As it would be impossible to talk about all of the outstanding individuals in Black Tie Affair’s lineage, this article sheds some light on a few of the “great greys” found in his pedigree — thoroughbreds whose influence on both the sport and the breed is immeasurable. Special thanks to Rick Capone, who generously allowed me to borrow his beautiful portrait of Michael Blowen and Black Tie Affair (below), while also referring me to articles he and others had written.
|Michael Blowen and Black Tie Affair (photo courtesy of Rick Capone)|
On my regular visits to the Old Friends web site, I came to understand that Michael Blowen and Black Tie Affair (IRE, 1986) shared a special bond. It’s eminently clear that each one of the thoroughbreds at Old Friends’ – including my very favorite “thoroughbred wanna be,” Little Silver Charm — is appreciated, treasured and loved. But between Michael and the silver stallion there was a connection that belonged only to the two of them.
Of course, it would be difficult not to love a horse like Black Tie Affair.
On the track, he is likely best remembered for his brilliance in the 1991 Breeders Cup Classic which he won at the age of 5, leading the field gate-to-wire to defeat Strike the Gold and Unbridled. Jerry Bailey was quoted as saying that when they turned for home “he had a lot left.” Some reports saw his victory as an upset, but nothing could be further from the truth — he was of royal blood and, as E.P. Taylor (breeder & owner of Northern Dancer) was fond of saying “… in the end, breeding will always tell.” And so it was that Black Tie crossed the finish line on that day at the head of the pack, just as he was bred to do.
Nor was it enough that he was a BC Classic Champion, Horse of the Year in 1991 and the winner of 18 of 45 starts, placing or showing in an additional 15. The imposing grey stole hearts as well.
Like his great great grandsire, Native Dancer, Black Tie was a character in his racing days — the kind of character who “took charge” of a race. He went to the track for works in a calm, businesslike fashion as if to remind his rider that he knew exactly what was expected of him. A tough individual, he weathered stud duty on two continents in two very different cultures and came home with his gentle personality intact. Throughout his life, Black Tie never waivered in his love of those who were a special part of his world. Dee Poulos, the wife of Black Tie’s trainer, Ernie Poulos, considered him to be her inspiration in dark times. As a pensioner at Old Friends, Black Tie waited patiently for his morning carrots from his special friend, Michael Blowen, standing to attention when he reasoned that Michael was due to arrive. Sweet enough to lower his head when small children visited him, he battled a number of serious illnesses with the kind of courage that bespeaks volumes about the heart within.
Although the mating that produced Black Tie was based on opportunity rather than intense research, it was indeed a happy accident since Black Tie’s bloodlines boast a stunning array of thoroughbred royalty. When we say “royalty” we mean stamina, speed, courage and heart. “Heart” is about running from within — that imponderable quality that makes a thoroughbred go on and on and on, in more ways than one. But to account for the fullness of character and talent in an individual like Black Tie Affair solely on the basis of a fortuitous mating would be like trying to stuff a galaxy into a pickle jar.
Every living thing is genetically unrepeatable. In the genes of each one of us — whether plant, animal or human — lies the secret of what makes this so. But our genes also connect us to our past in a profound way. While we are absolutely unique, we also simultaneously express a re-combination of ancestral traits that make us that way. A child owes her blues eyes to her mother and great grandmother on her father’s side. Or a grey thoroughbred owes his pigmentation to his dam, while his stamina may derive from a potent great grandsire. That’s how it works.
Grey is commonly called a coat color but it is actually a depigmentation pattern and because the gene that causes grey is dominant, an offspring needs only one copy of it in either parent to be grey. Hat Tab Girl, Black Tie’s dam was a grey from a line that featured a number of distinguished grey ancestors, namely Mahmoud (1933), Mah Mahal (1928), Mumtaz Mahal (1921) , The Tetrarch (1911) and Roi Herode (1904). As well, through his sire Miswaki, Black Tie inherited another “trace of grey” from Native Dancer, who owed his pigment to a number of individuals including Roi Herode (1904), Le Sancy (1884) and Chanticleer (1843). Black Tie’s pedigree over 5 generations also showcases a bounty crop of illustrious sires who were not greys, notably War Admiral, Mr. Prospector, Raise A Native, Buckpasser, Princequillo, Nasrullah, Nashua and Count Fleet.
|Alcock’s Arabian (1712)|
It is only over the last eighty or so years that the grey thoroughbred has been accepted by thoroughbred breeders and patrons of the sport as being as legitimately a “true” thoroughbred as a black, bay or chestnut. In days of yore the grey pigment was referred to as the “ghost hue” and was the object of everything from rampant curiosity to disdain to outright fear. Interestingly, the bloodline of grey thoroughbreds runs in an unbroken chain from the present day back to the first known individual of this color recorded in the annals of the British General Stud Book, Alcock’s Arabian (1712). Written records at this time are often hard to unearth as well as inaccurate — for example, according to Lady Wentworth, the noted authority on Arabian bloodlines, Alcock’s Arabian was aka Widdrington Grey Arabian, Pelham’s White Barb, Pelham’s White Turk and Bridgewater Arabian! Called by whatever name, the pedigree of Alcock’s Arabian was that he was by the Curwen Bay Barb (1681) ex. Old Wen Mare ( date unknown) by Hautboy.
