Unbridled's Song
Home Up

 

"We're breeding the bone right out of these horses." 

--A veterinarian examining Thoroughbreds at a well-known Kentucky farm.

 

by Ron & Ellen Parker

When one is looking at current trends in unsound breeding, one of the first names that comes to mind is Unbridled's Song.

Although the Unbridled stallion is only one example of how thoughtless commercial matings have contributed to the deterioration of the breed, it was the tragic death of Eight Belles that found some people who were looking for answers turning towards Unbridled's Song in general and the genealogical combinations in particular that led to the filly breaking down after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby due to compound fractures of both forelegs at the fetlock joints.

Certainly the physical weaknesses in Unbridled's Song were evident long before he was retired to stud.  He was sold at a Pomona auction for $1.4-million as an unraced two-year-old but the buyer returned him when post-sale X-rays revealed a flake on the left front ankle.

That was merely the first indicator of weaknesses that would plague the horse throughout his brief 12-race career.  As a three-year-old quarter cracks were an ongoing problem, but of course a poor showing in the Kentucky Derby was blamed on the protective shoes guarding his injured left hoof, not the injury itself.  But it was the foot problem that kept him out of both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Later that year, in the Arlington Park Citation Challenge, Unbridled's Song broke a bone in his left foreleg.  Returning to action as a four-year-old, he suffered a fractured cannon bone in his right front leg during a gallop at Gulfstream Park. 

Given the foot and hoof problems that wouldn't go away and having twice broken a bone it was finally, one might even say mercifully, decided to retire him for stud duty.

But therein lies the problem that is not confined merely to Unbridled's Song.  If breeders would simply try and find strong female partners with a pedigree that might at least stabilize some of these weaknesses that would be a step in the right direction.  But in many cases expediency and greed will out over thoughtful consideration as to the health and soundness of the life they are bringing into the world.

Even Andrew Beyer rose above his Beyer figures and Pick Six musings to comment on the problems last year in the Washington Post.

"...Eight Belles was a tragic manifestation of a problem that is more pronounced every year.  America's breeding industry is producing increasingly fragile thoroughbreds.  They may not break down, but they have shorter and shorter racing careers before going to stud to beget even more fragile offspring.

"The facts are irrefutable.  In 1960, the average U.S. racehorse made 11.3 starts per year.  The number has fallen almost every year, and now the average U.S. thoroughbred races a mere 6.3 times per year.  Almost every trainer whose career spans the decades will acknowledge that thoroughbreds aren't as robust as they used to be.

"There are at least two good explanations for this phenomenon.  In earlier eras, most people bred horses to race them, and they had a stake in the animals' soundness.  By contrast, modern commercial breeders produce horses in order to sell them, and if those horses are unsound, they become somebody else's problem.  Because buyers want horses with speed, breeders have filled the thoroughbred species with the genes of fast but unsound horses.

"As this change in the breeding world took place, the sport was allowing the use of pain-killers and other medications that are forbidden in most other countries.  They allow infirm horses to achieve success, go to stud and pass on their infirmities to the next generation."

By himself, Unbridled's Song only brings one line of the notoriously unsound Raise a Native through Mr. Prospector, and one line is quite enough, thank you.  Careful planning might negate that influence.

Yet the geniuses who concocted the mating of Eight Belles by matching Unbridled's Song with the Dixieland Band mare Away created a horse with three crosses of Raise a Native (5Sx4Dx5D) that included a double of Mr. Prospector (4Sx3D).  By extension, Raise a Native's sire, Native Dancer, appears three times as well, but fragile Dixieland Band's grandsire is Native Dancer, giving us four crosses of Native Dancer in the first six generations. 

Those who would defend Eight Belles' pedigree by contending that it had nothing to do with her breakdown, most notably her breeder as well as owner Rick Porter who called it a "freak accident", weren't paying attention to Unbridled's Song's Triple Crown hopefuls this year.  Well, no, they were paying attention, they just weren't advertising their fragility while hoping it would all go away.

The first to fall by the wayside was Midshipman (Unbridled's Song--Fleet Lady, by Avenue of Flags) who, after four starts as a two-year-old,  hasn't seen a starting gate this year due to what Godolphin glossed over as "a minor soft tissue injury."  He is currently working out at Belmont Park, presumably having recovered from his "minor" injury. 

The possible glitch in this colt's female pedigree lies not so much with his dam, First Lady, a two-time Grade 2 winner who started 23 times, but her own family.  Sire Avenue of Flags started three times, a brief career that saw him undergo surgery on his right knee in 1990 and was retired after re-injuring it during a workout at Santa Anita in 1991.  First Lady's dam, Dear Mimi, started a total of two times in England and earned $417 while her dam, Carnival Princess, also started just two times earning $3,300 in outings at Monmouth and Keystone.  

