Panning for more Classic gold in The Nile
Empire puts American Pharoah's sire back on the Triple Crown trail
If American Pharoah was only going to be a flash in the pan for his sire, then he could scarcely have dazzled more than as a first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. As it is, however, Pioneerof The Nile finds himself with the morning-line favourite for a second Kentucky Derby success from his first four crops.
Classic Empire has admittedly put one or two alarming creases into the brilliance he has shown on his best days: the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the Arkansas Derby. Leaving the gate at Saratoga last summer, he wheeled and unseated his rider; while he has refused to train more than once this spring. For the champion juvenile to put it all back together, after suffering a foot abscess when beaten on his reappearance, is another measure of the astute choice made by John Oxley when sending his horses to Mark Casse on John Ward’s retirement from training.
Ward had won him the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos, the first winner to emulate Secretariat by breaking two minutes duly crowning a Turf career Oxley had started with a $7,500 punt at the Hialeah breeze-ups in 1972. A patron of the old school - petroleum for business, polo for pleasure - Oxley also campaigned six-time Grade 1 winner Beautiful Pleasure during a 30-year association with Ward.
Though now an octogenarian, Oxley’s enthusiasm remains undiminished and his investment has helped Casse, so successful in Canada, to open up new horizons south of the border. A couple of months after American Pharoah completed his 2015 Triple Crown, they spent $475,000 on another colt by Pioneerof The Nile at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale.
That qualified the youngster - bred by Steven and Brandi Nicholson of Silver Fern Farm - as the third most expensive of 55 yearlings by Pioneerof The Nile sold in his breakout year. His dam Sambuca Classica had failed to win in eight starts but tied together a couple of exemplary broodmare sire-lines (she is by Storm Cat’s son Cat Thief, out of a Miswaki mare) and a fertile producing family. Her own dam achieved Grade 1 podiums in the Acorn and Gazelle Stakes, and was out of a Hoist The Flag half-sister to a prolific champion in Revidere.
Their dam, in turn, was from the final crop of that great fount of Classic grit and quality, Princequillo, out of a Spinaway winner. She was sister to a hard-knocking Hollywood Gold Cup winner in Princessnesian; and half-sister to a Santa Anita Derby winner, Boldnesian. All in all, then, a very solid base to harness to the young scion of an established Classic sire-line (Empire Maker-Unbridled).
Classic Empire, the third stakes winner from four foals out of Sambuca Classica, is already a second champion juvenile for his sire. Now he has the opportunity - just like one of his big rivals, Always Dreaming, for Bodemeister - of redressing his sire’s near-miss in the Kentucky Derby, Pioneerof The Nile having been thwarted only by the 50-1 shocker Mine That Bird in 2009.
The WinStar stallion is standing this year at $110,000, having started out at $20,000, and his book included Love The Chase, the dam of California Chrome; Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Stopchargingmaria; plus a return visit from Sambuca Classica herself.
They had been mated, in the first instance, in search of a physical upgrade: Sambuca Classica is not the biggest of mares, and Pioneerof The Nile offered size and scope. The Nicholsons were also admirers of Lord At War as a broodmare sire, but it was sheer prescience to anticipate the American Pharoah cross of a mare from the Storm Cat line. (The Triple Crown winner’s dam is by Yankee Gentleman.)
Aside from his athleticism, it is a cocktail that has somehow produced a horse of unusual mental engagement. Sometimes, as noted, this has only served to get him into trouble. But those who know Classic Empire best consider him essentially inquisitive, rather than anything more sinister.
There will be plenty going on as he is led over from the back stretch on Saturday, that is for sure. And if he can emulate the ground-breaking exploits of his sire’s first champion, there will be no more talk of a flash in the pan - only of a gold rush.