Bloodlines: Tracing The Origins Of Justify’s Triple Crown Stamina

by | 06.12.2018 | 8:56am
Justify wins Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown June 9

Fifty years ago, Stage Door Johnny (by Prince John) saved us from having an asterisk-laden Triple Crown. In the Kentucky Derby five weeks earlier, Peter Fuller's highly talented gray colt Dancer's Image (Native Dancer) had defeated Calumet's Forward Pass (On-and-On), then had been disqualified due to the presence of a metabolite of bute in the gray's system.

Between the Derby and Belmont Stakes, Forward Pass had won the Preakness, and Fuller had decided to contest the disqualification from the Derby. To compound the situation, Dancer's Image was retired after the Preakness with a sore ankle, and Forward Pass was the even-money favorite for the Belmont Stakes.

So, would Forward Pass win the Triple Crown if he won the Belmont? Well, that would depend on the courts. If there was a reversal of the initial ruling, Dancer's Image would keep the Derby, and there could be no Triple Crown. How aggravating.

In the Belmont Stakes, Greentree Stable's Stage Door Johnny saved the sport years of hand-wringing by catching Forward Pass at the eighth pole and winning by a length and a half. When the legal wrangling over the Derby ended several years later, few people, aside from the principals, cared.

Stage Door Johnny went unbeaten in his two final races, and he was named champion of the division in the Daily Racing Form and the Thoroughbred Racing Association polls. Prince John, the colt's sire, was generally recognized as the second-best stallion son of the famed sire Princequillo at stud behind only Horse of the Year Round Table.

Both were high-quality sons of that important classic sire Princequillo and sired numerous stakes winners; they have lived on to the present, however, primarily through their daughters.

Forward Pass was named champion of the 1968 3-year-old division in the Turf and Sport Digest poll, and he was the only classic winner or champion by his sire. On-and-On wasn't even the third- or fourth-best son of his sire, the great Nasrullah, who had been the dominant sire in America from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. From that point, Nasrullah's own stock had aged out of the racing pool, and his most important stallion son, Bold Ruler, had taken his position as leading national sire, a distinction which he earned eight times.

The other sire in the Triple Crown saga 50 years ago was Native Dancer. Despite siring some good horses, Dancer's Image wasn't a world-changing influence for the breed. Another son of Native Dancer, however, was beginning a major rise to success.

Ranked at the top of the Experimental Free Handicap and named champion of his division by Turf and Sport Digest, Raise a Native was unbeaten at 2, his only season to race. Retired to stud at Spendthrift Farm, Raise a Native had his first crop of 3-year-olds in 1968. Among them was Exclusive Native, winner of the 1968 Arlington Classic, was a talented chestnut colt bred and raced by Harbor View Farm.

Raise a Native's second crop included Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince, and nine years later, Raise a Native's son Alydar ran second in each of the Triple Crown races. The winner of the 1979 Triple Crown was Exclusive Native's son Affirmed.

An exact contemporary of Raise a Native, both foaled in 1961, was a crop behind the chestnut son of Native Dancer. This was Northern Dancer, a son of the Nearco stallion Nearctic and out of the Native Dancer mare Natalma.

These two descendants of Native Dancer proceeded to turn the classic scene into their province by the late 1970s. Although Northern Dancer did not sire a single winner of a Triple Crown race in the States, his son Nijinsky became a Triple Crown winner in England, and Nijinsky and other sons of Northern Dancer became the greatest competitors for the American classics against the sons and grandsons of Raise a Native.

The greatest casualty in this wave of success from Northern Dancer and Raise a Native was the Bold Ruler–Nasrullah line of racers. The lines of Phalaris, however, from whom all these horses descend, tend to ebb and flow like tides of the ocean.

Over the last 20 years, the greatest rise in fortune has come to the Bold Ruler line through A.P. Indy and other stock by 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Part of this rise in prominence has come through 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, the broodmare sire of A.P. Indy, Gone West (Mr. Prospector), and Storm Cat (Storm Bird).

On June 9, Justify gave Storm Cat's male line (Northern Dancer branch of Nearco – Phalaris) its first Triple Crown in the U.S. That first success, however, was well supported by the sire lines responsible for the Triple Crown winners of the 1970s (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed), as well as American Pharoah.

Two Triple Crown winners are from the Nasrullah–Bold Ruler branch of Nearco-Phalaris; two are from the Raise a Native – Native Dancer branch.

In his pedigree, Justify is inbred to Raise a Native's son Mr. Prospector four times; Northern Dancer is there through Nijinsky (four times), Vice Regent, and Storm Bird, the male-line strand that goes to Justify. And Bold Ruler is present at least a half-dozen times, with Nasrullah showing up a half-dozen times more.

So the sire lines of yesterday are woven together in the Triple Crown winner of today. Will all these vital elements, energized by the important sire Scat Daddy, make up the leading sire of tomorrow?

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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