11/13/2015 4:51PM

Sparkman: Line still flying after all these years

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Spelling Again is a multiple stakes winner this season at Churchill Downs.

The sensation of the 1923 racing season in England was a beautiful gray filly named Mumtaz Mahal. Bred by the famous Sledmere Stud of Lady Sykes, the daughter of the great The Tetrarch out of the good sprinter Lady Josephine, by Sundridge, had been the highest-priced yearling of 1922 at 9,100 guineas (roughly $680,000 today adjusted for inflation) and indeed the second-highest-priced yearling filly sold up until that time only to the immortal Sceptre.

Considered a nearly perfect physical specimen by contemporary horsemen, Mumtaz Mahal ran like one, winning the first five of her six starts at 2 by wide margins, but was beaten narrowly in her final start on bottomless, muddy ground that she simply could not handle. Mumtaz Mahal’s feats of early speed earned her the nickname “The Flying Filly” along with the reputation as the fastest filly ever seen in England. Mumtaz Mahal failed to stay a mile at 3, though she hung on for second in the 1000 Guineas, but proved she had retained her brilliant speed with wide-margin wins in two of England’s most prestigious sprints, the King George Stakes and Nunthorpe Stakes.

Retired to the Aga Khan’s stud, she became one of the greatest foundation mares of the 20th century. Her grandsons Nasrullah, Mahmoud, and Abernant were all champion racehorses and great sires, and subsequent generations of her family, many bred by the Aga Khans, included important racehorses and/or sires Royal Charger, Migoli, Petite Etoile, Shergar, Oh So Sharp, Kalamoun, Habibti, Octagonal, and the current Aga Khan’s undefeated 21st-century champion Zarkava.

Naturally, American breeders imported mares from Mumtaz Mahal’s family with some success, notably champions Risen Star and Left Bank, and another direct tail-female descendant of Mumtaz Mahal attained graded stakes-winner status on Nov. 7, when Spelling Again won the Grade 2 Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Spelling Again is a seventh-generation descendant of Mumtaz Mahal through her daughter Mah Mahal, by Gainsborough, who was the first daughter of Mumtaz Mahal to acquire fame. Mah Mahal’s son Mahmoud, by Blenheim II, won the 1936 Epsom Derby and led the sire list in the United States in 1946. Mahmoud’s half-sister Mbale, by Big Game, was imported to the U.S. by John W. Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm in the 1950s. Her daughter Flavia, by Roman, won a minor stakes in Ohio and produced Grade 2 winner Infuriator, one of the best sons of Darby Dan’s 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner, Chateaugay.

Several of Flavia’s daughters produced good horses, including Flaxen, by Graustark, the dam of Grade 2 Jim Beam winner and Belmont Stakes second Kingpost, by Stalwart. Flaxen is also the third dam of Japanese Derby winner Tanino Gimlet, by Brian’s Time. Flaxen’s closely related sibling, Flavia Miss, by Graustark’s full brother His Majesty, is the dam of Platinum Poster, by Poster Prince, and stakes-placed Mrs. K., by Dixieland Band.

Mrs. K. became a very good broodmare for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, producing four stakes winners, led by Irish highweight Port Bayou, by Ghazi, and Talent Search, by Catienus, who also ran second in the Grade 1 Vosburgh. Mrs. K.’s best daughter, Spelling, by Alphabet Soup, sold for only $3,000 to pinhooker Patrick Hoppel at the 2000 Keeneland September yearling sale. Hoppel resold the filly for $60,000 to George Strawbridge Jr. at the 2001 OBS June sale of 2-year-olds in training, and she quickly proved well worth the money, winning her first start the following October at Pimlico, leading most of the way over six furlongs to win by two lengths.

Spelling did not race again at 2 but won her first sophomore start the next February at seven furlongs at Laurel and followed up by running a good second to Shop Till You Drop in the Wide Country Stakes at Laurel. Two months later, she was second behind Alternate in the Go for Wand Stakes at Delaware Park. Spelling closed out her 3-year-old season by winning three more allowance races, all at seven furlongs, one at Saratoga and two at Laurel. Spelling did not win again at 4 but maintained her form well enough to run third in the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie, three lengths behind the great sprinting filly Xtra Heat.

