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It is 79 years since a Melbourne Cup winner was subsequently crowned Australian Champion stallion, so what are the factors working against winners of ‘the great race’ when it comes to success at stud in Australia?
Firstly, let’s start by saying the last Saturday of the Australian racing season is no place to start making grand assumptions or prognostications.
The history, for the 2021/22 season at least, has been written and the champions all but crowned. The future, apart from some mid-winter flashes of light, will be more shaped by what happens as ‘the good horses’ return in the next month than what the final Saturday in July may offer.
However, Saturday’s Australian metropolitan racing was notable for a couple of things from a bloodstock and breeding perspective.
The first was that Listed Lightning Stakes winner Extremely Lucky looks a three-year-old of considerable promise, becoming the eighth stakes winner for Australia’s most expensive and most exciting young sire, Extreme Choice.
The Will Clarken-trained gelding is also bred on a 3 x 3 cross to Redoute’s Choice, sparking much discussion among pedigree anoraks about the success and desirability of close in-breeding and Australia’s obsession with ‘speed on speed’.
The second thing, which pretty much sits in contrast to the Extremely Lucky story, is that it was a good Saturday for Melbourne Cup-winning stallions.
2013 Cup winner Fiorente had three winners, two at Moonee Valley and one at Morphettville, while 2010 victor Americain and 2009 hero Shocking both had impressive metropolitan winners.
For Widden Stud-based Fiorente, it builds on what has been his best season yet for his progeny in terms of total prizemoney and his place on the Australian Sires’ Table (47th).
Rich Hill Stud resident Shocking has had an even better season, with five Australian stakes winners, highlighted by Group One Toorak Handicap winner I’m Thunderstruck, who is one of his 22 Australian winners from 49 starters. It was enough to carry him to 19th on the Australian Sires Table, while he finished in sixth spot in his home base of New Zealand.
Americain, who died last month, having served at both Swettenham Stud and Daisy Hill, has had a creditable 28 Australian winners this season, including Miss Gobcain, who won by over three lengths in Adelaide on Saturday.
Penning a column about Melbourne Cup-winning sires on the same day that I Am Invincible will claim his richly deserved first Australian Champion Stallion title may seem like an act of heresy for some in the commercial breeding game, but let’s shed some light and context on why what has been Australia’s most culturally and historically important race, has been determined to be largely an irrelevance by the breeding and bloodstock industry.
The era where a test of a horse’s stamina is a test of its greatness has long passed in Australia, especially when it comes to stallion prospects.
The focus on speed is far from a modern phenomenon and the last time a Melbourne Cup winner, progressed to be Australia’s champion stallion was Spearfelt in 1942/43, some 16 years after his up triumph.
That double of Melbourne Cup winner and Champion stallion has only happened four times in history, with Comedy King (1910), Grand Flaneur (1880) and Chester (1877) the others to have completed the double.
The simple fact is that the programming of Australia’s top races has been slanted towards speed over stamina for a long time. A stallion which boasts superior stamina in his bloodlines is at a disadvantage to one which features speed, and as time has progressed that has only become more pronounced.
With that diminishing value of superior stamina from a bloodstock perspective, it is not surprising that the vast majority of staying prospects in Australia are gelded. While that decision is fatal for usually slim stud hopes anyway, gelding is also seen as advantageous to their ambitions of realising their staying talent.
That has meant that of the past 50 editions of the Melbourne Cup, just 14 have been won by entires. Just seven of those have gone on to stud careers in Australia or New Zealand.
2009 victor Shocking was the first Cup winner to head to stud in 15 years and led a bit of a renaissance when Rich Hill took a chance on the son of Street Cry in 2011. He was followed into stud duties by 2010 winner Americain and 2013 winner Fiorente, who both stood in Australia.
The winners of the 2011, 2012 and 2014 and 2017 Cups, Dunaden, Green Moon, Protectionist and Rekindling have all stood in the Northern Hemisphere, but none of them at what you would term a commercial level.
The commercial desirability of stallions and their progeny, particularly as yearlings, drives much of the breeding industry in Australia and not surprisingly, much of that is focussed on speed and precocity.
Stock of fast and forward stallions are not only better suited by the racing program but provide the prospect of a much quicker return, generating further subsequent investment and providing liquidity in the bloodstock market.
Fast-maturing horses also make much more attractive yearlings, meaning it is very much in the interests of commercial breeders to focus in this area.
It is why Melbourne Cup-winning stallions, well-bred and well-performed as they may be, stand in Victoria and New Zealand and not in the breeding heartland of the Hunter Valley. The knock-on effect of all this is that they simply don’t get access to the best quality of mares.
Service fees for stallions are shape by demand and the average service fee of an Australian-based stallion who has won a Group 1 race is just over $30,000. Fiorente, the only Melbourne Cup winner at stud in Australia this year, stands for $9,900. Across the Tasman, Shocking’s fee is NZ$12,500, the cheapest stallion inside the Top 20 on the Australian Sires list by quite a margin.
This discount is further reflected in yearling prices. The yearling market surged again to record levels in Australia this year with an average of $153,000 across major sales. In comparison, Fiorente’s yearlings averaged just under $25,000, while neither Shocking or Americain had any yearlings sell through a major auction this year.
The above stats may not necessarily be comparing apples with apples but point to the fact that the market demand for quality, well-bred, well-conformed yearlings from staying pedigrees is much less when compared to similar quality stock from speed pedigrees.
So are the likes of Shocking and Fiorente fighting a losing cause? In a commercial sense, possibly, although Shocking’s big run of results this year, plus his decent average of NZ$90,000 through the NZB Yearling Sale at Karaka, do point towards more faith and support in him as a stallion, albeit 10 years into his stud career.
Another key point to make is that the stallion which ran I Am Invincible to near thing in the Australian Sires’ race this year, So You Think, was a very gallant third to Americain in the 2010 Melbourne Cup. In a different world and maybe on a drier track, he could have been a Cup winner.
So You Think is seen by many as a champion-sire-in-waiting, with those star qualities which carried him to success as a racehorse across the world and put him on the radar of Coolmore all those years ago, also evident in his progeny.
He is one of a host of Cox Plate-winning sires, such as Shamus Award and Savabeel, showing that stamina is not always a dirty word in the breeding barn.
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