JC / Railbird

Breeding

Empire Maker, Bodemeister, and Always Dreaming

Bodemeister before the 2012 Kentucky Derby
Bodemeister awaiting the walkover for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

Always Dreaming is now at Pimlico and trainer Todd Pletcher has sketched out a light training regimen for the Kentucky Derby winner, reports David Grening:

Pletcher said Always Dreaming would simply jog Wednesday morning at Pimlico before beginning to gallop on Thursday. He reiterated Tuesday what he said Sunday morning — that the horse would not have a workout before the Preakness.

“I’m not going to breeze him no matter what,” Pletcher said. “He’s fit, that’s not an issue. Two mile-and-an-eighth races and the Derby and now back in 14 days, I don’t see any reason to do anything.”

His win last Saturday sent me searching for things to read about both his sire, Bodemeister, and grandsire, Empire Maker, a son of Unbridled. Bodemeister finished second as the post-time favorite in the 2012 Kentucky Derby to I’ll Have Another after flying through the first six furlongs in 1:09.80, pressed by Trinniberg. Pat Forde recounts how he finished the race:

Yet instead of hitting the cardiovascular wall, Bodemeister actually opened up the lead in the stretch, threatening to shatter the barriers of equine endurance and defy more than a century of established Derby precedent.

“What kind of horse is this?” wondered Churchill Downs executive and resident Derby authority John Asher.

“The term that came to my mind was ‘Freak,’” said former trainer Elliott Walden, now president and CEO of WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. “To run those fractions and then open up at the top of the lane, it was just incredible.”

(Bodemeister stands at WinStar.)

It was the way Bodemeister re-broke that flashed into my mind when Always Dreaming crossed the wire 2 3/4 lengths ahead of Lookin at Lee after chasing State of Honor through a swift first four furlongs in :46.53. It wasn’t that his final fraction was impressive (not at :26.32), but rather the stamina on display — it reminded me of American Pharoah, who’s by Pioneerof the Nile, another son of Empire Maker, and it was no surprise that in my searching, a relevant, prescient post by Sid Fernando popped up. Writing about owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert, and the Unbridled line, Fernando observed:

Perhaps all of this will coalesce in a Derby victory for the owner, trainer, and sire line.

Spoiler! It did — American Pharoah was just two months old and three years away from winning the Triple Crown when Fernando wrote this piece in 2012.

It was via Fernando that I read this 2008 Jack Werk column about Pioneerof the Nile that included this detail about the 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up:

“I’m really high on this colt,” he said. “The big thing with this colt is his tremendous lung capacity, and that’s really important for the Derby. In fact, I’m so high on the sire that we’re sending Indian Blessing and some other top mares to Empire Maker.”

Empire Maker is now the 15th stallion to sire two or more sons who would produce Kentucky Derby winners, according to Blacktype Pedigree. “I think we can now officially refer to Empire Maker/Unbridled (also sire of Unbridled’s Song)/Fappiano as a hot two-turn Classic dirt sire line,” writes Bill Oppenheim.

It’s all an interesting fulfillment of the promise that Lauren Stich saw in Empire Maker back in 2007, at the beginning of his stud career:

Like A.P. Indy, Empire Maker not only has an impeccable pedigree, he also should be an important source of stamina in this country, a rare commodity in this era. While runners by Empire Maker should only improve with age and distance, some will certainly have tactical speed. Unbridled may be revered as a strong source of stamina, but he did thrash champion Housebuster going seven furlongs in the Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream Park. And, thus far, the brilliant Unbridled’s Song has been Unbridled’s best son at stud, and is more of a speed than stamina influence.

Empire Maker’s offspring should not be as precocious as those of Unbridled’s Song, but they will be more effective at distances longer than one mile. Empire Maker’s runners should relish 1 1/4 miles and beyond, and I expect we will eventually see many of his 3-year-olds succeed in all of the Triple Crown races, possibly even in 2008, and every year thereafter.

It also seems like a good reason to trust Always Dreaming’s fitness for May 20, and that the qualities Kerry Thomas and Pete Denk discerned in the colt in their Brisnet Kentucky Derby analysis will likely hold up for the Preakness:

When rider John Velazquez let him go turning for home, Always Dreaming poured every ounce of emotional energy into his forward drive. He lengthened his stride and pulled away from the field to win by five lengths. This was a more determined, stronger version of Always Dreaming. This is a colt on a serious growth pattern.

His internal fractions of :47.34, :23.59, 24.02, :12.53 show an excellent mix of speed and stamina. His sensory system was still way out in front of his body at the wire (as a horse tires physically, that emotional extension shrinks). We think Always Dreaming is well equipped to get 10 furlongs.

Always Dreaming is a talented horse just coming into his own, getting stronger every race.

Related: Empire Maker’s profile on American Classic Pedigrees. See also, this story about Empire Maker returning to the US in 2015 after standing in Japan.

(Thanks to @superterrific and @jenmontfort for inspiring this post.)

Prediction

Jeff Scott:

Tonalist and Palace Malice won’t be as well-received at stud as American Pharoah, but they should have their supporters — especially Tonalist, who is a son of leading sire Tapit. With three top-class Belmont winners being added to the U.S. stallion roster, the result could be a much-needed injection of stamina into the U.S. gene pool.

Derby Profiles

Four to read this Kentucky Oaks day: The New York Times catches up with Stonestreet Farm’s Barbara Banke, co-owner of Carpe Diem. The Wall Street Journal talks to Kerry Thomas, whose study of racehorse psychology adds a rich dimension to Kentucky Derby handicapping. (His profiles of this year’s field are available on Brisnet.) Bloomberg meets Tapit, the $300,000 sire. So sweet: Dortmund’s backstory will make you say “Aw!”

