07/04/2016 12:43PM

Sparkman: Sir Dudley Digges a first for Gio Ponti

Michael Burns
In winning the Queen's Plate, Sir Dudley Digges became Gio Ponti's first stakes winner.

The American experiment with synthetic surfaces did not end well. While it is arguable that the synthetic alternative was oversold and adopted in some venues without much aforethought, it is pretty much inarguable that those surfaces achieved their stated objective of reducing catastrophic front leg injuries, though they may have increased less catastrophic injuries in other parts of the equine anatomy.

It is also inarguable that synthetic surfaces produced a somewhat different pecking order among the top horses of the generations that raced on them than if those races had continued to be run on dirt. Thus when the synthetic era ended somewhat abruptly in the United States, it left some otherwise outstanding stud prospects rather high and dry.

Not least among those is Gio Ponti, whose curriculum vitae records that he was twice voted champion turf male, but he achieved perhaps his best performance when he ran second to the immortal Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic over Santa Anita’s synthetic surface, with dirt American classic winners Summer Bird and Mine That Bird well behind him. That effort propelled him to a title as champion older male as well. As the winner of 12 of 29 career starts, more than $6 million in earnings, and seven Grade 1 races on turf, Gio Ponti’s credentials as a stallion prospect were impeccable on any surface but dirt, but the shift away from synthetic has done him no favors.

Thus it is hardly surprising that his first stakes winner, Sir Dudley Digges, appeared last weekend at Woodbine Race Course, the most important remaining synthetic track in North America, and won its signature race, the Queen’s Plate. Bred in Canada by Bernard and Karen McCormack, Sir Dudley Digges was purchased as a weanling for $72,000 by Gio Ponti’s owner, Castleton Lyons, at the 2013 Keeneland November sale. Pinhooked to the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale, he was purchased for $110,000 by agent Julio Rada, who pinhooked him again to the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of selected 2-year-olds in training, where he failed to sell at a hammer price of $195,000. Sent through the ring once again at the 2015 OBS June sale, agent Pattie Miller signed the ticket at $130,000 on behalf of Ken and Sarah Ramsey.

Sir Dudley Digges is the sixth foal out of My Pal Lana, a talented and quite well-bred filly who had not lived up to those credentials until she encountered Gio Ponti. My Pal Lana was a fourth generation of stakes winners bred by George Strawbridge from the stakes-placed Royal Dilemma, whom Strawbridge purchased privately from the Phipps family in the 1970s.

Second in the 1975 Milady Handicap, Royal Dilemma was one of the more successful products of what turned out to be a disastrous cross of Buckpasser on mares by Bold Ruler. Her dam, 1964 champion 2-year-old filly Queen Empress, was full sister to the top-class miler King Emperor, but did not pass on her outstanding ability consistently except through Royal Dilemma.

Royal Dilemma was an outstanding broodmare for Strawbridge. She produced 1989 Group 1 Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp winner Silver Fling, by The Minstrel, who was the top-weighted older mare in Europe that year at five to seven furlongs, her stakes winning full sister Silverdip, and stakes winners Imperial Fling, by Northern Dancer, and Imperial Dilemma, by Damascus. Royal Dilemma’s stakes-placed daughter Snowbowl, by Northjet, was dam of another top Strawbridge filly, multiple Grade 2 winner Powder Bowl, by Pleasant Colony.

Royal Dilemma’s winning daughter Cor Anglais, by Nijinsky II, produced stakes winners Grangeville and Palana, both by Gulch. Palana is dam of My Pal Lana, who won six of 25 starts and $465,538 for Strawbridge’s Augustin Stable, including the Flaming Page and River Memories Stakes over Woodbine’s turf course. Strawbridge bred My Pal Lana’s first four foals before selling her, in foal to Harlan’s Holiday, for only $45,000 to Mapleshade Farm at the 2011 Keeneland November sale.

Sir Dudley Digges comes from the first crop of Gio Ponti, who is the best son of Storm Cat’s son Tale of the Cat, a versatile sire who has produced high class runners on all surfaces. It is possible, of course, that Gio Ponti will eventually do the same. Gio Ponti won his first two starts at two, and the Grade 2 Virginia Derby and Grade 3 Hill Prince on turf at 3, but really came into his own at 4 and 5, when he developed into the best grass horse in America.

American turf horses have, of course, never been the first choice of American commercial breeders, but the recent success of Kitten’s Joy has opened some doors. Perhaps Gio Ponti will walk through that door as well.