It would be tempting to call the question of the moment - will he stay? - age-old, but it would be erroneous. Time was when the matter of stamina in a Derby contender was not really up for debate. Most Thoroughbreds were produced with the idea that they should be able to gallop a mile and a half and the best ones turned up to do it on Epsom Downs in early June.
But how times have changed. Nowadays, 12 furlongs is seen as not the optimum distance over which a potential stallion should perform, but the maximum. It may be cynical to observe but it seems that no sooner has the modern Derby winner passed the post than plans are being hatched to drop him down in trip in order to try to get that sexy 10-furlong Group One victory on his CV.
The reasons are symptomatic of so much in the modern era; commercialism based on a desire for quick results and precocity. The old-fashioned owner-breeder, who once served only his own interests and had the time to do so, has become a rare species and even today's major operations, who tend to harvest the middle-distance programme, have stallion businesses to supply and service. And so, through creep-back, the long-distance edge of the Thoroughbred genetic pool is being eroded.
Wise heads in the industry are aware of the situation and stamina-imbued distaff families are jealously guarded and fostered. But it is still an issue. "The danger may be, as it is now increasingly in the United States," said Charles Spiller, who plans matings for Sheikh Mohammed's Darley operation, "that many big races will be contested by horses none of whom genuinely stay. The winner will be the one who fails to stay less badly than the others.
"These days the horse who has shown top-class form over 10 furlongs, a mile or even shorter is seen as more desirable than a longer runner. A second-class middle-distance horse ends up as a jump sire; a second-class sprinter still is a Flat sire. But it is too easy to confuse speed with acceleration. It's not about injecting speed, it's about injecting the ability to quicken. Being able to produce a classy turn of foot, even if at the end of a St Leger, is surely the best attribute."
It is virtually impossible to be dogmatic about the heritability of an ephemeral quality such as stamina. Such an element is not handed down as a discrete entity through the generations; rather, what is created at the moment of conception are physical characteristics that contribute to a horse's propensity to stay. And overlaid on that are a myriad of variables: environment, training, opportunity, luck. "It is so difficult to quantify," said Spiller. "If a horse is simply classier than the rest, he can appear to stay. And how do you quantify class, either?"
It may be trite to state that the centuries-old adage "Breed the best to the best, and hope for the best" still holds as good today as when it was coined, but only slightly. After all, brothers and sisters among the human race - products of the same mating - are usually more noted for differences than similarities. "None of Dubai Millennium's three siblings won a race between them," pointed out Spiller.
The three most reliable sources of high-class stamina in the modern era were contemporaries, and actually finished one-two-three in the 1984 Prix du Jockey-Club. On that occasion Darshaan beat Sadler's Wells and Rainbow Quest, but the runner-up has outstripped his rivals in their second careers. Sadler's Wells, 14-times champion stallion, has been the chief progenitor of stamina in Europe. "And thank God there has been him," added Spiller. The great old horse is still hale and hearty and covering at Coolmore Stud at the age of 25.
Though Sadler's Wells did not actually win over 12 furlongs, he put up two of his best efforts over that trip, at Chantilly and then chasing home Teenoso in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. His top-level victories at three came over a mile, in the Irish 2,000 Guineas, and 10 furlongs, in the Eclipse Stakes, in which he quickened away from Time Charter, and the Irish Champion Stakes. He was a proper man of a horse in attitude on the track, could hardly have written himself a better pedigree (he is by Northern Dancer from a top-class family), and took the opportunities he was given.
Sadler's Wells, whose representatives in Saturday week's Derby will include Septimus, Linda's Lad, Olympian Odyssey and Atlantic Waves, had six Derby seconds and thirds before striking with Galileo and High Chaparral. It is early days for both, but his baton has already been picked up by his best son, Montjeu, top-class over 12 furlongs and possessor of that must-have electric turn of foot.
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