In my dozen or so years as bloodstock breeding correspondent of The Sporting Life, I lost count of the number of times that I felt bound to feature Northern Dancer. He was just so dominant, delivering major winners with amazing regularity, and I had the devil’s own job trying to think of a different angle every time. I don’t suppose I always succeeded and, in any event, it had to be tiresome for the reader in one respect, because the paper seemed to have only one photograph of the horse.

But when I took on a similar role at the Racing Post, I could almost wish to revert to Northern Dancer. Heaven only knows how many words I devoted to the exploits of Sadler’s Wells and I fear that the same words must have recurred frequently as he broke record after record, won championship after championship, and established himself as the greatest stallion in the history of European breeding.

Of course, I couldn’t know what was to come when I was writing about Northern Dancer. He was such a reliable transmitter of class – one year he had ten individual Pattern or Graded winners from a crop of only 31 – that it would have seemed ridiculous to imagine any other horse churning out top-class performers at a comparable rate of knots.

But the times they were a-changing. Whereas Northern Dancer never had a crop larger than 36, by the time Sadler’s Wells came along the notion that 40 constituted a full book had been consigned to history. Sadler’s Wells began with a book of 59 and the tally was in three figures for the first time in his seventh season. His busiest years were 1998 and 2000, in each of which he covered 196 mares, with Gossamer, High Chaparral and Islington among the products of 1999 and Yeats the star turn in the 2001 crop.

Sadler’s Wells was a predictable success from the outset, his initial fee being Ir125,000gns, and once the first auctioned foals and yearlings had wowed the judges, their success on the racecourse was more or less taken for granted. With Dewhurst dead-heaters Prince Of Dance and Scenic, he was off to a flyer, and before his second crop of three-year-olds had started, I went on record with the observation that he promised to be Ireland’s all-time top sire. It was not a rash statement, because every major breeder wanted to use him and he was guaranteed top quality among his mares. And, of course, my prediction actually underestimated his impact.

I could not know at that time that Sadler’s Wells would soon be covering huge books, nor that he would be blessed with excellent fertility over an extended period, but I could feel certain that he and his stock were going to occupy a lot of column inches in my articles and that I would probably wear out my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, searching for different superlatives.
Northern Dancer and Sadler’s Wells had several key factors in common, aside from their obvious relationship as father and son. They were directly comparable in merit as athletes: in the top bracket, but not superstars.
Northern Dancer, a game and honest performer, won 14 of his 18 races, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and he failed to last home in the Belmont. He won the vote as champion three-year-old but a case could easily have been made for each of the pair who beat him at Belmont Park, Quadrangle and Roman Brother. On the Timeform scale he would have been a 132, 133 at best.
Senor better than Sadler’s
Sadler’s Wells, just as tough and consistent as his sire, took Group 1 honours in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse Stakes and Irish Champion Stakes. He never won at a mile and a half, though he was second in the Prix du Jockey-Club, dividing Darshaan and Rainbow Quest. He was Timeform 132 and not even the best three-year-old in his own stable, where El Gran Senor ruled the roost.
Sire and son might both be described as very well bred, granted that they had parents who had proved their merit as runners, but both also had several distinctly inferior full-brothers, possessors of identical pedigrees, though not of identical gene combinations. Northern Dancer did not become a successful sire simply because he was by Nearctic out of Natalma, and Sadler’s Wells did not succeed just because he was by Northern Dancer out of Fairy Bridge. They excelled because they represented the best version of their pedigrees and because breeders identified them as such and provided them with significant support. The fact is that a horse becomes what we call a ‘breed-shaping sire’ not just because of his parentage; it is breeders collectively who make things happen in the breed by the decisions they take.
What Northern Dancer and Sadler’s Wells were able to do, and duly did occasionally, was to sire horses better than themselves. Northern Dancer accomplished that early when getting Nijinsky in his second crop; El Gran Senor became another clear example, along with The Minstrel, and it is not hard to imagine that Nureyev, granted better luck, would also have ranked higher than his sire. Sadler’s Wells sired his quota of horses better than himself, among their number Old Vic, Montjeu and Galileo.
Each had one superstar among his progeny, Nijinsky for Northern Dancer and Montjeu for Sadler’s Wells, and both excelled at stud to become champion sires, though their racing merit was such that they were never going to be able to get a son of a higher calibre than their own. Nature does not allow the greatest of the breed to reproduce themselves, a factor known as regression to the mean providing limits to what they can achieve.
Defying regression to the mean impossible
It was the same with all the superstars we have celebrated over the last half-century. Sea-Bird, Secretariat, Brigadier Gerard, Mill Reef, Shergar and all the rest could make important contributions by delivering quality stock, sometimes in significant numbers, but regression to the mean dictated that all their progeny would be inferior in ability to themselves. Nijinsky undoubtedly proved himself a great sire and the same must be said for the recently deceased Montjeu with his record-equalling tally of four Derby winners, but their success came within the limitations outlined above. They had no means of defying regression to the mean.
Now we have Galileo, obviously the new number one sire in the world. A few years ago it seemed impossible to believe that any horse would come along to match the achievements of Sadler’s Wells, but we have to acknowledge now that Galileo has the potential to surpass the records of his late sire that so recently looked invulnerable.
Galileo has had a fantastic 2012 with an unprecedented score of 22 individual European Pattern winners. His progeny’s prize-money earnings in Britain and Ireland have topped his own record, in excess of £5.7 million as I write, and Europe-wide the tally is £7.3m, almost double that of Montjeu, his distant runner-up.
My journalistic duties now are not going to involve me in perpetually looking for new superlatives to underline the dominance he will surely continue to express. But I have to make one key observation, noting that Galileo – Timeform 134 – ranked below the threshold that imposes limitations on a sire’s progeny, and state the obvious, in that in Frankel he has got a horse better than himself by a very wide margin.
Frankel, valued at £100m, and set to command a six-figure fee when he starts his stud career, has the highest-ever Timeform rating, having earned a mark of 147 for his performance in the Queen Anne Stakes and almost routinely run to a figure in the 140s. He is going to be trusted to get high-quality stock and I have no doubt that he will.
But Frankel has no earthly chance of getting a son as good as himself. Regression to the mean will be unavoidable, even if – as seems likely – he is provided with the best mares on the planet.