While Circle of Life is the first Group 1 winner for her family in Japan, she is not its first good representative there or elsewhere in the world. She is a fourth-generation descendant of Great Lady M., best known as the dam of the great Lady's Secret but with far more to commend her to attention than that.
Sired by the speedy if erratic Icecapade---a good stallion who was bred on the same Nearctic/Native Dancer cross as Northern Dancer---Great Lady M. came from a branch of Bruce Lowe Family 22-d that traces back to the 1919 English matron Black Ray. While she is the ancestress of such standouts as Khaled, Mill Reef, and Blushing Groom, among others, Black Ray's family has never been one of those clans that seems to produce good horses by the cluster. Instead, it has had an unpredictable quality, with branches that have seemed dormant for two or three generations suddenly springing back to life with an exceptional runner, then subsiding until the next brilliant burst of vigor.
While Great Lady M.'s tail-female line had been producing a fairly sprinkling of minor stakes winners since the importation of Black Ray's great-granddaughter Trustworthy II to the United States three generations earlier, Great Lady M. was about as good as anything it had produced up to that point. The winner of seven sprint stakes races from ages 3 to 5, she was tough, speedy, and sound, with 14 wins from 58 starts. She did not win any graded races, but in fairness, relatively few graded sprint stakes were available at the time she was racing, and few of those that did exist were restricted to fillies and mares.
By the time Great Lady M. retired to the paddocks, breeders were beginning to recognize that the great Secretariat was not throwing the speedy types typical of his sire Bold Ruler and actually benefited from being mated to the same sorts of quicker mares that had done well with his maternal grandsire, Princequillo. Great Lady M. fit the bill well for this new image of the type of mare wanted for Secretariat, and she went to his court for her first mating in 1981. Lady's Secret was the result. Tough, small, and quick like her dam, but with Secretariat's powerful hindquarters and greater stamina than Great Lady M. had possessed. she was crowned the 1986 American Horse of the Year after a 4-year-old campaign in which she started 15 times---all in graded stakes races---and won 10 of them, including eight Grade 1 races. Bred to a succession of the best stallions in the United States, Lady's Secret was a disappointment in the paddocks but has since received a measure of redemption as the second dam of Japanese Group 2 winner Sound Barrier and the third dam of Japanese Group 2 winner Sound Chiara and Japanese Group 3 winner My Style.
Great Lady M. could hardly be expected to revisit the heights she had reached with Lady's Secret during the rest of her breeding career, and she never did. Nonetheless, she bred a surprisingly large number of daughters worthy of some note, and in the submerge/re-emerge pattern that has characterized her family for generations, she has come up with several top-level descendants in just the last few years.
Great Lady M.'s only other stakes winner was Missy Slew (by Seattle Slew), whose win came at 4 in the 1989 Philadelphia Handicap (a non-graded, non-listed black-type race) and who went on to produce the restricted stakes winner Vox (by Rahy). There is little more to be said for Missy Slew and her descendants, but the same cannot be said for Great Lady Sharon, Great Lady M.'s 1986 filly by Alydar. Great Lady Sharon won only one of her 14 starts, but she is the dam of stakes winner Baldy's Dream (by Green Dancer) and the second dam of multiple French Group 3 winner Slew the Red. Even better, she is the third dam of 2018 American champion female sprinter Shamrock Rose, winner of that year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (USA-G1).
Following the birth of Great Lady Sharon, Great Lady M. visited Danzig and in due course produced another filly, Great Christine, who won one of nine starts before producing multiple Japanese listed stakes winner Believe (by Sunday Silence), in turn the dam of Japanese Group 2 winner Gendarme (by Kitten's Joy). Great Lady M.'s next important daughter is the 1989 Mr. Prospector mare Mary's Spirit, who won her only start. Like Lady's Secret, she did not distinguish herself in the paddocks but was later redeemed by her daughters, who made her the second dam of multiple Grade 2 winner Leah's Secret and Canadian Grade 3 winner Bear Tough Guy. Mary's Spirit is also the third dam of Grade 3 winner Nicodemus.
Bred to Mr. Prospector's fine son Fappiano in 1989, Great Lady M. produced One Great Lady. Yet another minor winner, she could not produce a stakes winner or stakes producer among her foals, but she is now the third dam of 2019 Gran Premio General San Martin (ARG-G1) winner Glorious Moment. Finally, Great Lady M. produced the 1994 Storm Cat filly Star My Life, the third dam of Circle of Life and also the second dam of Japanese Group 3 winner Trend Hunter.
While it has not yet been fifty years since Great Lady M. was foaled, much less since she died, her case does seem to support the contention that the importance of a given stallion or mare cannot truly be assessed until long after its breeding career is in the books. Great Lady M. is one mare who has stood the test of time rather better than most, and it can be hoped that her descendants will continue in that same vein as the circles of life continue.