08/30/2012 2:30PM

Keeneland September: Big Brown, Curlin among first-crop sires

Henrythenavigator ranks first in earnings among this year’s first-crop sires, a group that includes Big Brown and Curlin.

While the Fasig-Tipton July sale suggested the yearling market was on the rebound, the Saratoga sale in August sent mixed messages, leaving uncertainty about what will happen at the Keeneland yearling sale, which begins Sept. 10. It may be strong, like the Ocala sale, or it may be very uneven, with some home runs at the high end but disappointing numbers on the low end. Of course, this is nothing new. Consignors are simply going to have to take a deep breath and hope for the best.

The progeny of premier stallions such as Bernardini, Street Cry (IRE), Tapit, Distorted Humor, Medaglia d’Oro, Giant’s Causeway, Smart Strike, and Unbridled’s Song are well represented. There are still yearlings by Indian Charlie, who died late in 2011; A.P. Indy, who was pensioned in April 2011; and Dynaformer, who died this April.

These will be the last North American yearlings, however, by Empire Maker, who was sent to Japan after the 2010 season, and the last foals by Dixie Union, Mr. Greeley, and War Pass, all of whom died after the breeding season in 2010.

The leader by number of hips cataloged is Malibu Moon, with 74 yearlings listed. Behind him is Curlin with 67 head, Candy Ride (ARG) with 66, and Tapit and Unbridled’s Song with 65 each.

Among the most interesting sires to watch at the sale, though, are those whose first crop of 2-year-olds are racing this summer. When they went to stud in 2009, this group was led by the mighty Curlin, coming off consecutive Horse of the Year campaigns at 3 and 4 and retiring to Lane’s End Farm, near Versailles, Ky., at a fee of $75,000. Behind him was Big Brown, the controversial champion 3-year-old who entered stud at nearby Three Chimneys Farm for a fee of $65,000.

The rest of this relatively large sire crop − 38 stallions in Kentucky alone − included Henrythenavigator, winner of the English 2000 Guineas; War Pass, the champion 2-year-old in 2007; Midnight Lute, a two-time champion sprinter; Street Boss, a Grade 1 sprinter; Majestic Warrior; Heatseeker (GB); First Defence; Divine Park; Student Council; Spring at Last; and Tiz Wonderful.

We’ve seen their first crop at the sales – in the womb, as weanlings and yearlings, and this year as 2-year-olds – but the ultimate proof for any stallion is on the track. While there are intriguing baby races at the spring meetings at Hollywood Park, Keeneland, and Churchill Downs, the 2-year-old season really gets underway in July and August, and in particular, the Saratoga meeting, where so many of the maiden races for 2-year-olds have revealed the future stars of the crop. The results of these tests will influence the sales of the yearlings by the first-year sires who are showing real promise.

Through Aug. 26, the leading freshman sire by earnings was Henrythenavigator, whose colt Pedro the Great won the recent Group 1 Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh in Ireland. Henrythenavigator, who stands at Ashford Stud, has six winners to his credit, but all are in Europe, which is where Henry made his name at 2 and 3. Besides Pedro the Great, he has group-placed runners George Vancouver and Cristoforo Colombo and listed-placed Infanta Branca.

Henrythenavigator has 51 yearlings spread among Books 1 and 4. Last year, his yearlings averaged $102,000 with a median of $65,000. He will undoubtedly have strong appeal with overseas interests more so than North American buyers, but he should have a good sale overall.

Second on the list by earnings is another Ashford sire, Majestic Warrior, who broke his maiden impressively as a 2-year-old at Saratoga in 2007 and followed with a career high by winning the Hopeful Stakes in his next start. Majestic Warrior also has six winners, and all are in North America with three at Saratoga. He is represented by Sunshine Warrior, who finished second in the Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile on Aug. 11, and although Majestic Warrior doesn’t have a stakes winner yet, it seems just a matter of time before he does.

Majestic Warrior has 26 yearlings cataloged in September, starting with one in Book 2 and the rest in Books 3 through 6. This could set up opportunities to buy some at very reasonable prices. Last year, they averaged $41,002. It’s worth remembering that, like their sire, most stallion sons of A.P. Indy do better as their offspring mature, so this horse is definitely worth keeping an eye on to buy before the market takes him out of reach in a few short years.

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Third on the freshman sire list is the Darley-based Street Boss. Although he was a later-maturing horse, he was also a brilliant sprinter, and frequently the phenotype that makes a great sprinter also creates early juveniles. Street Boss is the leader of this group so far, with 10 winners, including Bosco, who won the Edmonton Juvenile in Northlands, and Sheistheboss, who was third in the listed Prix Six Perfections in France. Street Boss has 34 yearlings in the sale starting in Book 2 through Book 6, and the market should be strong for these since he is doing so well. Last year, his yearlings averaged $49,519.

