It is doubtful many onlookers would have considered Noble Mission a potential source of Kentucky Derby candidates the day he signed off his career with that tenacious win in the QIPCO Champion Stakes at Ascot.
Not long after that performance in October 2014, it was announced that he would retire to stud in Kentucky at Lane’s End Farm, rather than Europe. After all, Banstead Manor Stud was already home to his celebrated brother Frankel, while American breeders were by then well-tuned into the potential of Galileo. For all that Noble Mission won up to 12 furlongs on turf, he naturally appealed as a horse who could garner transatlantic interest.
Four years on and Noble Mission is justifying those early hopes held of him – but primarily as the sire of Kentucky Derby hope Code Of Honor, who laid down his Classic claim with a victory in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes on the Gulfstream Park dirt.
Granted, Code Of Honor is out of a Grade 3 dirt winner in Reunited, while in keeping with his own profile, Noble Mission has also sired a number of winners on the turf and all-weather.
However, although it’s still early days for the stallion, such an early varied look to his stud career obviously places him at an advantage among his contemporaries, as it did for the likes of Medaglia d’Oro, Quality Road, More Than Ready and Speightstown before him. And that kind of asset has become especially important in light of the New York Racing Association’s (NYRA) recent launch of a $5.25 million Turf Triple Series for three- year-olds, something which has the ability to propel American turf racing to a far greater standing.
There is now a significant appetite for turf racing
Of course, such versatility is nothing new. For instance, the European Thoroughbred owes much of its development to the influence of Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer.
However, the marketplace has a habit of pigeon- holing stallions as an influence for one surface over the other, even though the list of those with the ability to work on both is actually pretty deep.
Now thanks to that increased American interest in the turf, those types of horses are becoming easier to market.
“The internationalisation of the sport has become now so great,” says John Sikura of Hill ’n’ Dale Farm, whose roster ranges from top turf sire Kitten’s Joy and champion grass runner Flintshire to leading dirt influence Curlin.
“The American horses are going to Europe and they’re winning. That drives demand and we’re seeing a market now that is becoming far more open.
“There is now a significant appetite for turf racing. The trend has been slow to reverse but now we’re moving back. I noticed it in the time we’ve stood Flintshire – as a turf horse, he’s operating in a smaller market but since we got him, I think the market has shifted.”
The undoubted leader among the group is War Front. Although out of reach for most breeders now at $250,000, Claiborne Farm’s son of Danzig originally made his name off early inexpensive crops that included European standouts War Command and Declaration Of War alongside dirt star The Factor.
Now the stallion appears to be on the cusp of another landmark year, this time via dirt runners War Of Will and Omaha Beach, both of whom have switched from turf to become legitimate Kentucky Derby candidates; Arqana breeze-up graduate War Of Will, the product of a Sadler’s Wells mare no less, won the Lecomte and Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds while Omaha Beach landed a division of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
“To have those Derby entrants is a huge feat for War Front,” says Walker Hancock, president of Claiborne Farm. “Elite sires can get runners on dirt and turf so I am just glad the public is being reminded that War Front can get a top quality dirt runner too – people also forget that Declaration Of War nearly won the Breeders’ Cup Classic a few years back.”
Claiborne has a long history in managing international heavyweights, having imported the likes of Nasrullah and Blenheim in the decades before they came to host the stud careers of Mr Prospector, Danzig and Nijinsky.
More recently, Arch served as a popular versatile option, a mantle his son, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame, has come to assume. Blame has sired a number of good dirt runners but has also fared well in Europe, notably as the sire of Prix de Diane heroine Senga.
“His trainer Al Stall always thought Blame could have been a nice turf horse too,” says Hancock. “Being from the family of Special and Sadler’s Wells, it’s no surprise he is getting a lot of top- level turf runners.”
Of course, Blame is a member of that tough Roberto sire line that has long been utilised by American and European breeders to great effect. And it would seem that Adena Springs’ Point Of Entry, one of the last sons of Dynaformer to stud, is heading in the same direction. A multiple Grade 1 winner on the turf, he is also represented on the Kentucky Derby trail by UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait. The colt is from the second crop of his sire, whose first contained the Grade 1-placed turf runner Analyze It.
“We’ve seen other Roberto-line horses show this kind of consistency and versatility at stud, like Red Ransom and Kris S,” says Ken Wilkins, stallion sales manager at Adena Springs, where Point Of Entry stands for $20,000.
“With Point Of Entry, you could say we’re seeing a similar profile to his sire Dynaformer, who got a Kentucky Derby third Blumin Affair in his first crop alongside a slew of turf runners.
I am glad the public is being reminded that War Front can get a top quality dirt runner
“Point Of Entry was obviously a very good turf horse but he actually broke his maiden on the dirt by 16 lengths. It’s very exciting to have a stallion like him – turf racing is becoming more important but when they have one on the Derby trail as well, it takes everything to a really different level.”
