Value Sires for '22: Part VIII: Established Stallions

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Hard Spun | Darley photo

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And so we reach the final leg of our journey hunting out value among Kentucky sires in 2022. It's been a rather more focused exercise this time round, and if that means plenty of stallions (and indeed some farms) have been overlooked, so be it. It's only ever the subjective view of a single bystander. You'll know what works for your own mare, and for your own agenda, too, whether you're an end user, say, or first and foremost need to anticipate commercial demand.

We've often complained that a market so perilously tilted towards unproven sires is driven by ringside investors, that many breeders feel obliged to choose their matings accordingly, like it or not and that the system works least well for the stallion farms themselves. It's a lose-lose scenario. On the one hand, an awful lot of sires with marginal eligibility weaken the gene pool with hundreds of mediocre foals. On the other, since almost all have exhausted their commercial usefulness within a couple of years, some will be discarded while retaining valid potential, but having simply required a little patience.

I do accept that stallions must nowadays expect to be judged pretty early, in that debut books are the biggest and best most will ever muster. So it's only right to celebrate those that do make a breakthrough. But that doesn't mean, as you often hear, that freshmen are the only pragmatic option for most investors because the proven operators have all priced themselves out of reach.

The object today is to refute that theory. To give examples of the affordable stallions out there, besides your Into Mischiefs and Tapits and Curlins, with a body of work that will only ever be matched by a tiny percentage of the dozens of rookies starting up every spring.

Those featured in the previous instalment, “Through The Crossroads,” already verge on this status. Now we move onto the real veterans, who have carved out a sustainable niche for themselves despite perennial competition, not least on their own farms, from lavishly promoted new rivals.

The nature of this particular beast, along with the compression of the format this year, means that we will inevitably be rounding up some of the usual suspects. No apologies for that. If we reckoned a horse to be both proven and well-priced last year, then something pretty dramatic will need to have happened to alter that perception, whether for better or worse.

Tragically, the most dramatic change of all has claimed English Channel, Malibu Moon and Bernardini since we included them, last year, in a wider survey of those who had contributed more to the breed than was implied by their fees. Their loss reminds us, however, how very precious are those stallions that do replicate their prowess and how very irresponsible it is to neglect them in favor of smooth-talking freshmen, almost invariably here today and gone tomorrow.

As it is, one or two of our favorites have actually seen their fees come down again for the coming season. If they have for once lacked the kind of headline horse that can cover a multitude of sins, especially among sires with more industrial books, then they have made no such descent in our esteem. After all, if there's one thing we all find hard to mend, it's obstinacy!

Good luck to you all in '22.

Bubbling under: It has been inevitable for a long time now and Lookin at Lucky must finally accept that his Ashford buddy Munnings has disappeared over the horizon. They started out together, a decade ago, but somehow Munnings was always credited with a glamor that nobody would ever grant to poor old Lookin at Lucky. That has steadily told in both the size and quality of their books, which last spring weighed in at 217 and 80, respectively, to the point that one has now soared to $85,000, while the other dwindles to $15,000.

Lookin at Lucky has long been burdened with a self-fulfilling reputation as supposedly not being a “sales horse.” Even way back when he was champion freshman by winners, at a stunning 29 from 44 starters, it was Munnings who doubled his next book to enter the national top six, while Lookin at Lucky trod water at 115 (from 121). Since then, of course, Lookin at Lucky has sired winners of the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Breeders' Cup Classic (with only Monomoy Girl {Tapizar} denying Grade I winner Wow Cat {Chi} the double in the GI Distaff on the same card). But nothing he does ever seems to make any difference. He'd be an annual podium lock, strictly for end-users, but they have enough sense to accept that we can't keep using up a step for a horse whose commercial treatment is so stubbornly short-sighted.

Suffice to say that while the relative volume and quality of their support has gradually told in black-type action, even a stallion as avowedly splendid as Munnings still can't separate himself from Lookin at Lucky by their Grade I/overall graded stakes ratios. His fee now, if an insult to the horse himself and a rebuke to the marketplace, is conversely a gift to anyone in the business of breeding a runner. You couldn't prove a mare more economically.

