Upsets happen along the road to the Triple Crown. Sometimes they reflect bad racing luck. Sometimes they reflect the fact that a fancied contender simply hasn't been fully cranked up yet and needs a race. And sometimes they herald the arrival of a fresh new face among the early leaders of the 3-year-old male division.
Which of these Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) winner Black Onyx is has yet to be determined. Coming off a Feb. 23 turf allowance score at Gulfstream Park, the colt probably had the advantage in seasoning on the more heralded Uncaptured, who finished 1 1/2 lengths back in second while making his first start of the season. Nonetheless, it looks as though owner Sam Herzberg (who races as Sterling Racing) and trainer Kelly Breen may have a pretty nice colt on their hands.
Bred in Kentucky by Cloverleaf Farms, Black Onyx is a son of Rock Hard Ten, whose name was inspired by his owner's assessment of his colt's physique on a one-to-10 scale. A strapping son of the good Roberto son Kris S. out of French champion juvenile female Tersa, by Mr. Prospector, Rock Hard Ten managed to combine his sire's stamina with his dam's brilliance, his seven victories from 11 starts including the 2004 Malibu Stakes and the 2005 Santa Anita Handicap (both gr. I).
On the surface, Rock Hard Ten was the produce of a "fish-and-fowl" mating of a stamina-oriented stallion and a quick but non-staying mare, a pairing that all too often results in a foal that can neither sprint nor stay effectively. Beneath the surface, though, Kris S. and Tersa had more in common than met the eye, beginning with Bramalea (dam of Roberto) and Gold Digger (dam of Mr. Prospector). These tough, classy race mares were both sired by Nashua out of mares with both Bull Dog and Blue Larkspur close up in their pedigrees, suggesting the potential for a genetic affinity between the descendants of Roberto and Mr. Prospector. In fact, the cross of Roberto in the sire with Mr. Prospector in the dam has come up with 210 graded or group stakes winners so far, including champions or highweights Hollywood Wildcat, Kodiak Kowboy , Blame , Shamardal, Wiener Walzer, and Questing. Kris S. and Tersa also share Hail to Reason as a common ancestor (the sire of Roberto, he is also the sire of Morning Calm, the granddam of Tersa), so despite their differing distance aptitudes, the sire and dam of Rock Hard Ten actually shared a significantly common ancestry.
Unfortunately, Rock Hard Ten has been something of a disappointment as a sire. Although his 14 stakes winners to date include 2011 Crown Royal American Oaks (gr. IT) winner Nereid, he has failed to get a single graded winner on dirt so far. This is usually a kiss goodbye for an American-based stallion, and so it is not really surprising that Rock Hard Ten was sold to Korea in late 2012.
Black Onyx's broodmare sire is another high-class racehorse who has underperformed expectations as a sire. Cape Town, who won five of 12 starts including the 1998 Florida Derby (gr. I), is a regally bred son of Seeking the Gold and the first-rate broodmare Seaside Attraction (winner of the grade I Kentucky Oaks and a four-time graded producer, and daughter of the Canadian champion 3-year-old filly of 1979 Kamar, the scion of an excellent Canadian family). His pedigree united the two main branches of the family of the great taproot mare Myrtlewood, ancestress of both Seeking the Gold's sire Mr. Prospector and Seaside Attraction's sire Seattle Slew. But Cape Town was unable to emulate his illustrious ancestors in the breeding shed and was sold to go to Brazil in 2009 during the dispersal of Overbrook Farm's bloodstock. To date, he has been credited with 21 stakes winners, of which the best has been 2003 champion 3-year-old filly Bird Town.
Black Onyx is the fourth foal, fourth winner, third stakes horse, and second stakes winner for his dam Kalahari Cat, whose previous produce includes the Smarty Jones gelding Francois, winner of the 2012 Straight Line Stakes at Arlington Park, and 2010 Nashua Stakes (gr. II) third Quality Council, by Elusive Quality . A winner of three of 14 starts and $106,760, Kalahari Cat is out of the Storm Cat mare Desert Stormette, a full sister to 1995 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Desert Stormer, and, thus, is closely related to stakes winner Desert Gold (Seeking the Gold—Desert Stormette), dam of 2010 Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile Stakes (Eng-I) winner White Moonstone (by the top Roberto son Dynaformer). Breezy Stories, in turn, is an unraced half sister by Damascus to 1976 Canadian champion juvenile male Sound Reason (by Bold Reason), winner of the 1977 Queen's Plate.
Black Onyx's pedigree is a demonstration of the fact that high-class racing stock can never be dismissed entirely even when disappointing in the breeding shed, provided that attention is paid to combining elements that have worked together successfully in previous matings. Even if the colt proves better suited for continued racing on turf or synthetics—entirely possible given both Rock Hard Ten's stud record and the success in England of the similarly bred White Moonstone—there is every reason to think he will keep improving with maturity as his sire did, and that should mean a lot of fun ahead for his connections.