01/29/2015 4:26PM

Sparkman: The 'Bird' has flown

Barbara D. Livingston
Birdatthewire is carrying the flag for late sire Summer Bird.

The stud career of Birdstone has been as odd as any stallion’s in recent memory. Despite retiring to Gainesway in 2005 with victories in the classic Belmont Stakes and Grade 1 Travers and Champagne to his credit, he never has been particularly popular with breeders but sired the classic winners Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, plus the graded winners Birdrun, Livin Lovin, and S. S. Stone, as well as two other stakes winners from his first crop of 66 named foals.

Even picky commercial Kentucky breeders who caviled Birdstone’s slight stature and the failure as a stallion of his sire, Grindstone, could not ignore that kind of production, but the increased quantity and quality of mares bred to Birdstone has not resulted in the expected blossoming of his stud career. In six more crops to reach the races, Birdstone has sired only seven more stakes winners, and only two of those are graded winners.

Birdstone’s 50-to-1 Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, was a gelding, and his other classic winner, Summer Bird, was given only a brief chance to make it at stud in Kentucky before being sold to Japan, where he died in 2013 after standing only one season. Summer Bird’s first crop raced at 2 in 2014 and predictably did not particularly shine, but if the victory of daughter Birdatthewire in the Grade 2 Forward Gal Stakes on Jan. 24 is a reliable indicator, the progeny of Summer Bird may emulate their sire and be more effective racehorses as they mature.

Summer Bird was bred in Florida by his owners, Drs. K.K. and Vilasini Jayaraman, and did not race at 2. He made his first start March 1, 2009, at Oaklawn Park and finished a fast-closing fourth, beaten a length, over the inadequate distance of six furlongs. Wheeled back 18 days later by trainer Tim Ice, he scored an easy maiden victory at 1 1/16 miles at the resort track. In the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby about three weeks later, Summer Bird was a long way last for the first six furlongs but circled the field on the turn to finish third, beaten a half-length by Papa Clem and three-quarters of a length by Old Fashioned.

Summer Bird had shown absolutely no early speed in his three races at Oaklawn and not surprisingly was soon mired in traffic toward the back of the big field in the Kentucky Derby. He made a big run around the outside of the field on the far turn but could not sustain his bid and finished sixth, beaten 13 lengths by Mine That Bird.

Ice and the Jayaramans wisely decided to skip the Preakness Stakes in favor of an attempt at the Belmont Stakes. Over the longer distance, Summer Bird was able to lay much closer to the pace and stayed on determinedly down the stretch to rally past the pace-setting Dunkirk to win in a final time of 2:27.54, with Mine That Bird third.

In the Belmont, Summer Bird had shown more early speed than previously, but in essence, he outstayed his rivals, going farther ahead the farther they went. Over three furlongs shorter in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, he was able to lay third, just a couple lengths off the strong pace set by the speedy Munnings, but he had no answer to the brilliant turn of foot displayed by the eventual champion filly Rachel Alexandra and finished second, beaten six lengths.

Summer Bird clearly was developing more speed as he matured, and he showed it again in the Travers, sitting third behind Kensei and Our Edge before rolling to the lead on the turn and drawing off to beat the late-charging Hold Me Back by 3 1/2 lengths. The Birdstone colt pressed the pace even closer in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, not allowing the speedy Quality Road a comfortable lead and wearing him down in the stretch for a one-length victory.

Summer Bird had proven himself the best of the 3-year-old colts of 2009, but he had not faced the best older horses until the Breeders’ Cup Classic run over the synthetic surface at Santa Anita. Sixth in the middle of the pack early, he ran on gamely through the stretch but could not match the finishing speed of the then-undefeated Zenyatta or the turf horses Gio Ponti and Twice Over, finishing fourth, beaten three lengths.

Summer Bird shipped to Japan after the Breeders’ Cup to run in the Japan Cup but suffered a hairline fracture of his right front cannon bone in training, forcing his withdrawal. The injury was surgically repaired, and Summer Bird was kept in training for the first half of 2010, but complications from the injury prevented him from racing again.

