02/13/2017 12:53PM

Sparkman: McCraken shows adaptability of Northern Dancer

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Tom Keyser
McCraken, by Ghostzapper, wins the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.

Sire lines must be adaptable to survive and thrive.

Northern Dancer, the greatest sire of the last half of the 20th century, was a small, blocky horse who won his races with instant acceleration. Although 13 of his 14 victories were on dirt, his many top-class offspring usually inherited that ability to accelerate in a stride or two, an ability perfectly suited to European grass racing, and, as a result, he led the English sire list four times while achieving the same distinction only once in North America.

The Northern Dancer male line has become incredibly dominant in Europe, but his male-line descendants still sire more graded stakes winners in North America than any other male line, though not at as high a rate as in Europe.

The best Northern Dancers also tended to be smaller than average, but one of his best and most influential North American sire sons Vice Regent was a big horse whose champion son Deputy Minister has established a line noted as dirt horses. One race that has eluded the Deputy Minister line, however, is the Kentucky Derby, but his great-grandson McCraken went to the top of many Derby lists with his victory in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday.

McCraken is perhaps the best Derby prospect sired to date by the best racehorse produced so far by the Deputy Minister male line, Ghostzapper. By Deputy Minister’s most influential sire son Awesome Again out of Baby Zip, by Relaunch, Ghostzapper won 9 of his 11 starts in a meteoric racing career that saw him rise from second fiddle in trainer Bobby Frankel’s stable (behind Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker) to the highest-rated American racehorse of the first decade of the 21st century.

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Empire Maker had already retired to stud by the time Ghostzapper won his first stakes, the 6 1/2-furlong Grade 1 Vosburgh late in his 3-year-old year, and he never lost again, though he made only five more starts spread over the next two years. He extended his range to 1 1/4 miles in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic, transforming himself from a come-from-behind sprinter into a front-running stayer in the process and earning Horse of the Year honors.

Initially overpriced at a $200,000 stud fee, his reputation suffered badly when that first crop started slowly, but over the last few years he has rehabilitated his stud career and established himself as a solid $50,000 sire. McCraken is one of 62 stakes winners from 632 foals age 3 and older sired to date by Ghostzapper. That 9.8 percent stakes-winners-to-foals ratio is much higher than many stallions with higher stud fees, but he does not sire precocious 2-year-olds and – at least until this year – classic horses, the two categories that drive stud fees.

Those 62 stakes winners include champion female sprinter Judy the Beauty (out of Holy Blitz, by Holy Bull) and Canadian champions Shaman Ghost (Getback Time, by Gilded Time) and Hunters Bay (Smok’n Frolic, by Smoke Glacken), as well as Grade 1 winners Moreno (Danceinthesunlight, by A.P. Indy), Better Lucky (Sahara Gold, by Seeking the Gold), Stately Victor (Collect the Cash, by Dynaformer), Molly Morgan (Capitulation, by Distorted Humor), Contested (Gold Vault, by Arch), Starship Truffles (Bobbie Use, by Not For Love), and Greenzapper (Colina Verde, by Know Heights). That is the record of a top sire, but Ghostzapper has never been popular in the auction ring.

Bred in Kentucky by owner Janis Witham, McCraken is the second foal out of Ivory Empress, by Seeking the Gold, a good racemare who won 3 of 20 starts, earning $189,402 and placing in the Grade 3 Endine Stakes. Her first foal Bondurant, by War Front, has won 3 of 7 starts and ran second in the Grade 3 Commonwealth Turf Stakes. She has since produced a 2-year-old colt named Kearny County, by Stroll, a yearling filly named With Dignity, by Declaration of War, and was bred to Majesticperfection last year.

Ivory Empress is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Mea Domina, by Dance Brightly, out of Grade 3 winner Madame Pandit, by Wild Again, a half-sister to stakes winners Sunlit Silence, by Trempolino, dam of Grade 2 winner Greek Sun, by Danzig, and Fiscally Speaking, by Belong to Me. She traces to the outstanding foundation mare General’s Sister, by Count Fleet, tail-female ancestress of top-level winners Al Bahathri, Haafhd, Spanish Fern, Heatseeker, and Lahib among many others.

McCraken carries only one cross of Northern Dancer, a comparative rarity these days, but he is a typical example of the more dirt-oriented lines descending from the great Canadian champion.