First-season sire standings an unreliable indicator of long-term success
The world's leading bloodstock writer decries the obsession with freshmen
This article was first published in July 2013
Of all the mass of statistics that are routinely presented for our edification these days, the table of leading first-season sires has always seemed to me to be the least significant. Yet what a stallion achieves with his first crop of two-year-olds is something that engages many minds, inspires competitions and even provokes betting markets.
The latest list for 2013 shows Ballyhane Stud’s Dandy Man on top with a sizeable lead over nearest pursuers Intense Focus and Bushranger, his principal earner being Extortionist, winner of the Listed Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot. Is he going to maintain his advantage to the end of the season, by which time longer distances should help sires of less precocious stock to make a stronger impression? Does it really matter?
It has long been my impression a stallion’s record with his initial crop of juveniles frequently provides little indication of what he may achieve in the long term, so this week, with three idle hours to fill, I’ve been doing some checking on the first-season champions and their rivals going back to 1964, the first year when place money was included in official progeny earnings data.
Yes, some who topped the list did go on to compile significant career records, but some of the winners invite the thought: ‘Whatever happened to him?’ Equally, plenty who were just also-rans at the outset turned out to be major achievers, breed-shapers even.
Tin Whistle, whose ‘victory’ in the July Cup came in a walkover, joined the ranks of the obscure soon after heading the list in 1965, and in the following year the subsequently important Le Levanstell ranked only fourth behind Proud Chieftain. The 1-2 for Derring-Do and Roan Rocket in 1969 was readily predictable, and Tesco Boy can hardly be blamed for going missing after his 1970 title; he served only one year in Ireland before his sale to Japan, where he did rather well.
Bold Lad had been the champion juvenile of 1966, so it was no surprise he topped the table in 1971, but he was later outshone by seventh-placed Busted, while tenth-placed Great Nephew sired two horses of exceptional quality in Grundy and Shergar. Vaguely Noble made a cracking start to head the list in 1972 and there were two general championships to follow, but his contemporaries Petingo (tenth) and Sir Ivor (13th) gave little indication of what they would go on to achieve.
The next two years had real stars in Habitat and Nijinsky on top, but the 1975 leader Realm failed to follow up with much distinction. The group whose first runners appeared in 1976 included four important achievers in champion Lyphard, High Top (second), Mill Reef (eighth) and Sharpen Up (tenth), while Brigadier Gerard (18th) started as disappointingly as he progressed.
Roberto was the surprise winner in 1977, with Thatch only eighth, while the short-lived major success Kalamoun had no fewer than 36 above him. Pitcairn was already in Japan when he headed the list in 1978, and in the following year Auction Ring had his brief term of glory, the much more consequential Bustino languishing in seventh.
Be My Guest’s rise to prominence in 1981 was unexpected, but he was champion overall a year later, while his contemporary Blushing Groom, an outstanding juvenile champion himself, made no impression with his first runners, winding up tenth here and nowhere in the US. We learned to regard him more highly in the years that followed.
Nobody could have guessed Niniski would come out on top over Kris in 1984, and Robellino’s title in 1985 also came as a surprise, but the classic nonsensical year was 1988, when victory for one of his sons in an over-endowed sales race gave Caerleon the general title, and by dint of having the runner-up in that event the soon-to-be-obscure Shy Groom was able to relegate Sadler’s Wells to second. Alzao ranked fourth, El Gran Senor fifth and Darshaan was way down in 24th place.
Green Desert was certainly a proper winner in 1990, but if Warning seemed a worthy leader in 1993, he would later be overtaken by his runner-up Indian Ridge and by fourth-placed Danehill. The winners in 1995 and 1998 were a pair now barely remembered in Distinctly North and Perugino, and there was no hint of what would come from Pivotal when he ranked eighth in 2000.
There was no surprise about the triumph of Giant’s Causeway in 2004, nor were we shocked when Galileo – not a precocious sort himself – ranked only seventh in 2005. As Invincible Spirit had reached his peak at five he was not an obvious choice for top spot in 2006, but he has gone on to enhance his reputation, getting high-class performers in every age group.
As a son of Royal Applause, who had himself claimed the crown over Danehill Dancer in 2001, Acclamation’s 2007 title might have been predicted, although nobody would now rate him superior to his then runner-up, Oasis Dream.
The record shows that, more often than not, the pecking order in the ranks of stallions does not remain the same after the initial crop of two-year-olds – mere adolescents, of course – has run. The leading freshman sire is never a certainty to make a lasting impact, and there need be no despair over the failure of any horse to make an immediate impression.