05/15/2013 6:53PM

John P. Sparkman: Preakness is good indicator of sire success

Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
Summer Squall in the winner's circle following the 1990 Preakness. In comparing winners of the Preakness and Kentucky Derby since 1990 as sires, the Preakness winners have slightly better statistics.

From a breeder’s point of view, the goal of horse racing, especially the 3-year-old classics, is to identify the colts with the highest potential as future stallions. In the 146-year history of the American Triple Crown races, there is no question that the Belmont Stakes has produced more leading sires than either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes, but that is at least partly a historical artifact.

Established in 1867, six years before the first Preakness and eight years before the first Kentucky Derby, the Belmont was a far more prestigious – and generally more valuable – race than either the Derby or the Preakness throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. And because of its location at the center of 19th-century American racing in New York, the level of competition was generally considerably more stringent than in Kentucky or Maryland.

That, at least in part, explains why leading sires Spendthrift, Hanover, Sir Dixon, Hastings, Commando, Peter Pan, and Sweep all won the Belmont Stakes (but not the other two races) between 1879 and 1910. Before Col. Matt Winn grabbed the Kentucky Derby and dragged it to the forefront of American racing in the 1910s and 1920s, only one horse of comparable importance to the American Thoroughbred, Ben Brush, had won the Kentucky Derby.

Man o’ War, whose owner, Samuel D. Riddle, famously declined to run in the Derby, was the first leading American sire to win the Preakness, but in the post-World War II era, the Preakness has been a better indicator of sire success than the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, the list of Preakness-winning sires who did not win the Derby is far more impressive than a comparable list of Derby winners who did not win the Preakness.

Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Nashua, Tom Rolfe, and Damascus all avenged upset Derby defeats with victories in Baltimore. That is a far more impressive list than Determine, Swaps, Thunder Gulch, and Unbridled, the best sires of the postwar era to win the Derby but not the Preakness.

Of course, Native Dancer, Nashua, and Damascus all went on to add the Belmont Stakes to their championship 3-year-old seasons, but the Belmont also can count top sires Gallant Man, Stage Door Johnny, A.P. Indy, and Empire Maker among its winners, despite the fact that it is now widely viewed as an anomaly in American racing.

Statistically speaking, Preakness winners also come out slightly better than Derby winners in the contemporary era dating from 1990, when stallion books began to expand dramatically. As shown in the accompanying table, the 14 Preakness winners since 1990 with foals currently at least 5 years old have sired 297 stakes winners from 6,310 foals ages 3 and up, a 4.7 percent strike rate. While that global percentage of stakes winners to foals is hardly outstanding, it is still better than the Derby winners’ rate of 4.4 percent, achieved with 417 stakes winners from 9,416 foals over the same period.

That startling 3,106-horse discrepancy in the number of foals is almost entirely due to Coolmore Stud’s policy of fully exploiting its star stallions through shuttling to the Southern Hemisphere.

Thunder Gulch, the 1995 Derby and Belmont winner, and 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus both began their Northern Hemisphere careers at Coolmore’s Kentucky outpost at Ashford Stud in Versailles and shuttled to Australia right from the start of their stud careers. Each has sired at least 1,000 foals more than any Preakness winner of the same era except for Louis Quatorze, who began shuttling later in his career. Among Preakness winners of the same era, only Bernardini began shuttling to the Southern Hemisphere that early in his career.

At this point, 1990 Derby winner Unbridled remains the best sire produced by either race during the period under review, but it is interesting that his rival Summer Squall, who turned the tables on Unbridled at Pimlico after finishing second at Churchill Downs, established a higher percentage of stakes winners to foals despite fertility problems during his stud career.

What Summer Squall failed to do that Unbridled accomplished was to sire a son to carry on his male line, since his 1999 Derby-Preakness winner, Charismatic, is probably the worst sire to win either race in the past two decades. Neither Charismatic nor Silver Charm, who accomplished the same double in 1997, managed to sire a Grade 1 or Group 1 winner.

Every other Preakness winner since 1990 has managed to sire a Grade 1 winner or champion, although none has climbed to the top of the sire list. Bernardini, the winner of the Preakness in 2006 and the champion 3-year-old male that year, may have the best chance of any recent Preakness winner of emulating the stallion championships of male-line ancestor Bold Ruler. With the excellent opportunity he receives at his owner-breeder’s Darley Stud at Jonabell, he has already sired five Grade 1 or Group 1 winners in his first two Northern Hemisphere crops and current Group 1 winner and likely champion New Zealand 2-year-old filly Ruud Awakening in the Southern Hemisphere.

