The Test of Champions 2015
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
The right mix of speed and stamina is needed to capture the longest dirt race many Belmont contestants will ever run.
Once upon a time, American thoroughbred racing was all about stamina. In the 19th century, it was not unusual for races to be contested in back-to-back two-mile heats, and even as recently as 1975, the venerated Jockey Club Gold Cup tested horses going two miles. Consequently, breeders once focused on developing speed that could be carried over significant distances.
However, the dearth of true staying races today has altered American breeding (or vice versa) to the point that few horses regularly race over 9 furlongs–a fact that makes the Belmont Stakes unique in American racing, as it is the only remaining 1 1/2-miles Grade 1 stakes run on dirt. That’s also what makes this the most difficult of the Triple Crown races, as, even more so than in the Kentucky Derby, pedigree plays a critical role in who can and cannot get the distance. A poor post position can be more easily overcome than in a shorter race, and more experienced horses don’t necessarily hold an advantage over those more lightly raced. A slow pace can adversely affect deep closers, but only if those on-pace can carry their speed over a mile and a half. Knowing which horses, no matter how lightly regarded, possess the potential to run 12 furlongs can lead to big payoffs at the betting window.
Case in point: Da’ Tara’s upset victory in the 2008 Belmont. Notwithstanding Big Brown’s inexplicable poor performance, there were significant questions about the colt’s distance breeding, as both his sire Boundary and broodmare sire Nureyev were sprinters/milers. On the other hand, Da’ Tara’s sire Tiznow had twice won the 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic, not to mention that Tiznow’s broodmare sire Seattle Song (son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew) also won the 12-furlong Washington D.C. International. So, with only a maiden win to his name, Da’ Tara went off at 38-1, but his pedigree held up, as did his wire-to-wire frontrunning speed.
At even longer odds, 70-1 Sarava won the 2002 Belmont. His sire Wild Again was a multiple Grade 1 winner at 10 furlongs, including the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic, while his damside included the likes of Belmont Stakes winner Gallant Man, who captured the Jockey Club Gold Cup when it was run at two miles. Where Sarava’s pedigree also hinted at brilliance was in the fact that his unraced dam was a half sister to Grade 1 winner Wilderness Song, a filly who finished second behind her stablemate Dance Smartly in the 10-furlong Queen’s Plate against males. Wilderness Song and Sarava shared the same sire. When considering serious Belmont contenders, class and stamina in the damside matters.
In 2010, two of our top four stamina pedigree selections–Drosselmeyer and Fly Down–ran one-two, with First Dude (exactly as predicted) dangerous on the lead and able to hang on for third. In 2011, a sloppy sealed track added another dimension to handicapping, allowing a frontrunner like Ruler On Ice to stay on for the victory, but three of the top four finishers–Stay Thirsty, Brilliant Speed, and Nehro–were among the four horses mentioned pre-race as having the best stamina pedigrees.
In 2012, the pre-race scratch of I’ll Have Another was particularly disappointing, as his damline breeding strongly suggested that he could be our first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Instead, the well-bred Union Rags validated the importance of a strong female line while defeating the equally well-bred Paynter. In 2013, Palace Malice vindicated his sire Curlin’s Belmont loss to the filly Rags to Riches; the next four finishers (Oxbow, Orb, Incognito and Revolutionary) represented the strongest stamina breeding in the field.
Last year, his questionable 12-furlong breeding proved all too real for potential Triple Crown winner California Chrome as he could only muster a tie for fourth-place with Wicked Strong. The well-bred winner Tonalist finished a mere head in front of lightly-regarded Commissioner, a colt whose breeding (by a Belmont Stakes winner out of a mare by a Belmont Stakes winner) certainly proved profitable to those savvy pedigree handicappers willing to put money on a 28-1 longshot.
