11/07/2016 11:59AM

Sparkman: A new golden age for American Thoroughbred racing?

Emily Shields
Arrogate, by Unbridled's Song, gets by California Chrome to win the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The 15 years or so from the mid-1960s through the end of the 1970s is rightly regarded as the Golden Age of American Thoroughbred racing. Beginning with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories of Northern Dancer in 1964, the following decade and a half produced a steady stream American-bred horses with credentials both on the racetrack and in the breeding shed that rival or surpass the all-time greats of the Thoroughbred breed.

The Golden Age honor roll that includes Buckpasser, Graustark, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Dark Mirage, Sir Ivor, Nijinsky II, Numbered Account, Mill Reef, Secretariat, Forego, Allez France, Dahlia, Mr. Prospector, Desert Vixen, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid has not been equaled by any similar timespan in the history of American sport. That sequence of great racehorses and sires changed the course not just of American racing but of racing worldwide when European and Middle Eastern buyers skimmed the cream off the American breed over the next two decades.

This brief stroll down the byways of history was stimulated by two spectacular days of racing at the 33rd Breeders’ Cup meeting at Santa Anita last weekend. The soul-stirring performances of at least four American horses who clearly qualify as great racehorses in any era led to reflection that another Golden Age of American racing may have sneaked up on us unawares.

After the wrenching battle between Beholder and Songbird in the Distaff on Friday evening, it was impossible to imagine that there could be two more impressive performances the following day, but both Arrogate and California Chrome topped that when they put almost a dozen lengths between themselves and the rest of the best American dirt horses in the Classic.

In the last decade, American racetracks have been graced by Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Uncle Mo, Wise Dan, American Pharoah, Beholder, California Chrome, Songbird, Tepin, and Arrogate, all of whom qualify as great in one sphere or the other. And if none of them have yet matched the best performances of a Secretariat or Ruffian, the longevity of Forego, or the long-term influence on the breed of Northern Dancer or Mr. Prospector, give them time, because the ability may be there.

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In pedigree terms, however, the overall results were yet another example of the place in history earned by the heroes of the Golden Age. On a weekend where the winners of the 13 Breeders’ Cup races were sired by 13 different stallions, seven of the winners were tail-male descendants of Northern Dancer and five were scions of Mr. Prospector.

Predictably, all five races contested over Santa Anita’s very firm turf course were won by male-line descendants of Northern Dancer, while all five of the Mr. Prospector-line victories were in dirt races. Equally predictably, the two Northern Dancer-line winners in dirt races, Sprint winner Drefong and Distaff winner Beholder, were both from the Storm Cat branch of Northern Dancer.

The Sadler’s Wells branch of Northern Dancer has always produced mostly turf runners, with only his grandson Medaglia d’Oro, sire of Songbird and Juvenile Fillies Turf winner New Money Honey, developing comparable prowess as a dirt sire.

Sadler’s Wells’s great son Galileo sired his fourth Breeders’ Cup Turf winner in Highland Reel, and grandson Kitten’s Joy sired Juvenile Turf winner Oscar Performance. Sadler’s Wells, himself, sired three Turf winners (In the Wings, Northern Spur, and High Chaparral) and also is grandsire of 2011 Turf winner St. Nicholas Abbey, by Montjeu.

The Fappiano branch of Mr. Prospector contributed Classic winner Arrogate, and the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies winners Classic Empire and Champagne Room, with the Carson City and Gone West branches producing the Filly and Mare Sprint and Dirt Mile winners.

The sole interloper in the Northern Dancer/Mr. Prospector festival was Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Tourist who benefitted from a perfect trip to upset last year’s heroine Tepin. Tourist, by Tiznow, is a fourth-generation male-line descendant of In Reality, the third best colt from the same crop that produced 1960s greats Dr. Fager and Damascus.

The only prominent American sire line missing from the list of winners this year was that of A.P. Indy, but since California Chrome is a great-grandson of the 1992 Horse of the Year, he was still ably represented.

Much has changed since the heady days of the 1970s when Triple Crown winners seemed the norm, but if America can continue to produce horses of the quality of Arrogate, Beholder California Chrome, Songbird, and Tepin, our future is secure.