Mike Welsch’s observations on the 2015 Kentucky Derby field are now up on DRF (subscription only). I’m on the Dortmund bandwagon, and so was pleased to read the noted works-watcher’s comments on the Big Brown colt: “[H]e really seems to be flourishing since his arrival in Kentucky.” Fantastic.

His final Derby work, completed at Santa Anita, was powerful:

For such a big 3-year-old, he accelerates with ease:

Dortmund is a huge horse, 17 hands tall. (The same as … Zenyatta.) There’s thinking among handicappers that he is too big to adjust as the Derby chaotically unfolds. Baffert disagrees vehemently. “He’s quick, he’s an athlete,” the trainer says. “And he’s got an incredible stride.” Some experts have compared Dortmund to Point Given, who was also huge, but Baffert says, “[Point Given] took a while to get going. That’s not Dortmund.”

Needing time to gear up is so not Dortmund’s style that he’s expected to be up front in the Kentucky Derby, per TimeformUS’s pace projector:

TimeformUS pace projector for the 2015 Kentucky Derby showing Dortmund, #8, on the lead

Not So Classic

Byron Rogers in Thursday’s TDN (PDF):

Without milkshakes and steroids the horses that have been selected for and trained as “classic types” by bloodstock agents, owners and trainers are now exposed for the sprinters that they genetically are.

I speculated about something similar in 2013, after Oxbow won the Preakness Stakes in a slow time and Bill Oppenheim brought up the trend of declining Beyer speed figures in the spring classics. Commenting on the Belmont Stakes figure collapse that began with Da’Tara in 2008, I wrote:

[T]he data suggest that there may be additional factors at work, such as changing training practices and the elimination of routine steroid use.

Rogers reports data, in the form of a genetic study done by his pedigree consulting practice on 1500+ horses, that found “the North American breeding population has the second highest percentage of horses that have been genetically selected for sprinting,” and concludes that there’s no reversing that trend, which began decades ago, without “significant structural changes.” If that happened, in his view, the game likely wouldn’t see a renewed emphasis on breeding for distance expressed in speed figures for at least 15-20 years. That’s probably more time than interests the market.

For a sense of how much things have changed (beyond the classic races), consider these statistics tweeted by @o_crunk last fall (via Sid Fernando):

Percentage of US races longer than 1M on dirt and synth:
1991 – 19.91%
1996 – 16.78%
2001 – 15.57%
2006 – 14.31%
2011 – 13.46%

Percentage of US races on dirt and synth at 6F or less:
1991 – 54.24%
1996 – 51.30%
2001 – 50.31%
2006 – 50.58%
2011 – 49.71%

Percentage of US dirt and synth races at less than 6F:
1991 – 13.27%
1996 – 15.15%
2001 – 17.92%
2006 – 21.60%
2011 – 23.25%

So, shortening the Kentucky Derby to nine furlongs from 10, and the Belmont Stakes to 10 furlongs from 12, as Oppenheim suggests in his most recent column (PDF), would more closely align the classic races with the realities of contemporary American racing and breeding. Whether that’s a worthy goal or not, I’ll leave to breeders and pedigree experts to debate.

Not So Slow

Left at the Gate posted a Preakness Stakes pace analysis that you should read in full, but the upshot is that on a slow track Oxbow:

… was a running fool and bottomed them all out, the way I see it.

Which is why Oxbow’s Preakness Beyer speed figure is 106, something Bill Oppenheim writes about in today’s Thoroughbred Daily News:

When I first saw the time of Saturday’s Preakness S. — 1:57:2/5, the slowest in 51 years … I thought the Beyer speed figure was sure to come back in the nineties. But when I looked at the times for the other dirt races — 1:10 and change for two six-furlong stakes, and 1:46 and change for and older filly-and-mare Grade III — it did look like the track was slow, and Andy Beyer confirmed there was a stiff headwind against the horses in the stretch.

Oppenheim also publishes a table (PDF), with data provided by Andrew Beyer, of the Beyer speed figures for all the Triple Crown races from 1987 to 2013 (minus this year’s Belmont Stakes, of course), documenting the decline in figures over those years, and in particular, the sharp decline in figures over the past five years, especially in the Belmont Stakes. “That has to be the result of lack of stamina in pedigrees,” Beyer tells Oppenheim.

Trends in breeding can’t be ignored, but the data suggest that there may be additional factors at work, such as changing training practices and the elimination of routine steroid use. If you look at the Belmont Stakes figures, until 2005, the Belmont speed figures are generally in line with or higher than the figures for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Starting in 2006, the Belmont Stakes figure is consistently lower than both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness figures; from 2006-2012, no Belmont winner earns a higher Beyer than the winner of the Derby or the Preakness.

The most striking thing about the table, though, is that Belmont Stakes figures essentially collapse in 2008. That was the year Da’Tara earned a 99 after Big Brown faltered; no winner has been given better than 100 since. It may be chance, but the period beginning with 2006 coincides with a fresh-is-best training approach to the Triple Crown and a string of Kentucky Derby winners with two preps, and the period beginning with 2008 coincides with a Kentucky Derby winner weaned off Winstrol and an industry-wide steroids ban.

Recent Belmont Beyer speed figures

3:45 PM Addendum: Dick Jerardi explains how the 106 given Oxbow was determined: “The key horse in the Preakness was Itsmyluckyday …” (He was given a Beyer of 103 for finishing second.)

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