Exactly like California Chrome in 2014, American Pharoah is in the midst of a 6-race win streak as he makes his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. That fact hasn’t stopped both experienced challengers and new shooters lining up to take him on. Which of these contenders possess the necessary stamina breeding along with strong damline performers to upset the final leg of the Triple Crown? In alphabetical order, let’s break them down into three groups, beginning with those whose pedigrees strongly suggest they should handle the 1 1/2-miles distance, even if their racing record doesn’t recommend them:
Frosted – PLACE (2ND)
(Tapit, out of Fast Cookie, by Deputy Minister)
Last year Tapit’s son Tonalist captured the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. Can another son repeat that achievement this year? There’s a lot to like in Frosted’s pedigree, including the appearance of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew on both his sireside and damside. Also, his third damsire is renowned stamina influence Roberto, winner of the 12-furlong Group 1 English Derby, and his fourth damsire is legendary broodmare sire Prince John, sire of Belmont Stakes winner Stage Door Johnny and damsire of two-time 12-furlong French Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victor Alleged. There are also several proven stamina horses in his immediate female family, including his Grade 2 Cotillion-winning dam Fast Cookie who was Grade 3-placed at 9 furlongs, and his Grade 1-placed second dam Fleet Lady who captured the 9-furlong Grade 2 La Canada. Other high-quality stayers in his immediate family include 9-furlong Grade 2 Bernard Baruch runner-up War Monger, 11-furlong Group 1 Italian Oaks winner Carnauba, and 12-furlong Grade 2 San Luis Obispo runner-up Carnival Baby. Winner of the 9-furlong Grade 1 Wood Memorial, Frosted finished fourth, just 3 lengths back of American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby. Three sharp works over the Belmont track indicate he may be primed for an upset.
Keen Ice – SHOW (3RD)
(Curlin, out of Medomak, by Awesome Age)
A game runner-up to the filly Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont, Curlin never again attempted 12 furlongs. However, he did win four more Grade 1 races at 10 furlongs, and in his first foal crop he sired Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice. That fact alone makes Keen Ice an appealing upset threat. An examination of his damside furthers his case, with proven stamina-rich sires present in his first three generations, including his 10-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning damsire Awesome Again, his second damsire Kris S and his third damsire Lyphard (the latter two most notable for turf stayers such as 12-furlong Breeders’ Cup Turf winners Prized and Manila respectively). Keen Ice’s dam Medomak is a half-sister to 9-furlong Grade 1 Haskell runner-up Coal Play, while another half-brother to Medomak, Iron Works, recently broke his maiden going two miles over hurdles. Keen Ice’s third dam, 10-furlong Grade 2 Ladies Handicap winner Tara Roma, also produced 9-furlong Grade 1 Go or Wand victress Serra Lake. This is also the immediate family of 9-furlong Grade 1 Diana winner Somali Lemonade; 2-time 9-furlong Grade 1 winner Verrazano; 11-furlong Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club-placed Baraan; and 11-furlong Grade 2 winner Al Khali, who was also twice a 12-furlong Grade 1 runner-up on turf. In the Kentucky Derby, Keen Ice was relegated to running at the rear of the field and his late run was stifled by traffic issues in the stretch. With a smaller field and a longer distance to run, he may find the Belmont a more satisfying race.
(Afleet Alex, out of Wildwood Flower, by Langfuhr)
As the only colt in the field sired by a Belmont Stakes winner, Materiality certainly jumps out on paper. What’s even more interesting is that his dam is a half-sister to the dam of 10-furlong Grade 1 Travers victor Afleet Express, also a son of Afleet Alex. She’s also produced a half-sister to Materiality, 9-furlong Grade 2 Gazelle victress My Miss Sophia, runner-up to Untapable in last year’s Kentucky Oaks. Stamina seems prevalent throughout this colt’s pedigree. When his damsire Langfuhr was bred to a mare from the Mr. Prospector line (much like Materiality’s sireline hails from Mr. Prospector), he produced Wando, the colt who captured the Canadian Triple Crown by winning the 12-furlong Breeders’ Stakes on turf. Both Materiality’s second damsire Phone Trick and third damsire It’s Freezing were best at sprinting, making it understandable that a number of his female family line members excelled as sprint-milers. However, there are several other members of his immediate family proven at between 9- and 10-furlongs, including 4-time 9-furlong Grade 2-placed Reporting for Duty; 9.5-furlong Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap winner Eye of the Tiger; and Grade 1 Preakness runner-up Sweetnorthernsaint, not to mention Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks runner-up Quiet Kim and her daughter, 10-furlong Grade 1 Alabama runner-up Fifyshadesofhay. A lightly raced colt with only three starts under his belt before the Kentucky Derby, Materiality finished sixth after hesitating at the start, losing any chance to engage the pacesetters early on. A smaller field and larger, more forgiving track may move him forward on Saturday.
