02/21/2009 1:00AM

Curlin and Big Brown lead the pack

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Although the quality of horses has remained much the same, the pricing on nearly all incoming stallion prospects for 2009 has changed to reflect the world's economic turmoil. The upper-tier stud fees are not as high as in recent years, and there appears to be more compression of fees for horses below them as stallion managers try to remain competitive.

On several levels, the leader among new horses entering stud in Kentucky is the Horse of the Year, Curlin. A classic winner and champion at 3, winner of the Dubai World Cup at 4, and the leading North American money winner with more than $10 million in earnings, Curlin has accomplished great things.

He is big, robust, and masculine with great presence. He knows he's a champion.

This grand chestnut son of Smart Strike will stand at Lane's End Farm for $75,000, the season's highest fee for a new stallion. Just below him are Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown and European classic winner Henrythenavigator, both at $65,000.

Big Brown, a son of Boundary and the Nureyev mare Mien, captured public enthusiasm with his powerful victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Before the Belmont Stakes, when Big Brown had the potential to become only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, Three Chimneys Farm acquired an undisclosed percentage of Big Brown to stand him at stud. The agreement was reported to put the colt's total value at about $50 million.

No negotiations were required to position Henrythenavigator at Ashford, Coolmore's American breeding operation, because this son of Kingmambo was already owned by Susan Magnier, the wife of Coolmore chief John Magnier.

Henrythenavigator won two classics last season - the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Irish equivalent at the Curragh - in addition to the St. James's Palace and Sussex narrowly from Raven's Pass, who then reversed that order in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Second in the Classic, however, was the same placing that brought Coolmore's Giant's Causeway to American attention, and he has made millions for Coolmore as the most successful son of Storm Cat at stud.

Curlin, Big Brown, and Henrythenavigator each stand for more than double the next-highest fee - $30,000 for the Cherokee Run colt War Pass. A highly regarded champion at 2, War Pass was unbeaten at that age, and his breeding rights were acquired by Lane's End in a private deal with his owner, Robert LaPenta, near the end of 2007.

A round-bodied dark brown, War Pass is a generally bigger horse than was apparent at 2 and has a powerful hindquarter. Measuring 8.5 inches around the cannon, he is considerably more rugged than one might expect from a colt who was so precocious. A sesamoid injury ended the career of War Pass after a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial last April.

An opposite pattern of development brought Street Boss to national recognition. A handsome chestnut, Street Boss was a $300,000 yearling, the fifth-highest price for a member of the first crop of his sire, the leading Darley stallion Street Cry. But Street Boss didn't race at 2, won only his maiden at 3 from four starts, then bloomed into a premier sprinter with consecutive Grade 1 victories in California. He ran third in the Eclipse Award voting for champion sprinter of 2008.

Street Boss was always on the map for Darley's team that watches for stallion prospects, and after the horse had risen as a sprinter, Darley acquired Street Boss as a stallion and stands him at Jonabell for $25,000.

While only five new stallion prospects stand for more than $20,000 in 2009, six more stand for $17,500 to $20,000. The three standing for $20,000 are Midnight Lute, Heatseeker, and Hopeful Stakes winner Majestic Warrior (by A.P. Indy).

The 2007 Eclipse Award winner as champion sprinter, Midnight Lute won the Breeders' Cup Sprint for the second time in 2008 and finished second in the Eclipse balloting. This brown horse is a big, rangy animal who was effective from six to nine furlongs, although he was at his most dramatic when coming from behind in fast-paced sprints.

In contrast to a juvenile Grade 1 winner and a sprint champion, Heatseeker showed his best form going a distance as a mature horse. Heatseeker, a son of Giant's Causeway, became a graded stakes winner at 4, then progressed at 5 to win the Californian and Santa Anita Handicap at nine and 10 furlongs.

Just under the $20,000 tier of stud fees are Divine Park, First Defence, and Student Council at $17,500.

In his most important success, Divine Park won the Metropolitan Handicap last May. A son of the Mr. Prospector stallion Chester House, Divine Park is an interesting sire prospect because he won 6 of his 9 starts and was unplaced in the remaining 3. Obviously, when he was right, he was quite a racehorse.

First Defence, perhaps the fastest son of Unbridled's Song, holds the dubious distinction of being the horse who hooked Commentator in the Metropolitan Handicap and raced him into defeat. The dubious part is that the speed duel cooked First Defence too. But like Commentator, First Defence bounced back to win at the Grade 1 level (the Forego) at Saratoga.

Like Heatseeker, Student Council improved with age and distance and won his most important races at distances near 10 furlongs. By Kingmambo, a top-tier international sire, Student Council won the Hollywood Gold Cup at 10 furlongs in 2007 and the Pimlico Special at 1 3/16 miles in 2008.

At what might be considered the keystone price of $15,000 between the higher and lower fees is Spring at Last, a son of Silver Deputy who won the Donn Handicap. A typey and well-balanced horse, Spring at Last is out of the Dynaformer mare Winter's Gone, who also is the dam of graded stakes winners Sharp Lisa and Sharp Susan.

Silver Deputy is also the sire of the young stallion Posse, who has begun his stud career with promise, and Spring at Last will attempt to elevate further this line of Northern Dancer descending through Deputy Minister.

If the stallion crop seems a mite small at this point, with only a dozen horses priced at $15,000 or more, there are 11 more stallion prospects priced at $12,500 or $10,000. Clearly, stallion managers have tried to price their first-year prospects competitively while staying above $10,000, which is considered the territory of bargain studs.

The $12,500 to $10,000 range is particularly competitive because this is probably the lowest fee at which stallion managers can still attract a book of mares that will help a horse get his best opportunities at stud.

There are five stallions at $12,500: Into Mischief, Lewis Michael, Ready's Image, Street Hero, and Tiz Wonderful. The six at $10,000 are Brother Derek, Harlington, J Be K, Notional, Seeking the Dia, and Zanjero. Nine more stand at $7,500.

With 20 horses squeezed into the narrow range from $7,500 to $12,500, some subtle differences tend to spot the horses at their differing levels.

For instance, Ready's Image had a good race record but not a top one. He's a nice-looking horse, but the component that makes him most attractive to breeders is the reputation of his sire, More Than Ready, who appears to be one horse away from becoming as important a stallion in the Northern Hemisphere as he has become in the Southern Hemisphere.

Likewise, other young prospects offer a conduit to premium stallions. For instance, Grade 1 winner Street Hero offers breeders access to a son of Street Cry, who is the most popular young stallion in America, and Horse Greeley is a son of international star Mr. Greeley, whose first son at stud is the highly promising Whywhywhy.

The exceptional good looks of the Officer horse Elite Squadron will bring him mares at $7,500. Also at that price, Sightseeing is a big, scopy horse by the most promising young sire of stallions in the country, Pulpit.

And most importantly, those young stallion prospects who showed early maturity and speed will find their share of regard with breeders. For instance, Nobiz Like Shobiz was fast and early and is a grand specimen. And J Be K, arguably the fastest 3-year-old in this crop, is by Silver Deputy, who has already sired a leading freshman sire in Posse.

The young sire prospects who possess the right combination of speed, athleticism, good looks, and owner support in conjunction with a rational stud fee will be the most popular with breeders.

PDF charts of breeding leaders:

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