11/11/2005 1:00AM

Ashado perfect fit for Darley's grand plan

Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Ashado graces the Keeneland sales ring, landing a record $9 million bid.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - As a record-priced broodmare, Ashado - sold for $9 million this week - has taken a place in auction records that is in accord with her distinction as a racehorse. She is first rate.

The winner of a dozen races and nearly $4 million on the racetrack, Ashado earned her acclaim as an athlete with victories in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff and a half-dozen other Grade 1 stakes, including the Spinaway, Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, and Beldame. Not surprisingly, with a record like that she was also named champion 3-year-old filly in 2004. These distinctions were incentives for the competitive bidding that marked her sale and produced the record price.

"We decided some time ago that this was a very special filly, and Sheikh Mohammed was very keen to secure her for the paddocks here in America," said John Ferguson, who made the winning bid for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum.

In a sport that takes great pride in its stars, Sheikh Mohammed has been systematically acquiring a constellation of the brightest for his American farm, Darley at Jonabell.

In addition to Ashado, Darley has purchased such outstanding racemares and broodmares as Manistique, Stellar Jayne, Sharp Cat, Windsharp, Composure, and Unbridled Elaine.

The Maktoum family has never been especially shy about purchasing premium bloodstock, but the somewhat surprising facet of Darley's more recent purchases is that many of them show a distinct bias toward American racing in pedigree and performance.

Perhaps this should not be such a surprise considering the increasing emphasis that Darley has placed on strengthening and enlarging its presence in America.

"We're developing a farm at Jonabell, and Sheikh Mohammed is very keen to have the very best broodmares on that farm in order to give it the best chance of success," Ferguson said.

Part of Darley's emphasis in developing Jonabell as its American arm is that the operation is truly international, with farms and racing in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, as well as Europe, America, and Japan.

Another part of the interest in America is Sheikh Mohammed's objective to win the Kentucky Derby.

"Darley is trying to build a very American-oriented broodmare band at Jonabell," said Jimmy Bell, the president of Darley USA.

Some of the keystones of that operation are mares by stallions such as Unbridled, his son Unbridled's Song, and Saint Ballado. These sires do not have significant presence in the turf racing of Europe, but they have significance in the buildup to the Triple Crown every year here in the U.S.

So, when premium broodmares from these lines become available, Darley is wholeheartedly in the market for them.

Bell said that mares of this type and quality "don't come on the market very often, and when they do, they are not easy to acquire."

"Sheikh Mohammed has a commitment to racing here in the U.S.," Bell said, "and the Godolphin operation is very interested in starting at the racetrack with runners from a young and vibrant broodmare band suited to the conditions here.

"[Sheikh Mohammed] is a visionary and can easily look to the future, building a first-rate foundation with a long-term goal of producing something that will last for generations."

Acquiring broodmares like Ashado is the first step in producing a lasting effect in the structure of pedigrees, and the dark brown daughter of Saint Ballado possesses a physique to match her racing talent.

A filly with good height and scope, Ashado stands a bit over 16 hands. Her build is typical for offspring of Saint Ballado. She has good balance, with a deep shoulder and powerful hindquarter.

As a filly in training, she is a bit leggy, although she will fill out and make a handsome broodmare.

She is, in short, just the kind of broodmare that the breeding plan at Darley desires. Darley is looking to produce racehorses for competition at the highest level internationally, and to do that, it needs the highest-quality athletes as sires and dams.

In selecting mares and broodmare prospects such as Ashado, Bell said: "There are three factors: conformation, race record, and family. All these mares have been extraordinary racemares, and they exemplify the qualities you hope they will pass on to their offspring. They will be bred to superior stallions, and our goal is to produce top-class racehorses that can then go on to become influential breeding stock."

The Darley operation is in "the final phases of confirming mating plans" for its acquisitions, Bell said.