Spelling has been a good broodmare for Strawbridge. Her third foal, Sky Willow, by Empire Maker, was a pretty good filly on the Mid-Atlantic circuit, winning the Northern Fling Stakes at Presque Isle Downs and running third in the Lyphard Stakes at Penn National. Spelling Again is Spelling’s sixth foal. Like her dam, she won her first start, a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Presque Isle Downs, as a 3-year-old, but though she won an allowance race at the same track in her fourth start, she soon descended the class ladder and was claimed three times over the first five months of this year, ending up racing for trainer Brad Cox and Sea Jay Racing. She has improved dramatically to win 3 of 5 starts since the most recent claim, including the Open Mind Stakes at Churchill two starts before the Chilukki.

Strawbridge sold Spelling for $50,000 to Nicoma Bloodstock, agent, at the 2011 Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Spelling has since produced the winning colt Flash Trading, by Broken Vow, and fillies by Arch, Candy Ride, and Point of Entry.

Although he was never voted an Eclipse Award, Spelling Again’s sire, Awesome Again, was perhaps the best son of dual leading sire Deputy Minister. Bred in Ontario by Frank Stronach, his dam, Primal Force, by Blushing Groom, had shown considerable talent, winning 4 of 8 starts, including an eight-length victory in a six-furlong allowance race at Belmont Park in 1:09.80. From an old American family that had specialized in speed rather than class, Primal Force was voted Broodmare of the Year in 2000, when her son Macho Uno, by Holy Bull, beat Point Given in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to earn champion 2-year-old male honors.

Unraced at 2, Awesome Again made his first start on May 25, 1997, at Hollywood Park, where he ran third behind One Man Army and Capital Gains in a seven-furlong maiden race for trainer David Hofmans. The colt won his maiden 11 days later at the same track at 1 1/16 miles and then shipped to Woodbine to win Canada’s most prestigious race, the Queen’s Plate, by 3 1/2 lengths over Cryptocloser.

Awesome Again had come a very long way in a very short period of time, and Hofmans wisely gave him a small break before he reappeared at Saratoga to win the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes. Facing by far the best field he had encountered in the Travers, however, Awesome Again finished third, beaten seven lengths by the battling Deputy Commander and Behrens. He completed his first season of racing with a disappointing fifth in the Grade 1 Super Derby.

Stronach transferred Awesome Again to trainer Patrick Byrne over the winter, and he swept all six of his starts at 4. An allowance pipe opener was quickly followed by an upset over champion Silver Charm by a length in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Handicap, but Silver Charm carried 127 pounds to Awesome Again’s 113. Beating the highly touted Tale of the Cat proved an easy task in the Grade 1 Whitney, and his victories in the Saratoga Breeders’ Cup Handicap and Hawthorne Gold Cup were routine.

Awesome Again faced one of the toughest fields in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, headed by American champions Skip Away, Silver Charm, and Victory Gallop, Travers winner Coronado’s Quest, Belmont winner Touch Gold, and European champion Swain. The race produced a wild finish when Silver Charm and Swain both veered out into the center of the racetrack, while Awesome Again rallied inside the embattled pair to win by three-quarters of a length. Despite Awesome Again’s undefeated season and Skip Away’s comprehensive defeat in the Classic, Skip Away was voted champion older male and Horse of the Year.

Awesome Again retired to his breeder’s Adena Springs in Kentucky with a record of nine wins from 12 starts and earnings of $4,374,590. A medium-sized, lengthy horse fairly typical of the Northern Dancer male line, his stud career has been somewhat variable, but he has repeatedly proven himself to be capable of siring very high-class runners.

Spelling Again is the most recent of his 61 stakes winners from 969 foals ages 3 and up, a 6.3 percent strike rate that is on par with many of the other highly ranked sires in the contemporary “big-book” era. His offspring have been notably successful at the Breeders’ Cup meeting, led by his best son, 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper (out of Baby Zip, by Relaunch), the winner of the Classic in 2004 and now a successful stallion standing alongside his sire at Adena Springs.

At the same Breeders’ Cup meeting, Awesome Again’s English-based son Wilko (Native Roots, by Indian Ridge) upset Afleet Alex in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Awesome Again has also sired two winners of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2007 champion older female Ginger Punch (Nappelon, by Bold Revenue) and 2006 winner Round Pond (Gift of Dance, by Trempolino).

Awesome Again has never covered the super-sized books that are now the norm and has never achieved the commercial success that his record might indicate. Nevertheless, he continues to add to his 31 group or graded stakes winners every year.