05/02/2014 1:40PM

Sparkman: Peppered pedigree nothing to sneeze at

Shane Micheli/Vassar Photography
San Francisco Mile winner Pepper Crown carries a 3X3 cross of Storm Cat.

One of the primary markers of the long-term influence of great stallions is whether they can withstand close inbreeding. Popular sires of sires inevitably become natural, almost unavoidable, subjects of inbreeding, and if such inbreeding is successful, that stallion’s influence on future generations multiplies. If not, the stallion’s influence will fade somewhat over time.

Northern Dancer is the prime contemporary example of a stallion spreading his influence via successful inbreeding. By 2010, 49.7 percent of North American graded stakes winners carried at least two crosses of Northern Dancer, and that percentage will continue to increase over the next decade.

Northern Dancer possessed few, if any, “bad” traits to pass on, however, and breeders tend to be more cautious in attempting inbreeding to horses with known soundness issues. Inbreeding to Mr. Prospector, while becoming more common now, has not been as readily accepted as is inbreeding to Northern Dancer.

So far, that same caution has been applied to inbreeding to Northern Dancer’s grandson, Storm Cat. Although he became by far the most popular sire of sires during the first decade of the 20th century, Storm Cat had markedly offset knees and sometimes passed on the breathing problems that plagued his sire Storm Bird’s career. Although it is far too early to proclaim inbreeding to Storm Cat a failure, to date only five group or graded stakes winners have carried multiple crosses of the king of Overbrook Farm.

Still, though, it is difficult to attribute the talent of the most recent of those five, last week’s Grade 3 San Francisco Mile winner Pepper Crown, to anything other than his 3x3 inbreeding to Storm Cat. Pepper Crown is the first stakes winner of any description sired by Peppered Cat, a non-stakes-winning son of Storm Cat’s dual classic-winning son, Tabasco Cat, and there is nothing else vaguely resembling a graded stakes winner for the first six generations along his female line.

Bred in Florida by John Franks, Peppered Cat was out of the well-bred Grade 3 winner Morning Meadow, by Meadowlake, and from the immediate family of Grade 1 winners Sultry Song, Solar Splendor, and Mass Media. His sire, Tabasco Cat, was the best American-trained son of Storm Cat, scoring victories in the Preakness and Belmont. Out of the Sauce Boat mare Barbicue Sauce and from a rather ordinary female line, Tabasco Cat was moderately successful as a stallion, siring 25 stakes winners from 502 foals, including Grade 1 winners Island Sand, Snow Ridge, and Habibti.
Peppered Cat was not one of those 25, though he may have been cut out to be at least a little better than his bare record as a racehorse. It is seems obvious from the checkered nature of his racing career that he had soundness issues that may have compromised whatever innate ability he possessed. He did not make his first start until Sept. 24, 2003, during his 3-year-old season, but won that six-furlong maiden race at Turfway Park by six lengths after leading all the way.

Turfway form does not necessarily translate to Keeneland or Churchill Downs, however, and he was beaten by 13 3/4 and 24 1/4 lengths, respectively, in allowance races at those two tracks before the end of that year. Franks then shipped him to Golden Gate Fields in California and ran him in a $4,000 claimer at 5 1/2 furlongs. He blitzed the field, leading all the way again to win by 15 lengths in a respectable 1:02.17. Trainer Alex Paszkeicz claimed Peppered Cat out of that race, but he did not run again for almost eight months. After a couple of desultory efforts at Bay Meadows, he finished out his racing career at Golden Gate with three good seconds and a third in claiming and allowance races.

Peppered Cat retired to stud at Daehling Ranch in Elk Grove, Calif., in 2005 but understandably has attracted relatively few mares. He has sired 39 foals of racing age, including nine current 2-year-olds, in his first seven crops, the best of which prior to Pepper Crown’s appearance were four stakes-placed horses. The most optimistic thing that could be said for him before Pepper Crown won the San Francisco Mile is that he improves his mares. Foals by other sires out of Peppered Cat’s mates have compiled an average earnings index of 0.82, while Peppered Cat’s average earnings index is 1.34.

Pepper Crown’s dam, Crown This Lady, by Crowning Storm, is one of those mares Peppered Cat has improved. Bred in California by Dawn Lucas, she was purchased for only $1,000 by Paszkeicz at the 2006 CTBA Northern California yearling sale.

Her sire, Crowning Storm, by Storm Cat, is a half-brother to graded stakes winner Chocolate Candy, by Candy Ride, who was runner-up in the 2009 Santa Anita Derby and fifth in that year’s Kentucky Derby, from the family of Affirmed. Crowning Storm showed considerably more ability on the racetrack than Peppered Cat, though he, too, clearly had soundness issues, winning 2 of 9 starts and finishing second in the 1998 Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes and third in the 1999 Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes.

Frankly, Crowning Storm has been a very moderate sire, standing first in California and then in Argentina. He has sired only four stakes winners, headed by 2008 Graduation Stakes winner Babs Moossa and 2013 Group 2 Premio Cyllene (in Argentina) winner King of Dance, from 366 foals age 3 and up.

Crown This Lady was no better than the majority of Crowning Storm’s offspring, winning the last of her three starts as a 3-year-old at Golden Gate in $20,000 claiming company – but there was no reason to expect her to be, considering the recent accomplishments of her female line. Her dam, This Lord’s a Lady, by Lord Carson, placed twice from seven starts in claiming company in Northern California and produced one other minor winner from only three foals.

Pepper Crown’s third dam, Local Star, by Local Talent, a Group 1-winning son of Northern Dancer who was a very moderate sire, was talented enough to place in minor stakes in the Canadian provinces but failed to produce a winner from five foals. Her dam, Vienna Woods, by Marshua’s Dancer, was also stakes placed in somewhat better company and produced another stakes-placed horse in Alberta. Vienna Woods is also the second dam of a minor stakes winner.
Pepper Crown’s fifth dam, Beat the Leader, by Mr. Leader, produced two minor stakes winners and two stakes-placed horses from 15 foals and is second dam to three more minor Canadian stakes winners. His sixth dam, Beat the Chief, by Chieftain, produced one minor stakes-placed horse.

That six-generation failure to produce a graded stakes-quality horse finally ends with Pepper Crown’s seventh dam, Inbeat, by Brookfield, who produced three talented stakes winners for Harry Isaacs’s Brookfield Farm in the era well before the pattern race system was inaugurated. Further reaches of the family include 1954 Kentucky Derby winner Determine and 1969 Kentucky Oaks winner Hail to Patsy, but those luminaries are mentioned only to illustrate just how far from the elite of the breed Pepper Crown’s pedigree is.

Pepper Crown was bred by Paszkeicz, and he is the first foal out of Crown This Lady. She has since produced a winning 3-year-old full brother to Pepper Crown named Pazmeifucan, as well as 2-year-old and yearling full brothers, and was bred to Peppered Cat again last year. Pepper Crown races for and is trained by Paszkeicz and began his career in claiming company but quickly graduated up the allowance scale in Northern California. The San Francisco Mile was his first stakes start and fifth win in 10 starts.

Traditionally, close inbreeding to a superior individual like Storm Cat has been the fastest way to upgrade a pedigree like that of Pepper Crown, especially with limited means. Such a pattern is certainly riskier when the inbreeding target possessed conformation flaws like Storm Cat’s.

Storm Cat’s offset knees, though, did little to impede his success as a stallion, since he led the North American sire list twice and sired eight champions, 35 Grade 1 or Group 1 winners, and 12.5 percent stakes winners from all foals during his career as a stallion. That kind of genetic superiority is indeed worth attempting to recapture.