WITH SIRES, GRASS IS SELDOM GREENER
By Ray Paulick
Based on comments from trainer John Oxx, there seems little doubt that Sea the Stars, who ran his consecutive Group 1 win streak to six with a victory in Sunday’s Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, will be retired to stud for the 2010 breeding season. There has been no indication, however, that 27-year-old Christopher Tsui, owner of this racing superstar, has had serious discussions with any specific stallion station in Europe or the United States. Bloodstock experts peg the colt’s value at stud in excess of $50 million, even in the currently depressed market.
Thirty or more years ago a horse like Sea the Stars would almost certainly stand in Kentucky. That’s where the money was for major stallion syndications, and it was home to the world’s finest broodmares, giving a stallion prospect the best chance possible to succeed at stud. John Galbreath brought Roberto home to his Darby Dan Farm in Kentucky after the son of Hail to Reason raced to glory in the United Kingdom. Nijinsky II, a son of the great Northern Dancer, was retired to Claiborne Farm following his outstanding career in Europe carrying Charles Engelhard’s colors. John Gaines populated his stallion roster at Gainesway Farm with a number of top Europeans runners.
Times have changed. Like those horses mentioned above, Sea the Stars has raced exclusively on grass, and American breeders in the present era have shown an aversion to breeding to turf horses, no matter how accomplished they were on the racetrack. There are a few exceptions, among them Kingmambo at Lane’s End, Dynaformer at Three Chimneys, and Giant’s Causeway at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud. In addition, European sire power has skyrocketed, particularly at John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud in Ireland and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley divisions at Kildangan Stud in Ireland and Dalham Hall Stud in England. European breeders have upgraded the quality of their broodmare bands to match this increased sire power.
“There is a prejudice here against grass horses,” said Barry Irwin of Team Valor. “The Keeneland sales have dictated what kind of stallions are accepted. I’ve got three mares I’m selling in Europe next year, but there’s nothing we can breed to here. The good thinkers like John Gaines have been replaced by guys who don’t have the same scope.”
That begs the question of whether a horse like Roberto or Nijinsky II would succeed in the United States in the current climate, and if contemporary American breeders would support Sea the Stars. Will Farish, owner of Lane’s End, thinks the answer to both questions is “yes.”
“I think Roberto and Nijinsky would succeed today if they got the support,” Farish told the Paulick Report, “though there are fewer people breeding for the classics now. Breeders over here have tended to have much more luck with our mile and mile and an eighth sires. They are the ones in most demand.”
Farish said he believes American breeders would support Sea the Stars even though “it’s been much harder to get people to breed to a grass horse.” He cited Giant’s Causeway as an example of a top-class European turf horse who has been well supported in the United States, though the son of Storm Cat is out of an American Graded Stakes-winning mare and showed good dirt form when narrowly beaten by Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. “With his outstanding race record and that pedigree (by Darley’s leading sire Cape Cross out of Arc de Triomphe winner Urban Sea, who produced Epsom Derby winner and top sire Galileo) I would think you could stand Sea the Stars anywhere and he would get tremendous support,” Farish said.
Headley Bell of Mill Ridge Farm in Kentucky concurs. “He’s exceptional in that same kind of category (as Nijinsky II and Roberto). He’s an extraordinary horse, and the cream of Thoroughbred breeders around the world would want to breed to him,” Bell said. “You could make 40 phone calls and sell him out (for syndication as a stallion).”
The Irish National Stud has been the only farm mentioned as a leading candidate to land Sea the Stars, and that’s because of an existing relationship with the horse’s owner. Urban Sea, dam of Sea the Stars, was kept there until her death earlier this year. “They’ve done an incredible job of making stallions,” Bell said of the National Stud. “John Oxx is such a class person. I would think they would lean in that direction.”
Standing Sea the Stars in the U.S. would seem to be a longshot at this stage. The increased size of stallion books and the emphasis on commercial breeding has contributed to the squeezing out of turf sires in the U.S.
“Grass horses haven’t been very popular the last 10 or 15 years,” said one breeder who asked not to be named. “Maybe breeders will start breeding for the winner’s circle instead of the sales ring.”
“Commercial breeders have hit a bubble,” said Thomas Gaines, son of the Gainesway Farm founder who co-owns Gaines-Gentry Thoroughbreds. “We’ve grown the commercial breeding part of the marketplace more than we’ve grown the number of people who show up and buy yearlings. Commercial breeding is contracting now because there are not enough people to buy the horses. Supply and demand has to recalibrate.”
Gaines said one mark of a stallion’s success today is “when the breed-to -race people start breeding to them, and half or more of a stallion’s book consists of people breeding to race. There are still a lot of those people out there, and they’ll support a horse like Sea the Stars. If he stood at a farm in Kentucky, you’d also have a lot of Europeans sending their mares here. That’s how it was in the 1980s.”
Bernie Sams of Claiborne Farm isn’t so sure. “Grass horses are a hard sell whether they ran overseas or here,” said Sams. “I wonder how many grass-type mares are left in Central Kentucky. Look at those races run over the weekend in France and England; Europeans are breeding to European stallions.”
It’s not just the bias against grass horses that adds to the challenge of making a stallion, said Sams, it’s getting a competitively sized book of mares. “How would you do with a horse like Danzig nowadays?” he asked of Claiborne’s late three-time leading stallion who went to stud off just three races, none in stakes. “Because of book size, if you had to get a horse like him started, it would be tough. Book sizes have hurt to an extent.”
Clifford Barry of Pin Oak Stud agrees. “Trying to get 150 mares to a horse is the biggest difference between now and 20 years ago,” he said. “But if you’ve spent a lot of money on a stallion prospect, you’ve got to try and recoup that cash. And there’s going to be some guys that aren’t going to recoup that money.
As for Sea the Stars, Barry sees only a few farms in the U.S. or Europe that have access to the money and the best mares that a top stallion prospect deserves. “The pool of mares is so important,” he said.
“This horse is one of the best 3-year-olds Europe has seen in 20 years or more. Every time they have asked him a question, he’s answered them, and he’s been managed impeccably by John Oxx. I don’t care where he stands, he will be a serious kind of stallion prospect.”
If he were to stand in the U.S., what about that bias against grass horses?
“He’s got a different kind of gene,” Barry said. “He’s great, not grass.”
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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