Curwen’s Bay Barb had an impact on thoroughbred bloodlines equivalent to the three better known Arab forefathers of the breed, being the ancestor of individuals like Highflyer and King Herod. It is through the King Herod line that Boston (1833) and his son, Lexington (1850) in the USA come down to us. At stud, Alcock’s Arabian sired the grey colt Crab (1722) still another important influence, as well as the grey filly, Alcock Arabian Mareis (date unknown) who was the dam of Dismal (1733) by the Godolphin Arabian, a brilliant runner who retired from the turf undefeated. When in the presence of a grey thoroughbred like Black Tie we are meant to understand that their pigment signifies an unbroken thread back to the very beginning of the breed in the eighteenth century.
|The Tetrarch (1911), jockey Steve Donaghue up, showing off his chubari spots|
The Tetrarch is a perfect example of just how visually arresting the grey pigment can be in a thoroughbred. He was born in Ireland in 1911, the son of the grey stallion Roi Herode (1904), himself a superbly bred thoroughbred by the French St. Leger winner Le Samaritain (1895) out of the French Oaks winner Roxelane (1894). Roi Herode was not a great success on the track despite his impeccable lineage and was subsequently retired and bought by the Irishman Edward “Cub” Kennedy of the Straffan Station Stud in County Kildare. Cub had a plan: his passion was to revive the Herod line and Roi Herode represented the Herod’s male line — albeit ten generations back. At this point in his career, Cub owned three mares, including The Tetrarch’s dam, Vahren (1897), a descendent of Bend Or. Even by the standards of the day Cub was a small entrepreneur, but this mating was to realize not only his dream but also would result in a thoroughbred so remarkable that his name is associated with greatness a century later.
When he was foaled, The Tetrarch was a chestnut with black splotches. By the time he was a yearling, The Tetrarch’s coat had changed to steel grey with splotches of white referred to as “chubari spots,”a transformation that earned him the nickname, “The Rocking Horse.” In a striking example of just how long a genetic trait may lie dormant, an ancestor of The Tetrarch’s who was seven generations back had had exactly the same markings at birth and went on to develop the same coloring and spots. When his jockey Steve Donoghue first saw The Tetrarch, he described the colt as “…elephant grey with big blotches of lime color looking as though someone had splashed him all over.”
Not even the brilliant Donoghue could know what was to come, distracted as he was by the two year-old’s coat with its egg-shaped pattern of white — a white with a lime sheen due to the black skin underneath that is characteristic of grey thoroughbreds. The colt was brilliant on the turf, giving spectators performances so dazzling that they forgot his color and concentrated on his abilities. So it was that “The Rocking Horse” became “The Spotted Wonder.” Today he is viewed as the fastest two year-old ever to have graced a track. Shortly after his retirement, Donoghue declared that he believed the colt had been on the earth before because he always knew instinctively what to do, even in situations where he was untried. The one race The Tetrarch lost was due to a false start; as for the other races, he crossed the finish at a kind of loping canter. On this point, we see something of Black Tie Affair, whose racing form was very much a “loping” style. Turf writers remain unanimous in their opinion that the career-ending injury sustained by The Tetrarch at the beginning of his three year-old season just before the 1914 Epsom Derby was one of the turf’s darkest moments, since few doubted that the colt would have taken the British Triple Crown. The Tetrarch’s trainer, Atty Persse, put it this way,” I honestly don’t think he would have been beaten at any distance. He was a freak and there will never be another like him.”
The Tetrarch also had quite the personality, a mixture of docility and lightening-swift rage. There were two things in particular that aroused his demon: having to take medication and being shod by a stranger. So dreadful was his behavior in the latter case, that his own farrier was obliged to travel with him. He had another odd habit in common with the champions Bayardo and Hyperion: he would suddenly come to a halt during gallops and stand gazing far away, just as though he was in a full meditative trance. Despite the efforts of his rider or jockey (he did this at least once in the walking ring too) he would only move on when his reverie was complete. The same meditative state overcame him in the breeding shed where he was quite content to gaze on the mares who were brought to him for as long as two hours, never moving a muscle, before getting on with the job. The result was that he produced only 130 foals, even though he topped the sire lists in 1919 and ranked third twice. And it was to be his daughter Mumtaz Mahal, “The Flying Filly,” who would revive memories of his brilliance on the turf, as well as pass on his outstanding ability to future generations.
|The filly Mumtaz Mahal (1921) with her lad|
|Mumtaz Begum (1932) daughter of Blenheim2 and Mumtaz Mahal|
|Mah Mahal (1928) daughter of Gainsborough and Mumtaz Mahal
|Mahmoud as he looked in his later years|
|Black Tie Affair during his career at stud. Photo copyright Tony Leonard.|
Mahmoud’s victory in the 1938 Epsom Derby showed such a devastating turn of foot over an uncharacteristically fast turf that it took until 1995 when Nijinsky’s brilliant son, Lammtarra won the Derby to unseat his record-breaking time. It was with the greatest pride imaginable that the Aga Khan led his homebred into the winner’s enclosure, a scene immortalized on the cigarette cards of the day and in various other memorabilia. His victory is described this way by Edward Bowen in “Dynasties: Great Thoroughbred Champions”: “The author has seen few old race films as startlingly impressive as that of Mahmoud’s Epsom Derby. The view of the early stretch run seems to show a grey projectile bursting toward the leaders in a manner that is very much like the corresponding view of Whirlaway’s Kentucky Derby rally. Even knowing that several furlongs still face the field from that point at Epsom, those close at hand as the 1936 Epsom classic unfolded before them must have sensed that the race was all over at this stage.”
