Sunday, June 28, 2009

Terrain: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Still stinging from the startling, almost inexplicable losses of graded-stakes winner Sailor's Cap and debut stakes winner Olredlgetcha to less common maladies, the racing world has lost another notable horse.

Terrain (Sky Mesa-Minery, by Forty Niner) was steadied on the backstretch and then pulled up around the three-eighths pole of the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows Saturday night by jockey Robby Alborado. The gelding suffered a condylar fracture and a broken sesamoid in his right front. He was vanned off but the injuries were soon diagnosed as catastrophic and he was put down.

Terrain, who won three of 10 lifetime for $512,084 including the Arlington-Washington Futurity-G3, was described as "a classic over-achiever" by trainer Al Stall Jr.

The horse wasn't bred like the typical "over-achiever," from a winning sense. His sire annexed the Hopeful S.-G1 at 2 and his dam won an Ellis Park stakes race at 3. There is blacktype and brilliance in the family.

But from a budding breeder's standpoint -- and not to speak ill of the dead, his breeders or his connections -- Terrain wasn't necessarily bred for soundness, either.

His sire raced just six times; his dam only four. His second dam, Orseno, was unraced. And though she's foaled some runners of average soundness (or length of career, at least), she was strikingly inbred 1x3 to the brilliant In Reality and out of the mare Gana Facil, who was also dam of Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Unbridled -- who ran 24 times but has been singled out by his critics as a source of unsoundness -- and his full brother and Grade 1 winner Cahill Road, who raced only six times.

I'm far from the first person to join the dogpile of critics regarding the "modern breeding for the sales and speed" every time a horse breaks down. I would argue that when such case was made about Eight Belles, for example, (even by the likes of Bill Nack, who got an Eclipse honorable mention for it), many critics habitually point to "unsound" sirelines or inbreeding to certain individuals (particularly Raise a Native and his sire Native Dancer) without looking at all or even any of the immediate ancestors around her. Eight Belles' dam, Away, ran a respectable 24 times and had a full brother, stakes-placed Fiddler's Find, who answered the call to post on 51 occasions. Eight Belles' second dam was unraced, but her third dam, Belonging (also dam of Belong To Me), raced 37 times, and fourth dam, champion handicap mare Straight Deal, retired from a blacktype career that saw her run just one race short of 100.

A number of horses in Eight Belles' relatively near-female family outran the breed average (by a little or a lot) when it came to sheer number of starts: 84 races (Golden Longing); 83 races (Survivor Call); 72 starts (stakes winner Loyal Groom); 71 calls to post (Let's Behave); 52 races (Joy Be Ridge); 43 starts (G3 winner Skipaslew, who did eventually break down in a workout); 39 starts each (Timber Yield, Premier Ensign and Forgivable Bob); 36 starts (Reminiscing); 35 races (Grand Ambition). I didn't have to go far out of my way to find those horses, and a dozen or more others have raced 15 to 30 times, average, or in excess thereof, for the breed.

Eight Belles was not willfully bred to be fast at the expense of fatal fragility.

But I will say that for the good of every foal, soundness needs to be introduced in the pedigree somewhere, and somewhere close.

Sky Mesa ran only six times, as did his sire, Pulpit. I would never recommend breeding Sky Mesa to a mare who wasn't rugged herself and whose longevity was typical of her durable family.

Minery's four lifetime starts, to me, demand that she be bred to a stallion who proved his worth at the track not over five or six spectacular races, but four or five or six seasons -- a talented but sound horse who made multiple-dozens of starts; not a half-dozen.

Terrain lasted 10 starts -- the total of his sire and dam combined. In that way, sadly, perhaps he had over-achieved.

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