Another we've long admired is Midnight Lute, who retains a fee of $15,000 after producing a fourth Grade I winner in 2020 and a fifth in 2021. Smooth Like Strait, moreover, was only caught by half a length when trying to add the GI Breeders' Cup Mile. The Hill 'n' Dale sire has long made plain that there's far more to him than Midnight Bisou, with 38 graded stakes performers overall, and one-in-10 of his named foals making the grade as stakes horses.

Sky Mesa beats even that lifetime clip. The Three Chimneys veteran had a quiet year by his standards, but those are ridiculously high for a $12,500 cover.

Bronze: MIDSHIPMAN (Unbridled's Song–Fleet Lady, by Avenue Of Flags), $10,000, Darley

What an incredible nugget of a horse this is. After eight years, his fee has finally inched back up (from $7,500) in some small testament to his metronomic production of stakes horses from basement covers. All he needs is that breakout Grade I success, but he's getting ever closer–Royal Ship (Brz) having been foiled by a head in the Hollywood Gold Cup and Special Reserve by half a length in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt.

That pair featured among 21 stakes performers for Midshipman in 2021, contributing to a lifetime percentage of 13.5% of named foals, a match for Medaglia d'Oro among many others. Okay, so he can't reach the higher grades quite as often, but that's hardly surprising when his studmate is getting mares deserving of a six-figure cover.

This is a great example of one of the game's mighty empires really looking after the little guy. Midshipman, reliably ticking over three-figure books deep in his career, is a half-brother to the dam of Frosted but their mother is out of a Roberto half-sister to a very good horse in Europe. Remember Midshipman was a top-class juvenile on synthetics, and with his mixed pedigree he can get you any kind.

This year, moreover, he moved up his yearlings to $48,671 from $33,236. Midshipman will never let you down, and it's only a matter of time before a small breeder in Kentucky gratefully pulls that first Grade I winner out of the pack.

 

Silver: BLAME (Arch–Liable, by Seeking The Gold)

$20,000, Claiborne

Oh, will somebody please give this guy a break! I feel sorry for the horse and sorry for the farm. How is it that a stallion who has rallied so well from tough times, elevating his ninth crop of yearlings to an average of $124,402 (from $57,884 in 2020), must take a cut from $30,000?

A year ago even that fee looked the best value around to me, based on his overall body of work, so what are we to make of this new tag? Sure, Blame had a pretty quiet year by his standards, with only a couple of graded stakes winners. But that's no surprise, given that his available footprint was so narrow. His current sophomores graduate from the book that represented his nadir, when he slumped to just 48 mares (from 105) in 2017. That crisis required his fee to be halved from $25,000 to $12,500, and breeders took their cue by promptly restoring him to 112 mares in 2018.

In the myopic world we live in, doubtless there were limits to how much encouragement they had found in the fact that his breakout first Classic success, the previous year, should have been over in France. But he promptly added two Grade I winners on dirt from the same crop, only his third. Since then Blame has mustered two more elite winners from the book preceding his 2017 blip: the brilliant but luckless Nadal, a millionaire in just four starts and alertly picked up by Shadai for a stud career; as well as another turf filly in Abscond.

Despite his aristocratic pedigree and exemplary record, on and off the track, in his whole stud career Blame has never received more than 119 mares. No doubt people have been diffident, albeit childishly so, about a son of Arch who reached his peak in his third campaign. Unsurprisingly, as such, his latest fee cut presumably reflects the fact that last spring his book suffered one of its sporadic dips, to 69. But his superb performance at the yearling sales suggests that he has really seized the chance he created for himself in turning round his 2017 crisis. It also suggests that those who stick with him now can expect his upgrading stock to renew his momentum, on the racetrack, by the time foals conceived this coming spring reach the sales ring.

So he's actually a feasible commercial proposition, at this fee–quite apart from the fact that his lifetime output identifies him as outstanding value for any persisting in so quaint a pursuit as trying to breed a runner.

