04/10/2015 2:49PM

Sparkman: Giant's Causeway still looking for respect

Coady Photography
Carpe Diem is seeking to become the first American classic winner for perennial leading sire Giant's Causeway.

Is it possible for a stallion to earn three sire championships and be under-appreciated in the country where he led the sire list three times in four years and has ranked in the top 10 for each of the last nine years?

If that stallion’s name is Giant’s Causeway, the answer is clearly yes. 

Giant’s Causeway has always sired plenty of stakes winners (167 to date) at a satisfactory ratio to his number of foals (8 percent of foals age 3 and up), but for American breeders, the complaint has always been that he does not sire champions and classic winners, at least not in America. Then Take Charge Brandi (out of Charming, by Seeking the Gold) gave the lie to that canard by earning the 2014 juvenile filly championship, and this year, Giant’s Causeway could have his first American classic winner in Carpe Diem, who confirmed his classic potential with his easy victory in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on April 4.

Carpe Diem is one of 30 Grade 1 or Group 1 winners sired by Giant’s Causeway to date, but those 30 are scattered across the globe. It is partly that dilution of his influence that has comparatively deflated Giant’s Causeway’s reputation in the U.S., keeps his stud fee below six figures, and his yearling averages well below the levels of other stallions with comparable or worse records. Giant’s Causeway has sired top-level winners in England, Ireland, France, North America, Chile, Peru, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and Germany. With the exceptions of Argentina (where he has several Group 1-placed horses) and New Zealand (where Giant’s Causeway is the sire of champion stayer Showcause), that is a list of the world’s major racing jurisdictions.

Sixteen of those top-level winners won Grade 1 races in the United States, so it is not true that Giant’s Causeway’s success is mostly due to his foreign-based runners as some American breeders believe. It is also not true that he is primarily a turf sire, since eight of those North American Grade 1 winners accomplished that feat on dirt. Giant’s Causeway has sired multiple Grade 1/Group 1 winners on every type of racing surface.

Giant’s Causeway himself, of course, ran only once on dirt – his splendid neck second to Horse of the Year Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That was the final start of a 13-race career in which Giant’s Causeway never finished worse than second and won nine times, including six Group 1 wins.

Bred by John Magnier’s Orpendale and Michael Tabor, Giant’s Causeway was the first foal out of multiple graded winner Mariah’s Storm, by Rahy, a mare Magnier purchased for $2.6 million, in foal to Storm Cat, at the 1996 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Mariah’s Storm subsequently foaled Giant’s Causeway’s multiple group-winning full sister, You’resothrilling, the dam of 2014 Group 1 winners Gleneagles and Marvellous, both by Galileo.

Unbeaten in three starts as a 2-year-old in 1999, including an easy victory in the Group 1 Prix de la Salamandre, Giant’s Causeway started as the favorite for the classic 2000 Guineas but was beaten 3 1/2 lengths by King’s Best. That was the only time in his four defeats that Giant’s Causeway failed to be within at least a half-length of the winner at the wire. His neck defeat by the second-rate Bachir in the Irish 2000 three weeks later was attributed to the condition of the rain-soaked course.

Giant’s Causeway then embarked on a five-race Group 1 win streak, during which his largest margin of victory was a three-quarters of a length, which made him Europe’s Horse of the Year. In the St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, Giant’s Causeway fought off the persistent challenge of Valentino to win by a head. Stretched out to about 1 1/4 miles for the first time in the Eclipse Stakes, Giant’s Causeway was headed inside the final furlong by future Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Kalanisi but fought back to force his head in front at the wire.

Back at a mile in the Sussex at Goodwood, Giant’s Causeway had a comparatively easy time defeating Dansili by three-quarters of a length. Giant’s Causeway, a Storm Cat colt,  met Kalanisi again at about 1 1/4 miles in the International Stakes at York, and the race followed an almost identical pattern, with Giant’s Causeway pulling out a heart-stopping head victory. By comparison, his half-length victory over Greek Dance in the Irish Champion 2 1/2 weeks later was almost casual.

Like everyone else, jockey Kevin Darley and trainer John Gosden had noticed that Giant’s Causeway invariably rallied if he saw a challenger coming, and they devised a plan to counter that in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Darley kept his mount, Observatory, very wide and challenged very late, and Giant’s Causeway did not see him in time. Though Giant’s Causeway was gaining ground again at the wire, Observatory won by a half-length.

Giant’s Causeway had raced near the lead in each of his starts, a style suited to dirt racing, and he was never far behind the steady pace set by Tiznow and Albert the Great in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Kept wide throughout by his regular rider, Michael Kinane, Giant’s Causeway challenged Tiznow at the eighth pole and reached even terms with about 100 yards to go, but Kinane dropped his whip, and Giant’s Causeway had finally encountered a foe with battling qualities at least equal to his own. Tiznow won by a neck.

Giant’s Causeway stood his first season in Ireland in 2001, but was transferred to Coolmore’s U.S. outpost at Ashford Stud, where he has stood ever since, except for autumn shuttles to Australia in 2002, 2003, and 2004, and to Argentina in 2008 and 2009. Like most Coolmore stallions, Giant’s Causeway has covered an extraordinary number of mares in his now 15 seasons at stud, and that, too has contributed to his comparatively low yearling average and to his three sire championships. Numbers do matter.

Giant’s Causeway sired five Group 1/Grade 1 winners in his first crop, including his most accomplished son to date, Shamardal (out of Helsinki, by Machiavellian), winner of 6 of 7 starts, including the 2005 French Derby. Shamardal is also Giant’s Causeway’s most successful son at stud with 75 stakes winners, including top international runners Lope de Vega, Able Friend, and Faint Perfume, among others. Lope de Vega, Europe’s leading freshman sire last year, shows every sign of extending Giant’s Causeway’s male line.

The Blue Grass Stakes was the fourth victory in five starts for Carpe Diem, whose only defeat was his distant second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile behind Texas Red. Carpe Diem is the sixth foal, third stakes winner, and second Grade 1 winner out of stakes winner Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song. Those previous stakes winners, Doncaster Rover, by War Chant, and J. B.’s Thunder, by Thunder Gulch, were obviously major factors in Carpe Diem’s $550,000 purchase price by Northwest Stud at the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale. After he breezed an eighth-mile in 10.1 seconds at the 2014 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s March sale of selected 2-year-olds in training, Stonestreet Stables paid a co-sale-topping $1.6-million for him and later sold an interest to WinStar Farm.

Those two previous stakes winners were particularly critical because Carpe Diem’s female line is somewhat light in terms of black type for several generations. Rebridled Dreams won the listed Money Penny Stakes at Hawthorne, but her only black-type sibling, Stormin Brigade, by Gen Stormin’norman, placed in a minor stakes. Their dam, Key Cents, by Corridor Key, won listed races restricted to New York-breds, but their second dam, Centimeter, by Aloma’s Ruler, produced only one other foal.

The female line traces to an outstanding Calumet Farm family, but since Calumet’s 1944 Horse of the Year, Twilight Tear, is as far away as his eighth dam, that does not count for much in evaluating Carpe Diem’s pedigree or his prospects in the Kentucky Derby. On racetrack form, Carpe Diem appears to have separated himself from his Eastern compeers, and it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against the Bob Baffert brigades at Churchill Downs.

Honestly, though, even a Kentucky Derby victory for Carpe Diem would do little to change Giant’s Causeway’s reputation, though it could enhance his legacy to the breed. A Derby winner would certainly have every chance to surpass First Samurai as his best American son at stud.