06/13/2013 5:19PM

John P. Sparkman: Stamina from blazing speed

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mr. Prospector, shown at Claiborne Farm in 1998, ran six furlongs in under 1:08 yet is the tail-male ancestor of 16 of the past 32 winners of the Belmont Stakes.

Who was the fastest racehorse who ever lived? Well, the answer to that question depends on many factors, not least one’s definition of “fastest.” Is it the horse who reaches the highest top speed in a race? Is it the horse who records the fastest time over normal racing distances, which is a measure of average speed over those distances? If so, which distance?

Whatever criterion one chooses, there are several candidates from the golden era of American racing, the 1960s and 1970s. Secretariat, of course, set track records in each of his Triple Crown wins, a world record for 1 1/8 miles in the Marlboro Cup, and even broke Belmont’s 1 1/2-mile turf-course record in the Man o’ War Stakes. Dr. Fager set a world record for a mile on dirt that lasted 35 years and set or equaled track records from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

No horse from that golden era, though, ran a faster six furlongs than Secretariat’s contemporary Mr. Prospector, who set a track record of 1:07 4/5 for six furlongs at Gulfstream Park in his second start in 1973. That record was not equaled at Gulfstream until Mr. Prospector’s paternal great-grandson Artax ran the same distance in 1:07.89 while winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1999.

That Mr. Prospector’s descendants would inherit a fair measure of his blazing speed should surprise no one who examines his race record. It is wildly unlikely, though, that anyone would have predicted that he would become the tail-male ancestor of 16 of the past 32 winners of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, or the founder of a male line that would produce 31 individual American classic winners of 40 Triple Crown races over the same time period.

Mr. Prospector won seven of 14 starts, including the 1974 Gravesend and Whirlaway Handicaps, both at six furlongs. He set a Garden State Park track record of 1:08 3/5 for six furlongs in the Whirlaway. Mr. Prospector also won a seven-furlong allowance race and finished second to the great Forego in the seven-furlong Carter Handicap and to the undistinguished Settecento in the one-mile Derby Trial, but he was third and unplaced in his only two attempts at a distance longer than a mile.

Mr. Prospector’s racing career, however, was marred by ankle injuries that made it difficult to be sure just how far he might have been able to run had he been sound. Bred by Spendthrift Farm’s Leslie Combs II, the medium-sized, lengthy bay colt topped the 1971 Keeneland July sale of selected yearlings on a $220,000 bid by trainer Jimmy Croll on behalf of Abraham I. Savin.

Mr. Prospector was by 1963 champion 2-year-old male Raise a Native out of multiple stakes winner Gold Digger, by Nashua, and his pedigree was open to interpretation. Raise a Native raced only at 2 and only at five and 5 1/2 furlongs, but his sire, Native Dancer, had stayed at least 1 1/2 miles.

Gold Digger won at up to 1 1/8 miles, and her sire, Nashua, was a genuine all-rounder who won from five furlongs to two miles and sired winners across the whole spectrum of distances, but her family traced to champion sprinter Myrtlewood. Count Fleet, the sire of Mr. Prospector’s second dam, added another dimension of potential stamina as a Triple Crown winner and the sire of two Belmont winners.

Thus, when Mr. Prospector retired to Savin’s Aisco Farm near Ocala, Fla., in 1975, breeders assumed he would sire fast, precocious horses, but there were other possibilities in Mr. Prospector’s genetic heritage. Florida breeders have traditionally favored speedy, precocious broodmares, so it was no surprise that his first crop included 1978 champion 2-year-old filly It’s in the Air (out of A Wind Is Rising, by Francis S.), and his second featured top English 2-year-old Hello Gorgeous (Bonny Jet, by Jet Jewel).

That second crop, however, also included 1981 Metropolitan Handicap winner Fappiano (Killaloe, by Dr. Fager), a horse with a much better pedigree who essentially replaced his sire in the Florida breeding landscape when Mr. Prospector moved to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky in 1980. Like Mr. Prospector, Fappiano also transferred to Kentucky after establishing himself as easily the best sire in Florida.

Before he left his birth state, however, Fappiano not only sired 1985 champion 2-year-old male Tasso but 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled, who set the Mr. Prospector male line on a much more classic path.

