In February 1990 I speculated that if he continued in the same way that he had started at stud, Sadler’s Wells might well prove himself the best stallion ever to have stood in Ireland. It was not until the book was published and I read those words in print that I considered what a rash statement it might turn out to be; looking back now, it’s not my prescience that seems remarkable so much as the sheer impetuosity. I was certainly old enough to have known better.
Where was my justification for such a remark? I appeared to base it on the fact that from his first crop of 55 foals, which had been in action for just two seasons, he had sired the dead-heaters for first place (Prince Of Dance and Scenic) in the Dewhurst Stakes, a third colt (Old Vic) who had won the Prix du Jockey-Club and the Irish Derby, and a fourth (In the Wings) who had started favourite for the Arc.
Plenty of stallions start well at stud and then head towards oblivion. I was well aware of that. And it was not as though I had reason to believe that I was a particularly good judge where such matters were concerned. I had fancied many horses for stud success and seen them flop, and I’d been amazed by the achievements of a lot whom I could never have recommended.
What was more, I had been covering sales of foals and yearlings for a quarter of a century, and I had watched numerous trainers and agents – real professionals employing proven judgement, expertise and experience – making fools of themselves over the products of young horses who failed to make the grade as sires. The cleverest judges got things wrong. Rank amateurs like me were best advised to keep their opinions to themselves.
The market loved Sadler’s Wells’s offspring, who were pretty much peas in a pod, being all bay
So what was it that made me so convinced that Sadler’s Wells would be a success on a grand scale and capable of making a lasting contribution to the breed? Of course, there had been a lot of hype, but I considered myself immune to that; more cynical than sceptical, my usual attitude to unsubstantiated claims in stallion advertisements was – and still is – of the ‘pull the other one, it’s got bells on’ variety.
Nobody believed that Sadler’s Wells was the best racehorse of modern times, of his year, or even in his own stable. Sure, he won three Group 1s, but French-trained Darshaan was his superior and it was common knowledge that at Ballydoyle he was considered not to be in the same league as El Gran Senor. If Coolmore wanted to stand him in his first year at Ir125,000gns, it was to be expected that he would be marketed aggressively. But Sadler’s Wells really did plenty to advertise himself. In nine races as a three-year-old he proved his class, toughness, honesty, soundness, consistency, mastery of all underfoot conditions and temperament. Aside from all that, he was handsome, a grand mover and had an outstanding pedigree – by Northern Dancer out of a mare whose dam had produced one of that great sire’s outstanding sons, Nureyev.
Potential widely recognised
There were no breeders who needed to be told about the qualities Sadler’s Wells possessed; they were obvious. All who could afford to use him and who owned an appropriate mare would use him. Long before the start of his first season in stud service (1985), he was everybody’s idea of a prospective major sire.
The next test was the auction market. It was all very well breeders liking him, but what about buyers of young stock? Seven of his first-crop foals were sold in 1986, averaging 142,050gns. That could have been a consequence of the hype. What mattered was how trainers and agents reacted to the yearlings, just a few months before they became eligible to race. There were 36 auctioned yearlings in the autumn of 1987 and they averaged 169,266gns.
Expectancy was clearly being fulfilled up to that point. The market loved his offspring, who were pretty much peas in a pod. They were all bay and, while that could not affect performance in any way, it was something that horsemen tended to like. If they had a common recognisable fault, it was they were generally long in the pastern, but that was tolerable in stock destined to run on grass in Europe.
The initial racecourse tests did not figure to reveal much. It was reasonable to believe his stock would not be precocious and would be better at three. He would not become the leading first-crop sire. In fact, he would have earned that title but for the hugely valuable restricted sales race won by a daughter of the soon-to-be-forgotten Shy Groom. Having the dead-heaters in the Dewhurst was unprecedented and proved that he was transmitting class even to his youngest runners.
There could be a threat to the records Sadler’s Wells set from his son Galileo
It came as no surprise, then, that his second auctioned crop of 30 yearlings averaged 186,247gns. So all that was now needed was for the first three-year-olds to do the business. As it turned out, one of those Dewhurst dead-heaters, Prince Of Dance, died, and the other, Scenic, did not win above Group 3 level in his second season. But along came Old Vic, with his Chantilly/Curragh Derby double, to head a team of 25 individual winners that carried him into second place on the general sires’ list. The established Kentucky-based Blushing Groom beat him with the help of winners of both the Derby and Oaks. Meanwhile the 34 yearlings from the third crop were averaging 190,028gns.
That was how matters stood in February 1990, when I forecast stardom for Sadler’s Wells. With that evidence, anybody else might have done the same. The entire industry believed in him, he was getting results on the racecourse and there would be a snowball effect. In a sense I was just articulating what everyone else felt. Yes, the bit about becoming the best stallion ever to be based in Ireland might have been a bit rash; after all, Nasrullah did spend quite a few years there and it was unthinkable that Sadler’s Wells could match his overall lifetime record of 23.3% stakes-winners to foals. He was going to be covering larger books, so that was not going to happen; but he could get more stakes-winners. He did.
Domination could not have been predicted
But did I imagine quite how dominant Sadler’s Wells would become? No. Nobody could have predicted his record 14 sires’ titles or his 158 individual winners of 326 European Pattern races – tallies that might yet be exceeded, given that three-year-old Saddler’s Rock has only just got on the scoresheet. Danehill ranks a distant second in the Pattern table, with 91 winners of 198 races. Sadler’s Wells has proved such a phenomenon that he has caused me to make other predictions, notably at the time of his retirement from stud in 2008 and on learning of his death earlier this year.
Surely I was safe in stating that his records would last for all time and that we would not look upon his like again, wasn’t I? Maybe those observations will turn out to have been rasher than my comments of February 1990.
I might have been excused an oversight in 2008, but not in 2011. There could be a threat to the records that Sadler’s Wells set from his own son Galileo, already twice champion sire and with an unassailable lead in the race for another title this season. As I write, he has been responsible for ten individual winners of 22 European Pattern races in 2011 and 12 of those have come in Group 1s. His stock have been racing for less than seven full seasons and he has already joined the exclusive club – along with Sadler’s Wells, Danehill, Nureyev, Habitat, Riverman, Danzig and Northern Dancer – with winners of 100 Pattern races.
Now one ahead of Northern Dancer and level with Danzig, he is soon going to eclipse Riverman and Habitat to reach fourth place on the list. He has reached his century much faster than Sadler’s Wells did, he is covering huge books and most analysts agree he is the world’s leading active sire. Galileo has a long way to go yet, but the snowball continues to roll and it is certainly conceivable that he will surpass hissire’s achievements in time. It is possible that all he will require is sufficient longevity.