The lost gems of Triple Crown

MRLS: A plague that prevented 516 Kentucky foals from being born in 2001 has taken some starch out of Smarty Jones' field.

Belmont Stakes

May 30, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The mating held great promise.

The mare, a daughter of Spectacular Bid, had set a track record at Keeneland as a racehorse, and her first foal had been a top stakes winner. The sire, a regally bred, multiple Grade I-stakes winner, commanded a flashy $75,000 stud fee.

The distinguished mare and blue-chip stallion mated in 2000. The foal would have been born approximately 11 months later in 2001, and it would have been a member of this year's 3-year-old class competing in the Triple Crown races.

That's the class of which Smarty Jones is undisputed king. After sweeping to victory in all eight of his races - a dominance not seen since Seattle Slew in 1977 - Smarty Jones will attempt to win the 136th Belmont Stakes on Saturday and become the 12th winner of racing's Triple Crown.

But he won't compete against the horse whose breeding held such promise. The mare Starlore, dam of Grade II winner Quest, aborted the fetus that had been conceived by the sire Coronado's Quest, winner of the Haskell and Travers and earner of $2 million. That foal and an estimated 515 others who would have been born in Kentucky in 2001 were lost to a mysterious plague that came to be known as Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, or MRLS.

Arthur B. Hancock III, owner of Stone Farm in Paris, Ky., owns Starlore, the mare who lost her Coronado's Quest foal. He doesn't contend the horse would have been a star; he can't know. But he says the foal loss due to MRLS weakened the current group of 3-year-olds, perhaps making Smarty Jones' task easier.

"That's not to say Smarty Jones wouldn't have beaten all of them; he's a great horse," Hancock says. "But there would have been more top-bred horses out there to give him a run for his money."

Hancock says it looks to him as if Smarty Jones will win the Belmont and join the list of Triple Crown immortals. He doesn't see a horse in the Belmont who can beat him.

"There's usually a nemesis out there," Hancock says. "This year there's none. If it hadn't been for Easy Goer, I'd have won the Triple Crown."

Hancock owned Sunday Silence, who captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1989 but lost the Belmont to Easy Goer. Hancock was also co-breeder of Risen Star, who the year before finished third in the Derby and then won the Preakness and Belmont. Hancock also co-bred Gato Del Sol and Fusaichi Pegasus, winners of the Kentucky Derby in 1982 and 2000, respectively.

"We lost three or four other foals out of good mares who would have been part of that 2001 crop," Hancock says. "That's here; that's just this farm. It hit us all. All these farms had real top mares whose foals just didn't make it."

Smarty Jones escaped the Kentucky epidemic by being born in Pennsylvania. Although his out-of-the-way upbringing prompted scorn from some quarters, it possibly saved his life.

Patricia and Roy Chapman, who owned Someday Farm in New London, Pa., sent their mare I'll Get Along to Kentucky in 2000 to be bred to Elusive Quality. He stands at Gainsborough Farm near Lexington. At the time his fee was $10,000. Now it's $50,000 and possibly on the rise again next year.

On March 18, 2000, a year before the outbreak of MRLS, Elusive Quality impregnated I'll Get Along. She returned to Pennsylvania. On Feb. 28, 2001, she gave birth to Smarty Jones. He did not set foot in Kentucky until last month when he arrived undefeated and poised to captivate the racing world.

David Williamson, bloodstock adviser at Gainsborough, says 15 of the mares bred to Elusive Quality in 2000 lost their foals in 2001. He says maybe a dozen were attributable to MRLS.

Gus Koch, manager of Claiborne Farm, breeder of two Kentucky Derby winners (Johnstown in 1939 and Swale in 1984), says Claiborne suffered severe losses in 2001.

"There were some very well-bred horses we lost," Koch says, declining to provide numbers. "But that doesn't mean they'd have been there Derby day."

Other leading farm managers and owners in Kentucky, such as Alice Chandler at Mill Ridge, Frank Taylor at Taylor Made and Garrett O'Rourke at Juddmonte, agree with Koch that Kentucky's loss didn't necessarily weaken the current group of 3-year-olds.

"I think this is a very strong group, a solid group across the board," Taylor says. "We just happen to have a superstar this year."

Adds David Switzer, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association: "Smarty Jones is just a darn good horse, no matter what crop he's from."

However, Ric Waldman, manager of stallion operations at Overbrook Farm, says several mares bred to Storm Cat, the country's most expensive sire at $500,000, lost foals. Only first-rate mares go to Storm Cat, who bred Tabasco Cat, winner of the 1994 Preakness and Belmont. Each foal, in good shape, would have brought at least $1 million, possibly $2 million, at auction as a yearling, Waldman says.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.