Mr. Prospector himself sired winners of all three Triple Crown races in Fusaichi Pegasus (Derby), Tank’s Prospect (Preakness), and Conquistador Cielo (Belmont), and Unbridled matched that feat, siring Grindstone (Derby), Red Bullet (Preakness), and Empire Maker (Belmont). And despite being otherwise a failure at stud, Grindstone sired 2004 Belmont winner Birdstone, the sire of 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird and 2009 Belmont winner Summer Bird in his first crop.

Once Mr. Prospector had access to more stamina-oriented mares in Kentucky, the characteristics of his progeny changed somewhat. The 1988 champion 2-year-old male Forty Niner (File, by Tom Rolfe) and his contemporary Seeking the Gold (Con Game, by Buckpasser) both stayed
1 1/4 miles well, and Mr. Prospector sired 1 1/4-mile winners Rhythm, Dancethruthedawn, Fusaichi Pegasus, Chester House, Miner’s Mark, E Dubai, Scatter the Gold, Damister, Colour Chart, and others after his transfer to Kentucky, in addition to his usual coterie of speedy 2-year-olds and brilliant milers.

Survival strategy

From the 1920s through the 1950s, the male line of Son-in-Law thrived by producing generations of winners of Europe’s two-mile-plus Cup races, while the male line descending from Gold Bridge dominated European sprint races from the 1930s into the 1960s. Both of those male lines are long dead, basically because they failed to diversify in a racing and breeding culture that moved dramatically away from specialization and toward versatility.

To survive in the contemporary Thoroughbred, a sire line must produce everything from sprinters to at least 1 1/4-mile horses. Mr. Prospector himself excelled at siring horses of varying distance capacities, and various branches of his male line have developed differing characteristics along the distance and physical-type spectra.

A medium-sized, lengthy horse with a very long, powerful hip and slightly plain head, Mr. Prospector himself turned out his right front slightly but was otherwise correct. His most important sire son, Fappiano, was a much bigger horse, more in the mold of his broodmare sire, Dr. Fager, but he was offset and pigeon-toed.

Though he was a miler himself, Fappiano passed on many of the characteristics of his broodmare sire, combined with the stamina of Mr. Prospector’s broodmare sire, Nashua. Fappiano’s best son, Unbridled, established the most important classic branch of Mr. Prospector that is responsible for seven American classic winners. Unbridled was a very large, crooked horse himself, and his best sons generally followed that template, especially his brilliantly fast son Unbridled’s Song, who has been a hugely successful sire despite developing a reputation for unsound stock.

Unbridled’s best classic son, Empire Maker, is not quite so big and much more correct and elegant than other good sons of Unbridled, reflecting the much more refined, elegant physique of his broodmare sire, El Gran Senor. Most of Empire Maker’s best offspring have been fillies, but his son Bodemeister came very close to adding another classic winner to the Mr. Prospector saga last year and is now a popular, young sire in Kentucky. Empire Maker was prematurely exported to Japan in 2011, and his final American crop is now 2 years old.

Mr. Prospector’s son Forty Niner, who came within a neck of winning the 1988 Kentucky Derby, was an almost diametrically opposite physical type to Fappiano. Perhaps slightly on the small side, he bore a strong physical resemblance, despite his chestnut coat, to his broodmare sire, Tom Rolfe, by Ribot. Forty Niner’s offspring, most notably his high-class son Coronado’s Quest, often inherited the fiery temperament associated with the Ribot male line, and they were generally medium-sized, compact horses.

Many of those characteristics have been maintained through Forty Niner’s best sire son, Distorted Humor, a medium-sized, very muscular, moody horse who never won beyond a mile but sires top-class runners over all distances and surfaces. Distorted Humor’s Travers Stakes-winning son Flower Alley has carried on the classic tradition, siring 2012 Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another.

Two-time leading sire Smart Strike, like his sire, is a bit plain, and his offspring are not the most correct or most beautiful sale horses, but buyers have learned that they far outrun their looks. Smart Strike is the youngest of Mr. Prospector’s great sire sons, and, as Palace Malice’s 2013 Belmont victory attests, there is surely more classic success to come from his branch of Mr. Prospector.

Mr. Prospector has been mostly an American phenomenon to date. His non-stakes-winning sons Straight Strike (Bend Not, by Never Bend) and Faltaat (Epitome, by Summing) have been successful in New Zealand, and his classic-placed, English-raced son Bellotto (Shelf Talker, by Tatan) was a very good sire in Australia with a moderately successful son named Clang. Hussonet (Sacahuista, by Raja Baba) did very well in both Chile and Australia.

