09/04/2014 11:23AM

Sparkman: Versatility from a turf champion

Barbara D. Livingston
V. E. Day, by turf champion English Channel, captured the Travers Stakes on dirt.

The prejudice against grass horses as stallions remains strong among American commercial breeders, despite the fact that both El Prado and his champion turf male son, Kitten’s Joy, have led the American sire list in the new millennium. And indeed, Kitten’s Joy’s leadership last year was due mostly to his five 2013 Grade 1 winners on turf.

One of Kitten’s Joy’s successors as champion turf male struck another blow for grass runners last Saturday, and this time critics of turf form cannot knock the result because of the surface. Instead, the victory of V. E. Day, a son of 2007 champion turf male English Channel, in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes on dirt is yet another illustration that the widely held belief that grass horses cannot sire top dirt runners is overstated.

English Channel was certainly a grass horse, and a very good one, well up to the international standard. Bred in Kentucky by Ann and Terry McBrayer’s Keene Ridge Farm, by dual leading sire Smart Strike and out of Belva, by Theatrical, English Channel had a pedigree that provided evidence to support channeling him toward either dirt or turf. Smart Strike, by Mr. Prospector, was a top-class miler on dirt who never ran on turf but had already sired high-class runners on both surfaces.

His dam, Belva, on the other hand, was unraced – but her sire, Theatrical, was a champion grass horse and top grass sire, and she was a full sister to Pharma, a Grade 1 winner on turf, and to Hap, a multiple Grade 2 winner on the inner course. Their dam, Committed, by Hagley, had been a champion sprinter and multiple Group 1 winner in Europe despite an undeniably “dirt” pedigree.

James Scatuorchio paid just $50,000 for English Channel at the 2003 Keeneland September yearling sale, and his trainer, Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, apparently had no doubts about the proper surface for his charge. English Channel made his first start in a 1 1/16-mile turf maiden as a 2-year-old at Saratoga and never raced on dirt in 22 subsequent starts in four seasons on the track. Of course, the fact that he won that maiden venture by a length may well have had a bit to do with the future course of his racing career.

Beaten in his first start at 3 in March at Gulfstream, English Channel reeled off four consecutive wins over the next four months, including victories in the Woodlawn Stakes, Colonial Turf Cup, and Grade 3 Virginia Derby. Favored at 4-5 in the Grade 1 Secretariat, he was upset by Gun Salute, and then was beaten a head by the brilliant but fragile older horse Shakespeare (by English Channel’s broodmare sire, Theatrical) in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Victory in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Turf would have earned him champion turf male honors as a 3-year-old, but English Channel ran like a tired horse, finishing fifth behind Shirocco after pressing the early pace.

English Channel had proven himself a high-class grass horse at 3, and he reiterated his standing at 4 and 5, but for much of those two racing seasons, he seemed to find one too good for him on the biggest occasions, just as he had at 3. He won the Grade 1 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, the Grade 1 United Nations, and the Joe Hirsch at 4, but defeats in the Arlington Million and Breeders’ Cup Turf cost him the championship.

At 5, English Channel proved his fitness with an allowance victory at Gulfstream but then ran by far the worst race of his career in the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free in Dubai, finishing 12th. Upon his return to America, he coupled repeat victories in the United Nations and Joe Hirsch with good seconds in the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap and Sword Dancer Stakes on the way to a third attempt at the Breeders’ Cup Turf. This time, English Channel came through when it mattered most, leading most of the way on a rain-soaked Monmouth course to win easily by seven lengths, clinching the Eclipse Award.

When English Channel retired to Brad Kelley’s Bluegrass Hall in 2008, however, he was not most commercial breeders’ idea of a hot stallion prospect. In addition to his exclusively turf form, he is not the most impressive physical specimen. A bit below medium-sized at 15.3 hands, he is correct enough but rather lightly made and plain, which is not at all uncommon in the offspring of Smart Strike. The fact that he was an undeniably top-class racehorse, tough and durable enough to win 13 of 23 starts and earn more than $5.3 million, carried little weight with many breeders. English Channel moved to stand alongside his sire at Will Farish’s Lane’s End beginning in 2010.

