12/12/2016 11:21AM

Sparkman: Quality Road back on track with solid 2016

Benoit & Associates
Abel Tasman, by Quality Road, wins the Grade 1 Starlet at Los Alamitos.

In a 14-race career that featured eight wins, four of them in particularly prestigious Grade 1s, Quality Road still managed sometimes to look like something of an underachiever. His raw speed and dominant brilliance were so readily apparent that his short-priced defeats in three other equally prestigious Grade 1s were seen as disappointments that, in the minds of some, raised questions about his temperament, questions that intensified after his refusal to enter the starting gate for the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Quality Road’s stud career has been somewhat similar in character to date. He made an excellent start with his first 2-year-olds in 2014, leading the freshman sire list after his son Hootenanny (out of More Hennessy, by Hennessy) won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and Blofeld (Storm Minstrel, by Storm Cat) captured the Grade 2 Nashua. The luster from that early flash dimmed considerably over the next 12 months, however, when no more Grade 1 victories followed, but Quality Road’s stud career has gotten back on track in 2016 as three more Grade 1 winners have appeared, capped by Abel Tasman’s victory in the Grade 1 Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos last Saturday.

Bred in Kentucky by the late Edward P. “Ned” Evans, Quality Road was a prime example of the brilliance his sire, Elusive Quality, can produce in a long stud career that has resulted in 131 stakes winners to date. Elusive Quality’s record includes champions on both sides of the equator, led Smarty Jones, Elusive Kate, Maryfield, and Raven’s Pass north of the line and Sepoy, Sai de Baixo, and Ana Luisa in the Southern Hemisphere.

Since Quality Road’s dam was a full sister to champion and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Ajina, by Strawberry Road, from the great family of Myrtlewood, Quality Road’s pedigree was never going to be an impediment to success either on the racetrack or in the breeding shed.

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Quality Road won his only start as a 2-year-old in November 2008, leading all the way in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden at Aqueduct for trainer Jimmy Jerkens, but flubbed his lines in his first start at 3, allowing Theregoesjojo to run him down after starting slowly. Quality Road proved that was an aberration in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, stalking the pace before drawing away to beat Theregoesjojo by more than four lengths. The Grade 1 Florida Derby produced a similar result, with Dunkirk second this time in front of Theregoesjojo.

That made Quality Road an obvious candidate for the Kentucky Derby, but a series of quarter cracks forced him to miss the classics. Evans transferred Quality Road to Todd Pletcher who trained him for the rest of his career. Quality Road won the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs in his first start for Pletcher and was arguably short a race or two when third at 3-2 behind Summer Bird and Hold Me Back in the 10-furlong Travers, but Summer Bird looked like simply the better horse at 1 1/4 miles when he beat Quality Road a length in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Quality Road never gave himself a chance to prove that impression wrong in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, working himself into a frenzy behind the starting gate at Santa Anita, forcing his withdrawal.

Quality Road returned at 4 to prove himself a top-class horse, if not quite the champion he sometimes appeared to be. A brilliant 12-length demolition of the Grade 1 Donn in track-record time was followed by an equally brilliant 1:33.11 mile in the Grade 1 Metropolitan, but champion Blame ran him down – admittedly with a five-pound advantage in the weights – by a head in the Grade 1 Whitney before Quality Road scored a bloodless victory in the Grade 1 Woodward. In his final start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Quality Road was second early but retreated after a half-mile and was retired to Lane’s End at an initial fee of $35,000.

His revival this year began with the victory of Illuminant (Sparkling Number, by Polish Number) in the Grade 1 Gamely, but what really caught the attention of breeders was the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity victory of Klimt (Inventive, by Dixie Union). Abel Tasman’s win in the Starlet provided Quality Road with his 11th stakes winner and fourth Grade 1 winner from 277 foals of racing age.

Abel Tasman is the sixth and final foal and second graded stakes winner out of the unplaced Deputy Minister mare Vargas Girl, who was purchased, carrying Grade 3 winner Sky Girl, by Sky Mesa, for $130,000 by Abel Tasman’s owner-breeder Clearsky Farm, with Emerald Bloodstock as agent, at the 2010 Keeneland January mixed sale. Vargas Girl is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Bevo, by Prospectors Gamble, and to Grade 3 winner Moonlight Sonata, by Carson City, dam of stakes winners Wilburn, by Bernardini, Beethoven, by Sky Mesa, and La Appassionata, by Bernardini, from a family developed by the late Jane duPont Lunger’s Christiana Stable.