One of the great uncertainties in evaluating the prospects of this year’s Kentucky Derby (gr. I) contenders is weighing all-weather form. It’s not a new problem, but it has been brought into particularly sharp focus by the efforts of two horses that have run behind the West Coast’s dominant 3-year-old, Pioneerof the Nile .
First, I Want Revenge , who finished second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Cash Call Futurity (gr. I), and third to the same horse in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), was extremely impressive in winning both the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) and the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I). Then, Papa Clem, who had finished second, beaten ½ length to Pioneerof the Nile, in the Robert B. Lewis, captured the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). This was Papa Clem’s second dirt start. In his first, he’d encountered a sloppy track when finishing second to Friesan Fire in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). Speed figures would suggest that I Want Revenge and Papa Clem have moved forward on dirt, but there is certainly a question as to whether all-weather tracks, where the emphasis is more on finishing speed, are producing as reliable numbers as traditional dirt tracks. The other question – which won’t be answered until Derby Day – is whether Pioneerof the Nile (who conceded 7 lbs. to Papa Clem in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes) can duplicate that level of superiority when he first tries dirt in earnest at Churchill Downs, itself a pretty idiosyncratic dirt surface.
Interestingly, Smart Strike, the sire of Papa Clem, is already a member of that still rather exclusive club comprising stallions that have sired grade I winners on dirt, turf, and all-weather tracks. His all-weather scorer, Square Eddie , is a member of the same crop as Papa Clem and, coincidentally, also has form with Pioneerof the Nile. Square Eddie, who started his career in England, captured the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) on his U.S. debut, and then ran second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). At the time, Square Eddie looked to be the principal classic hopeful from Smart Strike’s current sophomore crop, but after finishing second to The Pamplemousse in the San Rafael Stakes (gr. III) in his 3-year-old debut, Square Eddie went to the sidelines with shin problems. He’s not totally out of the Derby picture, however, as he is pointing to the April 18 Lexington Stakes (gr. II).
Of course, the other question that most Kentucky Derby prospects have yet to answer is whether they will stay 1¼ miles on the first Saturday in May. On pedigree, we’d say that Papa Clem is likely, but not certain, to get the trip. Smart Strike won six of his eight starts, including the Salvator Mile Handicap (gr. III) and the Philip H. Iselin Handicap (gr. I) at 8½ furlongs. He has sired group/graded stakes winners from six furlongs to more than two miles, and his grade I winners range from the top-class sprinter Fabulous Strike to Champion Turf Horse English Channel , a multiple grade I winner at 1½ miles.
His best son, two-time Horse of the Year Curlin , won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), two renewals of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), and the Dubai World Cup (gr. I) at 10 furlongs, ran third in the Kentucky Derby in only his fourth start, and was beaten just a head by Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) at 1½ miles.
Papa Clem’s dam, Miss Houdini, ran only four times – two of them at 2 and two at 3 – before an injury curtailed her career. She won both of her juvenile starts, with the second of those victories coming in the seven-furlong Del Mar Debutante Stakes (gr. I). Miss Houdini is by Belong to Me, a dyed-in-the-wool speed merchant, who never won beyond six and a half furlongs (six of seven races at six furlongs) scoring his most prestigious victories in the Boojum Handicap (gr. III) and Best Turn Stakes (gr. III). Retiring to stud relatively cheaply in New York, Belong to Me made a remarkable start to his stud career by getting a grade I winner in each of his first three crops. Moved on the strength of his early success to Lane’s End Stud, Versailles, Ky., Belong to Me never quite reached the levels his early crops suggested. However, he has sired several other good winners, headed by last year’s Champion Turf Filly or Mare, Forever Together. That filly is obviously effective at 1¼ miles, and Belong to Me did also sire Bulla Borghese, a group I winner in Australia at the metric equivalent of 12½ furlongs. He also sired Jersey Girl who won the Mother Goose (gr. I) at nine furlongs. They are the only ones of his 10 grade I winners, however, to score beyond a mile.
Papa Clem’s granddam, Magical Maiden, was also a grade I winner at 2, taking the Hollywood Starlet Stakes (gr. I). She trained on to add black-type victories at 3, 4, and 5, among them the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) and Chula Vista Handicap (gr. II). She also ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) at nine furlongs. By champion 2-year-old Lord Avie, Magical Maiden was three-parts-sister to Jersey Derby (gr. II) winner, and Kentucky Derby third-place finisher, Avies Copy (by Lord Avie out of Magical Maiden’s second dam, Display Copy). Magical Maiden’s own dam, the Magesterial mare, Gils Magic, never won but did produce two other stakes winners, including the Hollywood Juvenile Championship Stakes (gr. I) victor, Magical Mile. She’s also the granddam of four other black-type scorers, among them the Churchill Distaff Mile Stakes (gr. III) victress, Take the Ribbon. Papa Clem’s fifth dam, Courting was imported in utero from Europe and was a very stoutly bred daughter of Supreme Court – winner of the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes – out of the Irish Oaks victress Linaria.
Papa Clem has one thing in common with Smart Strike’s first U.S. classic winner, Curlin: Both are out of Northern Dancer-line mares, and bred on a cross that would have been very predictable from a study of Smart Strike’s female line.
Curlin’s dam is by Deputy Minister, sire of Canadian Champion Hello Seattle, who is out of a half-sister to Smart Strike, and of grade I winner Always a Classic out of Smart Strike’s granddam, No Class (for good measure, Deputy Minister’s sire, Vice Regent, sired champion Regal Classic out of No Class).
Papa Clem’s dam is a granddaughter of Danzig, sire of Canadian Horse of the Year, and U.S. champion 3-year-old Filly Dance Smartly, out of the dam of Smart Strike. Smart Strike has sired earlier stakes winner Striking Tomisue out of a mare by Papa Clem’s broodmare sire Belong to Me; he has three stakes winners, including Canadian Horse of the Year Soaring Free, and graded winner High Strike Zone out of mares by Danzig himself; and grade I winner Shadow Cast and graded stakes winner Bel Air Beauty out of mares by other sons of Danzig.