04/27/2006 11:00PM

Benchmark looking like Alydar's best

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By the time Benchmark (above) went to stud, other sons of Alydar had proven disappointing in their stallion careers.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - With the Kentucky Derby favorite Brother Derek and other high-performing offspring, California-based stallion Benchmark is living up to his name and making himself the standard of excellence among sons of Alydar at stud.

Had Benchmark come along near the beginning of Alydar's stud career, he would have had a much different reception among national breeders and could have begun his career at stud in Kentucky, rather than the River Edge Farm of his owners, Pam and Marty Wygod, in California.

Instead, Benchmark was born at the end of his famous sire's career, and although Alydar was still immensely popular and successful, the stud careers of his most prominent sons did not follow the same trajectory.

Horses of the Year Alysheba and Criminal Type, champion Turkoman, and classic winner Strike the Gold ran aground on the reefs of commercial success, and acceptance of Alydar's sons at stud sank.

Even after a successful racing career in which Benchmark won a trio of Grade 2 stakes and earned $636,707, the horse was not a candidate for stud in Kentucky and was even a push in California's regional breeding market.

Marty Wygod said that "everyone was so down on Alydar as the result of all the sons who had gone to stud in Kentucky and had failed, that to get mares to him we stood him for nothing the first four years. And until he started to show some brilliance, I didn't breed any of my really good mares to him. Even the dam of Silent Sighs" - winner of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks - "was a mare we bought back for $3,000."

Even without a deep group of stellar broodmares as his mates, Benchmark has proven himself more than an average achiever at stud. Wygod said: "He's had remarkable success from mares that were unproven, and I think our yearling crop by Benchmark is extremely strong. That is the first time we bred a lot of really good mares to him and a lot of good mares came from outside."

To bring the horse to a level of success that very good mares were being sent to him, selective breeders had to see traits in Benchmark that offered promise.

Russell Drake, the farm manager at River Edge, said that Benchmark is "nearly 16 hands tall and is a really good-looking, correct horse. He can give you a pretty foal, but his mares shouldn't be petite. The best mares for him are average-sized to big."

The dam of Brother Derek, who is bringing most of the national spotlight to his sire, is not a tall mare. Drake said that the dam, Miss Soft Sell, is a "medium-sized mare with really good muscle, and she has produced two of the very best by Benchmark in Don'tsellmeshort and Brother Derek."

The looks and quality in Benchmark have been obvious since River Edge purchased him as a weanling for $475,000 at the Keeneland November sale in 1991. Drake said, "When we bought him as a weanling, Alydar was so popular he walked on water."

Wygod recalled that "at the time I purchased him, he didn't look like a typical Alydar but looked more like a Danzig," with the roundness and muscularity of that great sire.

Good-looking and talented, Benchmark did not have the opportunity to show his ability early and was a "very underrated racehorse," Wygod said.

He noted that Benchmark was "injured behind at 2 as a result of trying to climb over the top of his stall at Hollywood Park. I think his injury behind prevented him from being as precocious as he might have been and also made him come from way out of it in his races."

Racing through his 7-year-old season, Benchmark has come charging to the front as a sire of horses who mature well and prosper at distances of a mile and more.

The quality of his offspring has created sufficient interest that farms in Kentucky have inquired about moving him to the Bluegrass.

Wygod said: "Two farms wanted to bring him to Kentucky last year, but we had too many mares already committed out here. While you never say never in this game, the probability is that he will stay in California. Just to have the sire of a Kentucky Derby winner would be enough for me. Don't worry about moving the horse."

Regardless of the result on the first Saturday in May, Benchmark has shown that he can sire outstanding racehorses. And Drake said that "for him to be this kind of sire is a dream come true."

Benchmark joins leading sires Bertrando and Pirate's Bounty in a tradition of quality stallions at River Edge Farm. Wygod said, "I'd love to tell you there is a skill set, a standard protocol, or an innovative approach that was allowing us to be successful with these horses, but after being in racing for 40 years, there is an awful lot of it that's luck.

"I'd rather be lucky in this game than smart."