(Originally from the March 30, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse)
by John P. Sparkman
The best sire of the second half of the 20th century, Northern Dancer, was also the best sires of sires of that half century. In addition to his own five international sire championships, 22.8% stakes winners, and 23 champions, Northern Dancer sired 11 leading sires in major racing countries.
As Northern Dancer’s sons began to die out, Mr. Prospector assumed the mantle of leading sire of sires, and Storm Cat and A.P. Indy have taken their turn in American estimation as sires of sires, but none with anything like the impact of Northern Dancer. Internationally Sadler’s Wells, primarily in Europe, and Sunday Silence in Japan currently hold enviable and well-justified reputations as sources of potential top sires, but no contemporary stallion has exerted as overpowering an influence as a sire of sires as the late, great Danehill. Leading sire twice in England, three times in France, and nine times in Australia, Danehill has been most prolific as a sire of sires Down Under, but there is a very good chance that his eventual influence will cast a much wider net than history might imply.
Bred in Kentucky by Khaled Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms, Danehill is both a grandson and an equine “cousin” of Northern Dancer. By Northern Dancer’s great son Danzig, Danehill was the first foal of Razyana, by His Majesty, a daughter of Northern Dancer’s half sister Spring Adieu, by Buckpasser. That meant that Danehill was inbred 3x3 to Northern Dancer’s dam Natalma, by Native Dancer.
It also meant that Danehill inherited Natalma’s conformation flaw, but while Natalma was slightly back in her left knee, Danehill was clearly back in both knees. Fortunately for the Thoroughbred breed, he also inherited the extraordinarily robust body, muscularity, and constitution of Native Dancer.
Danehill raced three times for trainer Jeremy Tree as a 2-year-old in 1988, winning his second start, but throwing away his chance in the Prix de la Salamandre (Fr-I) by running much too freely. That headstrong nature restricted Danehill’s distance preferences as a 3-year-old as well. Winner of the seven-furlong Ladbroke Free Handicap on his reappearance, he pulled hard chasing Nashwan in the General Accident Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I), fading out in the final furlong to finish third, beaten 11⁄2 lengths. Favored for the Airlie Coolmore Irish Two Thousand Guineas (Ire-I), however, he wasted way too much energy fighting jockey Pat Eddery and finished fourth.
That was enough of that for Jeremy Tree, and Danehill’s three remaining starts were all over six furlongs. Allowed to run freely near the front, he easily won the Cork and Orrery Stakes (Eng-III) at Ascot before finding the hard ground against him when third in the Carroll Foundation July Cup (Eng-I). Softer going for the Ladbroke Sprint Cup (Eng-I) was perfect for Danehill, and he finally got the group I he needed to guarantee a lucrative stud career. Somewhat surprisingly Juddmonte then sold Danehill for a reported ₤4 million to a partnership between Coolmore Stud and Australia’s Arrowfield Stud.
Danehill was not the first stallion John Magnier shuttled between Ireland and Australia, but he was most definitely the horse who made the practice not just viable but eventually the modern model of stallion management. With leading sires Sadler’s Wells and Caerleon ahead of him in the pecking order at Coolmore, Danehill did not cover the best mares available in his first few seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. His first few crops were promising but hardly overwhelming, with group I winner Kissing Cousin in his first, Irish champion 2-year-old Danehill Dancer in his third, and dual Irish classic winner Desert King in his fourth.
His impact in Australia, however, was immediate and life-changing. His first-crop son Danzero won Australia’s richest and most important race to breeders, the Toohey’s Golden Slipper Stakes (Aus-I), and another first-crop son Danewin trained on to be champion 3-year-old.Flying Spur from his second crop captured a second straight Golden Slipper, Nothin’ Leica Dane became his first Derby winner in the AAMI Victoria Derby (Aus-I), and Danehill was on his way to his record nine Australian sire championships.
Danehill’s son Redoute's Choice succeeded him as leading sire in 2006, succeeded immediately by another son Flying Spur. Redoute’s Choice repeated in 2010 and a third son Fastnet Rock earned the Australian sire championship in 2012. Nine of the top 20 sires on the Australian general sire list for the 2011/12 season were sons or grandsons of Danehill.
Meanwhile in Europe, Danehill’s extraordinary achievements in Australia attracted better mares with predictably better results. With champions Dylan Thomas, Duke of Marmalade, Rock of Gibraltar, Banks Hill, George Washington, and Peeping Fawn leading the way, Danehill dethroned Sadler’s Wells as leading sire in England in 2005, and led the French list three times.
Worldwide, Danehill sired a record 2,499 foals, a record 354 stakes winners (14%), including 27 champions, and a record 92 group/grade I winners.
As shown in the accompanying table, Danehill has already surpassed Sadler’s Wells, who has a five-year head start, as a sire of sires of top level winners with 41 sons who have sired major international group/grade I winners (Sadler’s Wells has 33). Sadler’s Wells still has an edge as a sire of leading sires in major racing countries, seven to five, but there are signs that the Danehill male line is about to explode from the confines of Australia, just as Sunday Silence might soon escape posthumously from his foolish banishment to Japan.
Both Redoute’s Choice and Fastnet Rock are now serving “reverse shuttle” Northern Hemisphere seasons in France and Ireland, respectively, and Darley’s Australian-bred Exceed And Excel has already established himself as a shuttle sire in Europe. If Redoute’s Choice and Fastnet Rock, currently the two best sires in Australia, perform equally well in Europe, the Danehill male line will quickly challenge Sadler’s Wells for supremacy there.
Danehill Dancer followed a similar path to Danehill, establishing himself first in Australia before leading England’s sire list in 2009. Danehill’s English-bred son Dansili has established himself as one of the top five sires in Europe, leading the French sire list in 2006.
The one blank spot in Danehill’s record as a sire of sires is North America. American breeders have tried only one major son of Danehill, 2004 Vodafone Epsom Derby (Eng-I) winner North Light, who was imported by Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs. Despite his top-class race record, outstanding conformation, and excellent pedigree, North Light could not overcome the stigma attached to a staying-type grass horse and received sparse patronage in Kentucky before transferring to Adena Spring’s Canadian base. North Light has sired Ladbrokes St. Leger (Eng-I) winner Arctic Cosmos and two American graded winners from his limited opportunities.
There is certainly plenty of evidence that American conditions suit the Danehills, at least on turf, as he has sired five American grade I winners. Thus there is every reason to expect that one of the speedier, more precocious sons or grandsons of Danehill could do very well indeed in America, regardless of their origins.
Much to their detriment, American breeders seem to have forgotten that the pedigrees of “foreign” sires such as Danehill and Sadler’s Wells are in fact completely American and chock full of top-class dirt form. Among Danehill’s best sons, the pedigrees of Danehill Dancer, Dansili, Holy Roman Emperor, Fastnet Rock, Redoute’s Choice, and Flying Spur are all or mostly American.
With the right horse and the right American breeder with the right vision, Danehill could soon join Sadler’s Wells by returning to his American roots.