02/22/2013 11:59AM

Anticipation and anxiety high as new crop of freshman sires set to debut

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zensational, whose first crop reaches the races this year, stands at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Lexington, Ky.

It started four years ago.

As the 2009 racing season wore on, the top racehorses became stallion prospects and were retired to the next stage of their lives.

From there, the farms took over, marketing the new additions to their breeding sheds and booking and breeding mares. A foal crop’s worth of gestation periods later, the first foals filled stalls and Facebook pages, were weaned, many led through sales rings as weanlings or yearlings, and then put under tack.

The first 2-year-olds by the freshman sire class of 2013 reach the races this year, and stallion owners and breeders will find out if their investment will pay off. At this point, hope springs eternal.

“Just like any owner of 2-year-olds, you’re optimistic until proven otherwise,” said John G. Sikura, president of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Lexington, Ky. “Everybody’s bullish on their own horse, and we’re no different.”

Fast start wanted

Because of the uncertainty on how a sire’s first crop of runners will perform, it can be difficult to attract mares to him for that breeding season. The “wait and see” mentality is stronger than ever at this time, which makes a fast start by a sire’s progeny imperative in securing mares for the current breeding season and beyond.

“Breeders are very fickle and move from horse to horse to horse, so when you have 2-year-olds, it’s hugely important that you get off the mark with winners, because people forget all about your horse in a hurry,” Sikura said. “People are nervous to breed to a horse whose crop are coming 2-year-olds. When the 2-year-olds run, if they haven’t done something important, those horses are quickly forgotten.”

Sikura, whose Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms stands first-crop stallion Zensational, laid out his vision of the ideal scenario for a freshman sire’s debut season.

“If I could write what was going to happen, you’d have a horse get to the front and open up and win by many at Keeneland in front of all of the breeders, and follow that up with the same thing at Calder and horses coming into the boutique meets at Saratoga and Del Mar, winning impressively and coming back and winning graded stakes,” Sikura said. “If you want to shoot for the moon, that’s the moon – and have three Breeders’ Cup starters.”

The key to achieving that goal is largely a numbers game, being able to put as many runners out there as possible in the hope that it will lead to more winners, and especially more winners in big spots.

“You’ve got to have a critical mass,” said Chris Baker, general manager of WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. “If you’re going to breed 50 mares and have 30 to 35 named 2-year-olds, of which 18 or 20 are going to run and you end up with a handful of winners, you’re going to be hard-pressed to make a lot of noise. It’s pretty competitive out there for these young horses getting the quality and quantity of mares, but those are critical factors in giving a horse a chance.”

WinStar Farm leads all North American farms with five freshman sires: Colonel John, Kodiak Kowboy, Maimonides, Pioneerof the Nile, and U S Ranger. While having that many unproven stallions come to the market at the same time might make a lot of people nervous, Baker said the result is largely out of his hands, and that he was excited to see what the young runners can do.

“Most of our work has been done at this point, so there’s some excitement if you anticipate the outcome of the work you’ve already put in,” Baker said. “It’s hard to be nervous about it when your bed’s already made. It’s just a matter of how it’s going to turn out.”

Small window of opportunity

For a business that requires so much time between conception and the hopeful payoff of a successful racehorse, the breeding industry can be impatient if a young sire does not produce good runners early.

However, a horse who sires early runners who win at the sprint distances that dominate the 2-year-old landscape may actually be closer to his ceiling than the contemporaries that he tops on the sire list.

This is illustrated by the sires of all three 2012 Eclipse Award finalists for champion older male: E Dubai (sire of Fort Larned), Spanish Steps (sire of Little Mike), and Wiseman’s Ferry (sire of Horse of the Year Wise Dan).

All three sires first stood in Kentucky or Florida, then were sent to regional markets after a handful of crops, and all three Eclipse finalists were conceived before their sires’ relocation. In the first two years they had runners on the track, the three sires combined for a Grade 2 winner and a Grade 3 winner (both by E Dubai), a Puerto Rican stakes winner by Spanish Steps, and a Panamanian stakes winner by Wiseman’s Ferry.

“I don’t put as much emphasis as some people might on horses that look like they’re going to come out running five furlongs in May,” said leading 2-year-olds in training consignor Niall Brennan. “That doesn’t matter to me. The good, classy sires don’t necessarily do that anyway.”

Some sires of successful early runners, said Brennan, “are just limited sprinter sires, cheap speed, if they do that. In a freshman sire, I want to see quality, I want to see athleticism, and I want to see the look of a horse that will go a distance.”

Sales season the first test

Before the parimutuel debuts of the freshman-sired juveniles, a significant number of them will go through the auction ring during the 2-year-olds in training sales season.

These sales will be the first opportunity for many owners and trainers to see how juveniles by these sires move on the track during the under-tack shows and how they have come along physically as they approach their racing debuts.

Both Sikura and Baker said that a big 2-year-old sales season might help sell nominations to the sires, but it does not necessarily guarantee success when the horses hit the track.

“It’s a big barometer in regards to how precocious they are and how quick they are, and all those things that are really important, when you’re a freshman sire,” Baker said. “The ultimate impact it has on that, I think, is another unknown, but the long and short of it is you’d rather see 2-year-olds in training at these sales coming up that perform well with their breezes and sell well, because you’d think that’s some indication that they’re going to go on and run well. At the end of the day, I don’t know if there’s a direct correlation between the two, but you’d certainly rather see it than not see it.”

The recent market recession caused buyers across all segments of the market to become more discerning in their purchases, which Brennan said has affected the way they view horses by unproven sires.

“For a few years several years ago, freshman sires sold really well,” Brennan said. “If they looked nice, had a nice physical and looked good on the racetrack, they sold great because there was no knock on them. The market seemed to jump on them and possibly give a little more than they were worth, considering it wasn’t a proven sire.

“I think that changed a little bit the last couple of years. I think the buyers in general have said, ‘Let’s take a step back and play this properly. I like this horse, but it’s a freshman sire. Let’s not get carried away.’ I’m not saying they’re not looking for them, but they’re a little more cautious. They’re not willing to go crazy spending on a freshman sire.”

An obvious exception to the buyers’ new mindset was last year’s highest-priced 2-year-old in training, a colt by then-first-crop sire Big Brown. The colt, later named Darwin, commanded $1.3 million from the Coolmore partnership at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of 2-year-olds in training. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the colt made his debut in October, winning at Belmont Park, and then finished fourth in the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct.