03/07/2014 12:17PM

Sparkman: Florida still a proving ground for sires

Rough 'n Tumble, seen here at Keeneland in 1953, was Florida's first great sire.

Throughout its relatively brief history as a major Thoroughbred breeding state, Florida has developed a well-deserved reputation for punching above its weight in producing high-class racehorses.

Florida’s first great stallion, Rough’n Tumble, sired the immortal Dr. Fager and champion My Dear Girl despite relatively limited opportunities. Rough’n Tumble battled soundness issues throughout his breeding career, but that was not the only reason he sired only 209 foals in 14 crops.

Rough’n Tumble’s average of fewer than 15 foals per crop was about half the average of comparable Kentucky stallions during his heyday. There simply were not that many mares in Florida for him to cover in the 1950s and 1960s.

Rough’n Tumble’s success and the dedication of breeders like Dr. Fager’s owner and breeder, William L. McKnight’s Tartan Farms, led to the tremendous growth Florida breeding enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, and the growth and success of the pinhooking business in the 1990s helped make Florida the nation’s second-largest breeding center.

Despite the marked contraction of the North American Thoroughbred breeding industry over the past six years and the increased concentration in Kentucky, Florida remains the second-most important breeding center in the country. And although Florida is home to only about one-fifth as many broodmares as Kentucky, there are almost half as many stallions covering mares under the Florida sunshine as there are in Kentucky.

Despite the success of his (now) Kentucky-based male-line descendant Macho Uno, only one male-line descendant of Rough’n Tumble now stands in Florida. Other far more numerous sire lines, though, owe all or part of their success to horses bred and raised in Florida.

Mr. Prospector, who stands at the head of the nation’s and the world’s second-most important male line, famously stood his first six seasons in Ocala, though only one of the important branches of his male line descends from a son conceived in Florida. Fappiano, bred by Tartan and out of a Dr. Fager mare, is, of course, the progenitor of the most classic branch of Mr. Prospector, but his other major branch-founding sons – Forty Niner, Gone West, Gulch, Kingmambo, Seeking the Gold, and Smart Strike – all came along after he moved to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.

Mr. Prospector was bred in Kentucky, but a contemporary and rival of Dr. Fager has stronger claims to standing at the head of the most important sire line that is most thoroughly Floridian in origins.

Frances A. Genter’s In Reality was bred and raised at Tartan alongside Dr. Fager and sired his two branch-founding sons at Tartan before moving to Kentucky late in life after Tartan’s closure. Sired by Tartan’s champion sprinter Intentionally out of Rough’n Tumble’s champion daughter My Dear Girl, In Reality was as well bred as any Florida-bred Thoroughbred could be when he was born in 1964.

Despite being the official victor in one of Dr. Fager’s four career defeats, In Reality was never really in the same class as Tartan’s freak, but he was a top-rank racehorse nevertheless, winning 14 of 27 career starts, with nine seconds and two thirds. In Reality won the Pimlico Futurity at 2; the Florida Derby, Jersey Derby (Dr. Fager finished first but was disqualified), and four other stakes at 3; and the Metropolitan, John B. Campbell, and Carter handicaps at 4.

Clearly the third-best horse of his crop behind Dr. Fager and Damascus, he was their equal or better at stud, siring 81 stakes winners from 563 foals (14.4 percent), led by champions Smile, Desert Vixen, and Known Fact, plus a deep bench of Grade 1 winners that includes Proper Reality, Star Choice, and Believe It.

Two sons who failed to win Grade 1 races, however, have been primarily responsible for establishing In Reality’s line as an enduring male line. Relaunch (out of Foggy Note, by The Axe II) was a high-class grass horse in California who won the Grade 3 Del Mar Derby and was second in the Grade 1 San Luis Rey Stakes but succeeded beyond all expectations as a sire in Kentucky. Relaunch is responsible for most of the current stakes winners descending in male line from In Reality, primarily through his grandson Tiznow, by Cee’s Tizzy, Horse of the Year in 2000 and two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Mockingbird Farm’s Harry Mangurian owned In Reality’s best daughter, Desert Vixen (Desert Trial, by Moslem Chief), the champion 3-year-old filly in 1973 and champion older female in 1974. Her younger brother Valid Appeal was not quite so talented but good enough to win the Grade 2 Dwyer Handicap in 1975.

Standing at Mockingbird Farm, Valid Appeal was Florida’s leading sire for many years, but his two most important sons, Successful Appeal and Valid Expectations, stand in Kentucky and stood in Texas, respectively. (Valid Expectations was pensioned in October.)

Sadly, only two male-line descendants of In Reality now stand in Florida. As shown in the accompanying table, that amounts to only 1.8 percent of all Florida stallions, whereas the In Reality male line accounts for 4.7 percent of stallions in Kentucky. The Mr. Prospector line accounts for 32.3 percent of stallions in Kentucky but only 29.1 percent in Florida. The all-conquering Northern Dancer male line is responsible for only 28.8 percent of the stallions in Kentucky but is the male-line progenitor of 33.6 percent of Florida stallions, led by Florida’s top current sire Wildcat Heir, by Forest Wildcat, by Storm Cat, by Storm Bird, by Northern Dancer.

As elsewhere in North America, the Storm Cat branch is the most numerous among the Northern Dancers, accounting for 16.4 percent of Florida stallions, compared with 12.8 percent in Kentucky.

Florida long ago developed a reputation as a proving ground for future Kentucky stallions, but as the breeding industry has contracted over the past six years, that trend seems to be waning. But with fewer stallions getting the opportunity to stand in Kentucky because of three-figure mare books and a declining number of mares being bred, Florida offers the best opportunity for horses who don’t quite qualify for the Bluegrass State – horses like Mr. Prospector.

True, when Mr. Prospector retired to stud in 1975, he could have stood at his birthplace, Spendthrift Farm, had Abraham I. Savin not owned Aisco Farm near Ocala. But it was a different world in 1975, with 40-mare books the standard. In the contemporary Thoroughbred world, a winner of the Whirlaway and Gravesend handicaps – Mr. Prospector’s two best wins on the track – could not possibly compete for mares with the phalanx of well-bred Grade 1 winners retiring to Kentucky each year.

Thus, it stands to reason that Florida breeders should be able to attract some pretty high-class racehorses over the next few years. In fact, they are competing with New York and Pennsylvania, states with attractive statebred breeding programs, for those horses deemed not quite good enough for Kentucky.

Some of those horses may well become the next Congrats, the next Valid Appeal, the next Fappiano, even the next Mr. Prospector.