05/16/2008 12:00AM

Northern Dancer in common, but little else

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - This week marks a watershed in Thoroughbred breeding.

In the space of two days, Sadler's Wells, the last great son of the legendary Northern Dancer, and Storm Cat, the most dominant grandson of Northern Dancer, were pensioned from breeding.

These two stallions were the most dominant forces in the breed on their own sides of the Atlantic, but aside from their importance as sires of top-class racehorses, they also illustrate the differing paths that the Northern Dancer line is taking as it transforms into succeeding generations.

In Europe and to a lesser degree in other countries that race primarily on turf, Sadler's Wells is the preeminent classic sire.

In the United States, and increasingly in other countries (especially several in South America), the influence of Storm Cat has had a much different effect on the type and aptitude of the breed.

Storm Cat has been a consistent factor for early maturity and for speed, but he has not been dominant as a factor for classic development.

Storm Cat's only American classic-winning colt has been Tabasco Cat, and it became clear early in the stallion's stud career that if a breeder wanted a racer by Storm Cat that possibly could go 10 furlongs, some support from the mare's side of the pedigree was a good idea.

Especially in combination with classic sire Alydar, Storm Cat got offspring who were competitive at nine and 10 furlongs, such as Kentucky Oaks winner Sardula, Breeders' Cup Classic winner Cat Thief, and Alabama winner November Snow.

But a vast majority of the Storm Cat offspring showed great speed, athletic ability for racing, and the rugged determination to win races.

These qualities made the Storm Cats very popular with trainers and propelled valuations higher and higher.

Not a large percentage were truly suited to longer distances, but so many of them had high ability that the sire has more than 150 stakes winners.

In contrast, Sadler's Wells is a more specialized beast. His racers really show their top form in the European environment, although his best can race well on turf almost anywhere because of their very high class.

One of the reasons that the offspring of Sadler's Wells do so well in Europe is that there is more opportunity for colts and fillies to race the classic distance of 12 furlongs and even longer if the horses are suited to it.

The perennial leading sire in England, he has never sired a pure sprinter, and many of the Sadler's Wells offspring are specialist classic racers or stayers, such as Ascot Gold Cup winners Yeats and Kayf Tara. They have quality, finesse, and finishing speed, but those qualities are different when expressed in Europe than when translated to firmer surfaces or shorter distances in racing regimes such as the U.S.

And at the midpoint of their stud careers, Sadler's Wells actually became looked upon as a negative influence by some breeders because of the stamina inherent in nearly all his stock.

This "tainted" perception became especially clear after several early sons of Sadler's Wells had gone to stud and had sired horses with plenty of stamina but little else.

Some of his sons sent to breed in the Southern Hemisphere became unwelcome guests, and it appeared for a time in the late 1990s that no son of Sadler's Wells would come forward to fill his sire's enormous shoes.

Of the transplanted sons of Sadler's Wells, the most successful have been American leading sire El Prado and Fort Wood in South Africa, where he has sired an outstanding champion in Horse Chestnut and continues to get top-class runners in that environment.

At the same time that the demand for sons of Sadler's Wells was cooling down dramatically, Storm Cat was becoming all the rage. Initially in the U.S., and then in Europe with the emergence of Giant's Causeway as an exceptional performer, the non-classic-winning sons of Storm Cat became more popular than the classic-winning sons of Sadler's Wells.

Some of Storm Cat's sprinting sons, such as Forest Wildcat and Tale of the Cat, as well as others who never made it to the classics like Forestry, have attracted good books of mares and produced enough important stakes winners to maintain popularity in a highly competitive market.

But Giant's Causeway has taken the position as the best son of Storm Cat with the success of his initial runners, which included European classic winner Shamardal. A continuing line of high-class winners has kept Giant's Causeway in favor at stud and at the sales, and one fascinating element of his success has been the more classic aptitude of his runners.

This, combined with their capacity to race on turf or on dirt, has broadened the horizon for Giant's Causeway.

And at nearly the end of his stud career, Sadler's Wells also swung even farther back into favor because two of his sons - Montjeu and Galileo - have proven themselves tip-top classic sires in Europe.

Montjeu sired Arc winner Hurricane Run and English Derby winner Motivator. Galileo has sired Irish 1000 Guineas winner Nightime and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Red Rocks. But even more importantly for the continuation of the influence of Sadler's Wells in Europe, Galileo has sired horses with unexpected precocity, including the leading 2-year-old colts Teofilo and New Approach.