05/30/2014 2:04PM

Sparkman: Does California Chrome have a Triple Crown pedigree?

Barbara D. Livingston
John Sparkman examines California Chrome's pedigree in relation to the 11 Triple Crown winners.

The short answer to that headlined question is no.

The longer – much longer – answer is: Well, maybe, depending on how you look at it.

Navigating from the short, easy answer to the longer, more equivocal answer requires at least a cursory analysis of the pedigrees of the 11 previous Triple Crown winners as a baseline.

As illustrated by the first column in the accompanying box that details the basic pedigree data of the 11 previous American Triple Crown winners, the reason the short answer to the question must be no is California Chrome’s sire, Lucky Pulpit. Every one of the sires of the 11 American Triple Crown winners to date won the equivalent of a modern Grade 1 or Group 1 race. Lucky Pulpit did not.

Star Shoot, sire of the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, was a brilliant 2-year-old in England in 1900, and the last of his three victories was a dead heat in the National Breeders’ Produce Stakes, then one of the two richest juvenile races in England and certainly the equivalent of a modern Group 1 race. Star Shoot developed wind problems after those first three victories and never won again but clearly possessed brilliant speed for his era.

Gallant Fox’s sire, Sir Gallahad III, won the 1923 Poule d’Essai des Poulains, the French equivalent of the classic 2000 Guineas, and Gallant Fox’s Triple Crown victories were obviously Grade 1 equivalents. No one would question that Man o’ War, War Admiral’s sire, was the equivalent of a modern Grade 1 winner, and Whirlaway’s sire, Blenheim II, won the Epsom Derby, while Count Fleet’s sire, Reigh Count, was a Kentucky Derby winner.

Assault’s sire, Bold Venture, won both the Derby and the Preakness, while Citation’s sire, Bull Lea, captured the Widener Handicap at 4, which was a higher-class race in the 1930s than the Blue Grass Stakes that Bull Lea won at 3. Secretariat’s sire, Bold Ruler, was another classic winner and champion, capturing the 1957 Preakness. Seattle Slew’s sire, Bold Reasoning, won the 1971 Jersey Derby, while Affirmed’s sire, Exclusive Native, captured the 1968 Arlington Classic, both races that were classified as Grade 1 races when the American graded race system was inaugurated in 1973.

The weakest claims to Grade 1 status among those 11 sires are probably Star Shoot, Bold Reasoning, and Exclusive Native. All three, however, were undeniably far more accomplished racehorses in their time than was Lucky Pulpit. As we detailed in the April 13, 2014, issue of Daily Racing Form, Lucky Pulpit was a good and perhaps slightly unlucky racehorse who won the 2005 Smile Stakes over five furlongs on turf at Arlington Park. His best performances at graded stakes level, though, were second, finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind St Averil in the 2004 Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes, and third, beaten a nose and two lengths by Castledale and Dealer Choice in the 2003 Grade 3 Generous Stakes. In Lucky Pulpit’s only start in a Grade 1 race, the 2004 Santa Anita Derby, he finished seventh, 11 1/2 lengths behind winner Castledale.

All 11 sires of American Triple Crown winners were also highly successful sires, and seven of the 11 led the American sire list at least once. Gallant Fox ranked among the top five American sires twice and sired Triple Crown winner Omaha in his first crop and Belmont winner and Horse of the Year Granville in his second, but his production declined sharply in subsequent crops. Reigh Count, sire of Count Fleet, never sired another champion but was a solid sire of tough stayers who also ranked among the top five sires twice.

Bold Venture, sire of Assault, was subfertile, siring only 178 foals in 20 crops, but Derby and Belmont winner Middleground was also among his 12 stakes winners. Bold Reasoning stood less than three seasons at stud before a fatal breeding shed accident and sired only 64 foals, but 10 were stakes winners, including French champion 2-year-old Super Concorde in addition to Seattle Slew.

California Chrome is from Lucky Pulpit’s fourth crop, and though he has shown some promise from a relatively modest opportunity, there is no way to argue that Lucky Pulpit is anywhere close to the same class as either a racehorse or sire as the sires of the 11 previous Triple Crown winners. That does not mean he was a bad racehorse or that he is a bad sire, but his record either on the track or at stud simply does not match up to any of the previous Triple Crown sires.