In an era of three-figure books, English Channel has averaged only 84 foals in his first three crops. It is true that his offspring have not lit up the skies as dramatically as, for example, Kitten’s Joy’s, but he has sired 16 stakes winners among those 251 foals, a respectable 6.4 percent stakes-winners-to-foals strike rate.

It is also true that 12 of those 16 stakes winners earned their black type on turf, but in American racing, that takes on the aura of a self-fulfilling prophecy. His only champion to date, 2012 Canadian champion 3-year-old colt Strait of Dover (out of Bahrain Star, by Danzig), earned his championship through victory in the Queen’s Plate on Woodbine’s synthetic main track. Graded stakes winners Optimizer (Indy Pick, by A.P. Indy), The Pizza Man (I Can Fan Fan, by Lear Fan), Parranda (Dynamic Feature, by Rahy), Skyring (Violet Lady, by Seattle Slew), Channel Lady (Queen Supreme, by King of Kings), and Potomac River (Reba’s Approval, by With Approval) are all grass horses.

Before V. E. Day came along, English Channel’s best dirt horse by far was Blueskiesnrainbows (Cho Cho San, by Deputy Minister), who built his reputation on synthetic courses in California but transferred that ability to dirt with a victory in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita last winter.

V. E. Day was bred in Kentucky by Kelley’s Bluegrass Hall and sold at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $105,000 to Bradley Thoroughbreds. In fact, each of the last five Travers winners, including dead-heater Golden Ticket in 2012, has been sold at Keeneland. As shown in the accompanying box, since 1980, 13 winners of the Travers have been Keeneland graduates as either weanlings, yearlings, or juveniles.

Pinhooked to the OBS March sale of select 2-year-olds in training, V. E. Day was purchased by Chester Stables for $135,000 on behalf of Magalen O. Bryant. Like his sire, V. E. Day began his career on grass, but he won his maiden in his third start when a one-mile turf test was rained onto the sloppy main track at Belmont. He scored again in a 1 1/8-mile turf allowance, but then trainer Jimmy Jerkens decided to try him in the Curlin Stakes on Saratoga’s main track. He won by a head with a late charge, and then repeated the same tactics in the Travers to defeat stablemate Wicked Strong by a nose.

V. E. Day is the seventh foal and first stakes winner out of California Sunset, an unraced daughter of leading sire and broodmare sire Deputy Minister from one of the best families developed by Darby Dan Farm. California Sunset is a half-sister to multiple stakes winner Don’t Read My Lips, by Turkoman, the dam of Grade 3 winners Hotstufanthensome, by Awesome Again, and Silver Charades, by Broad Brush, and stakes winner Tacit Agreement, by Unbridled.

Her dam, Our Dear Sue, by Roberto, is a full sister to 1988 champion turf male Sunshine Forever, from the great family of foundation mare Golden Trail, by Hasty Road, ancestress of top runners Ryafan, Memories of Silver, Winter Memories, Brian’s Time, Monarchos, Dynaformer, and Offlee Wild, among many others.

V. E. Day’s closest inbreeding is a 5x4 duplication of Northern Dancer, which is so common as to be hardly worth noting in the contemporary Thoroughbred. Among English Channel’s other top offspring, Optimizer is inbred 3x3 to Mr. Prospector, Strait of Dover 5x3 to Northern Dancer, Skyring 5x4 to Northern Dancer, and Channel Lady 5x4 to Northern Dancer – all very, very common repetitions in current pedigrees.

It is notable, however, that English Channel’s only two graded stakes winners on dirt, Blueskiesnrainbows and V. E. Day, are both sons of mares by Deputy Minister, who, like Smart Strike, sired top-class runners on all surfaces.

Just a few days before V. E. Day’s victory in the Travers, it was announced that English Channel will be moved from Lane’s End to Calumet Farm, now owned by Brad Kelley, for the 2015 breeding season. V. E. Day’s Travers victory may not convince many commercial breeders that English Channel is an attractive option, but that is their loss and likely Kelley’s gain.

English Channel may not be a consistent sire of top sales horses, but he is capable of getting high-class runners on any surface.