Run Away and Hide, standing at Darby Dan Farm, is fourth on the freshman sire list by earnings. His five juvenile winners come by it honestly since he was one of the most precocious colts of his crop, winning his 2-year-old debut at Keeneland in April, then the Grade 3 Kentucky Breeders Cup at Churchill in May and Grade 2 Saratoga Special in August. Undefeated in three starts, his early retirement to stud was announced in November of that year. Run Away and Hide’s first yearlings averaged $11,900 last year, and there were 14 of them. This year there are just two, both in Book 4, and this early performance by their kin should make them a little more valuable.

WinStar Farm’s Spring at Last is fifth on the freshman sire list. Another later-maturing horse who is having surprising early success, he also has six juvenile winners, including A Lover’s Quest, who won the Jamestown Stakes on the Colonial Downs grass. He also has Canadian stakes-placed runners Spring In the Air and Just Gone. Spring At Last has only 11 yearlings in the sale, with one in Book 2 and the rest in Books 3 through 6. With a yearling average last year of $12,181, he will probably stay somewhat underrated commercially and could make buyers very happy if he continues to get winners.

Curlin’s racing greatness was undisputed, but the question mark in his sire qualifications was a lack of 2-year-old form. Experience and maturity are major factors in getting to the spring classics and may have been why Curlin could only finish third in the Kentucky Derby but won the Preakness two weeks later. While Curlin has six juvenile winners, including English stakes-placed Savanna La Mar and Saratoga winner Palace Malice, only two of them are in North America. He is not as high on the freshman sire list as his supporters would like to see right now, but there is still plenty of time for him to make up ground. Curlin has 67 yearlings in the sale, spread from Book 1 through Book 6. His yearling average last year was $136,780, and that could be subject to a dip, but his offspring should be expected to be better 3-year-olds than juveniles, so most buyers will forgive his slow start.

Big Brown, on the other hand, was a juvenile winner at Saratoga and has six 2-year-old winners and a stakes winner in North America. Although he was clearly the best colt of his generation, he suffered a constant barrage of criticism, fairly or otherwise, that affected his early stud career, but now his stock should be on the rise. This writer was the head of the stallion seasons department at Three Chimneys Farm when Big Brown retired there and knows the issues that faced this horse when breeders were calling to book mares.

Big Brown’s Triple Crown campaign was brilliant, but it was darkened with controversy. His Kentucky Derby win was not truly appreciated because of the tragic breakdown of the second-place finisher, Eight Belles. His human connections were not scoring high points with public relations, and a quarter crack suggested he had soundness issues. Big Brown’s dominance in the Preakness shook off some of that, but the ensuing three weeks were filled with bad press when his trainer acknowledged Big Brown was on a legal steroid regimen. Legal or not, this didn’t sit well with the public.

When Big Brown was pulled up in the Belmont Stakes, losing the Triple Crown, the damage to racing and to the horse’s reputation was severe. Although he returned to win his final two races with distinction, when Big Brown grabbed a quarter in training one morning in the fall and was retired because of the hoof injury, detractors used that against him, too.

When Big Brown arrived at Three Chimneys in 2008, it was impossible not to be impressed with the horse who glided off the van that cool autumn morning and showed off his near-perfect conformation and remarkable presence. When breeders expressed a lack of interest in the horse because of his bad press, including a pedigree that showed clever inbreeding but was short of top class, it was just as remarkable to see many of them change their tune when they saw him in person.

Big Brown filled a first book of 110 mares, and the farm sweated it out until his foals started hitting the ground the next spring. Although Big Brown’s sales averages were clearly affected by the depressed auction market, the reviews on the quality of his offspring remained positive, even as they went into early training. Throughout the spring this year, Brown’s 2-year-olds grabbed headlines at the sales. His yearlings last year averaged over $82,000, but this year’s juveniles moved up to an average of over $130,000, including the $1.3 million colt out of Cool Ghoul at the Fasig-Tipton February sale.

Big Brown’s first 2-year-old winner was Ruby Brown, a winner in Russia. (Curlin’s first two winners were in Russia, by coincidence.) His first North American winner was Brown Eyes Blue at Churchill, then Brown Almighty at Arlington on the turf, and Archer Hill on the Saratoga grass, just like Big Brown. Brown Almighty came back to win the Sunny’s Halo Stakes on the turf at Louisiana Downs, and a few days later, Insolvent broke his maiden on dirt at Saratoga. Big Brown has 34 yearlings in the sale starting in Book 2, and expect his average to improve over last year’s average of $82,712. If he can succeed over all the negatives in his path, he may be a truly remarkable stallion indeed.