Why late foals can spring to stardom
Chris McGrath looks at the champions who were born in April and May
Vexed by that mare in the far paddock? Look at that belly of hers, swaying indolently as she ambles on, grazing her fill - and all your other mares so vividly earning their keep, many presented to their next partners while still in foaling heat.
By the time this one is ready for another cover, it will nearly be midsummer. She may, in fact, have to go fallow for a year. In that case, she won’t be short of company next Valentine’s Day - that much you can promise her.
Well, not so fast. In 1960, around this time, the Windfields brains trust had a dilemma over Natalma. She either needed surgery, on a chipped knee, to have a chance of racing again - or could be rushed into a late cover by the farm’s new sire. They kicked it around and, in the words of Joe Thomas, eventually decided: “Oh, what the hell, why don’t we breed her to Nearctic and if she gets in foal, okay; and if she doesn’t, then maybe we’ll try to get her back.”
It was almost the end of June before they could get her up to Canada. But fortunately Nearctic was proving very fertile, and promptly produced the silver bullet. On May 27, 1961, Natalma delivered Northern Dancer himself.
If that is rather an extreme example, it is certainly striking how many great horses have been foaled into the best of spring sunshine and pasture. The accompanying panel gives just a flavour, by no means exhaustive, of the litany of champions born in April and May.
STILL WANT A JANUARY FOAL?
Man O’ War - 29 March
Secretariat - 30 March
Galileo - 30 March
A.P. Indy - 31 March
Zarkava - 31 March
Zenyatta - 1 April
Kelso - 4 April
Montjeu - 4 April
Bold Ruler - 6 April
Dr Fager - 6 April
Round Table - 6 April
Sea The Stars - 6 April
Arrogate - 11 April
Citation - 11 April
Sadler’s Wells - 11 April
Green Desert - 16 April
Ruffian - 17 April
Cigar - 18 April
Lochsong - 26 April
Personal Ensign - 27 April
Forego - 30 April
War Admiral - 2 May
Nureyev - 2 May
Dancing Brave - 11 May
Seabiscuit - May 23
Northern Dancer - May 27
As such, it is hard to resist a charge of undue literalism against all those breeders who persist in seeking an advantage of precocity and maturity in foals delivered as close to January 1 - the clerical birthday allotted all northern hemisphere thoroughbreds - as they dare.
Commercial breeders, addicted to speed and precocity, might protest that many in the the table achieved fame as mature, “two-turn” horses. Yet Northern Dancer is by no means the only horse to have won the Kentucky Derby - the ultimate streetfight, contested by natural-born runners with plenty of seasoning - before his actual third birthday. Others are Lucky Debonair (May 2); Mine That Bird (May 10); Cannonade (May 12); Spend A Buck (May 15); Thunder Gulch (May 23); and Exterminator (May 30). Mucho Macho Man, albeit he only reached full bloom in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at five, was born as late as 15 June and still managed third.
Those same commercial diehards, moreover, might also note that Dark Angel himself - whose brilliant success at stud, after retiring at two, has since fostered such a multitude of sins - was actually an April foal; or that both Mayson and Acclamation were born on May 16.
Yes, of course you find proportionately more big winners foaled in February and March. But that simply reflects the fact that so many more Flat-breds are born in those months. Unfortunately foaling data cannot be analysed coherently, because so many summer deliveries are bred with National Hunt careers in mind. Reviewing the Return of Mares, one typical crop by a successful commercial jumps sire comprised 37 born in January, February or March; 33 in April; and 58 in May, June or July. In a Flat sire of broadly equivalent standing, the numbers for the same periods were 71, 22 and seven.
Chatting the other day with Luke Lillingston of Mount Coote Stud, I asked whether he bought into the theory that earlier foals have a head start. “Not at all,” he said. “The foaling season used by Flat breeders is not the one intended by Nature. Grazing and weather are both so much better later in the spring, and yet people want to have horses turning our fields into a sea of mud in the middle of winter. We’ve a mare at home, Best Terms, who won the Queen Mary [in 2011] as a May 19 foal. And two other May foals won juvenile races at Ascot that year.”
Those were Bapak Chinta (May 16, Norfolk) and Frederick Engels (May 6, Windsor Castle). Recent Coventry winners Dawn Approach and War Command, meanwhile, were respectively born on April 23 and 27; though conceivably Air Force Blue, as a May foal, was still raw when runner-up in the same race. As it happens, the Racing Post last year analysed foaling-dates in all juvenile races at the royal meeting since 2000, but the percentage placed per foaling month essentially reflected the percentage of runners.
Maybe it is all just a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the received wisdom, trainers will typically have it in their heads to press on with January foals. But they forget how these animals started life picking at thin grass through short, cold, wet days. As such, perhaps, their own prejudices may be no less benighted.