Here is the actual footage of the 1938 Derby on the British Pathe web site. Watch it through the opening clips to get a better idea of the race (as well as British humor!). And remember: watch out for the grey!
Sold to C.V. Whitney shortly after his retirement, Mahmoud would never have arrived on American soil had it not been for the fact that there appeared to be something wrong with his export papers. A lucky happenchance, since the vessel he was due to board was torpedoed enroute to New York. At stud, Mahmoud proved to be very useful. Interestingly, many of his really successful progeny were greys with the exception of First Flight (1944), Almahmoud (1947), Cohoes (1954) and Vulcan’s Forge (1945). His prestigious grey progeny include Flushing2 (1939), Snow Goose (1944), Oil Capital (1947), Billings (1945) and The Axe II (1958). However, it was through his daughter, Almahmoud, that his pivotal contribution to the breed was established, she being one of the greatest thoroughbred matriarchs of all time and the granddam of Northern Dancer (1961). It is The Axe II’s son, Al Hattab who was to become the maternal grandsire of Black Tie Affair. Al Hattab was an absolutely outstanding sire. He was what is called a homozygous grey, meaning that he carried a double copy of the grey gene and would produce only grey offspring, as well as passing on a grey gene to his daughters and sons. His daughter, Hat Tab Girl, the dam of Black Tie, carried the grey gene to her most outstanding offspring: Black Tie Affair, Black Tie Kiss (1994) and Great Palm (1989) who is an international sire standing in Europe and Ireland.
Finally, we arrive at Native Dancer(1950) by Polynesian(1942) out of the grey mare, Geisha (1943) who was a daughter of Discovery (1931) and who descended from Fair Play(1905) and Sweep (1907. “The Grey Ghost” as he was known in his day was well-loved by his fans and has been the subject of many books and articles. Adored by fans he may have been, and the greatest thoroughbred since Man O’ War he undoubtedly was, but Native Dancer also had a rather nasty personality. Highly intelligent, he used his mind in a calculated and bullying fashion with people and horses alike. No one could really relax in his presence unless they were holding a whip, since this was the only thing he seemed to fear. Native Dancer frequently used his teeth on both groom and rider, and it was folly to attempt to bring him in when out at pasture before he was ready, since he would rear and charge anyone who tried. These behaviors point to his being a natural “leader of the pack,” a quality he passed on through his daughter, Natalma (1957), to his grandson, little Northern Dancer. As a sire, Native Dancer stands as one of the most influential of the twentieth century. His progeny include Kauai King (1966), Dancer’s Image (1968) and the European filly, Hula Dancer (1960) who was the first filly to ever win over 100,000 pounds in earnings. As well as being the grandsire of Northern Dancer, he is also the grandsire of the incomparable Sea Bird II, rated the best thoroughbred of the twentieth century in Europe if not worldwide.
|Native Dancer at work|
It is a stunning fact that throughout Black Tie Affair’s bloodlines the grey pigment has signaled horses of outstanding speed, stamina and courage, without whose bloodlines the thoroughbreds of today would not exist. Certainly the thoroughbred enthusiast of two hundred years ago would have been surprised to learn that the grey thoroughbred has had such a distinguished history in the shaping of the modern thoroughbred. Precious is the “grey filament” that lights the way from Black Tie back to the Arabians that engendered the breed — possibly the strongest argument that can be made for the role of the past in shaping the present.
It is wonderful that Old Friends exists, allowing us to know a great champion like Black Tie Affair and to learn about the proud history that he embodies. As Michael Blowen undoubtedly knows first-hand, it is folly to take such individuals and their magical stories for granted by reducing them to mere commodities.
Time to open our eyes and go beyond looking to seeing. Seeing that part of Black Tie’s mission when he was among us was to remind us of just how very special he was. Not just because he was a champion, or a sire of champions like the wonderful Evening Attire. For reflected in the deep, dark eyes he shared with Mumtaz Mahal and the courageous heart he shared with his Arabian forebears, Black Tie Affair is the work of centuries of individuals and the issue of a legacy that we must always embrace, respect and protect from harm.
Michael Blowen and all of those who have made the commitment to thoroughbred retirement homes and rescues understand — they see the magic. And because they do, thoroughbreds like Black Tie Affair go on. And on. And on.
|Going on: Evening Attire (Black Tie Affair ex. Concolour by Our Native)|
|And on: Formal Gold (Black Tie Affair ex. Ingoldsby)
sire of 19 stakes winners
with global earnings of 16 million