FINE LINES OF THOROUGHBRED BRILLIANCE
About 10 or 20 years ago there was a whole herd of Thoroughbred stallions producing top show jumping lines. Today, few of these lines remain. So what is left of our Thoroughbred jumpers?
Trainers do it, so do jockeys, breeders, punters, bookies and even the once-a-year socialites who descend on Kenilworth and Greyville racecourses for the 'Met' and 'Durban July'. Bloodline hounding, is what it is. Sniffing out a winner from a jumble of names with a few dashes between them. The absurd thing is, it seems to work.
Some bloodline hounds have a sharper nose (or wallet) for a winning pedigree than others, and I'm convinced racing fundis have more RAM in their brains than the average horsey Joe - they must, in order to carry the entire Thoroughbred Breeder's Association database in their heads.
Just for kicks, ask any racehorse trainer or breeder who that big bay in the corner is.
"Oh, that's So-and-So. He's by Such-and-Such, out of What's-her-name." "Hmm. Just remind me who What's her-name is by." "What's-his-name, of course."
And for heaven's sake don't confess to forgetting Such-and-such's lineage.
It's a sure way to get a 10-generation pedigree downloaded from the breeder I trainer's memory banks faster than you can say 'Internet'.
The fabulous five
While the racing people have been going gaga over bloodlines for centuries, sport-horse buyers, trainers and breeders did not pay nearly the same attention to the Thoroughbreds they were taking from racetrack to show arena. Until the late1980s, that is, when a bloodline hound named Charles Baker, with the patience of a saint, set about working out which Thoroughbred stallions produced South Africa's best showjumpers.
In short, he tackled the top showjumpers in the country, asked them which were the best A-grades they'd ridden and ranked them in terms of temperament, type, scopiness, braveness and carefulness. Then Baker snooped around their pedigrees. What he discovered was astonishing: only a very few Thoroughbred bloodlines consistently produced International A-grade showjumpers. His findings were published in a fascinating book duly entitled: The South African Thoroughbred Show Jumping Register. And believe it or not, the little book was snapped up by breeders in South Africa and around the world. Not only was Baker the first to produce a serious work on TB sport horse pedigrees, but international breeders found that the same bloodlines cropped up over and over again in their top jumpers. There was an unmistakable trend.
"Basically there are about four or five families that jump," says trainer and show jumper Rogan Asken, who is also an avid pedigree investigator. "Fair Trial, Relic, Nearco, Persian Gulf and Tourbillon."
These are lines which are having an influence even today, long after the stallion, its son, grandsons and great grandsons were dead and buried.
Sons and sons of sons. . .
Sadly, finding the next Watchfire is not simply a matter of taking the "A" list and patrolling the racing stables for anything with Fair Trial in its pedigree. "Even a stallion as great as Fair Trial produced some duds. Fairthorns jumped but were tricky, and Fieldmasters tended to be talented but mad," says Asken.
Nevertheless, Fair Trial made his mark most notably with Dramatic II and Drum Beat (sire of Trocadero). From Dramatic came stallions such as Jerez, sire of Pyrmont which appears in many South African Warmblood pedigrees today among them, that fabulous jumper Pied Piper D as well as Peter Pan.
Nearco was so prolific he's in virtually every modern Thoroughbred pedigree, and his success rate at producing jumping sires was exceptionally high. Lines to look for in particular are Royal Charger and Noble Chieftain (a sire of good jumpers but a monster as a racehorse, he had to be muzzled to be handled). From there come more familiar names: Bahadur, Hail to Reason and Porky (sire of Peter Gotz's Gossper).
Pedigrees to the test
Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There are more than enough Thoroughbreds at the top of International A-grade showjumping to make choosing the best horse very difficult. One was Karen van den Berg's Steven James (by Red Regent out of a Captain James (tracing back to Royal Charger and Nearco) mare. Another was Barry Taylor's Sunday's Eagle by Eagle's Reason (Hail to Reason/Turn- To/Royal Charger /Nearco). Mid Tempest, Shirley Kemp's lovely gelding, is also a top Thoroughbred. He's by Mid Beat (Sir Ivor /Sir Gaylord/TurnTo/Royal Charger) with Noble Chieftain as the second damsire.
But it's hard to beat the success of Avis Panache (Full Partner was his racing name). He's by Tilden (Tyant/Bold Ruler/ Nasrullah/Nearco) and double-bred Bold Ruler with a dash of Tourbillon on both sides. Incidentally, one of the most noteworthy stallions from the Tourbillon line is Joy II, which you still find in the pedigrees of many good horses.
