09/05/2016 9:14AM

Sparkman: The test of sires

Benoit & Associates
Union Strike, by Union Rags, wins the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante.

Throughout its 149-year history, the Belmont Stakes has been labeled “the test of champions.” For most of that revered history the Belmont also was regarded as the classic race most likely to produce great sires, and with good reason. As shown in the accompanying table, the Belmont has produced twice as many leading American sires as both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Over the last 30 years, though, the Belmont has fallen seriously out of favor with commercial breeders as a source of sire prospects, again for good reason. The Belmont is now the only North American Grade 1 race run over 1 1/2 miles or more on dirt, and commercial breeders would be foolish to construct a breeding program specifically to breed Belmont winners.

Classic winners as leading sires
Belmont Stakes Kentucky Derby Preakness Stakes
Hanover (1895-98) Ben Brush (1909) Man o'War (1926)
Sir Dixon (1901) War Admiral (1945) War Admiral (1945)
Hastings (1902, '08) Count Fleet (1951) Count Fleet (1951)
Commando (1907) Northern Dancer (1971) Bold Ruler (1963-69, '73)
Sweep (1918, '25) Seattle Slew (1984) Northern Dancer (1971)
The Finn (1923) Thunder Gulch (2001) Seattle Slew (1984)
Man o'War (1926)    
War Admiral (1945)    
Count Fleet (1951)    
Seattle Slew (1984)    
A.P. Indy (2002, 2006)    
Thunder Gulch (2001)    

In recent decades, breeders have gravitated more toward winners of the Derby and Preakness but without that much reward for their trouble. Since the most recent classic-winning leading American sire Thunder Gulch won the Derby and Belmont in 1995, the best Kentucky Derby-winning sires have probably been Fusaichi Pegasus, Street Sense, and Super Saver, and the best Preakness-winning stallions are likely Bernardini and Curlin.

Over that same timeframe, the Belmont has produced Lemon Drop Kid, Empire Maker, Birdstone, and Afleet Alex, who, as a group, are as good as the best sires produced by the other two jewels of the Triple Crown.

We may soon find out whether 2012 Belmont winner Union Rags, sire of 2016 Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante winner Union Strike, can continue the Belmont’s long tradition of producing superior sires. Union Strike is Union Rags’s first stakes winner from his first crop, and, fortunately for him, Union Rags is the comparatively rare Belmont winner of recent years for whom the Belmont may not have been a career-best performance.

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Union Rags was bred in Kentucky by Phyllis Wyeth, who famously developed seller’s remorse after letting him go for $145,000 to IEAH Stables at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings and reacquired him for $390,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale of selected 2-year-olds in training the following spring. Trained by Michael Matz, he won his first three starts, culminating with a dominating 5 1/4-length romp in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes that established him as the best juvenile in the East. That made him an even-money favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he was four wide all the way around and lost even more ground by bearing out in midstretch before just failing to catch the free-running Hansen by a diminishing head.

Union Rags won his debut at 3 with another dominating performance in the Fountain of Youth, but was only third in the Florida Derby behind Take Charge Indy. The Dixie Union colt had no chance in the Kentucky Derby after being bumped at the start, squeezed back, and trapped on the rail at the tail of the field. He was able to get much better position in the Belmont and bulled his way through on the rail to win by a half-length over Paynter, but that proved to be his final start.

Retired to Lane’s End in 2013, the 17-hand horse by Dixieland Band out of Tempo, by Gone West, has been popular with breeders who recognize that he is not a typical Belmont winner, and Union Strike is his fifth winner from the 106 foals in his first crop.

Bred in Kentucky by Pollock Farms, Brian Kahn, and Taylor Brothers Property, et al, Union Strike is the fifth foal, fifth winner, and second graded stakes winner out of Classic Strike, by Smart Strike, whose first foal, Handsome Mike, by Scat Daddy, captured the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and Grade 3 Commonwealth Stakes. Classic Strike is a winning half-sister to stakes winner From Away, by Gulch, and Union Strike’s third dam is Grade 3 winner Court Hostess, by Sovereign Dancer, a Grade 3 winner from the family of champions Nadir, Mark of Esteem, and Bayford.

McMahon and Hill Bloodstock purchased Union Strike for $170,000 as a weanling at the 2014 Keeneland November breeding stock sale and pinhooked her to the 2016 OBS April sale of 2-year-olds in training, where Ruis Racing purchased her for $375,000 after she breezed an eighth-mile in 10 seconds flat.

Classic Strike has since produced a 2015 filly by Scat Daddy (cataloged as Hip No. 254 in the upcoming Keeneland September yearling sale) and a 2016 colt by Broken Vow. She was covered last spring by Honor Code.