Summer Bird retired to Pauls Mill  in Kentucky in 2011 with pluses and minuses in the eyes of Kentucky commercial breeders. Although his string of victories in the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup (the first to complete that prestigious sequence since Easy Goer 1989) clearly were those of a top-class horse, they also pretty clearly were due to superior stamina. Summer Bird never had shown the early speed that commercial breeders covet and had not even raced at 2, a prerequisite for many breeders who insist on precocity. And since Birdstone never had been popular at sales, breeders saw little reason to expect offspring of his son to do any better.

On the plus side, Summer Bird was quite a good-looking horse, far more attractive than his small, unprepossessing sire. A tall, leggy chestnut, he moved beautifully, and there was every reason to believe he would pass on those good looks to his offspring.

Summer Bird’s female line also was promising. Although he was the only stakes winner out of his dam, Hong Kong Squall, by Summer Squall, or his second dam, Hong Kong Jade, by Alysheba, his third dam, Ruby Slippers, by Nijinsky II, was the dam of the champion and fair sire Rubiano, by Fappiano, and the second dam of the rapidly rising super-sire Tapit, by Pulpit. Ruby Slippers herself was a half-sister to the good Florida sire Glitterman, by Dewan, and Summer Bird’s fourth dam, Moon Glitter, by In Reality, was a full sister to the outstanding sire Relaunch.

Summer Bird attracted the requisite 100-plus mares in his first season at Pauls Mill and again during his second season, when he was transferred to WinStar, but it really was not a surprise when it was announced in November 2012 that he had been sold to the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association. He stood the 2013 season at the Shizunai Stallion Station but died after colic surgery in December that year.

Twenty-eight of Summer Bird’s first crop of 93 foals raced last year at 2, but only eight were winners, headed by Kid Brock (out of Brenda’s Slew, by Straight Man), who placed in the statebred Iowa Cradle Stakes at Prairie Meadows.

Birdatthewire, who was bred in Kentucky by Lynn and Kathy Jones, won the last of her four juvenile starts, a 1 1/16-mile maiden race Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs. Purchased for only $23,000 by Tom Camp at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale, Birdatthewire is the fifth foal out of My Limit, by Wagon Limit.
Bred in Florida by J.V. Shields Jr., My Limit failed to sell at a $7,500 hammer price at the 2002 Ocala Breeders’ Sales August yearling sale. My Limit won 6 of 22 lifetime starts, mostly in high-level claiming or allowance company. All of her six wins were at 3 in 2004, but she earned black type at 4 by running third behind Krasnaya and Smart N Classy in the 2005 Omnibus Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile grass event at Monmouth Park.

My Limit was the only stakes performer produced by Piney Woods, by Valid Appeal, a winner of three races and earner of $134,818 who is a half-sister to the stakes winner Fiddle, by Pine Bluff, and to the dam of the stakes winner Disappearance, by Air Forbes Won. Birdatthewire’s third dam, Chatham Light, by Majestic Light, was bred by the late Paul Mellon, and is a full sister to the Grade 2 Saranac Stakes winner Lights and Music and a half-sister to the multiple graded winner Who’s to Pay, by Believe It.

Birdatthewire’s fourth dam, the cleverly named Two for the Show, by Stage Door Johnny, was a full sister to the Grade 1 winner One On the Aisle and the Grade 3 winner Kapalua Butterfly and out of a full sister to Raise a Native.

My Limit has since produced a 2014 filly by Into Mischief and was bred to Discreet Cat last year.
The early demise of Summer Bird may yet prove regrettable. From his first start in March to his last in November, he never stopped improving, and had he not been injured, it seems highly likely that he would have been even better at 4.

That is not a pattern that is especially appealing to contemporary commercial breeders, and Summer Bird paid a price for that attitude. Whether he can rise above that prejudice will become evident over the next year.