March 27, 2015, was the 65th birthday of the great Native Dancer, whose son Raise a Native and maternal grandson Northern Dancer have spread his name far and wide in pedigrees.
While Materiality became the latest new star on the Triple Crown scene by defeating Upstart in the Florida Derby (USA-G1), International Star took care of business by grinding down Stanford in the Louisiana Derby (USA-G2). He does not have much pizzazz, and the colts he has been beating at the Fair Grounds seem to be a pretty ordinary lot. He does have two things going for him, though: consistency and determination.
International Star is the sort of horse who fires his shot every time. He likes the rail but he doesn't have to have it. He likes a good pace up front to soften things up for his closing run, but he doesn't have to have that either. In the Louisiana Derby, he ran down a colt who had gotten things his own way with a soft pace on the front end, and he did it with the kind of relentless drive that doesn't take no for an answer. He may or may not be good enough for the crowd at Louisville, but it's a safe bet that he will give them whatever he has.
In contrast to some of his potential competitors, it's also a fairly good bet that he will stay 10 furlongs regardless of a dosage index of 4.09. Sired by Kentucky Derby (USA-G1) winner Fusaichi Pegasus, he's out of a French Deputy daughter who was at her best going around two turns. The second dam, Speak Halory, is by Verbatim, a major winner over 10 furlongs, and is a half sister to five good stakes winners, most of which preferred routes, out of a Halo mare.
In some ways, International Star reminds me of Smarten, who wasn't quite good enough for the best of his crop in Spectacular Bid's year but racked up quite a chunk of change racing in somewhat softer spots. One could do a lot worse than have a horse like this in the barn.
With the death of Concern on March 26, the Domino male line continues to edge closer to extinction. Its last major representative is Include, now 18 and better known as a sire of top fillies than colts.
Like Include, Concern was sired by Broad Brush, who led the American general sire list in 1994 largely on the strength of Concern's victory in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Classic (USA-G1). Unfortunately, Concern was unable to parlay his racetrack success to a top stud career and is best remembered as the sire of two-time American champion steeplechaser Good Night Shirt. Concern spent the last seven years of his stud career at the Oklahoma Equine Reproduction Center, where he did his part in teaching veterinarians and veterinary students about equine reproductive science.
Domino's line has always skated on the thin edge ever since Domino himself died, leaving just 19 named foals. Yet from that tiny foundation, the "Black Whirlwind" built a dynasty including such historic names as Commando, Colin, Peter Pan, Black Toney, Blue Larkspur, Bimelech, Equipoise, Alsab, Ack Ack and Youth. Few stallions have contributed so much from so small a legacy.
The last hope for the Domino male line appears to rest with Include's sons Redeemed, winner of the 2012 Brooklyn Handicap (USA-G2), and Sereno Inc., winner of the Premio Forli (ARG-G2). Both are longshots to make a major impact and continue the line, but if either does, it won't be the first time that Domino and his descendants have beaten the odds.
Today is the birthday of a member of the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame. Aside from his laurels as one of the greatest racehorses of all time, this champion is so widely found in pedigrees that he is an ancestor of virtually every Thoroughbred foaled in North America, yet he was never a champion sire or broodmare sire. Name him.
The American thoroughbred industry suffered a great loss today with the death of Smart Strike. The last of the great sire sons of Mr. Prospector in North America, Smart Strike was the only one of the sons of the great progenitor to top the American general sire list, a feat he accomplished in 2007 and 2008. Best remembered as the sire of 2007-2008 American Horse of the Year Curlin, he is also the sire of two Canadian Horses of the Year in Soaring Free (2004) and Never Retreat (2011) as well as champions Lookin at Lucky, English Channel, My Miss Aurelia, Dr. Arbatach, Eye of the Sphynx, Portcullis, Gold Strike, Added Edge and Silver Streaker. He also leaves behind a growing reputation as a broodmare sire.
Smart Strike was one of the most distinguished representatives of the family of Sam-Son Farm's great foundation mare No Class. The first of three generations of Canadian Broodmares of the Year, No Class produced four champions including 1984 Canadian Oaks winner Classy 'n Smart (by Smarten), dam in turn of 1991 Canadian Horse of the Year and American champion 3-year-old filly Dance Smartly (by Danzig) and Smart Strike, a Grade 1 winner in his own right. The bare listing of these accomplishments only scratches the surface of what No Class and her descendants have accomplished, but suffice it to say that Smart Strike has been worthy of his illustrious heritage and has passed it on in style. He will be missed.
Firing Line gained a lot of fans with his visually impressive score in the Sunland Derby (USA-G3) on March 22. He's a nice colt and deserved the win, but I can't help feeling that this race looked better than it was in spite of the fact that he set a track record while coasting at the end. This was a glib track that could only help a colt with good natural cruising speed (which Firing Line has), and the colt faced much weaker opposition than he will see in Louisville. His close-up seconds to Dortmund may also need to be taken with a grain of salt, given that Dortmund seems to be one of those lazy types who will only do what he must to get the job done.
