Value Sires, Part V: First Sophomores in 2022

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Gormley | Louise Reinagel

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So finally we come to a group of stallions that has at least offered some initial indication of their competence actually to produce a runner. Not that the market tends to enjoy this process! Its nervousness about sires at this stage of their career makes it easy to see why so much investment is instead concentrated in that period of grace when they haven't yet been exposed in such heartless fashion.

Yes, the one or two that are prompt to seize their chance are instantly on their way: their second crop soars at the sales, their fees are hiked, and their next books are oversubscribed. Those that miss out on early headlines, in contrast, find themselves in danger of being discarded almost as hastily. Never mind that some of them could never have been sensibly expected to come up with precocious stock and never mind that a game-changing difference can be made by a single high achiever, wildly distorting an essential parity in underlying ratios. (As such, moreover, it can come down to sheer luck whether or not a particular sire's best prospect happens to get across that highwire of health and soundness.)

In fairness, there's a corollary to the complaint that the monster books herded by so many rookie sires are excessive. Because so long as that remains the case, then actually it's pretty reasonable to reach a few conclusions according to the fortunes of their debut crops. New sires are given so much opportunity that it really can't be very auspicious if they draw a complete blank.

A single juvenile campaign is not enough, obviously, to make judgements of that kind. In the meantime, however, I'm always happy to share the interest of the rest of the community when a stallion appears to make a valid statement with his first runners. It's perfectly coherent to believe, on the one hand, that way too many mares are sent to unproven sires and that those stallions who capitalize are nonetheless legitimately deserving of attention.

And, besides, it's also fitting to celebrate their success simply because it's so very tough, for these farms, to get any young stallion established in such an impatient, neurotic environment.

So hats off to Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) for confounding assumptions about the amount of time his stock might need. In the process, however, he has catapulted his fee to $125,000 from $50,000, and rewarded those who stuck with him after he had opened at $70,000.

The only stallion in this group to have started higher (at $75,000) had been the tragic Arrogate (Unbridled's Song), whose posthumous fortunes show how very differently things can unfold for horses with similar eligibility on paper. Himself a late developer, Arrogate has so far been represented by a pretty timid bunch: no winners before September, and zero black-type. There's no reason at all, of course, why his maturing stock shouldn't still prove worthy of his legacy. In the meantime, however, their contrasting fortunes show how precarious is the quest for value. We have to compromise between those sires that retain our faith even if, like Arrogate, they haven't produced overnight dividends and those that can at least comfort us with some viable momentum, pending any breakthrough.

Cupid (Tapit), for instance, must ride out a bump in his road after plummeting from 223 mares to 53 in his second book. Both figures were equally extreme, but maybe he can continue to eke sufficient credit from his debut crop to make a sustainable revival at what is now a basement fee. Such are the volatilities challenging these stallions. By the same token, the rewards for catching a rising tide now–when many are available at dwindling fees–will be proportionately greater. Here, as subjective as ever, is the choice of one bystander.

Bubbling under: There's a case for arguing that Practical Joke (Into Mischief) remains value even at his new fee of $35,000, up from $22,500. If the “pipeline” counts for anything, he's in business, having actually corralled his biggest book yet at Ashford last spring despite serving 608 mares through his first three seasons. And that was before his first crop put him behind only Gun Runner in the earnings table. The action duly continued at the sales, where his second crop (sold 84 of 92) hit it out of the park at an average $162,472–up from $120,243 with his first crop, a rare distinction.

Strictly on the racetrack, however, he has been matched stride for stride by Connect (Curlin). Each has 24 winners, from virtually the same number of starters (68 and 65), including five black-type performers apiece. Practical Joke has four winners at that level, compared with just two for Connect–but both of those are graded stakes scorers, including Classic prospect Rattle N Roll (GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity). Albeit Connect can't yet match Practical Joke in the sales ring, he has earned a hike to $25,000 from $15,000 at Lane's End.

No denying that Mastery (Candy Ride {Arg}) has yet to find his stride. We thought him attractively priced, starting out, at $25,000–and sure enough, he processed his first yearlings at a handsome $129,421. He has had 11 winners so far, and no black-type, but I remain confident he will come good with maturing stock. In the meantime, Claiborne's extremely generous fee cut, to just $10,000, gives breeders every incentive to keep the faith.

A word, too, for Astern (Aus) (Medaglia d'Oro). His exotic profile has evidently defeated some imaginations, at the sales, but he has made a very purposeful start where it counts–as many as five black-type performers, in fact, from his dozen winners to date. If he can build on that, hopefully he will start getting due recognition on $10,000 at Darley.

Bronze: CLASSIC EMPIRE (Pioneerof The Nile—Sambuca Classica by Cat Thief), $17,500, Ashford

Perhaps this wouldn't be the most obvious of the four Coolmore sires in the top seven of the freshman's table. His fee has halved since starting out, and he mustered not even half the fourth book of Practical Joke. But he has actually made a pretty solid start out on the track and, with a pedigree that entitles his stock to keep developing, this might be an opportune moment to take a roll of the dice.

His first crop, standing fourth by earnings, has matched Practical Joke and Connect with five black-type performers (including a GII Adirondack S. runner-up), only from fewer runners. His 19 winners from 57 starters meanwhile represents a similar base ratio, leaving Classic Empire deficient only in the kind of headline acts that so often make or break a young stallion's career. But he might well have found one of those in Rocket Dawg, who started repaying his $375,000 yearling tag when impressing on debut for Brad Cox at Churchill last month. A couple of days later the $550,000 2-year-old, Classy Edition, extended her unbeaten start for Todd Pletcher with a second stakes win.