Even in what we know was always going to be a limited year, Blame has had eight stakes winners. He's had a juvenile filly beaten barely half a length for a Grade I, his tiny sophomore group still included a group winner who flew into fourth of 19 in the G1 Prix du Jockey-Club, and his black-type and graded-stakes action has maintained a ratio that measures up to, well, Uncle Mo for a start! (And beats many other expensive stallions.)

That's just what we know to expect of Blame, whose output across all indices is as consistent as many a more expensive stallion. To sample just a few established names too excellent to be embarrassed by the comparison, across-the-board Blame can match or surpass the ratios for stakes winners/performers, graded stakes winners/performers and Grade I winners/performers of Candy Ride (Arg), More Than Ready, Munnings, Twirling Candy, Street Sense and Kitten's Joy. In individual categories, moreover, he can match even more expensive and prestigious stallions.

I don't really know what else he's supposed to do. Remember that this was a nine-for-13 winner of nearly $4.4 million, with nine consecutive triple-figure Beyers, whose grand-dam is a half-sister to Nureyev and Fairy Bridge. He presents Thong and Courtly Dee opposite each other as third dams of his respective parents.

Maybe that's not enough for you, but anyone who wants to breed a runner–as well, of course, as anyone who might be inclined to retain a filly–will remain extremely happy to take the Blame.

Gold: HARD SPUN (Danzig—Turkish Tryst by Turkoman)

$35,000, Darley

Okay, so Knicks Go has put Paynter in there, too. But this is going to be Hard Spun's third consecutive year in the top 10 of the general sires' list, which is otherwise populated by stallions available in 2022 at $250,000, $75,000, $175,000, $100,000, $90,000, $185,000 and $160,000. He's the parting gift of a breed-changing patriarch, and this year sired his 11th and 12th domestic Grade I winners (to add to three in Australia) in races as resonant as the GI Met Mile and GI Breeders' Cup Sprint.

So how is Hard Spun still available at a fraction of the cost of his peers? Well, as usual, fees must refer to the market and a yearling average of $80,353 limits how far Hard Spun can be elevated in line with his achievements. While that's a perfectly respectable yield, and he has never missed a beat in terms of subscription, I guess that the fact he doesn't get the most precocious stock will always make some commercial breeders nervous.

Yet to add to his resume the fastest horse at a Breeders' Cup staged round the dizzy turns of Del Mar just confirms his versatility. Short, long; dirt, turf, and everything in between. His top earner is a turf sprinter in Australia, and he's had a winner of the sharpest group test in Europe, down the five-furlong ramp at Goodwood. He's had two-turn dirt machines like Questing (GB) and Smooth Roller. Spun To Run made all in the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Hard Not To Love scythed them down in the GI La Brea. Already, moreover, he's showing huge promise as an international broodmare sire. His daughters have so far given us the likes of Good Magic (Curlin), Japanese sprint star Danon Smash (Jpn) (Lord Kanaloa {Jpn}) and, in Europe this year, dual Group 1 miler Alcohol Free (Ire) (No Nay Never).

It all stands to reason. Though he later landed the GI King's Bishop over seven, Hard Spun held out for second in the GI Kentucky Derby after setting a pace that left the eventual winner, third and fourth, respectively, in 19th, 13th and 20th after half a mile. He complements Danzig with Darby Dan royalty down the bottom line. His granddam was a Roberto half-sister to Little Current (Sea-Bird {Fr}), while the fourth dam produced two farm legends (both by Swaps) in Chateaugay and Primonetta. True, his damsire offers little more than substance, but that hasn't stopped his stakes-winning half-sister from freshening up the page as second dam of multiple Grade I winner Improbable (City Zip).

Hard Spun was standing at $60,000 before he took a year in Hokkaido, and has somehow never quite recovered from being nearly halved in fee for his Kentucky relaunch despite dominating the fourth-crop sires' table during his absence (ahead of Street Sense, English Channel and Scat Daddy). He's always been class, always been value. And anyone who prefers to spend this kind of money on an unproven sire might as well wear a baseball hat bearing the words: Gimme Fast Bucks, Not Fast Horses.

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