Snow Chief embodies all the qualities that horsemen admire. He has the ideal blend of speed and stamina. He is a versatile runner who can adapt to almost any conditions. He is a tough, competitive athlete.
And yet, when he is eventually retired to stud, people in the breeding business won't touch him with a 10-foot pole. They will expect Snow Chief to be a mediocre sire because he has such a bad pedigree -- and they probably will be right.
To people outside the thoroughbred world, this may sound like an appallingly un-American kind of prejudice. After all, kids from the wrong side of the tracks are supposed to be able to work hard, make a million bucks and marry the boss's daughter. But in the breeding business, the skepticism surrounding ill-bred overachievers is well-founded -- horses like Snow Chief almost never succeed at stud.
Why? Why shouldn't a horse like Snow Chief be able to pass on his exemplary qualities to his offspring?
"The answer, simply, is that pedigree is important," said Bill Oppenheim, editor of the newsletter Racing Update. "A lot of people have taken the position in the past that a badly bred horse can make a good stallion, and in just about every case the idea has cost them a lot of money."
It should be noted that there is a big difference between a bad pedigree and one that is unproved or obscure. Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid and Spend a Buck were all bargain-priced yearlings, but there was no great prejudice against them when they went to stud.
Seattle Slew, in fact, was a classic example of the way the passage of time can change the way a horse's bloodlines are perceived. Neither Slew's young sire, Bold Reasoning, nor his dam, My Charmer, had the chance to accomplish much when he was foaled.
But Bold Reasoning subsequently sired a European champion, Super Concorde. My Charmer subsequently produced a European classic winner. These developments make Seattle Slew's pedigree look awfully good, and thus is he the most valuable horse in the world.
But no such revisionism is possible in the case of Snow Chief. His sire, Reflected Glory, has had nearly 400 foals; only 3 percent of them won stakes, and none before Snow Chief was a classic winner. This is a well-established bad pedigree, and it puts Snow Chief in the class of such celebrated "people's horses" as Carry Back and Canonero II.
Both Carry Back and Canonero II had brilliant racing careers. Both of them won the Preakness, as Snow Chief did. Both of them went to stud amidst high hopes they would overcome their weak bloodlines. Both were unequivocal failures.
In view of all this evidence, breeding expert John Finney said, "If Snow Chief developed into a top sire he would have to be regarded as a genetic freak." And, Finney added, even if Snow Chief did have the potential to be a good stallion, he wouldn't get much of a chance to show it.
"Compare Snow Chief to Vanlandingham the champion older horse of 1985 ," Finney said. "Probably, they are equally good racehorses. But Vanlandingham has gone to Claiborne Farm. He has all the right people in the syndicate that owns him. He'll have the opportunity to be bred to the best mares. Snow Chief won't have the same opportunities. He won't be exposed to as many good mares, and that makes a difference. He'll have to do everything on his own."
The lack of enthusiasm for Snow Chief's prospects as a stallion makes him one of the few top racehorses in recent years who can earn more money by racing than by going to stud.
In today's oversaturated and somewhat depressed breeding market, Oppenheim estimates Snow Chief would command a $10,000 stud fee -- maybe $15,000, at tops. Even if he were bred to 40 mares at the latter figure, he would earn $600,000 in a year, which is what he can win by capturing the Jersey Derby Monday.
Trainer Mel Stute fully recognizes the economic implications of Snow Chief's pedigree, and he knows it is pointless to aim for prestigious races that will make the colt's record look good when he goes to stud. Stute has mapped out a campaign designed to win the maximum amount of money.
Snow Chief will probably become a millionaire many times over. But he'll never marry the boss' daughter.