09/12/2016 8:39AM

Sparkman: Almanzor conquers Europe's best


Although California Chrome made it look easy, Del Mar’s Grade 1 Pacific Classic drew perhaps the most competitive field of any race in the world so far this year. The 2016 European equivalent in degree of difficulty to date occurred last Saturday at Leopardstown, where no less than eight Group 1 winners broke from the starting gate for the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes.

Those eight included the two most recent French Derby winners, the 2016 Epsom and Irish Derby winner, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, the 2016 Epsom Oaks and 1000 Guineas winner, the 2016 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner, the 2016 Eclipse Stakes winner, and the 2016 Prince of Wales’s Stakes winner.

The winner, Almanzor, may not have treated the field with quite the disdain California Chrome displayed in beating Beholder, Hoppertunity, and Dortmund at Del Mar, but his three-quarter-length victory over 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Found was mightily impressive and sets the modestly bred colt up to prove himself the best horse in Europe in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in a month’s time.

Bred in France by the de Chambure family’s Haras d’Etreham, Almanzor is from the first crop of the Etreham stallion Wootton Bassett, the horse who first put his own sire, Iffraaj, on the map as a stallion.

Bred by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Darley and raced by Godolphin, Iffraaj was one of the best sons of 1993 2000 Guineas winner Zafonic, in turn, the most talented son of Gone West. Iffraaj won 7 of his 13 starts, but only three of those starts came before the age of 4, and his best wins were in the Group 2 Lennox Stakes and Park Stakes (at both 4 and 5).

Though from a highly successful female family, those were not very exciting credentials when Iffraaj retired to stud in Ireland in 2007, but Wootton Bassett’s victory in the Group 1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere-Grand Criterium at 2 in 2010 put Iffraaj on the map as a stallion, and his record has only gotten better since then.

To date, Iffraaj has sired 40 stakes winners from 1,034 foals age 3 and up while shuttling annually to New Zealand. In addition to Wootton Bassett’s French juvenile highweight, Iffraaj has sired New Zealand champion sprinter Turn Me Loose (out of Indomitable, by Danehill), Irish highweighted 2-year-old filly Rizeena (Serena’s Storm, by Statue of Liberty), English highweighted 2-year-old filly Chriselliam (Danielli, by Danehill), and German and Italian highweight Magic Artist (Artisti, by Cape Cross).

Wootton Bassett’s Grand Criterium victory came in the fifth start of an unbeaten juvenile season, but the Iffraaj colt could get no closer than fifth in four starts, all in Group 1 company, at 3, so his halo was somewhat tarnished when he retired to Etreham in 2012. Wootton Bassett also did not have the benefit of the fashionable female family that helped attract mares to Iffraaj in his early seasons, and Almanzor is the best of only 24 foals in his first crop that also includes the Group 2-placed filly Do Re Mi Fa Sol (Maitresse, by Singspiel).

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Purchased for 100,000 euros (about $134,000) by trainer Jean-Claude Rouget on behalf of Antonio Caro and Gerard Augustin-Normand at the 2014 Arqana Deauville yearling sale, Almanzor is the first foal out of Darkova, by Maria’s Mon, one of many castoffs from the Aga Khan Stud that have greatly benefitted other breeders. Bred by the current Aga Khan’s daughter, Princess Zahra, Darkova was unraced and sold off for only 16,000 euros (about $21,400) at the 2011 Arqana December sale.

Darkova’s dam, Darkara, by Halling, won the listed Prix des Tourelles and produced only one winner from eight foals, but she was half-sister to stakes-placed Darinska, by Zilzal, dam of one of Princess Zahra’s best runners, European champion 3-year-old filly Darjina, by Zamindar. Darkova is a fifth-generation tail-female descendant of Djebellina, by Charlottesville, one of many high-class broodmares the Aga Khan acquired through his purchase of the stud of Marcel Boussac in the 1970s. The family also has produced French Oaks winner Daryaba, by Night Shift, and Group 1 winners Dariyan, by Shamardal, and Daryakana, by Selkirk, for the Aga Khan.

Darkova has since produced an unraced 2-year-old full sister to Almanzor named Troarn, who was purchased by Rouget for 110,000 euros (about $122,000) at last year’s Deauville sale; a yearling colt by Falco, and a weanling full sister to Almanzor.

The Irish Champion was Almanzor’s seventh victory in nine starts, and, with Wootton Bassett as his sire, there are legitimate questions about whether he will stay beyond the 10 furlongs of the Irish Champion. Whatever his fate, his achievements so far have outpaced anything that could have been predicted by his pedigree.