See a pattern yet? Convinced? OK, lets look at a superb Thoroughbred event horse, Askari. He's by Wagga Wagga, a son of the notoriously hot New South Wales, out of Hail 0 Dolly, a Hail to Reason mare. Again the same names crop up. The other successful eventing Thoroughbred is Edwina Davidson's Eastern Eagle, by Eastern Viewpoint, a son of Damascus (sire of Damascus Gate which currently has a few offspring in upper grades). Eastern Eagle is out of a Noble Chieftain mare.
Thoroughbreds in top-level dressage are few and far between, but you can't ignore the back-to-back SA Champion, Martine Lambert's former ride, Donatello. From a sea of Warmbloods a Thoroughbred won the highest dressage award in the country two years in a row! Donatello's racing name was Danny's Tango. And, again the names correlate: his sire is Burning Love (Main Chief/Noble Chieftain/Nearco) which was out of an Initial II (Relic) mare. On the dam side there's little to get excited about, except for a dash of Tourbillon and Noble Chieftain again.
What about showing? Babylonian Tower won the South African supreme working championship: He is by Foulaad (Raja Baba/Bold Ruler /Nasrullah/Nearco) and out of Santa Cruz (top line back to Fair Trial). Babylonian Tower's second damsire is a descendant of Tourbillon.
Sires for the future
While these stallions made a huge impression in the sport horse world, few of their progeny managed to remain competitive as racing sires. And that is what has shaped the pedigrees of South African Thoroughbreds, past and present.
Nowadays you're lucky to find a youngster with Joy II as third damsire. The Tourbillon line, virtually lost, except for an unknown fellow called Zonneskyn (his second dam's sire is Relic). Last seen in the 2001 stallion directory standing at Carlton Hill Stud in Sunland, he could well have disappeared completely, or been gelded, as he hasn't fared well as a sire of racehorses.
In modern South African sire lines the Fair Trial stal1ions have all but gone, as have Drum Beats, Noble Chieftains and so on. What we're left with is an almost homogenous pool of Northern Dancers and Native Dancers, which - out of massive opportunity - were far better producers of racehorse stallions than of jumpers.
So what to look for?
Dianne Bates is a professional buyer and seller of sport horses and a keen Thoroughbred pedigree tracker. "It's not so much a matter of what to look for, but what not to look for. There are some definite no-nos. For me these are Mexico/Harry Hotspur which tend to be hot and stupid, Oligarchy, Ribot, Jamaica (which can be chicken) and Politician."
Rogan Asken has a similar list of bloodlines to avoid: "Ribot progeny tend to be hysterical, not brave, and don't take pressure." Ribot, incidentally, was a notoriously mad stallion which was prone to self-mutilation.
What about the ever-popular Del Sarto (by Bold Bidder, out of a Ribot mare)?
"I have my doubts about Del-Sartos at top level, but maybe in the lower grades."
There are always exceptions (Fee Berning's dressage horse, Mint Master, by Del Sarto and the A-grade Polytak by Politician), but they count for far less than consistency.
Asken also rules out Oligarchys, Politicians and Jamaicos ("very creepy horses, they creep up to the jumps"), but he's more generous than Botes about Elliodors: "They have ungiving temperaments, but they're enormously talented."
Other popular stallions seem to be Foveros and Northern Guest. Both sired big, good-looking horses, and many were produced as showjumpers, but with plenty of opportunity, neither has made the impression on the top circuit to warrant high acclaim.
When pushed to say what pedigrees she's watching, Botes replies: "Maybe Claude Monet, Rocky Marriage, Real Account and Al Mufti."
Al Mufti's (which come in small and large sizes) seem to be the flavour of the moment among both showjumpers and polo players, and are going for hugely inflated prices straight off the track.
Looking at his pedigree, he's by Roberto (incidentally, one of the few Thoroughbred stallions horse whisperer Monty Roberts could not tame) by Hail to Reason, which is very good. But among the International A-grade crowd, he's yet to prove himself.
Hard Up looks like he may have the right stuff (again that Royal Charger line), as does the Zimbabwean stallion Century Stand. Keep an eye on Tara's Halls and Albarahin, a young stallion standing at Summerhill Stud which combines the Royal Charger and Native Dancer lines.
Still, what of the future? With more and more money going into Warmbloods, good Thoroughbred jumping lines could be falling by the wayside.
Remember the most influential stallions in Warmblood breeding are two Thoroughbreds, Lucky Boy and Ladykiller. Along this vein, Ernie Davenport and Judith Moxon have been putting Sailor Prince to some of their Warmblood mares. He's a striking chestnut New Zealand Thoroughbred by Sir Tristam (a very popular and successful sire of international event horses) which is by Sir Ivor (Sir Gaylord/Turn-To/Royal Charger).
And so, oddly enough, it may well be the Warmblood breeders who are left to keep the top Thoroughbred jumping lines alive.