Machiavellian (Coup de Folie, by Halo), though, was by far Mr. Prospector’s most important foreign-based son. A highweighted 2-year-old in France, Machiavellian did not grow much between his first and second seasons and, despite finishing second in the 2000 Guineas, was somewhat disappointing at 3. His best son, Street Cry, raced mostly in America and stands in Kentucky, but his offspring win all over the world on all surfaces.

As they must to survive long term, other branches of Mr. Prospector have begun to establish themselves abroad. Seeking the Gold’s best son, Dubai Millennium, sired only one crop, but his best son, Dubawi, has quickly established himself as one of the top five sires in Europe. Gone West’s son Elusive Quality has sired top horses in both America and Australia, and the full brothers Zafonic and Zamindar, by Gone West, have both sired high-class European runners.

French classic winner Kingmambo (Miesque, by Nureyev) stood his entire career in Kentucky and sired Belmont winner Lemon Drop Kid, a successful sire in his own right. Kingmambo appears much more likely to be a long-term influence abroad than in America, however. Kingmambo sired European classic winners King’s Best, Rule of Law, Encke, Virginia Waters, Divine Proportions, Henrythenavigator, Light Shift, Bluemamba, and Russian Rhythm, plus Japanese Derby winner King Kamehameha and Japanese Horse of the Year El Condor Pasa.

King’s Best has sired 2010 Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Workforce, and King Kamehameha led the Japanese sire list in 2010 and 2011 and has sired Japan Cup winner Rose Kingdom and Japanese Oaks winner Apapane among his 30 stakes winners to date.

Obviously, the Mr. Prospector male line has not been confined to the sprint distances of his own racetrack victories. It is tempting to speculate that, had he remained sound, Mr. Prospector himself could have won at longer distances.

Really, though, it is not at all necessary to reach for imaginary explanations for the real-world success Mr. Prospector has enjoyed. Any horse’s racing career is a product of its genetics plus its environment and a healthy dose of pure luck.

Luck may not have fallen Mr. Prospector’s way in terms of racetrack soundness, but the gods of chance have a way of evening things out over time. Whatever Mr. Prospector’s true limitations might have been, the genetic potential was there, and Thoroughbred racing and breeding are much the better for it.

Classic winners from Mr. Prospector's line

From tail-male line, with classic winners in bold

Conquistador Cielo (1982 Belmont)
Tank’s Prospect (1985 Preakness)
Fusaichi Pegasus (2000 Derby)
  Roman Ruler
    Ruler On Ice (2011 Belmont)
Afleet
  Northern Afleet
    Afleet Alex (2005 Preakness, Belmont)
Fappiano
  Cryptoclearance
    Victory Gallop (1998 Belmont)
  Quiet American
    Real Quiet (1998 Derby, Preakness)
  Unbridled (1990 Derby)
    Empire Maker (2003 Belmont)
    Grindstone (1996 Derby)
       Birdstone (2004 Belmont)
         Mine That Bird (2009 Derby)
         Summer Bird (2009 Belmont)
    Red Bullet (2000 Preakness)
Forty Niner
  Distorted Humor
    Drosselmeyer (2010 Belmont)
    Funny Cide (2003 Derby, Preakness)
    Flower Alley
      I’ll Have Another (2012 Derby, Preakness)
  Editor’s Note (1996 Belmont)
Gone West
  Commendable (2000 Belmont)
  Elusive Quality
    Smarty Jones (2004 Derby, Preakness)
Gulch
  Thunder Gulch (1995 Derby, Belmont)
    Point Given (2001 Preakness, Belmont)
Kingmambo
  Lemon Drop Kid (1999 Belmont)
Machiavellian
  Street Cry
    Street Sense (2007 Derby)
Our Emblem
  War Emblem (2002 Derby, Preakness)
Seeking the Gold
  Jazil (2006 Belmont)
Smart Strike
  Curlin (2007 Preakness)
    Palace Malice (2013 Belmont)
  Lookin At Lucky (2010 Preakness)
Woodman
  Hansel (1991 Preakness, Belmont)
  Timber Country (1995 Preakness)