01/24/2014 4:37PM

Sparkman: Northern Dancer line resurgent

Courtesy of Canadian Racing Hall of Fame
Northern Dancer's male line has seen a resurgence in recent years.

For most of the past 25 years, the overarching trend of the North American breeding industry has been the steadily increasing prominence of the male line of Mr. Prospector. Since Mr. Prospector himself led the American sire list in 1987 and 1988, his male-line descendants have won the Belmont Stakes 15 times, the Preakness 12 times, and the Kentucky Derby 11 times.

More classic winners means more representatives at stud, and, inevitably, the Mr. Prospector male line’s share of North America’s annual complement of graded stakes winners has increased accordingly.

In 2000, for example, the Mr. Prospector male line accounted for 16 percent of the 361 North American graded stakes winners – but by 2010, that market share had grown to 29.4 percent.

Although the Northern Dancer male line’s share of North American graded stakes winners also increased over the same decade from 26 percent to 33 percent, the trend seemed clear. By the time another decade was over, Mr. Prospector was likely to overtake Northern Dancer and become the dominant male line in North America.

What went almost unnoticed as breeders sent more and more of their mares to Mr. Prospector-line stallions, though, was the stubborn excellence of Northern Dancer’s grandson El Prado, by Sadler’s Wells. El Prado led the American general sire list in 2002, when his outstanding son Medaglia d’Oro was one of the nation’s best 3-year-olds.

Two years later, El Prado’s son Kitten’s Joy earned champion turf male honors, and in subsequent years, other sons of El Prado, such as Paddy O’Prado, showed classic ability both at home and abroad.

Fast-forward only three years, and what once seemed an inevitable trend no longer looks quite so unstoppable, mostly due to the emergence of Medaglia d’Oro and Kitten’s Joy as leading sires, coupled with the continued strength of the voluminous male line of Storm Cat and the resurgence of the Danzig male line.

As shown in the accompanying table summarizing the sire lines of graded stakes winners in North America in 2013, 145 of the 355 individual graded winners on our continent last year trace in male line to Northern Dancer. That amounts to 40.8 percent of the total, more than 6 percentage points above the 34.3 percent we reported for 2012 graded stakes results in this space last year.

Meanwhile, the Mr. Prospector male line’s percentage remained stable at 29.3 percent, virtually identical to last year’s 29.1 percent and the 29.4 percent in 2010.

As the table shows, the increase for the Northern Dancer line is due to sharp upticks in the contributions of the descendants of his sons Danzig and Sadler’s Wells and of his grandson Storm Cat.

Although Danzig led the American sire list three times in the 1990s, his male line has long been more successful abroad than in North America, and, of course, until El Prado’s unexpected success as a sire of sires, Sadler’s Wells’s name was typically encountered in North America strictly through the exploits of imported turf horses.

In fact, aside from the eight 2013 graded stakes winners sired by Danzig’s surprisingly successful son War Front, nine of the 20 other Danzig-line graded stakes winners were sired by stallions who have never stood in North America.

Meanwhile, of the 26 graded stakes winners in 2013 descending in male line from Sadler’s Wells, 19 were sired by El Prado himself or his sons Artie Schiller, Kitten’s Joy, or Medaglia d’Oro.

It is not at all surprising that the Storm Cat branch of Northern Dancer is responsible for more graded stakes winners of 2013 than any other sire line except that of his grandsire and that of Mr. Prospector.

The leading sire in 1999 and 2000, Storm Cat was anointed by American breeders as the next great sire of sires before he had really proven his prowess in that regard, and virtually every good son – and many not-so-good ones – were awarded chances at stud somewhere in the world.

Thus, despite the fact that only one of his sons, three-time leading sire Giant’s Causeway, can be described as a great sire, the Storm Cat male line has become successful through sheer numbers as well as quality. His sons Giant’s Causeway, Tale of the Cat, Harlan, and Hennessy all have good chances to stand at the head of enduring branches of the Storm Cat male line.

Since Northern Dancer was born nine years earlier than Mr. Prospector, his male line has had more time to develop distinct branches, but the Fappiano, Gone West, and Forty Niner branches of Mr. Prospector seem destined to be around for a long time.

Gone West’s son Speightstown finished a close second to Kitten’s Joy on the 2013 sire list and also ranks a joint second to Kitten’s Joy on the accompanying list of leading sires of 2013 graded stakes winners, along with Ghostzapper and Giant’s Causeway.

The A.P. Indy male line has made serious inroads into the dominance of Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector in the past five years, and it basically held its own in 2013 with 11.5 percent of all graded stakes winners, compared with 13.1 percent last year. Pulpit is the most influential of A.P. Indy’s sons so far, with 15 of the 41 A.P. Indy graded stakes winners tracing through him.

Is the strong surge in graded stakes winners tracing to Northern Dancer significant, or merely a temporary blip on the radar? In reality, using one year’s results to extrapolate a trend is indulging in exactly the same fallacy that leads one to argue that record cold weather this winter means that global warming is not happening. Weather in the form of temporary temperature fluctuations is not at all the same thing as climate, which measures trends over many years.

Similarly, calculating 2014 results could show a substantial increase in major winners tracing to Mr. Prospector, A.P. Indy, or, perhaps, Blushing Groom. It is a zero-sum game. If one sire line goes up, another must decline, since the number of graded stakes winners remains relatively static within a narrow range.

Still, it is impossible not to notice that the results of the recent Eclipse Award presentations tilt even more dramatically in the direction of Northern Dancer than did 2013 graded stakes results. Seven of the 11 equine awards for flat racing went to male-line descendants of Northern Dancer.

For future reference, however, the male descendant of Northern Dancer to win the gold statuette as Horse of the Year was the gelding Wise Dan.

Sadly, he will not be expanding the influence of his fifth-generation paternal ancestor at stud.