04/16/2015 4:24PM

Sparkman: Derby empire for sireline

Coady Photography
American Pharoah's sire, Pioneerof the Nile, finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

The title of great Italian breeder Federico Tesio’s book “Breeding the Racehorse” has always been misleading, especially for novices. Readers in search of the “secrets” that led Tesio to breed unbeaten Nearco and unbeaten Ribot must look elsewhere, most obviously in the pedigrees of Tesio’s many champions.

Tesio’s slim volume is instead a collection of more or less disconnected observations gleaned from the Master of Dormello’s 60 years as one of the world’s greatest racehorse breeders. Chapter 11 of Tesio’s book is entitled “Heredity in the direct line” and describes the author’s research into how long direct male or direct female lines maintain their dominance over successive generations.

Tesio found that there was no instance in the history of either the Epsom Derby or Epsom Oaks of more than three consecutive representatives of a single male line or female line – father, son, and son of the winning son all winning the Derby, for example – winning either race. That same rule has applied to the American classics. In the mid-20th century, Reigh Count, Count Fleet, and Count Turf all won the Kentucky Derby, as did Pensive, Ponder, and Needles, but in each case, the sequence stopped there.

The most recent Kentucky Derby winner to sire a subsequent winner of the Run for the Roses is 1990 victor Unbridled, whose 1996 Derby-winning son, Grindstone, has not carried on the line. However, Unbridled’s best son, 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, finished second in the Derby that year on a tender foot and has sired two other Derby seconds in Pioneerof the Nile (2009) and Bodemeister (2012).

Therefore if Pioneerof the Nile’s son American Pharoah adds the Kentucky Derby to his April 11 romp in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, it will establish a four-generation near-miss sequence somewhat in contrast to Tesio’s rule. The Arkansas Derby was American Pharoah’s fourth consecutive easy victory from five starts, and he will almost certainly start as the favorite at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

The most successful American classic stallion of the last two decades, Unbridled is the only horse in that time frame to sire winners of each of the American Triple Crown races, with his son Red Bullet adding a Preakness win in 2000. A tall, massive horse who toed out rather markedly, Unbridled passed on that huge frame and soundness issues to many of his best offspring, including his most successful sire son, Unbridled’s Song, who started as the favorite, but finished fifth in Grindstone’s Derby, hindered by a bar shoe on a badly bruised foot.

Empire Maker, though, was not quite so large and a much more refined horse than Unbridled, inheriting much of the smoothness and elegance of the Northern Dancer tribe from his dam, Grade 1 winner Toussaud, by Northern Dancer’s brilliant son El Gran Senor. Touted before he ever ran as a potential champion because of some brilliant works with older stablemates, Empire Maker was clearly a very high-class racehorse, but sometimes appeared to show the influence of his very temperamental dam.

Empire Maker, winner of the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Wood Memorial, started as the favorite for the 2003 Kentucky Derby despite a bruised foot, but never appeared to be going comfortably as Funny Cide, whom he had beaten in the Wood, won by 1 3/4 lengths. Empire Maker skipped the Preakness and beat Funny Cide in the Belmont, but ran only once more, hanging fifth before finally sprinting the final yards when he failed to catch Strong Hope in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy.

Empire Maker sired four Grade 1 winners in his first crop, but all four were fillies, and he quickly developed a reputation as a “filly sire.” As in most cases, that turned out to be slightly overstated, but it is true that to date, nine out of Empire Maker’s 11 Grade 1 winners are fillies, headed by the great three-time champion Royal Delta. Empire Maker has sired 794 foals age 3 and up, including 51 stakes winners, a 6.4 percent strike rate that is about average for a current top 10 American sire. However, he was exported to stand in Japan beginning with the 2011 season.

Pioneerof the Nile came along in Empire Maker’s second crop and was his first male Grade 1 winner. Bred in Kentucky by Ahmed Zayat’s Zayat Stables, he was the sixth foal out of Star of Goshen, a very fast stakes-winning mare by Lord At War. Zayat acquired Star of Goshen privately in foal to Empire Maker after she failed to reach her reserve at a hammer price of $160,000 at the 2005 Keeneland November breeding stock sale.