Then we come to Old Fashioned (Unbridled's Song--Collect Call, by Meadowlake), the future book favorite for the Kentucky Derby at the start of this year.  Won all three starts at two but in April of this year he sustained a non-displaced slab fracture of his right knee while finishing second in the Arkansas Derby.  Disposition?  Retirement, let's go to the farm and make little Old Fashioned's, they should sell well and never mind that the colt brings a 5Sx4D cross of Raise a Native to any mating.

Dunkirk (Unbridled's Song--Secret Status, by A.P. Indy) was making only his fifth start in the Belmont Stakes and finished a credible second but came out of the race with a non-displaced condylar fracture of the left hind cannon bone.  Like Old Fashioned we find a 5Sx4D cross of Raise a Native and while they hope to bring a surgically repaired Dunkirk back later this year good as new we have our reservations about his future.

One of the most intriguing--and probably sad--examples we've seen lately is Unbridled Express (Unbridled's Song--Skye Castles, by Sky Classic).  Now a five-year-old horse he won a maiden race in three starts at two and then disappeared for 2 1/2 years (and there is no record of any foals of racing age at this point).  He surfaced this March at Oaklawn Park where trainer Bernie Flint explained that "we stopped on him and turned him out. Then he kicked through a fence and injured his hocks, got splinters in the hocks.  He's fine now."

Unbridled Express ran second that day, then went to Churchill Downs for an April allowance race where he finished eighth, beaten by just over 26 lengths.  Hasn't been heard from since.  The horse has a 6Sx6D cross of Native Dancer and a 4Dx5Dx6D cross of Northern Dancer, including a single presence of notoriously unsound Danzig (3 starts), the subject of a future article in this series.

The hardest thing about judging Unbridled’s Song is that he’s a horse who expresses all the worst of a pedigree that has some really good things to offer.  For example, instead of keeping to the best of Fappiano (the inbred *Bull Dog/Marguerite de Valois speed) and Caro (dense bone) as well as the toughness (69) starts of Lucky Spell and her *Princequillo blood, he seems to get only the Raise a Native/Mr. Prospector/Unbridled troubles along with whatever woes his dam possessed that held her to just one start.

These possibilities alone would be bad enough, but this gorgeous creature is also huge (the stallion book says 17.0 hands, we think he’s a bit taller) and the mare population is so weak from lack of diversity that one has only to look at where he’s done best to realize that he just might be salvageable.  We pick this up from the fact that for a brief period Unbridled’s Song was shuttled down under.  There he got a number of geldings that were hickory as hickory can be:  =Grey Song (AUS), 65 starts out of a =Kaapstad (NZ) mare; =Omnitrader (AUS), 117 starts out of a =Snippets (AUS) mare; =Presently (AUS), 71 starts out of a =Centaine (AUS) mare and =Zoometric (AUS), 60 starts out of a Bluebird mare.

Kaapstad is by Sir Tristram (Sir Ivor); Snippets is Tom Fool-line via Silly Season; Centaine is My Babu-line and Bluebird is by Storm Bird.  Not a single one of these tough old fellows was inbred to Raise a Native. 

He’s gotten a couple of super-tough Americans, too:  Cojet, a gelding who made 49 starts out of an Olympio mare and Song Dancer, another gelding who ran 63 times and is out of a Hold Your Peace mare.  So there will always be exceptions.

Sadly, however, it is not these exceptions where Unbridled’s Song makes all his noise.  It is with the brilliant, brittle types like Unbridled Elaine (11 starts), Splendid Blended (13 starts),  Buddha (four starts), Songandaprayer (eight starts), and the ones we discussed earlier.

The bottom line is that what needs to be done here is to put a sound mare under this guy.  One who is a big, broad, good-boned matron with some substance to her.

And don’t let all the statistical stuff throw you, either.  Those geldings down under are going to pad his ‘number of starts per runner’ and with only 46% winners from starters, if you don’t get a good one, you’re cooked.

He’s also somewhere between 7%-8% stakes winners, with books of 100+ mares that owned CI’s of 2.57 (his own AEI is 2.06, so he is not improving his mates).  Match that against great sires of the past that, with smaller books who got 20+% stakes winners and his fragility plus great books of mares begins to soften the focus of those stats to something resembling smoke and mirrors.

Make no mistake.  This is a very good sire.  But he is also a horse who does not hit on all cylinders.  If you send him a soft mare and expect that $150,000 stud fee to help her catalogue page, you might just be bitterly disappointed.  Better to inbreed to Caro – like with the Dr. Carter blood that got Octave (two-thirds of the filly Triple Crown); or Marguerite de Valois (Unbridels King – 33 starts – via Lord Avie or Habiboo – 17 starts via Ogygian), and get them to the track where they can do some good.  (And no, that’s not a misprint, his name really is spelled Unbridels).

Better still, send him an Aussie mare if you really want to enjoy watching your horse run instead of just becoming next season’s breeding puzzle.  Imagine that for a novel idea!