Over the last five years, thoroughbred racing has been dazzled by brilliant fillies and mares. The excitement generated by Rags To Riches’ Belmont victory over the wonderful Curlin and the brilliant campaigns of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta have given the sport a new lease on life. We owe each of these courageous and talented ladies so much … for the thrills, for the memories and for galloping right into our hearts. So it follows that their transition from track to breeding shed is filled with great excitement — and great expectations. The excitement is about the thrill of watching a foal from any one of these mares come into the world and grow into handsome, healthy horses. And the expectations? They’re about hope — hope that swells our hearts with the promise of a future that resonates with champion fillies and colts from three once-in-a-lifetime thoroughbreds.
However, the thing about the career switch from track to breeding shed is this: the rules of the game are entirely different.
When we reinvest what we already know from our lives as moms or dads or aunts or uncles or siblings into our understanding about thoroughbred breeding, we come across a few very important variables. I don’t know anyone whose children are exact copies of their parents. Even in families where there are two or three offspring, each one is different in important ways — and yet, they all have the same parents. Similarly, even when they have the same sire and dam, thoroughbreds that are full siblings can be very different. A good example of this are the post-Barbaro offspring of Dynaformer and La Ville Rouge: despite the fact that each of these colts is his full brother, not one (to date) has ever come close to Barbaro’s brilliance. Like any champion, Barbaro was a one-off, a completely unique individual, the rarest of jewels.
Traditionally, the majority of the foals out of any one broodmare are likely to have different sires. Despite different bloodlines, a few notable “Blue Hen” mares consistently produce fillies and colts that, although not identical to their dam, exhibit some of her more impressive traits. We know this because it is the mare who is the common denominator, so that a mare who produces multiple stakes winners from different sires is undoubtedly exerting an important influence. Two recent champions who consistently expressed the traits that made them superstars were Personal Ensign(1984) and Urban Sea (1989).
Personal Ensign’s son, Maker’s Mark (1990) by Mr. Prospector won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and a full brother, Our Emblem (1991) sired Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem (1999). Her daughter, My Flag2 (1993) by Easy Goer (1986) retired with earnings of over a million dollars USD and is the dam of Storm Flag Flying (2000) who, like her dam and granddam before her, won the BC Juvenile Fillies as a 2 year-old. No other female family has ever pulled off this kind of hat trick and it suggests that Personal Ensign’s genetic signature was very powerful in shaping these three individuals. My Flag2 is also the dam of On Parade (1999) whose son, Parading (2003), stands at Claiborne. (Personal Ensign produced five full siblings from matings to Mr. Prospector, of which three — the two mentioned above and a colt, Traditionally  were good – excellent runners.)
Urban Sea’s name came to prominence in North America when her brilliant son, Sea The Stars (2006) by Cape Cross (1994), captured the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to retire undefeated. But in actual fact, Urban Sea was a great champion, one of the rare fillies to capture the Arc, which she did in 1993. Before her death in 2009, the daughter of Miswaki(1978) had also produced three other champions equal to, or better than, herself by two different sires. The first was the great Galileo (1998), a son of the late Sadler’s Wells (1981). A multiple grade one winner, Galileo has gone on to become an equally brilliant sire. Although only 13 years-old in 2011, Galileo has sired the following multi- and millionaires: Cape Blanco (2007); Lush Lashes (2005); Red Rocks (2003); Sixties Icon (2003); and Soldier of Fortunes (2003). He has also sired a stable-full of winners of between 500 K – 1 million USD, including New Approach (2005). After Galileo, came a full brother to Galileo, the excellent Black Sam Bellamy (1999). Although he has yet to sire a millionaire, his offspring are consistently good on the turf and he has, to date, a fairly impressive percentage of winners. Then came an outstanding daughter, the lovely My Typhoon (2002) by Giant’s Causeway (1997). My Typhoon has an Awesome Again colt, born in 2009 and named He’s A Cyclone.