Pioneerof the Nile was listed as sold for $290,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale, but the buyer was Zayat Stables, and he went into training with Bill Mott. Fourth in his first start in a 1 1/16-mile turf maiden at Saratoga, he won a similar event three weeks later, and then ran a closing third behind Square Eddie and Terrain in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity over Keeneland’s Polytrack.

Pioneerof the Nile then ran an even fifth behind Midshipman in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Zayat decided to leave him in California with his principal trainer, Bob Baffert. The big Empire Maker colt won his first four starts for Baffert, commencing with a grinding, last-gasp nose victory in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity over I Want Revenge. He had I Want Revenge behind him again in third place when he beat Papa Clem by a half-length in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in his first start as a 3-year-old, and followed up with comparatively easy victories in the Grade 2 San Felipe and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

Despite possessing clearly the best record of any horse in the race, Pioneerof the Nile went off as third choice behind Friesan Fire and Dunkirk in the Kentucky Derby, his first start on a traditional dirt surface. He beat those two a long way, but Calvin Borel’s dream run on Mine That Bird along the rail on the sloppy track relegated Pioneerof the Nile to second, just ahead of Musket Man and Papa Clem. Pioneerof the Nile ran only once more, a desultory effort in the Preakness, finishing 26 lengths behind Rachel Alexandra, before a soft tissue injury forced his retirement.

Pioneerof the Nile had done enough to merit a chance at stud, but not enough to attract the best mares. He began his career in the breeding shed at Vinery before transferring to WinStar for 2013 when Vinery shut down after the 2012 breeding season.

Physically, Pioneerof the Nile is a bigger, more massive version of his sire, with some of the elegance of Empire Maker but rather more of Unbridled in his conformation. Although his dam, Star of Goshen, won 3 of 5 starts,  including the La Troienne and is a half-sister to Grade 2 Malibu Stakes winner Powis Castle, by Rare Brick, his female line has been rather pedestrian since its heyday in the 1950s, when his sixth dam, Dog Blessed, by Bull Dog, produced champion sprinter Decathlon and Hollywood Gold Cup winner Prince Blessed.

American Pharoah is the best of seven stakes winners from 159 foals age 3 and up sired to date by Pioneerof the Nile. Despite that rather low strike rate of 4.4 percent, Pioneerof the Nile had already proved he could sire a good horse with his first-crop son Cairo Prince (out of Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull), who won the Grade 2 Nashua and Holy Bull before breaking down on the Triple Crown trail last year.

Bred in Kentucky by Zayat Stables, American Pharoah is the second foal out of Littleprincessemma, a Yankee Gentleman mare Zayat purchased for $250,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale. Littleprincessemma managed only two starts, both at two, showing good speed in a six-furlong Churchill Downs maiden race before fading to sixth, and then finishing 12th and last, beaten 31 1/4 lengths in her second effort at Saratoga.

Littleprincessemma is a half-sister to two quite good horses in Misty Rosette, by Stormin Fever, winner of the Grade 3 Old Hat, and Storm Wolf, by Stormin Fever, winner of the Grade 2 Lazaro Barrera Memorial. Their dam, Exclusive Rosette, by Ecliptical, was also very fast, winning the Florida Thoroughbred Charities Stakes and setting a turf course record for five furlongs at Atlantic City. There is not much else along American Pharoah’s female line, however, until one reaches his fifth dam, Jasmine Stakes winner Miami Mood, by Greek Game, dam of the stakes-winning siblings Miami Sun and Mia Mood, both by Crozier.

Racing fans of a certain age will recognize Greek Game and Crozier as stalwarts of the stud of the late Fred W. Hooper, whose first horse, 1945 Kentucky Derby winner Hoop, Jr., is the sire of American Pharoah’s sixth dam, Hoop Mood.

Like Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah was offered for sale as a yearling, but David Ingordo signed the $300,000 ticket for Zayat at the 2013 Saratoga sale of selected yearlings. Littleprincessemma has since produced a yearling filly and 2015 colt by Pioneerof the Nile.

It is obvious that in terms of continuation of sire lines, Tesio’s focus on just a succession of winners in just one race was too narrow. Sire lines regularly maintain their performance at a very high level for more than three generations. That is why they are sire lines.

And if American Pharoah does win at Churchill, it would not prove Tesio wrong, but it would perhaps be as close as a single sire line has come to breaking Tesio’s rule of three, regardless of its narrow focus.