Mubtaahij – 4TH
(Dubawi, out of Pennegale, by Pennekamp)
His mid-pack Kentucky Derby finish, in eighth place just behind Materiality and Keen Ice, who are both entered here, was disappointing considering how impressively he had won the 9.5-furlong Grade 2 UAE Derby. Yet his connections persevered, skipping the Preakness in favor of the longer Belmont. And based on his pedigree, it could be a decision with a big payoff. In his eight-race career, his sire Dubawi only once attempted anything over one mile, finishing a distant third (8 lengths) behind the proven stayer Motivator in the 12-furlong Group 1 English Derby. However, Dubawi’s sire Dubai Millennium won nine of 10 lifetime starts, and five of those were at 10 furlongs, including the Grade 1 Dubai World Cup and the English Group 1 Prince of Wales. As a sire, Dubawi has produced several Group/Grade turf winners at 12 furlongs, including French Group 2 Prix du Conseil de Paris winner Prince Bishop; English Group 2 King Edward VII winner Monterosso; English Group 2 Jockey Club victor Al Kazeem; and Group 1 German Derby winner Waldpark. Both Mubtaahij’s first and second damsires, Pennekamp and Last Tycoon, were Group 1 sprint-milers; it’s the female members of his damside that hint at stamina, including Mubtaahij’s half-sister Lily of the Valley, who captured the prestigious 10-furlong French Group 1 Prix de l’Opera over 6-time Group/Grade 1 victress Stacelita. His dam’s half-brother Takwin won or placed regularly between 12 and 14 furlongs, and once ran third (out of 20 competitors) in the 2-mile HRH Prince Abdullah Bin Aziz Cup in Saudi Arabia on dirt. Also included among Mubtaahij’s immediate family members are 11.5-furlong listed Cheshire Oaks winner Hammiya and 2-time 12-furlong Group 2 International Bosphorus Cup winner Indian Days.
(Lookin at Lucky, out of Home from Oz, by Pulpit)
As a sire, Smart Strike has produced Belmont Stakes runner-up Curlin, 12-furlong Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf victor English Channel, and Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky. The latter skipped the Belmont Stakes and failed to hit the board in the 10-furlong Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, so it’s hard to gauge just yet how much stamina he may have passed on to his first crop of foals. His son Madefromlucky was a well-beaten fourth against American Pharoah in the 9-furlong Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, but rebounded to win at the same distance in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, a race that historically has produced Belmont Stakes winners such as Gallant Man, Cavan, Danzig Connection, Coastal, and A.P. Indy. Last year’s Peter Pan winner Tonalist and runner-up Commissioner fleshed out the Belmont exacta, so the lesson learned is to never discount a horse with experience over “Big Sandy” when it comes to the third jewel of the Triple Crown. In terms of stamina, Madefromlucky has a lot to like in his damside, beginning with his unraced dam being a full-sister to Tapit, sire of the aforementioned Tonalist. She’s also produced 10-furlong Japanese dirt Grade 1 runner-up A Shin Gold (by Belmont runner-up Medaglia D’Oro). Madeforlucky’s second damsire Unbridled produced Belmont winner Empire Maker, while his third damsire is dual 12-furlong Group 1 Irish and English Derby winner Nijinsky, who also won the 14.5-furlong St. Leger. And if that isn’t proof enough of a stamina-rich pedigree, consider the fact that his second dam’s half-sister produced the dam of 2009 Belmont winner Summer Bird.
