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All in the family: Pedigree can provide insight for trainers
By Nicole Russo
When the bay Malibu Moon colt walked into Shug McGaughey’s shed row last year, the Hall of Fame trainer already had a blueprint of sorts to follow as he shaped the Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney homebred, named Orb, into a racehorse who would ultimately bring McGaughey his first Kentucky Derby win.
McGaughey had trained the colt’s first two dams, winner Lady Liberty and Grade 2 winner Mesabi Maiden. He had also guided the talented but temperamental Coronado’s Quest, who shared bloodlines with Orb, to victories in the 1998 Haskell Invitational and Travers Stakes. The mare Laughter, bred by the Janney family, was the second dam of Coronado’s Quest and the fourth dam of Orb, respectively.
“Some of the old Janney families, [such as] Coronado’s Quest’s family, have been a little bit funny,” said McGaughey, who has trained for the Phipps and Janney families since 1985 and has thus handled several generations of families from their prolific program. “And I watched Orb somewhat, just kind of remembering that, to make sure I didn’t overdo it one way or the other. And he got better with racing. He was a little bit more high-strung earlier. And then with racing and [experience] – [on] Derby Day, he was perfect.”
This season, Orb has won the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth Stakes in addition to the Kentucky Derby and has also posted thirds in both the Belmont and Travers, placing him among the leaders of a wide-open 3-year-old male division. McGaughey’s familiarity with the colt’s relatives certainly didn’t hurt as he trained Orb through a busy Triple Crown campaign.
Several trainers who have handled multiple horses of similar lineage – generations of mares and their offspring, siblings, or progeny of a stallion – also noted that certain traits are shared within bloodlines. While horses must be handled as individuals, with pedigree by no means an exhaustive guide to training, familiarity with the family can help a trainer efficiently address a quirky personality.
“I do see the similarities,” McGaughey said. “I try not to look at it too much to where it might influence me one way or the other. If I see one starting to get a little bit edgy or [show something in] the way he’s training or the way he runs, I’ll have it in the back of my head [that], ‘Oh, well, the mother [behaved] the same way, or the half-brother.’ I do look at it, but I try not to let it influence me.”
Ian Wilkes, whose most famous charge is 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, agrees that certain traits can run within families.
“Some of the families, you do see different attributes that go hand in hand with the horses,” said Wilkes, who also trains Fort Larned’s half-brother Lent. “You do see that, and it does help to know the family.”
Another group of famed Phipps family members shared noticeable quirks in their training. McGaughey trained champion Personal Ensign, by Private Account, who went unbeaten in 13 career starts, and he also handled her full brother, multiple Grade 1 winner and millionaire Personal Flag. Personal Ensign went on to produce four-time Grade 1 winner My Flag, whose sire, champion and classic winner Easy Goer, was also trained by McGaughey.
Personal Ensign was also the dam of Grade 1 winners Miner’s Mark and Traditionally, and Grade 1-placed Our Emblem, all by Mr. Prospector. McGaughey trained all four of those Personal Ensign runners, and also trained My Flag’s champion daughter, Storm Flag Flying. Personal Ensign was awarded Broodmare of the Year in 1996.
“There were a lot of [traits shared] in Personal Ensign’s offspring,” McGaughey said. “Miner’s Mark, her first foal, I think he was probably late in his 3-year-old season before I ever got him off his back feet. Our Emblem was the same way. And My Flag, she was a great big filly, and she was rough around the barn. So they did share a lot of the quirky things from Personal Ensign.”
While similarities within families may provide guidance, trainers cautioned that above all, horses must be approached as individuals.
“Well, they’re different characters,” said Charlie LoPresti, speaking about celebrated half-siblings Wise Dan and Successful Dan. “All of my horses are different. As a trainer, every horse has to be treated as an individual. You can’t treat any horse the same.”
