06/19/2015 1:38PM

Sparkman: A noble redemption for Birdstone

Barbara D. Livingston
Noble Bird, by Birdstone, wins the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Commercial breeders did not expect a great deal from 2004 Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone when he retired to Gainesway in 2005, and as a result, his first crop included only 67 named foals. When two of those 67 foals turned out to be 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and 2009 Belmont Stakes winner and champion 3-year-old male Summer Bird, however, perception of Birdstone’s potential as a sire and patronage by breeders changed somewhat.

Unfortunately, the increased patronage and quality of mares that resulted from that first-crop bonanza did not result in another barrage of new Grade 1 winners when Birdstone’s first crop from those better-quality mares turned 3 last year. And until the progressive Noble Bird won the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap last weekend, Birdstone had not managed to produce another top-level winner.

Bred in Kentucky by Marylou Whitney, Birdstone was from the fourth crop of his sire, Grindstone, a son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled who duplicated his sire’s feat with a last-stride victory in the 1996 Derby. Grindstone broke down before running again, however, and had accomplished very little as a stallion before Birdstone appeared. Grindstone had not sired any previous Grade 1 winners, and he has not produced another one since Birdstone. Overall his 25 stakes winners from 568 foals age 3 and up makes for pretty dismal reading.

Therefore, much of the credit for Birdstone’s considerable talent as a racehorse must be given to his dam, Dear Birdie, by Storm Bird. From a family that had been very kind to Whitney’s late husband, C.V. Whitney, Dear Birdie already had produced 2003 Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks winner and champion 3-year-old filly Bird Town, by Cape Town, for Marylou Whitney. Birdstone’s victories in 2004 helped Dear Birdie earn Broodmare of the Year honors.

A two-time winner herself, Dear Birdie was a half-sister to the stakes winner Noactor, by Theatrical, out of Hush Dear, by Silent Screen, who won the Grade 2 Long Island and Diana handicaps twice each and defeated males in the Grade 2 Tidal Handicap for C.V. Whitney. Birdstone’s fourth dam, Honey Dear, by Counterpoint, also had won an edition of the New York Handicap for C.V. Whitney and produced the Pocahontas Stakes winner Shoo Dear, by Nashua, and the Ashland Stakes winner You All, by Nashua, Birdstone’s third dam.

Birdstone made a spectacular debut Aug. 2, 2003, at Saratoga, pouncing from just off the pace and drawing off to a 12 1/2-length victory, running six furlongs in the mud in 1:10.32. Second choice off of that effort in the Grade 1 Hopeful, he couldn’t keep up with speedier types but was not disgraced in finishing fourth, beaten 6 1/2 lengths by Silver Wagon.

Birdstone had finished a couple lengths behind the second-place Chapel Royal in the Hopeful, but it was a different story at 1 1/16 miles in the Champagne. Chapel Royal led early, but by the eighth pole, he was leg weary, and Birdstone wore him down to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

Birdstone missed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but returned to the races as a 3-year-old with an easy win in an allowance race at Gulfstream before finishing a disappointing fifth, beaten 10 3/4 lengths, in the Grade 2 Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park. Birdstone’s juvenile exploits had kept him on the Kentucky Derby list, but he was not yet ready for his best effort and finished eighth, 15 1/4 lengths behind Smarty Jones.

Through no fault of his own, Birdstone became the villain in the fairy tale when the popular Smarty Jones went for the Triple Crown in the 2004 Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones’s jockey, Stewart Elliott, moved too early, confident that he was on the best horse, and in the last furlong, Smarty Jones had reached the end of his tether. Birdstone closed inexorably and galloped past the weary Smarty Jones in eerie silence as the crowd, ready for a celebration that had to wait for American Pharoah, realized there would be no Triple Crown. There were even a few boos as Birdstone returned to the winner’s circle.

Birdstone followed up his classic victory almost three months later with a facile victory in the Travers, but he simply was not fast enough to keep up with the eventual Horse of the Year Ghostzapper in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, finishing seventh, beaten 12 1/2 lengths.

There cannot have been many winners of the Champagne, Belmont, and Travers that received as little respect as Birdstone did when he retired to stud. Part of that must be blamed on his slight stature. A small, plain, unimpressive horse in repose, he nevertheless is correctly made and quite a good mover.

Birdstone is only the fifth stallion in American racing history to sire two winners of Triple Crown races in a single crop, but that feat has not translated to commercial success. It is true that his yearling average doubled in 2009 when Mine That Bird and Summer Bird scored their classic victories, but since it was only $27,770 in 2008, that is not exactly the stuff consignors’ dreams are made of.

Birdstone’s yearling average never has climbed higher than $63,456, which he achieved in 2012, and Noble Bird’s victory in the Foster is unlikely to change that, but it does prove that Mine that Bird and Summer Bird were not simply flukes. Birdstone remains capable of siring high-class runners.

Noble Bird is Birdstone’s 15th stakes winner and 10th graded winner from 428 foals age 3 and up, a 3.5 percent strike rate that goes a long way toward explaining Birdstone’s pedestrian yearling average. Noble Bird is the third foal out of Anyhow, an unraced half-sister by Tiznow to the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes winner Mythical Gem, by Jade Hunter, to the stakes winner Apple Charlotte, by Smart Strike, and to the stakes-placed Relaxing Green, by Formal Gold, dam of the stakes winner Noble Charlotte, by Include.

Their dam, Charlotte Augusta, by Chief’s Crown, placed in the Rosenna Stakes. Her half-sister, Shawnee Legend, by Miswaki, produced the stakes winner Southern Fiction, by Brocco, dam of the Peruvian champion Gocek, by After Market.

Noble Bird’s third dam, Noble Damsel, by Vaguely Noble, won the Grade 3 New York Handicap and is a half-sister to Worldwide Elsie, by Java Gold, dam of the Australian champion Helenus, by Helissio. Her dam, Tender Camilla, by Prince Tenderfoot, was a high-class filly in England and Ireland, out of a daughter of 1957 Epsom Oaks winner Carozza, by Dante.

Noble Bird is the third foal out of Anyhow, who was purchased for $400,000 as a yearling by Darley at the 2005 Keeneland September yearling sale, but she never reached the starting gate and was sold to Noble Bird’s breeder, Jack Swain, with Larkin Armstrong as agent, in foal to Any Given Saturday for $95,000 at the 2008 Keeneland November sale. The resulting foal, the gelding Brother Pat, has earned more than $177,000 in claiming company, and Anyhow’s second foal, Dido, by Bernstein, also is a winner. Anyhow has since produced the once-raced Infinite Sky, by Sky Mesa; Producer, an unraced 2-year-old colt by Mineshaft; Striking Charlotte, a yearling filly by Smart Strike; and a 2015 colt by Tale of the Cat.

Swain sold Noble Bird to trainer Mark Casse as agent for John C. Oxley for $105,000 at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton July sale of selected yearlings. Unraced at 2, he won the last of his five starts last year at 3, a mile maiden special weight race at Del Mar. Sixth in his first start this year at 4, he has climbed the ladder rapidly, winning optional claimers at Oaklawn and Keeneland before running second by a head to the talented Protonico in the Grade 2 Alysheba at Churchill Downs.

Lea and Hoppertunity, who finished second and third, gave him four and five pounds, respectively, in the Foster, but when a horse starts improving as rapidly as Noble Bird has in the last few months, there is no telling how good he will become.

Since the Foster is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, we may find out this October at Keeneland.