04/18/2005 11:00PM

New breed of Derby winner emerges

Afleet Alex, here winning the Arkansas Derby, is by a sprinter-miler but inherits stamina from his damsire.

LAS VEGAS - The world has turned upside down. What was unimaginable a mere 10 years ago now seems the norm. The last three winners of the Kentucky Derby were by sires characterized by speed with very little stamina, but they had no problem getting 1 1/4 miles.

It all started in 2002 with the improbable Derby victory by War Emblem, a 3-year-old who made dramatic strides at the right time, peaking on Derby Day. His stakes-placed sire, Our Emblem, competed in the best of company, and was unlucky not to win a stakes in his career as a sprinter for his owner-breeder, Ogden Phipps. By the ubiquitous Mr. Prospector, Our Emblem was typical of most offspring by that late, great stallion, inheriting high speed. But like so many siblings, Our Emblem was the complete opposite of his full older brother Miner's Mark, a Mr. Prospector colt who thrived at classic distances, winning such races as the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Of course, a case can be made that Our Emblem was always capable of siring horses with classic ability because of his dam, Personal Ensign, the undefeated champion who went on to become the 1996 Broodmare of the Year. She foaled stakes winners My Flag and Traditionally, in addition to Miner's Mark and stakes-placed Our Emblem and Proud and True. But after five full foal crops by Our Emblem, only War Emblem and an Arkansas Derby winner, Private Emblem, are offspring of Our Emblem to have won graded stakes at a middle distance, let alone 1 1/4 miles.

Distorted Humor burst onto the scene as a freshman sire in 2002 and he waged a ding-dong battle with Elusive Quality all year for bragging rights as the top young sire. When Elusive Quality's top earner that year, French champion Elusive City, was belatedly disqualified from first money in a European group race, Distorted Humor took over the top spot. His first crop showed the typical speed of his sire, Forty Niner, and he had an amazing 53 winners from 61 foals, which included nine stakes winners, most notably Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. With a dual classic winner in his first crop, Distorted Humor quickly ascended the stallion ranks.

A New York-bred with Kentucky roots up and down his pedigree, Funny Cide had success that was not as surprising as that of War Emblem, or Smarty Jones in 2004. Funny Cide descends from the same family as his rival Empire Maker. Both share Bravura as their fifth dam, and that Darby Dan mare became the foundation mare responsible for stakes winners Hail the Pirates, Candalita, Walker's, and the remarkable Toussaud and her brood.

But the improbable reached new heights last year with Smarty Jones. A son of Elusive Quality, who established a world record of one mile on the turf in the Poker Handicap (1:31.60) and a seven-furlong track record on dirt (1:20) winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, Smarty Jones was an aberration. He won at 1 1/4 miles in top company, something no other Elusive Quality has done since. Elusive Quality is a brilliant influence, and despite the success of Smarty Jones, he will never be thought of as a source of stamina. In addition to the uncommon speed of his sire, Smarty Jones descends in tail-female line from La Troienne, generally regarded as the greatest influence of the last century. While his lineage explains high speed and class, it does not explain his success at 1 1/4 miles, with Elusive Quality on top and, particularly, yet another source of speed as his damsire, the champion sprinter Smile (In Reality).

Could it happen again this year?

After the explosive victory by Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby last weekend, it looks like this pattern may very well continue. Among the best of his generation at age 2, Afleet Alex is by sprinter-miler Northern Afleet, a son of another top sprinter, Afleet (Mr. Prospector), who was Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old in Canada.

Afleet Alex is out of Maggy Hawk, a winner of just 1 race in 4 starts. Unlike Smarty Jones, however, Afleet Alex inherits a great deal of stamina from his damsire, Hawkster, who set a world record for 1 1/2 miles on the turf at Santa Anita. His second dam (a Demoiselle Stakes winner, Qualique) is by South African Horse of the Year and U.S. grass champion Hawaii, who set a track record of 1 1/2 miles on the turf at Belmont Park.

Afleet Alex is a full brother to stakes winner Unforgettable Max, who has proven best as a sprinter-miler. Unforgettable Max takes more after his sire, Northern Afleet, while Afleet Alex obviously inherited more from his stamina-rich dam. As noted above, this is not uncommon among full siblings. In addition to the different running styles of Our Emblem and Miner's Mark, other examples include Easy Goer and his sprinter-miler full sister Cadillacing, and the champion full brothers Bold Lad and Successor.

Of course, Afleet Alex may not win the Kentucky Derby, but he fits the pedigree pattern of the past three Derby winners and simply cannot be discounted by pedigree - not after his resounding Arkansas Derby victory.