Wise Dan, by Wiseman’s Ferry, earned Horse of the Year, champion older male, and champion turf male honors for 2012 and is unbeaten in four starts this season, most recently taking the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga. Successful Dan, by Successful Appeal, has grabbed his share of the limelight, capturing four graded stakes and finishing third in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. Both geldings, homebreds racing for Morton Fink, are out of the winning Wolf Power mare Lisa Danielle. LoPresti also trains two other winning half-siblings owned and bred by Fink: Casino Dan, by Mutakddim, and Enchanting Lisa, by War Chant.
Approaching the pair as individuals has helped Fink and LoPresti keep their star runners apart in 2013. Although Wise Dan is a Grade 1 winner on dirt and graded stakes winner on synthetic, his current eight-race win streak has taken place entirely on turf, while Successful Dan’s graded stakes victories have come on dirt and synthetic.
“We never tried [Successful Dan] on the grass. We worked him on the grass one day, and he was looking around at the grandstand and the tote board,” LoPresti recalled. “He didn’t have any idea what he was doing. I think he worked five-eighths in 1:06 and I said, ‘You know what, we’re not going to try the grass.’ ”
Wilkes noted that horses from the same female family may still be quite different individuals because of traits passed on from their sires. On June 15, Wilkes sent out Lent to score an impressive maiden victory in his second career start at Churchill Downs. Hours later, he saddled Fort Larned to capture the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap under the twin spires, the horse’s third top-level win. Both runners, homebreds for Janis Whitham, are out of the winning Broad Brush mare Arlucea. Fort Larned, however, is a son of E Dubai, while Lent is by the late Claiborne Farm stallion Pulpit.
“He’s a little more hotheaded, this horse,” Wilkes said of Lent. “He’s got a little more Pulpit in him. So he’s a little more higher-strung sort of horse. He’s talented, but he’s got a long way to go to live up to his brother.”
While stallions tend to pass on notable traits to their offspring, there can be vast differences there, as well. Mike Maker has handled many runners by turf champion and Ramsey Farm stallion Kitten’s Joy, who as of Sept. 4 was ranked second on the North American general sire list. Maker’s roster includes Grade 1 winner Admiral Kitten; graded stakes winners Derby Kitten and Dean’s Kitten; and stakes winners Artemus Kitten, Gung Ho, and Always Kitten. Among the standouts in 2013 is Kitten’s Dumplings, winner of the Grade 2 Lake George Stakes and Grade 3 Regret Stakes.
“She’s a little more high-strung than most [runners by Kitten’s Joy] you get,” Maker said of Kitten’s Dumplings. “But if they can run like that, who cares? Usually, Kitten’s Joy’s horses are laid-back and calm. Kitten’s Dumplings is just higher-strung. We deal with her, and we’re happy to have her. She gets a window stall, and we just kind of let her do her own thing. We train her early, and we get her out [to the track] – she likes to get out early.”
Related horses sharing mental characteristics might also have physical differences, meaning that, although similar in personality, they require a different timetable. New Mexico-bred millionaire Peppers Pride was a multiple stakes winner as a juvenile en route to retiring unbeaten in 19 starts. Her first foal, the 2-year-old Distorted Humor filly Funny Pepper, has not yet started.
“She’s not really built like Pepper,” trainer Joel Marr said. “Being by Distorted Humor, maybe sharing more of his traits, she’s going to be a little bit smaller filly than Pepper. Pepper was 17 hands, and this filly doesn’t quite look like her physically. But she has a few of the mental characteristics that [Peppers Pride] had. She’s not stubborn, but she’s very determined, I guess I would say.”
Still, Marr does agree that traits can run within families.
“Sure they do, just like [with related] people,” Marr said. “If a horse does something on the racetrack or does something quirky, someone will say, ‘Aw, her mother did that.’ It’s kind of a saying, but it’s true, [mares] do pass down a lot of those traits. And being around a mare and then around her offspring or siblings, there are certainly things that stand out that you could identify them by.”
I think foals get more personality from their dams simply because they spend more time with them, they never meet their sires, but they're around their dams for months, picking up traits, good and bad.