09/27/2007 11:00PM

Coronation the exception to inbreeding rule

EmailNEW YORK - Incest is an ugly word, descriptive of a practice well deserving its cultural taboo. In the Thoroughbred world it is usually referred to in its euphemistic form, inbreeding, a term more generally employed to note the presence of an ancestor who appears more than once in a horse's first five generations.

It is not at all unusual for a Thoroughbred to be inbred 3x3 to a great stallion, the idea being that the resulting offspring will have twice as much chance of inheriting that ancestor's traits. In 18th century England, such matings were not rare. Indeed, it was not uncommon for early Thoroughbreds to be inbred even closer than that to the leading sires and broodmares of the day.

The Thoroughbred foundation sire who went by the name of the Godolphin Arabian was the subject of at least one such match. In 1752 he sired a colt named Omar whose maternal great-grandsire was also himself. Even more incestuous was the mating a few years later between Janus and an unnamed mare whose sire was Janus himself. Imagine being the product of a mating between your father and your father's daughter and you get the picture. A similar mating resulted in the 1799 colt Brown Bread, whose dam, Maid of Ely, was also his paternal granddam.

It would be nice to think that 1x2 and 2x1 inbreeding was something confined to the misty past of the Thoroughbred dark ages, but that is not the case. In 1992 Raymond Roncari bred his mare Our Millie to Mr. Prospector. The problem was, Mr. Prospector was also Our Millie's sire. The unfortunate result, a New York-bred filly named Winloc's Millie, defied logic and made it to the races but was a complete bust, losing all four of her starts by a combined 112 lengths. She has since added to traditionalist incredulity by producing seven foals to date, all of them bred by Roncari, although only three of them have won a total of five races from 99 starts.

Not all incestuous Thoroughbred matings have resulted in virtual failure. The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, which will have its 86th renewal at Longchamp next Sunday, was the showcase in 1949 for the most astounding example to the contrary when the 3-year-old filly Coronation, bred 2x2 to the great French stallion Tourbillon, set traditional breeding minds spinning with her four-length victory in France's greatest race.

Coronation was the product of an idea fomented by legendary French breeder-owner Marcel Boussac. She was by 1942 Arc winner Djebel out of Esmeralda, a filly who had won her maiden in track-record time when winning the 1941 Prix Morny and who would win the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, or French 1000 Guineas, a year later. Both were bred and owned by Boussac, as was their mutual sire Tourbillon, who had won the Prix du Jockey-Club, or French Derby, in 1931.

Esmeralda's first foal, Coronation was always a nervous sort, but that never seemed to interfere with her enormous talent. At 2 she won the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Prix Robert Papin at Maisons-Laffitte. At 3 she dead-heated with Galgala in the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches and was a neck second to Musidora in the English Oaks. After Coronation finished a distant second in the Irish Oaks, Boussac and trainer Charles Semblat decided to prepare her for the Arc - still three months down the road - on works alone.

The 1949 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe signaled the beginning of a return to pre-war prosperity in France. Prize money was increased from 7 million francs to 50 million francs, making it the richest race to date in Europe. The huge purse attracted the second-largest field in Arc history as 29 went to post. Coupled in the betting with Eclipse Stakes winner Djeddah and their pacesetter Norval, Coronation started as the 3.70-1 third choice behind a most unlucky Epsom Derby runner-up Amour Drake and Grand Prix de Paris winner Bagheera.

Ridden by Roger Poincelet, Coronation was rated in 10th or thereabouts, improving to third at the quarter pole and leading inside the three-sixteenths pole from where she extended her margin of victory over the 60-1 Double Rose, who was owned by the Princess Aly Khan, aka Rita Hayworth. She in turn had a length on Amour Drake.

Coronation would only finish 10th behind Tantieme in the 1950 Arc and later proved a complete flop as a broodmare, much to the relief of conventional breeders. She was barren 10 times, including four times to Pharis, the only horse of his that Boussac ever rated higher than Coronation, and once to 1957 Kentucky Derby winner Iron Liege.

Hoping that lightning might strike twice, Boussac sent Esmeralda to Djebel again in 1950, a year after Coronation's Arc triumph. The result was a filly named Toladilla who never made it to the races. Boussac's great experiment in uncommon inbreeding had come to an end, but its legacy lives on in the Prix Coronation, a listed race that is run at Saint-Cloud each September on the eve of the Arc, and in the Prix Marcel Boussac, the French juvenile filly championship which is run on Arc Day itself.