Most of the rest of the Preakness winners since 1990 have been hit-or-miss stallions. Real Quiet has sired champion Midnight Lute, now a promising young sire, as well as brilliant sprinter Pussycat Doll and Coaching Club American Oaks winner Wonder Lady Anne L, but only 3 percent stakes winners overall.

Similarly, 2001 Preakness-Belmont winner Point Given has sired Grade 1 winners Coil and Go Between and Canadian champions Sealy Hill and Points of Grace, but his 4 percent stakes-winners-to-foals rate discouraged breeders from sending him their best mares. Point Given may turn out to be better suited to Brazil, where he has sired four group stakes winners among his current crop of Southern Hemisphere 3-year-olds.

Early 1990s Preakness winners Hansel, Pine Bluff, and Tabasco Cat were all relatively solid sires of stakes winners but never sired the “big horse” that would have made them commercially popular. Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex face a similar dilemma in the current commercial market. Both have sired a respectable number of stakes winners, but neither has made the splashy impact that attracts commercial breeders in large numbers with their best mares.

And then there is the curious case of War Emblem. The winner of both the Derby and Preakness in 2002, War Emblem was exported to Japan but has proved only intermittently interested in covering mares, despite the fact that his fertility is technically normal. When he will consent to cover mares, he is clearly a very good sire, as his 2012 Japanese champion 2-year-old filly Robe Tissage attests.

In a sense, many of the deleterious changes to American racing since the golden era of the 1970s have worked to the disadvantage of the Kentucky Derby as a selector of future stallions and to the comparative advantage of the Preakness Stakes. Twenty or more horses are now routinely entered in the Derby, leading to more chances for the best horse to suffer insurmountable traffic problems, as happened with 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, who finished sixth in the Derby after being slammed into the rail in the early going.

Classic prospects also now race much less frequently before the Derby than they did prior to 1990, meaning that we know far less about them before the first classic. That is one very good reason for the long odds recorded by Derby winners like Mine That Bird, Giacomo, Funny Cide, and Animal Kingdom in the past decade. The Derby has, in a way, become a prep race for the Preakness and Belmont that weeds out the pretenders from the real contenders.

Those factors should continue to contribute toward making the Preakness and Belmont better at selecting future stallions than the Derby.

Preakness winners vs. Derby winners as sires


Preakness Stakes

Year won Horse Foals SWs % SW Champions
1990 Summer Squall 354 37 10.5% 2
1991 Hansel* 433 18 4.2% 0
1992 Pine Bluff* 599 35 5.8% 0
1994 Tabasco Cat 500 25 5.0% 0
1996 Louis Quatorze* 924 39 4.2% 0
1997 Silver Charm 503 15 3.0% 0
1998 Real Quiet* 599 18 3.0% 1
1999 Charismatic 384 10 2.6% 0
2000 Red Bullet 196 11 5.6% 1
2001 Point Given* 531 21 4.0% 2
2002 War Emblem* 101 8 7.9% 1
2004 Smarty Jones* 355 20 5.6% 0
2005 Afleet Alex* 396 20 5.1% 0
2006 Bernardini* 435 20 4.6% 0
  Totals 6,310 297 4.7% 7

*Statistics exclude stallion's current crop of 2-year-olds. 

Kentucky Derby

Year Won Kentucky Derby Foals SWs % SWs Champions
1990 Unbridled 582 49 8.4% 4
1991 Strike the Gold 610 25 4.1% 0
1992 Lil E. Tee 332 20 6.0% 0
1993 Sea Hero* 554 30 5.4% 0
1994 Go for Gin* 402 13 3.2% 0
1995 Thunder Gulch* 2,252 93 4.1% 1
1996 Grindstone* 468 20 4.3% 0
1997 Silver Charm* 503 15 3.0% 0
1998 Real Quiet* 599 18 3.0% 1
1999 Charismatic 384 10 2.6% 0
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus* 1,663 69 4.1% 1
2001 Monarchos* 400 15 3.8% 1
2002 War Emblem* 101 8 7.9% 1
2004 Smarty Jones* 355 20 5.6% 0
2005 Giacomo* 211 12 5.7% 0
  Totals 9,416 417 4.4% 9

*Statistics exclude stallion's current crop of 2-year-olds.