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Sires make their marks on the race
LEXINGTON, Ky. - The sires of this year's Kentucky Derby field are rich in Triple Crown experience of their own, either as runners themselves or as sires of previous classic winners. Several are high-priced stallions who won races at 1 1/4 mile and beyond, evidence that breeders hoping to get Derby winners are injecting doses of class and stamina. That runs contrary to some criticism leveled at breeders last year, when Eight Belles's fatal breakdown after the Derby prompted some commentators to theorize that breeders were focusing too much on speed at the expense of soundness.
Soundness is a complex issue involving many factors including pedigree, and many breeders and bloodstock experts agree that the Thoroughbred marketplace still demands too much focus on early speed. But the 2009 Derby field (foaled in 2006) shows that miler and classic-friendly bloodlines also are being used liberally both by commercial and homebreeders, at least those making it to the Derby.
"The general trend has been to breed for speed," said Grant Williamson, a pedigree adviser and stallion marketer for Vinery, Friesan Fire's breeder. "But now we've got so much speed, a lot of guys now are wanting to breed more stamina. I think you'll see that swing back and forth from generation to generation. You've got to breed for all distances, at the end of the day. You've got to look at your mare, figure out what she has and what she's lacking, and breed accordingly."
Among the distance-proven sires represented in the 2009 Derby are a trio of Belmont winners: A. P. Indy, Empire Maker, and Birdstone. A. P. Indy scratched on the morning of the 1992 Derby and bypassed the Preakness, but came back to win the Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic. Empire Maker was runner-up to Funny Cide in the 2003 Derby before winning the Belmont. Birdstone also skipped the Preakness, then upset Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont.
All three of those stallions are by Kentucky Derby winners, too. A. P. Indy, one of the world's foremost sires, is by 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Empire Maker, ranked second on the third-crop sire list, is a son of 1990 Derby victor Unbridled. Birdstone, sire of 2009 Derby runners Summer Bird and Mine That Bird, is by another Unbridled horse, 1996 Derby winner Grindstone.
That makes Unbridled the grandsire of Coolmore's 2009 Derby contender Dunkirk, as well as of Summer Bird and Mine That Bird.
Seattle Slew also is grandsire of two contenders, Friesan Fire and Nowhere to Hide, a son of Vindication who entered the field on Wednesday after Win Willy dropped out.
A. P. Indy also reaches deep into the Derby field. His son Pulpit, fourth in the 1997 Run for the Roses, is the grandsire of two runners: General Quarters and Join in the Dance, both by Sky Mesa. A. P. Indy himself is the grandsire of I Want Revenge, whose sire is Stephen Got Even.
Only two of the sires with runners in the Derby have average progeny winning distances above eight furlongs. A. P. Indy runners have an average winning distance of 8.23 furlongs, according to Jockey Club statistics. And Giant's Causeway horses top that slightly with an average winning distance of 8.51 furlongs. Nine sires represented in the Derby have progeny with average winning distances between 7.01 furlongs (Distorted Humor) and 7.93 furlongs (Empire Maker). The others are Sky Mesa (7.05 furlongs), Unbridled's Song (7.09 furlongs), Fusaichi Pegasus (7.38 furlongs), Smart Strike (7.45 furlongs), Stephen Got Even and Street Cry (both 7.22 furlongs), and Tiznow (7.53 furlongs).
The remainder have average progeny winning distances below seven furlongs. They are Chapel Royal (6.22 furlongs), Yonaguska (6.26 furlongs), Bernstein (6.62 furlongs), Birdstone (6.69 furlongs), Candy Ride (6.74 furlongs), and Vindication (6.80 furlongs).
Distorted Humor runners' average winning distance might seem comparatively short, but he is the son of Derby runner-up and Travers winner Forty Niner and already has sired one Derby winner in Funny Cide. The only other sire with a Derby victor to his credit is Street Cry, sire of the 2007 winner, Street Sense. Only one Derby winner also has sired a runner in this year's race. That's 2000 winner Fusaichi Pegasus, who is represented by Flying Private.
Of course, a sire's past performances are only half the equation in a mating. The Derby is a race that famously requires both the ability to stay 1 1/4 miles as well as tactical speed, and runners can get the necessary stamina from their dams.
Staying close to home
Seven of the Derby starters are homebreds. They are Pioneerof the Nile, Papa Clem, Friesan Fire, Hold Me Back, Chocolate Candy, Summer Bird, and Mr. Hot Stuff. An eighth, I Want Revenge, is owned by a partnership that includes breeder David Lanzman, though IEAH Stable is majority owner.
Several of those runners did pass through the auction ring, but a few, like Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy, were never intended for sale. Papa Clem's breeder and owner, Bo Hirsch, said his instructions to bloodstock adviser Kathy Berkey are simple.
"I ask Kathy to pick me the best sire for the money and to forget about how attractive it would be for the sale ring, because we're not selling," he said.
Jenny Craig and her late husband Sidney bred Chocolate Candy from their own sire Candy Ride. He stood for only $10,000 at the time.
"We had such high hopes for Candy Ride, we felt that we wanted our best mares to be mated to him," Craig said.
Some breeders end up campaigning their horses because they haven't sold at auction. That was the case with Friesan Fire, who failed to reach Vinery's $725,000 reserve as a yearling. Vinery co-owns him now with Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm.
Vinery owner Tom Simon especially liked Friesan Fire, a son of A. P. Indy out of Simon's Australian champion juvenile filly Bint Marscay. He was a slightly late-maturing yearling with his mother's wide chest, two factors that apparently made bidders wary of him.
Vinery's general manager, Tom Ludt, said one advantage of breeding to race is the ability to ignore what's fashionable.
"There was such a commercial push for freshman sires, the sexy mating versus the best mating," Ludt said. "I think we're seeing some people going back to some more traditional matings."
Big names well represented
Lane's End, WinStar, and Ashford each have at least two sires of Derby runners this year. Lane's End stands A. P. Indy (Friesan Fire), Smart Strike (Papa Clem and Atomic Rain), and Stephen Got Even (I Want Revenge). WinStar is home to Distorted Humor (Regal Ransom) and Tiznow (Mr. Hot Stuff). And Ashford stands Giant's Causeway (Hold Me Back) and Fusaichi Pegasus (Flying Private).
Hill 'n' Dale Farm also has two sired by its stallions, though one of those sires, sadly, has died. That is Vindication, who got Nowhere to Hide. The other Hill 'n' Dale stallion is Candy Ride, sire of Chocolate Candy.
A. P. Indy is the most expensive 2009 Derby sire at $250,000. The least expensive stallion on the list is Yonaguska. Stabled at Louisiana's Elite Thoroughbreds on behalf of Vinery, he carries a $4,000 fee.