10/25/2001 11:00PM

Unbridled stood tall for domestic market

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When Unbridled was put down because of complications from colic surgery on Oct. 18, Claiborne Farm and the breeding industry in general lost a top stallion far too early in his career. Unbridled was the big horse, not just as the racing star for Frances Genter, and not just as the immense specimen who made other big horses look small. Unbridled's significance to the breeding industry was even bigger than that.

The horse went to stud at a tough time for the industry, became an immediate success, and then was retained to stand in the United States without shuttling. For all these reasons, as well as his courage and personality, Unbridled became symbolic of some of the best qualities of American Thoroughbred breeding.

A son of the very high-class stallion Fappiano, who also died too young, Unbridled was a champion on the track, winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. A handsome horse with a big stride, Unbridled showed his best form at 10 furlongs, but he also had enough speed to run down champion sprinter Housebuster at seven furlongs. Despite Unbridled's accomplishments on the track, he went to stud during the bloodstock depression, when it was hard for horses to find a place at stud and harder still to fill books for them.

That didn't faze Unbridled. He made the most of his opportunities and sired a classic winner, Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, and a Breeders' Cup winner, Unbridled's Song, in his first crop. This made him such a hot property that the offers started pouring in for him, with interests from Japan working hard to secure this highly promising young horse.

In the early- and mid-1990's, the Japanese had purchased several top prospects - Horses of the Year and classic winners - or more money than the horses could have earned while standing here in the States, and some people were saying that the U.S. couldn't compete. People's spirits were down, many horsemen were feeling defeated, and some thought that the horse business in this country was dying.

But as one source close to the deal said, "There's always a way to stand a good horse, a horse that people really want to breed to."

Unbridled was that horse.

So when it came to feelings of pessimism about the game, somebody neglected to tell Claiborne's Seth Hancock, Rich Santulli, and other top American breeders. They stepped up and bought the horse from the Genter Estate. Unbridled was syndicated into 40 shares worth $475,000 apiece. At the time, the deal to purchase Unbridled was one of the largest transactions in several years, and despite what the horse had already done, some observers said he wasn't worth it.

Looking back, Unbridled was an absolute bargain.

His importance to the breeding business is far greater than what he accomplished as a racer or sire. Retaining him for American breeders was a statement about what's important in breeding: quality and classic performance. Securing Unbridled to remain in Kentucky and not shuttle was a huge psychological victory, an affirmation that American breeders could compete with anyone.

Since the purchase, Unbridled has had champion 3-year-old filly in Banshee Breeze in 1998, champion Anees in 1999, Preakness Stakes winner Red Bullet in 2000, and multiple Grade 1 winner Exogenous, who enters the Breeders' Cup Distaff as one of the leading contenders this year. In addition to these, his other top-notch progeny include Travers winner Unshaded and multiple Grade 1 winner Manistique.

With performers like these, breeders and yearling buyers weren't far behind in acclaiming Unbridled. His sons and daughters predictably improved with age, but he also sired two winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The breeders' response to the big bay accelerated annually to the point that no-guarantee seasons to Unbridled were fetching $225,000 last season. And live-foal contracts were not buyable.

Top racing stock creates that kind of demand. "His record speaks for itself," Seth Hancock said. "He was a great source of stamina. He could get you a champion, but above and beyond that, he was a really special horse to be around."

When the time came, the people at Claiborne treated Unbridled with the respect he deserved and let him go. The big bay leaves behind good-sized crops of 2-year-olds, yearlings, weanlings, and the foals of 2002. We can look at them and dream.

Unbridled was a big horse. He cast a big shadow, and leaves a big legacy.