06/13/2013 5:59PM

Hot Sire: Curlin’s first crop clearly shows his prowess as top-caliber stallion

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Courtesy Lane's EndCurlin

There was a time in American Thoroughbred breeding when soundness and stamina were cherished right alongside speed and class in a prospective stallion. If a horse had aged well on the racetrack, so much the better. If he could stay 1 1/2 miles, better still.

Curlin was that kind of horse – filled with every wonderful quality that old-time horsemen like John E. Madden or “Bull” Hancock would have loved. For them, patience was a supreme virtue. If a young stallion didn’t throw out a boatload of speedball juveniles in his first crop, so what? Give ’em time.

Curlin was bred to be good on so many levels, but the one thing his immediate pedigree did not shout was “precocity.” His sire, Smart Strike, twice a leading American progenitor, did not compete at 2, nor did his own sire (Mr. Prospector) or dam (Classy ’n Smart). Curlin’s dam (Sherriff’s Deputy) was unraced, and while her sire (Deputy Minister) had been a 2-year-old champion, her dam (Barbarika) had passed on a juvenile season, as did her sire, 1983 champion older male Bates Motel. Curlin himself was not unveiled as a racehorse until February of his 3-year-old season, after which the fireworks began.

On the track, Curlin reigned as Horse of the Year each season he ran – at 3 and 4. He was a classic-winning, six-time Grade 1 victor who won races from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles and who beat the world’s best runners on dirt and distinguished himself with a Grade 1 runner-up shot in his only turf try before running out of viable worlds to conquer. With a robber baron’s bankroll of $10,501,800, he retired as the richest American-based racehorse of all time and, perhaps best of all, left the course on legs as clean and sound as the day he was born. What a gift to racing’s future he represented in 2009 as he settled into his new home at Lane’s End in Versailles, Ky.

Curlin’s initial book was outstanding, and deservedly so, drawing strong support from his owner, Jess Jackson, and Lane’s End master Will Farish. Among those mares were the dams of champions Afleet Alex, Midnight Lute, and Fatal Bullet, English classic winner Millenary, and a spate of Grade 1 and Group 1 winners.

When the sons and daughters of Curlin began racing in 2012, they meant some kind of business. A superstar did not emerge from that first batch of juveniles, but here’s what did – 15 winners, including Churchill Downs Grade 2-placed Liberated, another stakes-placed filly in England, and several runners of high promise, including the wickedly named Palace Malice. They won their maidens in open company from Santa Anita to Saratoga, on dirt and grass, over multiple distances, for Hall of Fame trainers who brought them along slowly and tenderly. Their combined earnings were enough to place Curlin among the top 10 North American freshman sires of 2012; only three stallions in this division sent out more winners.

Still, the ever-present naysayers complained that since Curlin hadn’t smacked it completely out of the park, something must be lacking. Could they not read a pedigree page? Or, a past-performance chart? Curlin’s mark of 15 baby winners was nothing short of wonderful, considering they were genetically programmed to improve over time. Through mid-June, that is exactly what has been happening – he has been represented by a trio of 2013 bicoastal stakes winners, including one at racing‘s mountaintop, getting a classic winner in his first crop.

Pedigree-wise, Curlin represents an enticing outcross to Bold Ruler and Seattle Slew, so it’s no surprise that mares from that line (largely through A.P. Indy) have been generously sent his way. However, while this may appear to be a likely and logical match, for now it remains a sleeping lion.

Two of Curlin’s three stakes winners – Palace Malice and Countess Curlin (at Sunland Park) – carry Northern Dancer in the south half of their pedigrees. What does this mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. The 1964 Kentucky Derby winner’s DNA has so thoroughly permeated the present-day Thoroughbred gene pool that it is hard not to find him lurking somewhere in the branches of any given tree.

Speculating as to what nicks will work best with Curlin is theoretical wheel-spinning at this nascent point in his career. At this point it can only be noted that by far the most potent cross has been a highly unexpected one.

Two years ago, Palace Malice was one of the least sought after Curlins on the market, fetching just $25,000 at Keeneland’s September yearling sale, about one-third the sale average and less than one-fifth his sire’s first crop average of $136,780. Was it the Farish-bred colt himself who failed to ignite interest … his unassuming bottom line … or, both?

The future classicist was out of a relatively minor stakes winner named Palace Rumor, herself a former $5,000 giveaway yearling. Her sire was a brawny late-1990s runner named Royal Anthem, a big, slow-developing Grade 1- and Group 1-winning millionaire, who could run all day long … on grass. Alas, this was not the prototype most American breeders were looking for.

Royal Anthem, a son of turf champion Theatrical and thus a male-line descendant of Northern Dancer, stood several seasons at Hopewell Farm in Kentucky, getting 79 foals in his first crop (2002), 65 in his second, 39 in his third, 37 in his fourth, 25 in his fifth, and 19 in his sixth – numbers that tell a very clear story. By 2007 the white flag was officially raised and off he was sent to County Kilkenny, Ireland, where the nearly 17-hand stallion has since been used primarily as a jump sire.

Daughters of Royal Anthem have through mid-2013 produced just two upper-case black-type runners: Palace Malice and 2011 Hoosier Park stakes winner Sweetonrich.

With his classic victory at Belmont Park on June 8, Palace Malice represented a towering home run on two fronts – for an aging Irish stallion and for a rising American star.

Curlin's race record

Year Age Starts Wins Seconds Thirds Earnings
2007 3 9 6 1 2 $5,102,800
2008 4 7 5 1 0 $5,399,000
Totals   16 11 2 2 $10,501,800

At 3, Horse of the Year, champion 3-year-old colt, Won Preakness S. (G1), Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Jockey Club Gold Cup S. (G1), Arkansas Derby (G2), Rebel S. (G3); 2nd Belmont S. (G1); 3rd Kentucky Derby (G1), Haskell Invitational S. (G1)

At 4, Horse of the Year, champion older male, Won Stephen Foster H. (G1), Jockey Club Gold Cup S. (G1), Woodward S. (G1), Dubai World Cup (G1); 2nd Man o’ War S. (G1)