Analysis of the qualifications of California Chrome’s dam, Love the Chase, as the dam of a potential Triple Crown winner is a bit more problematic and provides some pedigree-based hope for the 2014 Derby and Preakness winner’s millions of fans. Her race record as the winner of a maiden race is as good as some of the other dams of Triple Crown winners and better than that of most. Flambino, dam of Omaha and winner of the 1927 Gazelle Stakes, is the only Triple Crown dam who was the equivalent of a modern graded stakes winner, but Seattle Slew’s dam, stakes winner My Charmer, Count Fleet’s dam, 32-time winner Quickly, and Affirmed’s dam, five-time winner Won’t Tell You, showed more racing class than Love the Chase.

Eight of the 11 dams of Triple Crown winners also produced other stakes winners during their broodmare careers, including seven who produced other winners of Grade 1/Group 1 races or their equivalents. California Chrome is Love the Chase’s first foal, and it is certainly possible that she will produce other high-class runners before her breeding career is over, especially if she is eventually covered by stallions who have repeatedly proven their ability to sire Grade 1 winners. The dams of Gallant Fox, Omaha, Assault, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all produced their second-best runner after producing their Triple Crown winners, so the likelihood of Love the Chase being a multiple-stakes producer is actually relatively high.

Though it has not been productive at the top level in recent generations, Love the Chase’s female line does have connections, though genetically distant, to the American classics. Her eighth dam, Uncle’s Lassie, by Uncle, was the dam of 1929 Kentucky Derby winner Clyde Van Dusen, by Man o’ War, third dam of 1957 Derby winner Iron Liege, and fourth dam of 1955 Derby winner Swaps.

The influence of those distant female line relatives on the pedigree of California Chrome is tenuous at best, but there is another factor in his dam’s pedigree that is arguably more propitious. As has been widely publicized, Love the Chase is inbred 3x3 to 1971 champion 2-year-old filly Numbered Account. That inbreeding, plus a 3x4 duplication of the great Northern Dancer, gives Love the Chase an inbreeding coefficient of 5.52 percent.

As the accompanying table shows, the dams of three of the last four Triple Crown winners – Citation, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed – all were highly inbred. Hydroplane II, dam of Citation, was inbred 5x4x3 to St. Simon, with two additional crosses of St. Simon’s sire, Galopin, within the first six generations and a double of Hampton in the fifth, for an inbreeding coefficient of 3.99 percent. Seattle Slew’s dam, My Charmer, carries the full sisters Striking and Busher in the third generation of her pedigree, making her inbred 4x4 to their sire, War Admiral, and dam, Baby League.

Won’t Tell You, dam of Affirmed, is the most intensely inbred dam of a Triple Crown winner to date. Like My Charmer, she is inbred through full siblings, with full brothers Fighting Fox and Gallant Fox in her pedigree making her inbred 3x5 to both Sir Gallahad III and Marguerite, and she also carries another cross of Sir Gallahad in the fourth generation, plus a fourth-generation cross of Sir Gallahad’s full brother Bull Dog, which helps to increase her inbreeding coefficient to 5.18 percent.

Love the Chase’s inbreeding to Numbered Account in fact gives her an interesting connection to the pedigree of Seattle Slew’s dam, My Charmer. Numbered Account herself is inbred to 3x4 to War Admiral through her third dam, Striking, and through Striking’s three-quarter sister Busanda, who was by War Admiral out of Baby League’s half-sister Businesslike, and also carries a third cross of War Admiral through Iron Maiden, the dam of Iron Liege and grandam of Swaps. 

Numbers-crunchers will tell us that previous inbreeding to Numbered Account (or just about any other inbreeding target one can name) has failed to produce top-class runners with significantly higher frequency than predicted by chance. They would be correct.

What that number-bludgeoning approach cannot tell us, though, is whether such inbreeding is significant in an individual case like California Chrome. Just because a particular genetic combination does not, on average, offer a performance advantage does not mean that it never does. Genetic analysis simply is not advanced enough at this stage to tell us which genes are inherited from specific ancestors.

Until that day arrives, we are left with speculation, and crediting California Chrome’s unexpected talent partly to inbreeding to Numbered Account is as good a guess as any.

Likewise, we will have to wait until California Chrome hits the finish line June 7 at Belmont Park to find out whether he has a Triple Crown winner’s pedigree.