10/12/2016 2:16PM

Hovdey: Breeding longevity and racing brevity

Barbara D. Livingston
Exaggerator made a robust 15 starts through September, but has been retired, while sound, rather than race as a 4-year-old.

This is the story of two retirements, one coming at the end of a rich, deeply satisfying career, the other not so much.

Unusual Heat, 26, has been pensioned, ending a 19-year stallion career that never ceased to amaze. Year after year, the Unusual Heats would come rolling down the line, winning races large and small in such numbers as to impress even the most casual students of the game.

Do not look for the name of Unusual Heat to be whispered in the mists of Kentucky’s breeding lore, however. Although he was bred in the bluegrass, Unusual Heat did his stallion deeds in California, and California’s bloodstock history is viewed more with curious condescension than respect, despite the accomplishments of Hall of Famers and champions like Swaps, Tiznow, Native Diver, Tiznow, Ancient Title, Best Pal, and Bertrando.

Scores of Unusual Heats have run riot through the regional stakes races offered by a generous California program. But more than that, his best horses were very good wherever they ran. Acclamation was the Eclipse Award champion older male of 2011. The Usual Q. T. was a Grade 1 winner who almost took a Breeders’ Cup Mile. Tucked Away, Lethal Heat, Unusual Suspect, Burns, Gervinho, Betty’s Bambino, Golden Doc A, Pretty Unusual, Lennyfromalibu – none of them needed the shelter of a California-bred stakes race to bring home a major prize.

Unusual Heat is a son of Nureyev who was first trained in Ireland by Dermot Weld and then migrated to California, where he joined the Richard Mandella stable. Barry Abrams claimed him as a 6-year-old for $80,000 for a partnership that included the trainer, his brother David Abrams, and breeder Madeline Auerbach. Not long after that, Unusual Heat was retired with a bowed tendon.

“I claimed him hoping to get a few races out of him and then to be a stallion,” Barry Abrams said. “I didn’t know much about it then, but I did know that Nureyev was a great stallion.”

Unusual Heat’s first foals hit the ground in 1999.

“The biggest thing he gave them was longevity,” Abrams said. “They’d win first time out as 2-year-olds and still be around four, five, six years later. And the more they ran, the better they got. They may have been running as a $20,000 maiden as a 3-year-old, then as a 4-year-old, they’d be an allowance or a stakes horse.”

Abrams was right. A scan of Unusual Heat’s progeny reveals hard knockers like Tropical Heat (86 starts), Steamy Story (78 starts), Raise the Heat (74 starts), and at least 30 others with 40 or more starts.

Exaggerator, a 3-year-old son of Curlin, made 15 starts. He also earned $3.5 million, which makes him a very efficient moneymaking machine, and by some measures, that is the point of the exercise. Now he has been retired, happy and healthy, to WinStar Farm in Kentucky to begin a stallion career next year before he’s even a fully matured Thoroughbred.

Racing fans are rightfully miffed at yet another example of the breeding tail wagging the racing dog. Exaggerator’s quality as a Thoroughbred athlete was borne out by victories in the 2016 Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, and Haskell Invitational and a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. His record was an odd mix of rousing scores on rainy afternoons combined with somnolent wanderings through important engagements in the Belmont, Travers, and, finally, the Pennsylvania Derby.

“The horse owed us nothing,” said trainer Keith Desormeaux, who also owned a minority interest in Exaggerator. “But for him to get beat in his last two races was disappointing. I wanted him to go out on a higher note.”

WinStar bought into Exaggerator before the Kentucky Derby and was along for the Preakness and Haskell rides, but the farm’s real payoff always figured to be after retirement.

“My judgment in this matter is secondary to the business of promoting and putting a stallion out there,” Desormeaux said. “It was a marketing thing, jumping on the Curlin bandwagon. He’s as hot as they come, and there’s not many sons of Curlin out there yet.”

No one should begrudge an ownership group for taking money out of the business after putting money in. Still, the retirement of a reportedly sound classic winner before his fourth birthday goes contrary to racing’s uphill battle to nurture its stars. Exaggerator’s fans spent most of their time praying for rain and yet longing for the day when he would unleash a grand moment on a dry track.

“A horse like that doesn’t leave the barn without some degree of sadness,” Desormeaux said. “The good ones are hard to come by.”

So, the pages are turned, again. There will be no Exaggerator in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the Desormeaux stable, but it has high hopes for Miss Southern Miss, the winner of the Surfer Girl Stakes at Santa Anita last Monday. She will run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

As for Unusual Heat, Barry Abrams predicts the old boy will be “one of the best broodmare sires around,” and he might be onto something. On the same afternoon as the Surfer Girl, Big Score, out of the Unusual Heat mare Not Unusual, won the Zuma Beach Stakes to set himself up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.