It is a well-known fact that stallions of advanced age tend not to get high-class stock; there is ample evidence to prove the point. But if we infer from that knowledge that it is never a good idea to patronise an old horse, we infer too much.
Tony Morris writes for the European Bloodstock News that it is not reasonable to suppose that a horse in his 20’s will retain all the vigour that he exhibited in his youth, but if he remains healthy and continues to produce viable sperm, he is essentially the same horse that he was when he came out of training. His body will have undergone a few changes along the way, but his genetic make-up is as it always was, and if he was capable of getting distinguished runners in the past, he retains the potential to do so again.
But it takes two to tango, and no stallion, at whatever age, can sire top athletes without the right partners. And therein lies the answer as to why the records of most stallions deteriorate in their later years. Breeders are reluctant to commit their better mares to aged horses whose fertility may be on the wane, and besides, as the commercial market is obsessed with the progeny of the newest recruits to the ranks, it often makes a lot of sense to go that route.
Even the proven supersires tend to lack chances in their old age – inevitably in terms of quantity as their workload is reduced, but often in terms of quality as well. All the same, it is not hard to identify examples of high-class runners by aged sires; afforded appropriate opportunities, the old guard may still produce the goods.
One of the earliest examples concerns Matchem, grandson of the Godolphin Arabian, who raced until he was ten, started at stud at a fee of five guineas a year later, and was 16 years old when he had his first runner. He was 24 when he first headed the sires’ list, and 27 when his fee rose to its highest peak of 50gns, and he was advertised to cover only 25 mares, besides those of his owner. Aged 28, he was mated with a half-sister to the illustrious Herod, and the outcome was Tetotum, winner of the 1780 Oaks.
Rather closer to our own time, Hyperion continued in service until he was 29 years, latterly covering very limited books. At 27 he had only ten visitors, but he sent them all away in foal, and one of them, Martine, who had been a half-length runner-up in the 1955 Irish 1,000 Guineas, duly produced Opaline, winner of the Cheveley Park Stakes, acknowledged as the best two-year-old filly in Europe in 1960.
The most extreme example that America has to offer is that of our first Derby winner, Diomed, who was sent to Virginia when 21 years old, and at 27 got Sir Archy, an outstanding runner who became no less distinguished at stud. Through Timoleon and Boston, Sir Archy became great-grandsire of Lexington, the leading sire in North America 16 times, 14 of them consecutively.
But one from our own era runs Diomed close, as Mr Prospector was 26 years old, still active with a book of 49 mares and fertile enough for a crop of 46 to result, when he got a colt who sold for $3 million as a yearling and later earned fame as Fusaichi Pegasus, hero of the Kentucky Derby in 2000. The son of Raise a Native served quality mares to the end, his last major star being out of Angel Fever (Danzig), a stakes-placed sister to Preakness Stakes victor Pine Bluff and half-sister to fellow Grade 1 scorer Demons Begone (Elocutionist). Mr Prospector started at stud as a five-year-old, getting Fusaichi Pegasus in his 22nd crop, and there had been at least one Group 1 or Grade 1 winner from each of his seasons at stud bar two up to that point. His counterpart on this side of the Atlantic, compiling a very similar record, has been Sadler’s Wells, who was taken out of stud service earlier this year at the age of 27.
Having started at Coolmore as a four-year-old, Sadler’s Wells covered for 24 seasons, and there was always at least one Group 1 winner from the first 18 of them; indeed, they generally came in multiples, with 1987 (Salsabil) and 2002 (Playful Act) as the only years when just a single product reached that standard. Remarkably, none of his current four-year olds has yet won above Group 3, but Listen was an early addition to the Group 1 achievers from the 2005 crop, and on Saturday he was represented by a Group 3 winner in Fantasia, who surely has Group 1 aspirations.
Of course, for much of his career Sadler’s Wells was favoured by huge books, but it is still a fabulous achievement to have got Pattern winners from every one of his first 21 crops. We have a while to wait to see if he can complete a full house, with yearlings, foals and his final products in utero yet to come. It would seem unwise to bet against that eventuality, because the long-time champion never lacked for quality in his books up to the end, though by then he was competing against three of his own highly fashionable sons in Montjeu, Galileo and High Chaparral.
Fantasia makes that point well, for she is out of a winning daughter of Darshaan, and thus represents the same sire/broodmare sire cross that has provided Group 1 winners in Ebadiyla, Greek Dance, High Chaparral, Islington, Milan, Quarter Moon and Yesterday. What is more, her dam Blue Symphony is out of Blue Duster, a daughter of Danzig who ruled as Europe’s champion two-year-old filly in 1995, when she won the Cheveley Park Stakes, who was a full-sister to the Middle Park Stakes winner Zieten, the pair featuring among 11 winners among the brood produced by Blue Note (Habitat), who had the Prix Maurice de Gheest among her own five racecourse triumphs.
So long as an old horse has mares of that calibre among his mates, there is no reason to doubt his capacity to deliver high-quality stock. It will be fascinating to see whether Sadler’s Wells can emulate Hyperion (who features twice in his pedigree background) by getting a champion at the age of 27.