Tale of Verve
(Tale of Ekati, out of Verve, by Unbridled)
Winner of the 9-furlong Grade 1 Wood Memorial, Tale of Ekati was overmatched in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, not to mention in the Jim Dandy and Travers. His only two subsequent victories–in the Grade 2 Jerome and Grade 1 Cigar–both came at the distance of one mile, so it’s hard to envision his progeny being able to stretch out to 12 furlongs. On his damside, though, Tale of Verve has 2-time 10-furlong Grade 1-winning damsire Unbridled who sired Belmont victor Empire Maker; his second damsire Private Account (also a 2-time 10-furlong Grade 1 winner) produced a host of 9- and 10-furlong Grade 1 winners including Personal Ensign, Inside Information, Personal Flag, and Corporate Report. There are also some nice Grade 1 performers among Tale of Verve’s immediate female family members, including his dam’s half-sister Zoftig and her daughters Zaftig and Zo Impressive. His third dam Dancing Slippers won the 11-furlong Bayou Breeders’ Cup, while other family members include 10-furlong Maple Leaf winner Masked Maiden and 11-furlong listed runner-up Lemon Chiffon. Further back, his fourth dam is a half-sister to the dam of both Belmont winner Swale and Belmont third-place finisher Illuminate. A surprising runner-up to American Pharoah in the Preakness, Tale of Verve may have already had his moment in the Triple Crown sun–a spoiler victory in the Belmont is a big (although not impossible) task for this colt.
(Midshipman, out of Ginger Bay, by Golden Missile)
2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Midshipman was never tested beyond 1 1/16 miles, so it’s too early to tell if he’s passed on any stamina to his first foal crop. However, it is interesting that Midshipman’s half-sister is Grade 2 Cotillion winner Fast Cookie, dam of 9-furlong Grade 1 Wood Memorial winner (and fellow Belmont Stakes entrant) Frosted. On Frammento’s damside, not much 12-furlong stamina is found close-up, especially among the female members of his family. You have to go back to Frammento’s fourth dam Inca Queen to find female stamina; in addition to twice winning at 9.5 furlongs, she finished third in the 12-furlong Coaching Club American Oaks. Among her progeny: 12-furlong Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup runner-up Hail Bold King; 11-furlong Grade 2 Rutgers Handicap victor Exile King; and the dam of 12-furlong German Group 1 winner Germany. A son of Belmont winner A.P. Indy, Frammento’s damsire Golden Missile never won beyond 9.5 furlongs. Frammento’s lightly raced second damsire Silver Deputy did produce the 10-furlong Grade 1 Alabama winner Silverbulletday, 10-furlong Queen’s Plate winner Archer’s Bay, and the twice 12-furlong graded stakes-placed Pool Play, but Silver Deputy is more noted for his superb milers such as Grade 1 quality Spring At Last, Badge of Silver, Posse, and Pool Land. Overall, Frammento’s pedigree is by no means a “slam-dunk” in terms of getting the 1 1/2-miles Belmont Stakes distance. However, it is promising to see he has Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, as well as both stamina-rich Mr. Prospector and Hail to Reason in his sireline and damline.
American Pharoah – WINNER
(Pioneerof the Nile, out of Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman)
A son of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile tired and was eased out of the Preakness in what would be his final race. So while the potential for stamina to be passed down is there, it has yet to be proven conclusively. The evidence for stamina in American Pharoah’s damside is paltry at best. Unplaced in two juvenile starts, his dam doesn’t have much of a record to examine, but two of her half-siblings are graded stakes-quality sprinters: Grade 1-placed Misty Rosette who won the 6.5-furlong Grade 3 Old Hat and 7-furlong Grade 2 Lazaro Barrera victor Storm Wolf. American Pharoah’s damsire Yankee Gentleman did once win a 1 1/16-miles allowance race but competed mostly as a sprinter, winning the 6-furlong Pirate’s Bounty before failing to hit the board in either the 6-furlong Grade 1 Ancient Title or the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. His third damsire Tri Jet captured the 10-furlong Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, but little of his quality or stamina was apparently passed down through American Pharoah’s third dam Zetta Jet—all but one of her foals (American Pharoah’s FL-bred restricted stakes-winning second dam Exclusive Rosette) toiled sprinting in the claiming ranks.
If American Pharoah defies the odds and captures the Triple Crown, his win will not only be in apparent contradiction to his less-than-stellar stamina pedigree, but also it will mark the first time that a Triple Crown winner has not raced over the Belmont track, either as a juvenile or at 3, prior to winning the Belmont Stakes. Only a true freak of nature could pull off such a thing.