"So wishing to make this study in a practical manner, I decided to limit my investigation to a single race -- the most important one."
~ Federico Tesio - Breeding the Racehorse
I first begin my annual Kentucky Derby pedigree analysis as a short newsletter to close friends about 20 years ago. In 1996, the newsletter had morphed into a column detailing the observed performance of various sire lines in the recent history of the Kentucky Derby that was first published in Jack Werk's Owner-Breeder.
The subject was revisited in 1998 in a column published during my tenure with Daily Racing Form, wherein the strike rate performance of various sire lines was updated. I have since seen in print some references to "The Northern Dancer Derby Bounce" and "The Curse of Damascus" -- concepts that first appeared in that DRF article. While those observations about sire line performance might not have been appreciated in all corners, they became a part of the growing trend wherein discussions about Thoroughbred pedigree did not immediately move to the concept of "Dosage" but rather genetic inheritance.
In the years that have ensued I have submitted some updates to that work, though my own focus has admittedly strayed from mere observation of sire line performance. Attempting to predict inherited traits in a hybrid species prior to subjecting the object of the experiment to a true test of its inherited abilities is exactly what makes the outcome of the Kentucky Derby such a difficult contest to forecast.
As has been written in this space in years past, "The Crucible in Louisville" also defies prediction in that the exacting conditions of this contest are transformative in their nature; In so many renewals of the Derby the winner of the contest seems somehow different from the horse who entered the gate when he returns to be unsaddled.
The underlying idea of the article first published in Owner-Breeder remains unchanged: Over the course of several generations subjected to the same testing standards, one can observe the (rather marked) rise and fall of any number of sire line dynasties. Runners who carry the influence of Raise a Native and his sire Native Dancer in tail male descent (that is to say the sons, grandsons and great great grandsons) have continued to outperform their relative opportunity in the Kentucky Derby. Proof of that pattern can be found in the chart below which details the pedigree of every Derby winner since 1966, when Native Dancer's son Kauai King first captured the Roses -- a trend that continues to this day.
You can also see the full chart at this link.
The continued dominance of the Raise a Native/Native Dancer sire line coupled with the repeated success of a few broodmare sires and various female families makes for engrossing study but doesn't guarantee predictive value. The Roberto sire line had been well represented in the Derby but had a pronounced lack of success in the years prior to Barbaro's popular win in 2006. Giacomo's victory in 2005 provided a similar reversal in form for runners who descended from the sire line of Rough 'n Tumble.
Some trends from this chart that continue to hold their form are worth noting:
* Since 1984, no tail-male offspring of Bold Ruler or his grandson Seattle Slew have won the Kentucky Derby.
* In the last 40+ years, a tail-male descendant of Northern Dancer has won the Derby only four times and no runners descending from the Storm Cat sire line have ever captured the Derby.
* No runners descending in tail-male from either In Reality or Blushing Groom have yet to win the Kentucky Derby.
You can see the entire chart at this link.
Which runner has the best pedigree profile match to the previous Kentucky Derby winners?
Two runners in this year's field descend from the Raise a Native sire line in this year's renewal but each has form that suggests that the history of the Kentucky Derby will take a new direction in 2011.
4) Master of Hounds - A grandson of Mr. Prospector, he presents an intriguing profile in that he carries a duplication of the important matriarch Special. That pattern is found in a number of accomplished turf performers, the most notable example would be the memorable El Condor Pasa. Master of Hounds carries the important staying influences Le Fabuleux and Sicambre on his damline which would indicate he should make a sustained effort in what should prove a taxing renewal provided he can make the adjustment to negotiate the Churchill Downs surface.
3) Shackleford - A runner loaded with important Derby winning influences in that he carries Pleasant Colony and Unbridled in important positions in his pedigree. Descends in his sire line from Storm Cat and from an extended female family known for its precocity which offer some mixed signals as to his chances to win the Derby. Shackleford also carries an important duplication of Aspidistra and her presence tips the scales in assessing his chances to survive the Derby test.
2) Archarcharch - Runners who carry the influence of the important matriarch La Troienne on each side of their pedigree have enjoyed some notable successes in the Kentucky Derby, though in Archarcharch's case, we find her presence duplicated in the 7th and 10th generations. Three duplications of War Admiral in the female families of Arch and Woodman only strengthen his chances.
1) Comma to the Top - Can a grandson of Indian Charlie get 10 furlongs? That's the question Comma to the Top will be trying to answer when he leads the field on the far turn at Churchill Downs. A good gate horse, he figures to get a forward placement and possibly employ stalking tactics, much like Super Saver did last year. That isn't the only similarity Comma shares with last year's Derby winner, who also descends from the important matriarchy of La Troienne. That family's continued influence in renewals of this Classic seem to make themselves evident under the most testing circumstances and this analyst takes the position that the additional presence of Halo, Seattle Slew and multiple duplications of Princequillo and Round Table in his pedigree will also be weighed when his improbable win in the Derby is registered.