12/07/2017 10:26AM

Kentucky's farms go back to the well for 2018

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Barbara D. Livingston
Champion Classic Empire leads a trio of new stallions at Coolmore's Ashford Stud for 2018.

The Thoroughbred industry is a landscape of dynasties and history. That is evident in this year’s Kentucky class of sires, with major farms tapping into lines that have worked for them in the past by standing young stallions aside their sires or close relations, or securing sons from rising sirelines.

Classic Empire fits the pattern for Coolmore in more ways than one. The colt is the sixth of the last eight Eclipse Award champion juveniles to enter stud at the international outfit’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky, following Lookin At Lucky (2009), Uncle Mo (2010), Hansen (2011), Shanghai Bobby (2013), and American Pharoah (2014). American Pharoah, who went on to win the Triple Crown, is by Pioneerof the Nile, also the sire of Classic Empire.

Coolmore announced days following Classic Empire’s runner-up effort in the Preakness Stakes – which turned out to be his final career start – that it had inked a deal to stand the John Oxley colorbearer upon retirement. The colt concluded his career with 5 wins in 9 starts for earnings of $2,520,220. He was unanimously named 2016’s Eclipse Award champion 2-year-old male after a campaign highlighted by wins in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity.

But in his 3-year-old debut, Classic Empire finished third in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes as the heavy favorite and came out of the race with a foot abscess. He displayed discomfort in his back, and at least twice refused to train at Palm Meadows training center. Trainer Mark Casse sent Classic Empire to the quieter Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., where he was trained as a young horse. After breezing several times there, the colt won the Arkansas Derby, making him the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby. He finished a creditable fourth with a troubled trip in the full field.

Classic Empire dueled Derby winner Always Dreaming into submission in the Preakness and was clear by three lengths in the stretch, but was caught by Cloud Computing at the wire for a head loss. Off that effort, Classic Empire was expected to be favored in the Belmont Stakes, but was withdrawn from consideration the week of the race with a hoof abscess. After refusing to breeze at Saratoga in August – and again exhibiting back discomfort – he was sent back to Winding Oaks, with an eye on making the Pennsylvania Derby in late September. He never breezed there.

“Unfortunately, we just ran out of time to get him to the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Casse said. “I could never get him completely over his foot abscess, and it wasn’t possible to train him the way I needed in order to bring him back at the highest level, which is where he deserved to be. He’s an extremely talented horse that can do anything, and he overcame a lot of adversity to achieve what he did. I still believe he was the most talented horse of his generation.”

Classic Empire, a half-brother to stakes winners Anytime Magic and Uptown Twirl, is from the family of Grade 1 winner and prominent sire Harlan’s Holiday, whose sons at stud include leading juvenile sire Into Mischief and Shanghai Bobby, now a freshman at Ashford.

Classic Empire’s “brilliance on the track is reinforced with a pedigree full of black type,” Ashford director of sales Charlie O’Connor said in a press release. “We couldn’t be more excited to be standing him.”

Classic Empire debuts for an advertised fee of $35,000 – ranking him third in incoming fees behind only Arrogate and Gun Runner. He keys a trio of newcomers at Ashford which also welcomes Grade 1 winners Cupid, by leading sire Tapit, and Practical Joke, by Into Mischief, to its Kentucky farm. The three look to give breeders a range of options. While Classic Empire was precocious, he was a multiple Grade 1 winner at route distances and a prominent classics contender. Cupid has been described by trainer Bob Baffert as “a tweener – a mile to a mile and an eighth,” and Practical Joke has done his best work around one turn.

Cupid, a multiple Grade 2 winner as a 3-year-old, won this year’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita, giving him a résumé-boosting Grade 1 victory for Coolmore, which purchased him for $900,000 as a yearling.

Practical Joke won last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 1 Champagne stakes, and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This year, he has competed creditably in longer-distance races, highlighted when he was beaten less than a length in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational. However, his best performances have come around one turn, including a 1 3/4-length win in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens at Saratoga.