Those were just a couple of late-season straws in the wind. Having excelled both in the ring and on the track, however, they represent a sample of the kind of stock that could quickly turn round the four consecutive fee cuts suffered by their sire.

Over the years, the yearling market has acclaimed eventual duds as routinely as it has underrated sires of real potency. And if Classic Empire has so far achieved only a modest commercial yield, then his sliding fee has at least maintained sufficient traffic (321 mares across the last three seasons) to keep him in the game as he starts to draw out some exemplary old-school flavors in his pedigree.

Remember how Classic Empire unseated his rider leaving the gate in the GI Hopeful S.? The opening was gratefully seized by his future studmate Practical Joke, but it was Classic Empire who regrouped to be champ. Maybe he could yet do something similar now.

Silver: UNIFIED (Candy Ride {Arg}–Union City by Dixie Union), $10,000, Lane's End

The other steps on the podium go to a couple that could heat up a slightly tepid commercial reception for their yearlings, now that they are beginning to offer a more meaningful gauge of their ability to recycle their excellence. Unified, in contrast, has achieved an absolutely unmissable momentum at auction.

Sure, his first crop has performed with ample credit on the track. His 15 winners from 41 starters include three who scored at black-type level. These include two-for-two Behave Virginia, winner of the Debutante S. at Churchill, and three-for-three Unified Result, a $33,000 yearling who has bossed the Louisiana-bred scene.

And that was consistent with the dash Unified had shown in his own career, despite never making the track himself at two. He landed running with a 99 Beyer, clocked 1:47.14 in the GII Peter Pan, and missed the GI Carter H. by just a neck. And he has the physique and pedigree for his first sophomores to stretch that speed, too.

But the really staggering advance made by Unified since this time last year is the performance of his second crop at the yearling sales. He sold 39 out of 40 into the ring, an unbelievable ratio, for an average $66,846–dizzily multiplying a fee that has, unusually enough, remained constant throughout. Remember that stallions are typically flattered by sales statistics, in that their averages “reward” them for failing to sell their least attractive stock. (Sure, you also have to factor in the occasional ambitious reserve for better models–but the principle stands.) Remember also that almost all stallions absorb considerable erosion in yearling values between their first and second crops, yet Unified elevated his by almost exactly half from $43,390.

In the meantime, he had already turned round the slide so familiar in a young stallion's books. After shrinking from 152 mares in his debut year (basically oversubscribed, by the commendably restrained standards of this farm) to 102 and then 68, he was right back up to 144 last spring.

It's extremely unusual for a stallion at this stage of his career to be accelerating like this, without the kind of racetrack breakout we've seen from Gun Runner. All this buzz about Unified can hardly be attributed to ninth in the freshman's championship, and zero graded stakes action to date. People are plainly loving what they are seeing, in flesh and blood. If his first crop can build on a promising start, then, and his second can run anything like they must look, this fee will be one of many things left in the rear-view mirror.

Gold: GORMLEY (Malibu Moon–Race to Urga by Bernstein), $7,500, Spendthrift

Pretty unusual for a commercial farm like this actually to increase the fee of a freshman lurking only 10th in the earnings table. But there are general and specific reasons to think that Gormley represents a value play right now.

He was, of course, among 15 of 21 stallions on this roster to receive business-like cuts this time last year. If that has residually given Spendthrift a consistent presence in this series, so be it.

But let's not pretend that cutting Gormley again to $5,000 (from $7,500; opened at $10,000) was purely a Covid concession. He had processed the yearlings from a hefty debut book of 180 at a disappointing yield–a median of only $20,000 was pretty disastrous against their conception fee–and traffic had begun to erode, albeit a total 199 covers across years two and three keeps him amply in the game.

There has been a definite turn in the tide since. True, Gormley again rather struggled for traction at the yearling sales, but pinhookers should have remembered some of the punches he landed in the 2-year-old market (where his maturing stock doubled their yearling average). But his fourth book rallied to 158 mares, significantly bucking the trend. That will really help him to consolidate, should his opening crops start to outrun their yearling profile out on the track. And that is exactly what I think could happen, judging from the fact that only class leader Gun Runner and Caravaggio (Scat Daddy), who has bombarded the hectic European juvenile sprint program with no fewer than 78 starters, can beat Gormley with a fourth graded/group performer.

Gormley's trio include GII Saratoga Special romper High Oak, who disappeared (reportedly with injury) after what felt like a disappointing fourth in the GI Hopeful S. and is evidently still considered a Derby prospect. The others finished runner-up in the GIII Sanford S. (this was the $550,000 juvenile, Headline Report, the top colt by a freshman at OBS March) and GIII Pocahontas S. respectively.

In other words, his first wave was featuring prominently in the kind of races that start shaking down the leading summer juveniles. And it's not just the fact that Gormley himself added the GI Santa Anita Derby to a juvenile Grade I success that encourages one to think that his 20 winners to date, from 57 starters, will keep progressing.

Because if the turf elements in Gormley's pedigree contributed to commercial wariness, then their sheer class is going to shine through his stock with maturity and, in some cases, maybe distance too. His family is inlaid with both toughness and flair, ideal to carry speed through the kind of races we all covet most.

In fact, I'm not sure too many in this group are more eligible to sire a Classic type. Okay, Gun Runner. But you can now get 17 Gormleys for the price of one of those. Admittedly Malibu Moon left one critical gap in his legacy, thanks to a preponderance of females and geldings among his best performers. Here, in the nick of time, could yet be the heir he deserved.

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