05/23/2013 1:55PM

John P. Sparkman: Inbreeding comes to Storm Cat line

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Barbara D. Livingston
Last Gunfighter, by First Samurai, a grandson of Storm Cat, won the Grade 3 Pimlico Special for his sixth straight victory.

The history of the evolution of Thoroughbred pedigrees is essentially a history of changing patterns of inbreeding. In the late 18th century, the English racehorse transformed from an animal designed to gallop four miles at a relatively slow pace to one required to run at a much faster pace over much shorter distances through inbreeding to early foundation sires Godolphin Arabian, Darley Arabian, Herod, and Eclipse.

Over subsequent centuries, inbreeding to other dominant sires – Stockwell, St. Simon, Phalaris, Hyperion, and Nearco – has appeared in large numbers as part of the natural progression of the breed just as soon as those sires receded into the third or fourth generation of pedigrees.

In more recent decades, inbreeding to Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector has begun to saturate pedigrees with unprecedented alacrity because of the rise of 100-mare-plus books and the shuttle-sire practice. The first major stakes winner who was inbred to Northern Dancer, Nasr El Arab, by Al Nasr, won Grade 1 races in the late 1980s, when Northern Dancer himself was in his 20s.

The first major racehorse inbred to the late, great Storm Cat has been slower to appear, and perhaps for good reason. To date, only 10 horses inbred to Storm Cat have won international stakes. Giant’s Steps, by Giant’s Causeway, the winner of Chile’s Group 1 Derby and 2000 Guineas equivalents last fall, is the first top-level winner inbred (2x3 in his case) to Storm Cat.

No horse inbred to Storm Cat has won a Grade 1 in the United States, but that could soon change if Grade 3 Pimlico Special winner Last Gunfighter continues his steady improvement. By Storm Cat’s grandson First Samurai (by Giant’s Causeway) out of Saratoga Cat, by Storm Cat’s son Sir Cat, Last Gunfighter is inbred 3x3 to the two-time leading sire.

Last Gunfighter dominated the Pimlico Special despite allowing pacesetter Eighttofasttocatch an easy lead, drawing off late for a 4 1/4-length win, with the rest of the field almost 10 lengths behind. The Pimlico Special was Last Gunfighter’s sixth win in succession since transferring to trainer Chad Brown’s barn last fall after placing in each of his first four starts for trainer Helen Pitts.

The well-named Last Gunfighter is one of 15 stakes winners from the first three crops of First Samurai, the best horse from the first American crop of three-time leading sire Giant’s Causeway. Bred by Last Gunfighter’s owner and breeder, John D. Gunther, First Samurai is out of multiple stakes winner Freddie Frisson, by Dixieland Band, and thus inbred 4x3 to Northern Dancer.

Listed as “reserve not attained” at a price of $380,000 at the 2004 Keeneland September yearling sale, First Samurai won his first four starts as a 2-year-old for the partnership of Bruce Lunsford and Lansdon Robbins III. The wide-margin winner of a six-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs in July and a Saratoga allowance race over the same distance in early August, First Samurai was just as dominant in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at the end of the meeting, racing front-running speedster Too Much Bling into submission and then drawing away from 3-5 favorite Henny Hughes to win by 4 1/4 lengths.

That stamped First Samurai as the best juvenile on the East Coast, and he confirmed that impression by beating Henny Hughes again by 2 3/4 lengths in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.

That race served as a dress rehearsal for First Samurai’s expected coronation as champion 2-year-old male in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile three weeks later at Belmont, but the race did not go according to script. Notably fractious in the gate, First Samurai did not break well and never was able to assume his favored stalking position. He rallied to second in early stretch but never could get past Henny Hughes, and both fell victim to Stevie Wonderboy’s late rally.

First Samurai’s sophomore season did not go well. Second behind the speedy Keyed Entry in the Hutcheson Stakes, he was unable to get past the wayward Corinthian, who carried him out to the middle of the track, but was awarded the win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. First Samurai then hit the gate hard at the start of the Blue Grass Stakes, breaking two ribs, and never got into the race. He finished a distant fifth behind front-running, wide-margin winner Sinister Minister in a race that went a long way toward convincing Keeneland to install a synthetic surface.

First Samurai’s connections hoped to get him back to the races for the Breeders’ Cup, but by late summer, it was obvious that that was not to be, and he was retired to Claiborne Farm, which had bought an interest in the horse in the spring.

Unlike his racing career, First Samurai did not get off to a fast start at stud. His first-crop daughter Le Mi Geaux (out of Message Red, by Cryptoclearance) won a substandard edition of the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes, but the best of his six first-crop stakes winners was the good sprinter Justin Phillip (Ava Knowsthecode, by Cryptoclearance), the winner of the Grade 2 Woody Stephens Stakes in 2011 and the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap in 2013.

Last Gunfighter is the most accomplished to date of the seven stakes winners from First Samurai’s second crop, but the star of his third crop, Executiveprivilege (Refugee, by Unaccounted For), beat him to Grade 1 status, winning the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante and Chandelier Stakes last year before, like her sire, failing to earn a championship when favored at the Breeders’ Cup.

Executiveprivilege headlined a breakout season for First Samurai last year, and if Last Gunfighter emulates her Grade 1 wins this year, he will go a long way toward rehabilitating First Samurai’s reputation as a sire.

Last Gunfighter is the fifth foal, fourth winner, and first stakes winner out of Saratoga Cat, a good allowance winner who finished fourth in the Grade 3 Indiana Breeders’ Cup Oaks in 2002. She won five of 20 starts and $186,153, a better-than-average record for an American daughter of Sir Cat, a multiple Grade 2 winner by Storm Cat. Sir Cat was a fair sire at best in the United States, where millionaire multiple Grade 2 winner Surf Cat was the best of his 20 North American-conceived stakes winners.

Sir Cat has done much better in Chile, siring five champions, and was permanently exported there in 2005. Sir Cat’s daughters have produced only 11 stakes winners so far, but the best of them is 2011 champion 2-year-old male Hansen, by Tapit.

Saratoga Cat is a three-quarter sister to stakes winners Saratoga Boot and Sexy Boots, both by Storm Boot, another son of Storm Cat. Last Gunfighter’s second dam, Saratoga Sparkle, by Saratoga Six, is a half-sister to 1988 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes winner Costly Shoes, by Topsider.

The family came to prominence when Last Gunfighter’s stakes-winning fourth dam, Bill and I, by Baybrook, produced 1974 Del Mar Futurity winner Diabolo, by Damascus, who ran third in both the 1975 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Diabolo’s full sister Sword Game is the grandam of 1993 champion 2-year-old male and good international sire Dehere.

One reason inbreeding to Storm Cat is off to a relatively slow start is that breeders are well aware that, as great as he was, Storm Cat tended to pass on throat problems to his offspring. Thus, they are more likely to avoid inbreeding to him for fear of producing a foal with similar problems.

In addition, although many sons of Storm Cat have been good sires, only one, First Samurai’s sire, Giant’s Causeway, approaches greatness. And in the long run, it is sires with multiple great sire sons like Northern Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Danzig, and Sadler’s Wells who become the most prevalent targets of inbreeding.