Last week’s success by the Summerhill-bred Thekkady in the Strelitzia Stakes (Gr.3) not only recalled the Aga’s spectacular filly, Mumataz Mahal, but she was one of three Group winners to emerge from one of the world’s greatest female lines. While the local event was the least of the three in terms of profile, it nonetheless contributed to the remarkable success of this grand family, witnessed by the reflections in the European Bloodstock News of Tony Morris, as able a writer on bloodstock matters as history has known. Incidentally, Thekkady’s family hails from the Rivaz branch, she an own sister to the great Nasrullah.
Trainer Percy Bewicke and his chief patron Fred Straker had good reason to cast their eyes over the consignment of yearlings from Lady Sykes’s Sledmere Stud at Doncaster in 1922. Four years earlier they had picked up a real gem from that nursery in the Corcyra filly Blue Dun; for an outlay of just 1,450gns they had secured a winner of 11 races, and she had landed a substantial gamble for the stable in the last of them, the 1921 Manchester November Handicap.
Well in funds when the next round of sales came along, the pair decided to target another Sledmere filly, the one touted as the best individual in the September catalogue. “As near perfection as imagination can conceive, with both size and quality” was one description of the grey filly by The Tetrarch out of Lady Josephine, so it was hardly surprising that she had plenty of admirers.
But there were not plenty of bidders. The average yearling at that sale realised 653gns; this one was no average yearling, and when Bewicke waved his catalogue at 2,000gns, he blew away all competition bar the lone figure of his fellow trainer, George Lambton, a man who had saddled his first Classic winner a quarter of a century earlier. Lambton was best-known as Lord Derby’s trainer, but he was as well-connected as anyone in the industry, and acted for other wealthy owners on occasion.
Bewicke and Straker battled on undaunted against their solitary foe all the way to 9,000gns, conscious that the record price for a yearling filly was 10,000gns, set in 1900 by Sceptre, who subsequently won four Classics. Surely 9,000 would be enough to capture this filly, whose pedigree made it highly unlikely that she would emulate Sceptre on the racecourse, wouldn’t it?
But no. Lambton offered 9,100gns, and Bewicke’s reluctant response was to shake his head when auctioneer Somerville Tattersall asked him for a further advance. The underbidder did acquire a Sledmere filly later that morning, giving 1,600gns for a daughter of Gay Crusader who would win one poor selling handicap at Newcastle under bottom weight before being banished to Argentina. She was called Moss Rose. The filly he failed to buy acquired the name Mumtaz Mahal, became champion of her generation at both two and three, and established a family renowned for champions over many generations.
Five years after their failure to buy one of the paragons of the breed, Fred Straker cut back his racing interests drastically, and Percy Bewicke handed in his licence, saying, “I shall not mind if I never see a racecourse again.” Mumtaz Mahal finished the pair as powers on the Turf just as surely as she founded the fortunes of the Aga Khan.
There can be no doubt that the history of the Thoroughbred over the last eight decades would have been very different if that duel in the Doncaster sale-ring had ended with Bewicke as the winner, but was there ever really a chance of that? It seems highly unlikely that Lambton would have stopped short of Sceptre’s record, or even beyond it. The filly was destined to go to the Aga from the moment she entered the arena.
Two of Sunday’s Gr.1 results provide my excuse for referring back to that historic event of more than 85 years ago. Both Poule d’Essai des Pouliches heroine Zarkava and Derby Italiano victor Cima de Triomphe are direct descendants of Mumtaz Mahal in the tail female line, the former at nine generations, the latter at ten.
Zarkava, of course, represents the same human family which acquired her ancestress in 1922. The line descended through Mah Mahal (Gainsborough), Mah Iran (Bahram), and Star of Iran (Bois Roussel) to Petite Etoile (Petition), the wonderful 1,000 Guineas and Oaks victress of 1959 who still ranks above all other winners of those Classics by Timeform ratings. Bred in partnership by HH Aga Khan III and his son Prince Aly Khan, she raced in the latter’s colours, and on his death became the property of the present Aga.
Petite Etoile’s stud career at one time seemed to have been an unmitigated disaster, as she produced only one modest winner, the colt Afaridaan (Charlottesville), was barren seven times, had three fillies who died young (including twins), and slipped twins on another occasion. Her one surviving daughter, Zahra (Habitat), achieved nothing more notable on the racecourse than a second in modest company at Amiens.
Zahra’s own stud career started inauspiciously with a fruitless liaison with Blushing Groom, but matters soon improved, and her branch of the family is now strongly represented in the Aga Khan Studs. Zainta (Kahyasi), a grand-daughter of Zahra, was the first real celebrity, successful in the 1998 Prix Saint-Alary and Prix de Diane.
Zarkana (Doyoun), another grand-daughter of Zahra, is the grand-dam of the still unbeaten Zarkava (Zamindar). The branch of Mumtaz Mahal’s family which would eventually lead to Cima de Triomphe gave the present Aga the best horse he has ever owned and is ever likely to own in Shergar (Great Nephew), a great-great-grandson of Diableretta (Dante), herself a grand-daughter of Mumtaz Begum (Blenheim).
Sunday’s Derby hero in Rome traces his descent from Rose of Africa (Nearco), a half sister to Diableretta sold into the Astor Studs in the early 1950s. Nothing much happened for nearly 20 years, and when Rose of Africa’s grand-daughter Princess Lee (Princely Gift) went to the 1970 December Sales, she brought only 1,750gns for export to the Philippines. That mare’s own filly-foal, sold immediately after her dam, realised 3,300gns and went to Italy to join the famous Razza Dormello-Olgiata. The foal, named Laura Russell (Crocket) brought about a revival in the family’s fortunes in her new country, becoming the dam and grandam of Pattern winners there. Luisa Morales (Claude), a daughter of Laura Russell, won the Gr.3 Premio Bagutta, and her grand daughter Sopran Londa (Danehill) made her mark as a runner with success in the 1998 Gr.2 Premio Regina Elena, Italy’s counterpart to the 1,000 Guineas.
Sopran Londa’s proven merit on the racecourse earned her good chances at stud in both Kentucky and Ireland, and her third and best product to date is Cima de Triomphe (Galileo), the first Derby Italiano winner at its new distance of 2,200 metres.