase in the pandemic economy. I look forward to him emulating Danzig, who conceived War Front and Hard Spun respectively when aged 24 and 26, and so rebuking those who discern some inherent deterioration in the corrosive work of fashion plus competition from cheaper sons.
Be that as it may, happily WinStar have meanwhile seen Constitution step up to the plate, with plenty of promising new recruits in his slipstream. What was interesting about Laoban, much like Daredevil after his repatriation from Turkey to Lane's End, is that he had effectively been rebranded. At precisely the stage where most young sires are creaking under the weight of new, unproven competition, Laoban had demonstrated that the rewards for a fast start are just about as impulsive and disproportionate as the punishment for a slow one.
Think about sires like–well, how about Orb, the most accomplished son of Malibu Moon? When Orb, like Laoban, was about to launch his third crop of juveniles two years ago, he was already confined to just 28 mares. Last year, incredibly, he received seven. Unsurprisingly, he has since been given a fresh start in Uruguay–leaving behind O Besos, who made up more ground than any rival when fifth in that processional GI Kentucky Derby.
One of few others to close in the race was Laoban's son Keepmeinmind, whose Grade I placing the day after Simply Ravishing won the GI Darley Alcibiades S. last fall was sufficient to start an overnight auction to bring their sire to Kentucky. Was that 24-hour breakout more significant than, say, Orb producing GI Spinaway winner Sippican Harbor? Yes, Laboan was working from New York mares, and has come up with handful of other stakes operators; whereas Orb failed to build on his opportunities at no less a farm than Claiborne. But if Laoban was indeed about to become an important stallion, then it would have remained pretty challenging to explain why.
A fairly ordinary page was only somewhat improved by his own contribution. Yes, he was a conduit for a very expensive sire whose other sons in this intake, Nyquist and Outwork, suggest something that can be recycled. But now that all bets are off, I must confess that a fee of $25,000 for Laoban, in a market where Malibu Moon himself (126 stakes winners, 51 graded stakes winners, 17 Grade I winners) was down to $35,000, seemed strong.
Built into that fee, it seemed, was the expectation of renewed market momentum accompanying a “rebirth” in the Bluegrass. It's almost as though a stallion like this gets to be a freshman twice over.
I feel terribly sorry for the WinStar team, to lose Laoban so soon. A young stallion is one of the ultimate symbols of virility in all Nature, and an abrupt death like his–or that of Pioneerof the Nile–is all the more shocking as a result. For the rest of the industry, meanwhile, it's a shame that we won't now get to find out properly whether bringing Laoban to Kentucky was opportunism or an inspired gamble. Because it does us all good, especially the inflexible purists among us, when things happen that don't fit our templates.
It's not as though even the aristocratic Malibu Moon could satisfy us entirely, as he was routinely wheeled out on behalf of any number of instant breakdowns: “This could be another Danzig, another Malibu Moon!” What a difficult business this is, when that is so much more resonant a hope than announcing: “This could be another Orb!”
As it is, Orb's failure leaves the Malibu Moon branch of the A.P. Indy dynasty looking rather precarious–though I must say I do give a decent chance to Gormley, down to a giveaway fee as his first runners hit the track.
When Laoban reached the same crossroads last year, he just hit the pedal and raced straight ahead. But so many stallions, nowadays, are at this point diverted into a blind alley by nervous breeders. The world has changed since Malibu Moon lent gravitas to an experimental new regime at Spendthrift. Nowadays, the rookie stallion is the absolute last to require an incentive scheme. If you were to introduce Share The Upside (and equivalent offers elsewhere) today, you'd surely retreat a step and offer future breeding rights for supporting those stallions under most pressure. It's not commitment to first and second books that stud accountants need, but to third and fourth, or fourth and fifth.
We mentioned Daredevil. Well, he covered 376 mares across his first three seasons at WinStar. Yet he plummeted from 140 mares to 21 as his first runners were approaching the track. Hence his sale to Turkey.
As I've often said, it's neither the farms nor the breeders who are principally to blame for commercial obsession with unproven sires, but those directing consumer investment. Breeders are just anticipating the market. Orb, Daredevil and Laoban are all extreme examples of what happens when young stallions reach the squeeze point. Orb, to be fair, was indulged with four consecutive three-figure books before being abandoned. It's the nature of the beast that most stallions would never succeed, even if guaranteed 140 mares for a decade. Nonetheless, stallions at this stage generally tend to be punished or rewarded unduly according to their first dividends.
The kind of imbalance that has caused paternalist intervention–and litigation–on stallion books could perhaps be avoided if the consumers, on the one hand, were not so poorly advised; and if the farms, on the other, could move back their incentive schemes to support the stallions who nowadays could most do with the help. Otherwise, unlike with Malibu Moon and Laoban, the only respects we ever pay them will be in obituaries.