01/03/2014 4:37PM

Sparkman: American runners are falling behind

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Japan's Orfevre surpassed a world record for earnings by a Thoroughbred.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? If a world record falls and no one notices, does it matter?

From 1923 (when Kentucky Derby winner Zev’s victory in the great international match race with Epsom Derby winner Papyrus propelled his earnings past those of 1893 English Triple Crown winner Isinglass) to 1990 (when Japan’s Oguri Cap sneaked past Alysheba to become the world’s leading money earner), Americans became accustomed to the idea that an American horse would naturally be the world’s leading money earner on the racetrack.

For the latter half of that period, we also could be pretty confident that the world’s best racehorses were born each year within our borders. Aided by his victory in the 1996 Dubai World Cup, Cigar briefly put America’s nose back in front on the money-earning list, but by 2000, T.M.Opera O had reclaimed the title for Japan.

It has become all too easy and customary for Americans to dismiss the earnings of Japanese horses, pointing to the inescapable fact that the average purse in Japan is almost three times the average purse in the United States, and seeming to accept that discrepancy almost as a badge of honor instead of the scarlet letter of shame it should be.

In fact, various American record-keepers, including this august publication, exclude Japanese earnings from the records of American sires, despite including those from Dubai, where average purses are very close to those in Japan.

Thus, we should not be surprised that not one but two world records for earnings by a Thoroughbred fell in 2013 without anyone on this side of the Pacific paying the slightest attention.

The first record was surpassed Oct. 6 at Longchamp in Paris, where 2011 Japanese Horse of the Year Orfevre ran second in the Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. The $1,487,582 Orfevre earned for finishing second to the undefeated French filly Treve pushed his career earnings past the $16,200,337 T.M.Opera O had earned at the end of his career 13 years ago.

Orfevre added to his record in his only subsequent start, winning Japan’s season-ending weight-for-age championship, the Group 1 Arima Kinen, by an astonishing eight lengths and completing his career with a record of 12 wins, six seconds, and one third in 21 starts for world-record earnings of $19,005,276, according to The Jockey Club’s foreign-exchange algorithm.

Then, on Nov. 24, Gentildonna, who earned 2012 Japanese Horse of the Year honors by beating Orfevre by a nose in that year’s Japan Cup, became the first repeat winner of that event, again dropping her nose just in front at the wire, this time with Denim and Ruby in second place. The $2,507,346 she earned for that narrow victory pushed her career earnings to $12,978,745, well past those of the previous female Thoroughbred record-holder, Australia’s wondrous three-time Melbourne Cup winner, Makybe Diva.

Why should we care that two Japanese horses are now the world’s leading male and female Thoroughbred money winners? Well, one reason is that not a single American horse contested either the $6.5 million Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or the $4.7 million Japan Cup.

In fact, the only American-bred horse in either race, Penglai Pavilion, who ran an unexpectedly excellent fifth at Longchamp, is American only by accident of birth, since he was sired by the great German sire Monsun and is out of the British-bred Maiden Tower, who had been imported by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s international breeding operation to be bred to Medaglia d’Oro.

And in truth, there were only two American-trained horses of 2013 who might have deserved a place in either the Arc or Japan Cup fields. One of those, Animal Kingdom, already was serving mares in Australia by the time the race was run, and the other, Point of Entry, was recovering from injury at Arc time and had just run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf prior to the Japan Cup. What other American horse proven on turf with a chance of staying 1 1/2 miles in a fast-run race would have had the remotest chance against top-class international turf horses in the Arc or the Japan Cup? None.

The other reason Americans should pay attention is that Orfevre and Gentildonna are paternal grandson and granddaughter of 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence, who was exported as a stallion to Japan because American breeders inexplicably did not think he was good enough to stand in Kentucky.

According to comments from American breeders at the time, Sunday Silence, despite being the American racehorse with the best racetrack form since Spectacular Bid, was not sired by a horse they regarded as a sire of sires, despite the fact that his sire, Halo, had led the American sire list twice. Halo, of course, subsequently gained a rather impressive reputation as the sire of leading American sire Saint Ballado and seven-time leading Argentine sire Southern Halo, as well as 13-time leading Japanese sire Sunday Silence.

Sunday Silence proved himself the best sire in Japanese history, and he is the only Japanese-based sire to make any impact outside of Japan. His sons Fuji Kiseki, Silent Name, Hat Trick, Divine Light, and Deep Impact all have sired top horses in other countries.

Deep Impact, Sunday Silence’s best son and widely considered Japan’s all-time best racehorse, is the sire of Gentildonna, whose Japan Cup victory assured Deep Impact of a second consecutive Japanese sire championship. In fact, sons of Sunday Silence totally dominate the Japanese leading-sire list, with only King Kamehameha, by Kingmambo, Symboli Kris S, by Kris S., and Kurofune, by French Deputy, interspersed among seven sons of Sunday Silence on the list of the top 10 leading sires in Japan in both 2012 and 2013.

Deep Impact, out of the beautifully bred top European racemare Wind in Her Hair, by Alzao, won 12 of 14 career starts and ranks fourth on the career earnings list at $12,825,285, just behind his champion daughter. Gentildonna is one of 37 stakes winners from 535 foals of racing age sired by Deep Impact, a list that includes Japanese champion Joie de Vivre, Japanese Derby winners Kizuna and Deep Brillante, and French classic winner Beauty Parlour.

Orfevre’s sire, Stay Gold, out of Golden Sash, by Dictus, was a tough, sound racehorse just short of top class who ran 50 times over six seasons and scored the best of his seven victories in the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase in 2001. He has sired 25 stakes winners, including Orfevre’s full brother Dream Journey, Japan’s champion 2-year-old male in 2006 and champion older male in 2009, and Gold Ship, Japan’s champion 3-year-old male last year.

Orfevre and Dream Journey are sons of three-time Japanese winner Oriental Art, by Japanese champion Mejiro McQueen, another onetime holder of the world money-earning record. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that their second dam, Electro Art, has a North American pedigree, sired by the Canadian-bred nine-time leading Japanese sire Northern Taste out of the American-bred Grandma Stevens, by Lt. Stevens, from an undistinguished branch of the same family that produced Ruffian, Fusaichi Pegasus, Coronado’s Quest, and Orb over here.

Gentildonna’s pedigree, on the other hand, is fairly typical of many relatively unfashionable European pedigrees of the past three decades, since the first three sires along her female line, Bertolini, Lyphard’s Special, and Junius, were all second-rate American-bred, European-raced horses who made little impression as sires in Europe.

Perhaps Americans are not yet very interested, but it is abundantly clear from international results spanning the past five years that our 40-year binge of selling our best horses to European and Middle Eastern breeders has finally achieved the inevitable. Regardless of exchange rates and purse differentials, we are no longer breeding the world’s best racehorses.