From Lexington to Empire Maker

The Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming justified favouritism in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The colt is from the first crop of the Arkansas Derby winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister. Two years after the triumph of American Pharoah the most exciting minutes in sport were won, again, by the grandson of the former Juddmonte stallion Empire Maker, who returned to the U. S. from Japan two years ago.

Lexington, by Edward Troye

Unbridled’s son Empire Maker, himself second to Funny Cide in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, is based at Gainesway Farm today, who were no doubt much pleased about this achievement as it has increased the value of their acquisition. Looking into the history, the same feat as Empire Maker has been achieved only by fourteen stallions, who were largely the pillars of the U.S. thoroughbred breeding.

This was without doubt the legendary Lexington, sixteen-time champion of U.S. sires and the very first sire whose two sons have managed to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, the first of them being Pat Malloy, the sire of the 1878 winner Lord Murphy, the second Lever, whose son Apollo won at Churchill Downs three years later. Leamington, who interrupted the dominance of Lexington among U.S. stallions in 1876, when he won the first of his four championship titles, has produced three sons who went down the history as sires of Kentucky Derby winners. The sire of the inaugural edition winner Aristid had an exceptional influence on the first years of the Kentucky Derby. His son Longfellow produced two of the race’s winners (Leonatus, Riley), more were added by Reform and Hyder Ali, whose dam was the daughter of Lexington.

Let us leave the first editions of the famous race and let us move in history half a century closer to the present. This was the time when it transpired that successful sires of sires – producers of Kentucky Derby winners – do not necessarily have to be stallions based in the U.S. The founder of the once dominant dynasty Swynford, based in England, produced a number of excellent racehorses, among them, the winner of the Coronation Cup and the runner up in the Epsom Derby, St Germans, or Lancegaye, who was also second at Epsom. Both were at stud in the U.S., albeit the latter was imported in the U.S. only following his son’s Cavalcade's victory in the Kentucky Derby. St Germans spent his whole stud career in the U.S. and the highlight of his career were the Churchill Downs winners Twenty Grand and Bold Venture.

An excellent record in this ways is held by another giant of English racing, Hyperion, who sired as many as three stallions – sires of Kentucky Derby winners. The first of them was bred by the famous Calumet Farm, Pensive. He won the race in 1944 and the same feat was repeated by his son Ponder five years later. It is worth mentioning that Ponder himself produced a Derby winner – the race was won by his son Needles in 1956. Another one was the arguably most successful unraced stallion in history, Alibhai, the sire of the 1954 winner Determine (the latter produced the 1962 winner Decidedly) and Khaled, whose son Swaps (he too extended the series of winners thanks to Chateaugay) won the run for the roses in 1955.

The 1960s were marked by the arrival of the line of Nasrullah, whose son On And On produced Forward Pass, the green table winner after Dancer’s Image was disqualified. The second Nasrullah’s son to produce a Kentucky Derby winner was no lesser horse than Bold Ruler. He produced just a single Kentucky Derby winner but the one horse was the legendary Secretariat. Secretariat as a stallion failed to meet expectations but Bold Ruler became one of the most successful sire of sires in history and when measured through the optics of Kentucky Derby winners he was the most successful of all. Four of his sons in total (Bold Commander, Bold Bidder, What A Pleasure and Irish Castle) produced a Derby winner, Bold Bidder even two.

Bold Ruler was replaced in the 1970s by Raise a Native, whose three sons produced a total of five Kentucky Derby winners. One of them was Mr Prospector, who saw a Kentucky Derby winner only at the end of his rich career, in 2000, when Fusaichi Pegasus won, but his sons produced three Derby winners, two sires of Derby winners were produced by his son Fappiano and the excellent record is closed by Fappiano’s grandson Empire Maker.

Stallions, whose two and more sons produced a Kentucky Derby winner

Stallion sons, who sired KD winner Derby winners (year)
Lexington Pat Malloy Lord Murphy (1879)
Lever Apollo (1882)
Leamington Longfellow Leonatus (1883)
Riley (1890)
Reform Azra (1892)
Hyder Ali Spokane (1889)
Persimmon Out of Reach George Smith (1916)
Sea King Paul Jones (1920)
Swynford St Germans Twenty Grand (1931)
Bold Venture (1936)
Lancegaye Cavalcade (1934)
Sir Gallahad Gallant Fox Omaha (1935)
Insco Lawrin (1938)
Hyperion Alibhai Determine (1954)
Khaled Swaps (1955)
Pensive Ponder (1949)
Turn-To Hail to Reason Proud Clarion (1967)
First Landing Riva Ridge (1972)
Nasrullah On An On Forward Pass (1968)
Bold Ruler Secretariat (1973)
Bold Ruler Bold Commander Dust Commander (1970)
Bold Bidder Cannonade (1974)
Spectacular Bid (1979)
What A Pleasure Foolish Pleasure (1975)
Irish Castle Bold Forbes (1976)
Raise a Native Exclusive Native Affirmed (1978)
Genuine Risk (1980)
Alydar Alysheba (1987)
Strike the Gold (1991)
Mr Prospector Fusaichi Pegasus (2000)
Mr Prospector Fappiano Unbridled (1990)
Gulch Thunder Gulch (1995)
Our Emblem War Emblem (2002)
Danzig Polish Navy Sea Hero (1993)
Boundary Big Brown (2008)
Buckpasser Silver Buck Silver Charm (1997)
Buckaroo Spend a Buck (1985)
Fappiano Quiet American Real Quiet (1998)
Unbridled Grindstone (1996)
Empire Maker Pioneefor the Nile American Pharoah (2015)
Bodemeister Alway Dreaming (2017)

His return – in the light of the Saturday triumph – is indeed good news for American breeding. In Japan he was not much successful, of 430 runners there were 251 winners but only five in a black-type race and his AEI was 0.73. He covered 130 mares in the U.S. last year and the demand for him is likely to stay high. Whether his partners include such a one that will foal a successful future stallion – sire of the Kentucky Derby winner - we will yet have to wait for many years.

Miloslav Vlček

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