When Roy and Pat Chapman planned the mating of their mare, I'll Get Along, to the stallion Elusive Quality, they did not dream that the resultant foal would have a chance to sweep the Triple Crown.
The owners of Someday Farm knew that the majority of the mare's victories had come at six furlongs or thereabouts; her maximum distance was 1 1/16 miles, and most of her family had similar limitations. The speedster Elusive Quality scored his only important victories at seven furlongs or one mile. Most of the history of thoroughbred breeding suggests that such a sire and dam will not produce a horse with the stamina to win at the distances of the Triple Crown series.
But the Chapmans' colt, Smarty Jones, won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and can become the 12th Triple Crown winner with a victory Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
Years ago it would have been almost unimaginable that a horse with such a pedigree could accomplish so much. Smarty Jones epitomizes the modern American thoroughbred, one with a pedigree filled with speed and short on stamina. His brilliant performances this spring suggest that the classic ideas about breeding are nearly defunct.
Breeders have always recognized that speed is the most important factor in a horse's genetic makeup. The most influential stallions (such as Bold Ruler, Mr. Prospector, Seattle Slew and Danzig) displayed brilliant speed. But breeders traditionally believed that the way to create a great horse was to infuse him with the proper blend of speed and stamina -- and they didn't ignore the second half of the equation. The four Triple Crown winners of the 1940s -- Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation -- were sons of stallions who had won major stakes at 1 1/4 miles or more. From then until the 1990s, most American classic winners were the offspring of sires and dams with proved distance-running ability.
But by this time the American thoroughbred industry had undergone a profound change. Breeders of classic horses in the past were often the great racing dynasties such as Calumet Farm, which had the patience to develop distance runners who might need time to mature. As dynasties passed out of existence, commercial breeders began to dominate the business, selling horses at auction to buyers who, in many cases, sought to get a quick return on their investment. The buyers preferred youngsters apt to be quick and precocious enough to win early in their careers, and so they sought pedigrees emphasizing speed. As a result, fast six-furlong specialists such Carson City and Forest Wildcat began to command higher stud fees than distance-running champions such as Skip Away and Silver Charm. The speed-oriented stallions were bred to better quality mares, giving them an even greater chance for success.
Even so, conventional wisdom held that horses with sprint-oriented pedigrees might carry their speed as far as 1 1/8 miles, but were likely to falter at longer distances. Indeed, these horses failed in the Kentucky Derby year after year. Pedigree still counted -- or so it seemed -- until 2002.
War Emblem, a son of the seven-furlong specialist Our Emblem, won the Derby and Preakness that year. In 2003 Funny Cide mocked the classic theories of breeding by winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown; his sire, Distorted Humor, and his dam were both sprinters.
And now Elusive Quality has produced the best 3-year-old of 2004. Though he comes from a distinguished lineage that includes plenty of distance runners, Elusive Quality was a one-dimensional speedster who equaled a world record by running a mile in 1:31 3/5 over a rock-hard Belmont Park turf course. When he went to stud, the Chapmans' late trainer, Robert Camac, liked him as a stallion prospect and recommended breeding him to I'll Get Along, figuring that speed on both sides of the pedigree might produce a good, fast miler. A shrewd student of pedigree, he, too, would have been surprised to see Smarty Jones winning at 10 furlongs.
Why have Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and War Emblem succeeded when so many horses like them have failed? Some people will examine their pedigrees and point out that all contain some stamina influences. Smarty Jones's great-great grandsires include Secretariat, Northern Dancer and Sir Ivor. But this is an unpersuasive argument because almost every thoroughbred can boast distinguished ancestors somewhere in his genealogy.
The reason for the success of horses with speed-oriented pedigrees is that so much of their competition consists of others like themselves. A sprint-bred colt in the past had to compete with a large pool of classically-bred distance runners. But the classic horse is a vanishing breed. On the Blood-Horse's list of the nation's 70 leading sires, there is but a handful of stallions renowned as important stamina influences: A. P. Indy, Dynaformer, Theatrical. When Smarty Jones won the Derby, he beat a rival, Lion Heart, who also seemed ill-suited to win at 1 1/4 miles.
Whatever the reason, everybody in the business understands that a fundamental change has occurred. Pedigree consultant Bill Oppenheim observed, "The lesson for the breeding business is that you should not try to breed a Derby winner. You should try to breed a good horse, period. The prevalence of Derby winners who are sons of milers means that if you breed a good horse he just might peak at the right time or have conditions in his favor and, presto, you've bred a Derby winner."
While three straight horses with questionable stamina have managed to win the Derby, the Belmont Stakes' 11/2-mile distance still looms as a formidable obstacle. Funny Cide lost his bid for the Triple Crown last year to the blue-blooded Empire Maker. In 2002, the stoutly bred Sarava beat War Emblem. This may be the last American dirt race to which breeding classicists can point and say: Stamina matters. After Saturday, they may not be able to say it anymore.