At the other end of the age spectrum is 25-year-old Stormy Atlantic. Hill ’n’ Dale Farm’s son of Storm Cat has sired Grade 1 winners on both surfaces led by back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint hero Stormy Liberal.
Closer to home, he has also been patronised with success by Kirsten Rausing, who bred stakes winner Kinetica by the stallion as well as her excellent producer Here To Eternity, dam of Glorious Forever and Time Warp.
“We brought him up from Florida as a $6,500 stallion,” says John Sikura. “Now he’s on 108 stakes winners.
“Kirsten Rausing was shrewd enough to identify him early on and it’s been good to see her well rewarded. He’s really been a rewarding horse to be involved with and we’ve been honoured to stand him.”
On what is surely one of the most varied rosters in Kentucky, Hill ’n’ Dale also offers breeders other affordable yet versatile options in Kantharos, a $20,000 stallion who was recently represented by Grade 1 winners X Y Jet and World Of Trouble in Dubai and New York over consecutive weekends, and Violence, a son of Medaglia d’Oro who is standing for a career high of $40,000 after a strong start to his stud career.
“Kantharos has thrown what probably is the fastest horse on dirt and turf right now in the US in World Of Trouble,” says Sikura. “He’s on his way to becoming highly influential. They’re fast, they run on dirt and turf and they’re tough – that kind of versatility is great.
“And Violence seems to be equally proficient on turf and dirt. He’s on the cusp of becoming very important.
“They’re horses who offer breeders the chance to win anywhere in the world.”
In today’s increasingly global marketplace, that is the kind of attribute in a stallion which is only going to become more valuable.
Potential adaptability becoming key
The importance of maximising a stallion’s potential versatility doesn’t seem to have been lost on some of those Kentucky stallion masters with younger horses coming through.
For instance, American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown hero in 37 years, might have been a star on dirt but he will be given every chance to shine in Europe by Coolmore.
“My grandfather founded Ballydoyle on American dirt horses and we strongly believe in American Pharoah,” M V Magnier told reporters after signing for a first-crop daughter of the stallion at Arqana last August. “Be it him, or Justify, we think that a horse of that type can once again have a transforming impact on European bloodlines. So that’s what we want to do: to get the best American Pharoahs we can, put them in Ballydoyle, and try to make him a new Northern Dancer.”
At the time of writing, Ballydoyle officially houses four American Pharoahs, including Monarch Of Egypt, who made a striking debut when winning at Naas in April. Others by the stallion are scattered between Joseph O’Brien, John Gosden and Charlie Appleby among others.
The Niarchos family, meanwhile, have thrown their weight behind Poule d’Essai des Poulains and Breeders’ Cup Mile hero Karakontie, and have two-year-olds from his first crop in training in England, Ireland, France and the US as a result.
In terms of their own versatility, however, few can offer the race record of Claiborne Farm’s Lea. By First Samurai and out of a Galileo mare, Lea won the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on dirt and ran second in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile on the turf. His first crop of yearlings averaged $85,782 last year and now it’s crunch time as they take to the track.
“I think he was one of those rare horses that come along every couple of years who can win in Grade 1 company on both surfaces,” says Walker Hancock, president of Claiborne Farm, “and we are seeing early indications from his offspring that he will have both dirt and turf runners.”
He adds: “We were very pleased with his first crop. He bred 100 mares in his first year at stud but that then dropped down around 50 his second year. We were pretty worried about his third year book size but then his weanlings hit the market at the November Sale and breeders saw the quality he was throwing so he ended up breeding 120 mares, which is an incredible jump for a third crop sire.
“He’s had a good mix of both dirt and turf mares. I think everyone realised his versatility which added to his appeal. With the popularity surge in turf racing the past five years or so I think he is positioned well to succeed.”
One year behind him in the production line is Shadwell Farm’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile hero Tamarkuz. Although very effective on dirt himself, the son of Speightstown is a half- brother to St. James’s Palace Stakes winner Without Parole and has been well supported by Sheikh Hamdan. With that in mind, he looks poised for exposure in Europe.
“While he was a top performer on the dirt many people may forget that he did win as a two-year-old on the synthetic track at Kempton and Wolverhampton,” says Kent Barnes, stallion manager at Shadwell Farm.
“Shadwell has supported him with an average of about 12 mares in each of his first three seasons. Approximately a third of these would be mares with a turf type pedigree, which will allow us to try the offspring in Europe or on the turf in the US.”
Tamarkuz fired in an average of $82,500 at the Keeneland November Sale – a bold showing off a first year fee of $12,500.
“They were bought by horsemen with an eye for a good horse such as Gerry Dilger, who bought the $140,000 colt out of Abby Road – he went to Ireland,” says Barnes.
“We have several homebreds on the farm and they seem to be a very uniform bunch. You can see a lot of the Speightstown coming through. They are very well-balanced individuals who are correct with good strong quarters and a good walk.”