Classic successes are an unqualified boon to stallion owners and managers, and this weekend's winners of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby have shined the spotlight on their sires, Alternation (by Distorted Humor and sire of Serengeti Empress) and Lookin at Lucky (Smart Strike; Country House).
The latter is much more of a household name because the bay son of the Mr. Prospector sire Smart Strike was champion juvenile in 2009, even though he didn't look like a stereotypical early-maturing colt. Instead, Lookin at Lucky was leggy and just a bit lean for trainer Bob Baffert, but the colt sold well as a 2-year-old in training out of the 2009 Keeneland April Sale of juveniles for $475,000 and progressed superbly to win five of six starts at 2 for owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman.
From his juvenile racing, Lookin at Lucky won three Grade 1 races: the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, plus the Futurities at Del Mar and at Hollywood Park. His only loss was an inexplicable second to Vale of York in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but the good-looking bay had shown such ability that Eclipse voters selected him as divisional champion.
At 3, Lookin at Lucky won four of seven starts, but only a pair of G1s, the Preakness and Haskell. Nonetheless, he was named champion for his consistent performances. At the end of his second season came the surprise announcement that Coolmore had purchased the colt for a stallion and that he would be sent to stand at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Kentucky.
The acquisition of Lookin at Lucky marked a dramatic change of approach for Coolmore in America. Prior to Lookin at Lucky, the operation had stood only two American juvenile champions at their Kentucky stud: Johannesburg (2001) and Dehere (1993). Beginning with Lookin at Lucky in 2009, Ashford purchased and stood five of the next six Eclipse Award winners as champion 2-year-old colt: Uncle Mo (2010), Hansen (2011), Shanghai Bobby (2012), and American Pharoah (2014), and they added a sixth with Classic Empire (2016).
Although Uncle Mo has been the standout success from the four proven horses in this program of acquiring early maturity and success, Lookin at Lucky has proven himself the odd horse because he has thrown consistently to the traits of his own physique and pedigree that show the ruggedness and scope of the classic horse and the development of top form at 3 and later, rather than the speed and early development of his own early career.
It is therefore no surprise the stallion's best racer to date was last year's champion older horse Accelerate, winner of five G1 races, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and $6.6 million. Prior to Country House, the stallion's only other classic winner was Breaking Lucky, winner of the Prince of Wales Stakes in Canada, but in 2017, the stallion had Lookin at Lee finish second in the Kentucky Derby behind Always Dreaming.
Breaking Lucky is out of a mare by champion turf horse Sky Classic (Nijinsky), and Country House is inbred 4×4 to No Class, the dam of Sky Classic (the sire of Country House's second dam) and of stakes winner Classy 'n Smart, the dam of Smart Strike, a leading sire for Lane's End Farm and sire of Horse of the Year and leading sire Curlin, as well as Lookin at Lucky.
Sky Classic stood at Mrs. Josephine Abercrombie's Pin Oak Farm outside Versailles, Ky., for the stallion's entire career, and he proved a good sire of stout and competitive racehorses with size, stamina, and quality.
Pin Oak also stood the juvenile champion Maria's Mon (Wavering Monarch), who sired Kentucky Derby winners Monarchos and Super Saver. The farm still stands the good sire Broken Vow, by Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, and the young stallion Alternation, from the same family as Broken Vow and by the Forty Niner stallion Distorted Humor, who sired Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide in his first crop.
From his second crop, Alternation has sired Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress. Pin Oak's general manager Clifford Barry said that “Mrs. Abercrombie has had several generations of this family. She bred and raced the horse, had faith in him as a stallion, and brought him home to stand at stud,” even though the commercial market is very difficult for stallions like Alternation that stand for less than $15,000.
Not surprisingly, after the young sire got Super Derby winner Limation in his first crop and Serengeti Empress in his second, “Mrs. Abercrombie naturally feels vindicated in her decision about the horse,” Barry said, “and is rightly proud of the horse's accomplishments.”
Both Alternation and the farm's proven sire Broken Vow feature the Iron Ruler mare Strike a Pose as their third dam, and Strike a Pose has been a foundation mare for Pin Oak. “Mrs. Abercrombie gets a lot of credit for her patience and foresight in working to develop this family,” Barry said.
From the stakes-placed Strike a Pose, Abercrombie bred the Green Dancer mare Strike a Balance, who produced two-time G1 winner Peaks and Valleys (Mt. Livermore), who became a sire at Pin Oak, and his stakes-winning half-sister Alternate (Seattle Slew), the dam of Alternation.
One of two stakes winners out of the dam, Alternation won nine races, including the G2 Peter Pan Stakes at 3 and then five successes in seven starts at 4, including the G2 Oaklawn Handicap, G3 Pimlico Special, and G3 Razorback Handicap.
The proof is in the racing with young sires like these, and Barry noted that “when Serengeti Empress hit the scene last fall with victories in the Ellis Park Debutante and the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs, there was an immediate response from breeders,” seeking seasons to the horse “because people thought she was going to get better.”
They were right, and Serengeti Empress looked like a potential champion in her first victory of the season, the Rachel Alexandra Stakes, before she bled and was eased in the Fair Grounds Oaks.
The filly's return to form in the Kentucky Oaks “has been a real source of joy here at Pin Oak,” Barry said. “From the stud grooms and yearling staff to the people in the office and those out mowing the grounds, we have a higher step today because of that lovely filly and all that she has done. It just makes you proud to be associated with that sort of a horse.”
Frank Mitchell is author of Racehorse Breeding Theories, as well as the book Great Breeders and Their Methods: The Hancocks. In addition to writing the column “Sires and Dams” in Daily Racing Form for nearly 15 years, he has contributed articles to Thoroughbred Daily News, Thoroughbred Times, Thoroughbred Record, International Thoroughbred, and other major publications. In addition, Frank is chief of biomechanics for DataTrack International and is a hands-on caretaker of his own broodmares and foals in Central Kentucky. Check out Frank's lively Bloodstock in the Bluegrass blog.
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