Racing: Old Vic keeps Sadler's Wells in the hunt

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The Independent Online

Cast your mind back to the summer of 1989 and the two bright, but very different, comets who blazed across the Flat firmament. There was Nashwan, winner of the 2,000 Guineas, Derby, Eclipse and King George, possessed of a glorious elegance of action and breathtaking acceleration. And there was Old Vic, unbeaten in five outings, including the French and Irish Derbys, a remorseless galloper who ground his rivals into submission from the front. The season's ratings were a triumph for science over art (and in many eyes an unjustified one); the mathematicians considered the artisan superior to the visionary.

As progenitors, though, it was a different story. Breeders sided with the brilliance; Nashwan had a long and honourable career courting some of Europe's best Flat mares at the Shadwell Stud of his owner, Sheikh Hamdan, but within two years of starting his second career at Sheikh Mohammed's Dalham Hall Stud, Old Vic had been banished to Japan.

The reasons were not difficult to fathom. The window of opportunity for a new stallion to make his mark is unfairly narrow and Old Vic was never going to beget quick-maturing two-year-olds. But he cut little ice on the shores of Nippon either and was soon back in these parts, where he ended up pimping for business 10 years ago at a small stud in the Midlands. He fathered just 17 foals that year.

But fate has a way of working for her favoured sons and was unrolling a very different destiny to the one envisaged by Sheikh Mohammed when he paid 230,000 guineas for the horse as a yearling. Old Vic was from the first crop of Sadler's Wells, whose merit as a sire of Flat runners was instantly apparent but whose effectiveness as a sire of Flat sires has taken longer to establish. But his style of running, his excellent pedigree and his availability caught the eye of noted Irish horseman Michael Hickey, and by the start of 1997 Old Vic was resident at his Sunnyhill Stud, a celebrated nursery for jumpers, in Co Kildare.

Hickey's timing was serendipitous. Sadler's Wells' Flat-bred son Istabraq was the star novice hurdler of the 1996-97 season and subsequently took three championships. The Champion Hurdle was the race that launched a thousand chips; suddenly pieces off the old block were must-haves for the jumping fraternity.

There are now at least 20 sons of Sadler's Wells operating in the jump breeding sphere. Old Vic is the best-performed by some way, and is still the second-highest rated of all his sire's progeny. His best Timeform mark of 136 is better than that achieved by Galileo, High Chaparral, Doyen, Carnegie, Barathea or Milan and has been exceeded only by the 137 of Montjeu, the current Flat sire sensation.

And he has thoroughly vindicated Hickey's judgement. He was an instant hit with mare-owners, covering more than 200 mares in his first season in Ireland and hardly dipping below that annual number since. He has made the most of the opportunities that have come his way; one of those conceived during that first season was Kicking King, and the likes of Our Vic, Comply Or Die and Racing Demon have followed. Old Vic has become that rarity, a leading National Hunt sire who is alive and available.

He has outlived Nashwan; at the age of 20 he is hale and hearty and ready to start his latest covering season, which officially starts two weeks today. It was entirely appropriate that Kicking King was Old Vic's first purpose-produced jump winner, for the Gold Cup winner was bred by Hickey himself. "I'm not sure I can claim to be specially shrewd," said the Irishman, "because most of this business is down to luck as much as judgement. But I'd had it in my mind I'd like a Sadler's Wells stallion for this game."

Old Vic transmits doggedness, but also another essential quality. For he was not only a tough horse, but a kind one. "We liked his pedigree and his looks," added Hickey, "and his temperament, which is really solid. His progeny have it too. People who break them have told us that they always try to work with you, not against. I think only one winner of his has worn blinkers. And look at the way they come up the Cheltenham hill."

Remarkably, another son of Sadler's Wells, Accordion, is second on the living jump sires leaderboard, but this one has had a harder route to the top. A contemporary of Old Vic, he failed to make the track and with little to recommend him had to start from scratch at Frank Lacy's Ballycrystal Stud in Co Offaly, working with a tiny early book of mares. He has done so to effect; his sons and daughters include Dato Star, Graphic Equaliser, His Song, Flagship Uberalles, Accordion Etoile, Darkness and Feathard Lady.

And where these two have led, others follow. Success in the bloodstock industry is as much to do with fashion, opportunity and marketing as genetics and the Sadler's Wells bandwagon is rolling. Coolmore's jumping roster includes five - Oscar, Milan, Brian Boru, Dr Massini and Saddler's Hall - by the 14-times Flat monarch and a colt by his son King's Theatre topped yesterday's trading in jump-bred yearlings at Doncaster.

Epsom, Ascot, Cheltenham or Aintree, Sadler's Wells really is the daddy of 'em all.