“To cut back all the way to seven-eighths after a tough race in the Haskell, I’m so proud of this horse,” trainer Chad Brown said after the victory. “He’s so versatile. It was his third race in seven weeks. He’s our iron horse.”

After finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Practical Joke closed his career with a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile in December before heading to Ashford.

Multiple graded stakes winner Tom’s Ready also concluded his career in the Cigar Mile, finishing fifth, before retiring to Spendthrift Farm. Spendthrift will debut a trio of newcomers in 2018, with multiple Grade 1 winner Gormley standing alongside his sire, Malibu Moon, and multiple Grade 1 winner Lord Nelson making his long-awaited debut.

Although Tom’s Ready has done his campaigning on dirt, he is by the popular turf and shuttle sire More Than Ready, making him an attractive prospect for Spendthrift, which launched a stallion operation in Australia in 2015.

Lord Nelson is a son of the late Pulpit, whose branch of the A.P. Indy line is responsible for Tapit, as well as fellow classic sire Lucky Pulpit. Pulpit has another son entering stud in Kentucky this year in Grade 3 winner American Freedom at Airdrie, while Tapit’s multiple Grade 2-winning son Mohaymen will debut at Shadwell Farm.

Grade 1 winner Connect begins his career at Lane’s End, the same farm that launched the career of his sire, Curlin. Lane’s End also will stand Grade 2 winner Unified alongside his sire, Candy Ride, who has two Grade 1 winners entering stud this year in Gun Runner at Three Chimneys and Mastery at Claiborne. Mastery, unbeaten in his brief career before injury forced his retirement, is from the family of prominent sires Jump Start and Miswaki.

Curlin will have another son entering stud this year in Keen Ice, who recorded 10 graded wins or placings, highlighted by his 2015 Travers score over Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and a third-place finish to American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes. He also was third behind Arrogate and California Chrome in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Calumet, which has developed an eclectic stallion roster with a variety of international influences, also adds Brazilian-bred Bal a Bali, by Put It Back; French-bred Behesht, by Sea The Stars; Mr. Z, by Malibu Moon; English-bred Producer, by Dutch Art; and War Correspondent, by War Front.

Bal a Bali won the 2014 Triple Crown and was Horse of the Year in Brazil. He later overcame laminitis to become a Grade 1 winner in the United States.

“Bal a Bali has as much heart as you could ask for from a stallion prospect,” Calumet’s Jak Knelman said. “To be such a dominant 2-year-old and 3-year-old, and then to overcome laminitis and return to be a multiple Grade 1 winner really shows how much grit and determination he has as a racehorse. … As he won from five furlongs up to 12 furlongs, with his preferred distance at a mile, he has the ability to sire a speedy 2-year-old while giving his progeny every chance to win at the classic distance.”

Multiple group stakes performer War Correspondent is a full brother to Declaration of War and is from the immediate family of Union Rags, both successful young sires. Grade 1-placed Mr. Z is out of a full sister to champion Chief Bearheart and is from the female family of Mr. Prospector.

Medaglia d’Oro features prominently in the ranks of North America’s elite sires, with his stud fee rising to $250,000 following a season in which his seven Grade 1 winners included a pair of Breeders’ Cup victors. Darley has thus called up his Group 1-winning son Astern to shuttle for his first Kentucky season after launching his stud career this year at its Australian farm.

Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway will be one of the last significant sons of the late Smart Strike retiring to stud, as the colt heads to WinStar Farm. WinStar stands Pioneerof the Nile, whose versatile Grade 1 winner Midnight Storm enters stud across town at Taylor Made, as a Taylor Made/WinStar venture.

Other stallions retiring to major Kentucky farms this season include Grade 1 winner Klimt (by Quality Road) at Darby Dan, and multiple graded stakes winner Bird Song (Unbridled’s Song) at Gainesway. Bird Song is a close relation to Gainesway’s multiple classic sire Birdstone, being from the same sireline and out of a half-sister to the stallion.