Two other concerns with Firing Line are his pedigree and his schedule. On paper, he looks better suited to 8 or 9 furlongs than 10, especially since he lacks any proven sources of stamina close up. The same criticism could be made of several colts among the leading contenders, but Firing Line does not quite have the athleticism of American Pharoah or the long, powerful stride that Dortmund boasts when he gets in gear. When a colt doesn't have the raw reserves of stamina to simply grind a distance out, he needs exceptional efficiency to stretch his distance capacity. I'm not sure Firing Line quite has it.
Firing Line's schedule also looks less than ideal. He has enough seasoning from his duels with Dortmund to be mentally prepared for a big run at Louisville, but six weeks is a long time to maintain top mental and physical fitness without a race in between. Going into one of the major preps on two weeks' turnaround doesn't seem likely, nor does taking on Pharoah in three weeks in the Arkansas Derby (USA-G1). The Lexington Stakes (USA-G2), also in three weeks, might be a possibility but drops back in distance slightly, not necessarily what you want when building up to 10 furlongs.
Make no mistake about it, Firing Line has potential and could probably have beaten a substantially better field to grab his first graded stakes win. Nonetheless, this performance probably wasn't up to the standards set by either of the Baffert pair, and there are several potential stars waiting for the Florida Derby (USA-G1), Wood Memorial (USA-G1) and Louisiana Derby (USA-G2) to show what they can do. Those jumping on Firing Line at this point may have a good thing, but I think they'd be better off holding their fire.
In 1969, Majestic Prince shared high weight of 136 pounds on the Daily Racing Form's Free Handicap for American 3-year-old males with champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year Arts and Letters. Majestic Prince never won an official championship but was admitted to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1988.
Dubai Sky thrust himself into the Kentucky Derby (USA-G1) picture with an authoritative win in yesterday's Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes (USA-G3), In notching his fourth straight win, the full brother to 2010 Malibu Stakes (USA-G1) winner Twirling Candy picked up 50 points toward a Derby starting spot, probably more than enough to get him into the field. The question is whether that is where he really belongs.
On the plus side, Dubai Sky appears to be developing and maturing at the right time. He has enough tactical speed and flexibility to be placed as his jockey judges best, and his pedigree suggests at least a solid possibility of getting 10 furlongs, a distance at which Twirling Candy placed twice in Grade 1 company. The fact that he is from the family of the great Affirmed certainly doesn't hurt anything.
The down side is that Dubai Sky has yet to race over dirt, and the Kentucky Derby is a tough place to try this for the first time. The field is invariably large, the jockeying for early position is fierce, and a horse that doesn't get an ideal spot in the early going may find itself taking a lot of kickback. One need only recall how Zenyatta floundered in the early going of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic (USA-G1) at Churchill Downs to get an idea of how a horse unused to the conditions may respond. The fact that Dubai Sky's connections chose to start him out on grass -- not the usual path for a well-bred colt whose pedigree doesn't scream "turf" -- may also say something about where he is best suited.
Twirling Candy was a pretty versatile sort, winning on all three surface types, and it may be that Dubai Sky has the versatility to do the same. This performance was not in the same league with those turned in by American Pharoah and Dortmund in their most recent preps, though, meaning that Dubai Sky would have to improve significantly over an unfamiliar surface to be a serious threat at Louisville.
Overall, my impression of the Spiral was that this was a rather one-paced race where Dubai Sky simply slowed down less in the stretch than his competition, though to his credit he did so while racing wide throughout. He may be this year's Animal Kingdom, but my feeling is that the Sky may hit his limit if run in the Derby.
This high-class colt was assigned a rating of 136 pounds on the Daily Racing Form's Free Handicap for American 3-year-old males -- the highest rating ever for a 3-year-old colt who did not win an official championship. Name him.
Allen Jerkens seldom got the really flashy horses -- the obvious stars with stellar pedigrees and high-octane connections. Most of his horses were honest hard-knockers or animals that had ability but needed a lot of help to get past their problems. Few others could have trained a horse with Prove Out's waywardness and physical issues to the point where he could warm up Secretariat, let alone beat him. Yet Prove Out's upset of the legendary champion was just one of Jerkens' stellar feats in a career that made him the youngest trainer of flat racers ever named to the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame until Bill Mott came along.
Jerkens was a fixture on the New York circuit for 63 years, ever since winning his first race at Aqueduct in 1950. His decision to remain in Florida after the 2013-2014 winter season left an unsettling vacancy among the ranks of New York horsemen. He'd been as much a part of New York racing as the canoe in the lake at Saratoga and the grandstand at Belmont. Now his absence is permanent. Other trainers and their stock will fill the stalls he once occupied, but no one can fill the place he held in others' hearts and memories.
Jerkens' kindness was just as legendary as his training ability. He was never one to talk much about himself but always one to quietly lend a helping hand where it was needed. The horsemen and horsewomen he mentored along the way learned a lot about horses, and even more about how to be a great human being. The lessons he taught are timeless, and sorely needed in a world that would rather take shortcuts than do things right.
It wasn't a "giant killer" but a giant that the racing world lost today. Farewell, Chief.
I'm Avalyn Hunter, an author, pedigree researcher and longtime racing fan with a particular interest in Thoroughbred mares and their contributions to the history of the breed.