05/19/2005 11:00PM

Derby winners' bloodlines thinning?


NEW YORK - The Derby, be it English or Kentucky, was designed to serve as a leading supplier of new blood to the Thoroughbred industry.

That was certainly the case with the original English version throughout the 19th century when winners such as Whalebone, Emilius, Bay Middleton, The Flying Dutchman, Macaroni, Hermit, and Persimmon had a profound effect on the breed. Even Epsom Derby losers such as Sultan, the 1819 runner-up who would sire eight classic winners, including Stockwell, added immeasurably to the breed.

Thormanby, the Derby winner in 1860, sired the dam of Bend Or, a son of 1873 Derby winner Doncaster, who himself was a son of Stockwell. Bend Or's best son was Ormonde, a British Triple Crown champion who is widely considered to be the best racehorse of the 19th century. That is an example of how the Epsom Derby has transferred class from one generation to the next.

Nineteenth century Derbies also played a major role in spreading Thoroughbred wealth around the globe. In the early 1880's three Derby winners, Iroquois, St Blaise and St Gatien, would go on to become leading sires in North America. The 1893 Derby winner Isinglass would sire three British classic winners before moving to Kentucky, from where he would lead the North American sire lists five times. Flying Fox, winner of the 1899 Derby, was a highly successful stallion in France, from where many of his best sons were later sent to America, insuring that his blood would have a major influence in at least three different countries.

Isinglass was the grandsire of Sir Barton, the first American Triple Crown winner in 1919, the year before Man o' War, the maternal grandson of 1903 Epsom Derby winner Rock Sand, won the Preakness and the Belmont.

Man o' War sired a pair of Kentucky Derby winners himself in Clyde Van Dusen and War Admiral, but many of the better winners of the Kentucky Derby in the first half of the 20th century were sired by imported British stallions.

British-bred stallions - among them Blenheim, Hyperion, and Sir Gallahad - sired 18 Kentucky Derby winners between 1903 and 1947. Among those was the great Sir Gallahad colt Gallant Fox. The 1930 Triple Crown winner produced a Triple Crown winner of his own in Omaha in 1935, two years before Man o' War's son, War Admiral, won his own Triple Crown.

The 1930's, as great a decade as there has ever been in American racing, was the first in which American classic winners produced American classic winners with regularity.

It happened throughout the 1940's too, most notably when 1944 Derby champ Pensive sired 1949 Derby winner Ponder, who would sire Needles, the winner of the 1955 Derby.

Count Fleet, who swept to the 1943 Triple Crown, sired 1951 Derby winner Count Turf. By the 1950's, American racing was probably superior to British racing, but four Derby winners that decade - Dark Star, Determine, Swaps, and Tomy Lee - were by British-bred stallions.

Swaps would beget 1963 Derby winner Chateaugay, but there would not be another case of a Derby winner siring a Derby winner until 1978 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew got 1984 winner Swale. The last such occurrence came when 1990 Derby winner Unbridled sired 1996 Derby champ Grindstone.

The 1930 Epsom Derby winner Blenheim, the sire of Mahmoud, Whirlaway, and Mumtaz Begummade, made major contributions to the breed, as did 1933 Epsom Derby champ Hyperion, the sire of seven classic winners, among them Pensive. But Epsom Derby winners between 1940 and 1969 hardly distinguished themselves at stud.

It took Northern Dancer to reinstitute the theory of the Derby as a breeding grounds for greatness. Just as so many British stallions had contributed to American racing, here was a Canadian-bred winner of the Kentucky Derby giving back to England.

Northern Dancer sired Epsom Derby winners Nijinsky, The Minstrel, Golden Fleece ,and Secreto, and Nijinsky got Shahrastani, Lammtarra, and Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand. In the meantime, Paul Mellon's 1971 Epsom Derby winner Mill Reef sired future winners of the Epsom Derby in Shirley Heights and Reference Point.

In addition to Nijinsky and Mill Reef, Roberto, The Minstrel, and Shirley Heights all had successful careers at stud. But there has been a dry spell for the Epsom Derby as a breeding grounds for the future since 1980 which matches that of the Kentucky Derby.

Pleasant Colony (Kentucky, 1981), Nashwan (Epsom, 1989), and Unbridled (Kentucky, 1990), are the only genuinely successful Western stallions to have won their respective Derbies since that year.

Has excellence in the breed been spread too thinly around the world for any Derby winner to make an impact like Northern Dancer or Blenheim? Or have the roles of both the Epsom Derby and the Kentucky Derby as prime classic breeding grounds been supplanted by races for older horses? Only time will tell.