Too, many great broodmares are more influential over generations than they are through their immediate offspring. Pretty Polly, for example, had seemingly very mediocre progeny (in comparison to herself, that is) but her daughters had a lasting influence on the breed. In fact, as discussed in an earlier post on THE VAULT, Rachel Alexandra joins a goodly number of thoroughbreds who descend from daughters of the great Pretty Polly. When Blue Hen mares do both — that is, they produce outstanding offspring who, in turn, produce great horses, they qualify as “matriarchs” of the breed. North American matriarchs of the last century include the likes of Alcibiades (1927), Almahmoud (1947), Myrtlewood (1932), Hildene (1938), Courtly Dee (1968), Imperatrice (1938), Marguerite (1920) and La Troienne (1926). Many champions from 1927 to the present have at least one of the matriarchs of the last century represented in their pedigrees.
Champions don’t necessarily beget champions. And in our fast-paced lives, that can be a tough pill to swallow. There are great race mares whose broodmare careers are disappointing. As you might imagine, when this kind of thing happens it is viewed as a terrible loss to the thoroughbred community as a whole, since the reason for breeding is to improve the breed through the introduction of the bloodlines of accomplished individuals. Mares who, for different reasons, made little impact on the breed through their offspring include champions like Genuine Risk (1977) and Lady’s Secret (1982), but these are only two of many. Illogical as it may seem, being a great race horse doesn’t automatically mean that, once retired, a mare will be a great producer as well.
And how about this? Mares with no racing experience whatsoever, or very little, can still produce champions. Naturally, we need to remember that the stallion’s influence is at least 50% of the equation. But when a non-racing or lightly raced mare becomes a Blue Hen, this seems to poke the laws of cause-and-effect rather squarely in the ribs!
Somethingroyal (1952), for example, the dam of Secretariat (1970) as well as the stakes winners Sir Gaylord (1959), First Family(1962) and Syrian Sea(1965) raced once and finished out of the money. The great Marguerite (1920), dam of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox (1927), as well as champions Flying Fox (1935)and Petee-Wrack(1925), also raced just once and similarly, did not even earn a show. Secretariat’s daughter, Betty’s Secret, dam of Epsom Derby winner Secreto (1981) and the mighty Istabraq (1992) was unraced.
Nijinsky’s daughter, Dancing Key (1967), was also unraced when she was purchased and sent to Japan. She went on to produce the champions Dance In The Mood (2001), Dance In The Dark (1993) and Dance Partner (1992), all by the wonderful Sunday Silence (1986). So influential was she, that her bloodline will shape Japanese thoroughbreds for all time!
Now it’s tempting to assume that these unraced or lightly raced mares got the kind of offspring they did strictly because of the stallions to whom they were bred. Clearly, stallions like Secretariat or Sunday Silence can’t be written out of the mix. In the latter case, too, we have a stallion whose influence was huge on many of the mares to whom he was bred, making him a pre-potent sire. In fact, Sunday Silence is considered the most successful sire in the world, to date, by progeny earnings — over 700 million, to be exact. But even though Sunday Silence was a proven sire, Dancing Key contributed at least as much to the bloodlines of their shared progeny as did their sire. The same could be said of Betty’s Secret, whose two champion sons, although by the same sire line (Northern Dancer) had two different sires. In fact, Betty’s Secret was an important key to highlighting the potential of a Northern Dancer-Secretariat cross.
As you can see, the number of variables that can influence the future offspring of Rags, Rachel and Zenyatta are rather mind-boggling. However, among the attributes that these three ladies have going for them is the power of genetics, for all carry both absolutely unique x chromosomes, as well as their own individual blend of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).
And both of these factors exert a huge influence on what a foal, whether filly or colt, inherits from its dam. And when that dam is a Zenyatta or a Rachel Alexandra or a Rags to Riches, this becomes a very exciting prospect!
NOTE: Tune in for Part Two, where we’ll look at the “power of the X” and see what that might mean in terms of these special mares, the stallions in their lives and their offspring.