Published in the Feb. 9 issue of The Blood-Horse
At her high desert ranch, Dalene Knight can't help but dream of a white-hot year. That's white like the snow that dusts her Painted Desert Farm near Redmond in eastern Oregon. And white like the Thoroughbreds that run in her fields. As strange and beautiful as fresh snow on the sand, these startling creatures command double takes. No wonder: In 107 years, The Jockey Club has registered only 15 white Thoroughbreds. That's from a pool of 1.7 million registered foals in the century-plus history of The Jockey Club's stud book, said spokesman John Cooney. "What are the odds?" For Knight, they're pretty good. A retired businesswoman turned farmer, Knight bred five of those phantom-like whites, and fully expects more on the way. "I can't wait until the new babies get here," she said in December with all the enthusiasm of a child awaiting Santa on Christmas Eve. "There will be some exciting kids." Few people have ever seen a real white Thoroughbred. And once they do, they don't forget. Just ask trainer Howard Belvoir, who conditions Arctic White. At age three, the pure white colt will return to the track in February after shin problems delayed his debut. Arctic White will start his career in Washington at Emerald Downs before heading south to Northern California and Belvoir's main operation. "He's absolutely amazing," said Belvoir at Golden Gate Fields in Albany, Calif. "People think they've seen white horses, grays that have turned white with age. But this guy--he's white-white, whiter than paper. It's indescribable. He's something else." Several photos of Knight's whites can be seen on her farm's Web site, www.painteddesert.net. The site was put together by her partner, Don Irvine, a retired custom tool designer. The photos are not retouched. The foals look like they're coated in powdered sugar. Knight originally named Arctic White "White Horse," but that name was rejected by The Jockey Club. After his racing career, Arctic White will stand at stud Painted Desert Farm. Arctic White and Knight's other white Thoroughbreds are the offspring of Airdrie Apache, a Thoroughbred of a different color himself. A 1993 unraced Kentucky-bred son of the Mr. Prospector stallion Naevus, Airdrie Apache is a registered chestnut but his red coat is splotched with wild white patches--a sign of the white genes he inherited from his dam, Not Quite White. Airdrie Apache, who will stand for $2,000 in 2002, is a sought-after overo Paint sire with good Thoroughbred blood. "Not Quite White is one of the original nine registered white Thoroughbreds," said Knight, who acquired Airdrie Apache in 1997. With a theory that her stallion might produce white offspring, Knight test-bred Airdrie Apache to some of her Thoroughbred mares that seemed to have a lot of white markings in their family history. Out of 37 babies, including Thoroughbreds and Paints, Airdrie Apache's first crop in 1999 included three pure white Thoroughbred foals. "We thought for sure we would get some interesting looking babies, but three all white!" exclaimed Knight. "Wow!" That trio included Arctic White, and the fillies Silver Mystique and Snow Baby Go. After seeing that success, Knight bred Airdrie Apache back to her mares and, like twin white lightning bolts, luck struck twice again. She got two more white fillies last spring. The Jockey Club recently registered Silverella and Arcticanna (a full sister to Arctic White). Silver Mystique, out of the Hawkster mare Ms. Dubious, sold at the 1999 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November sale as a weanling for $85,000. The filly is preparing for her race debut in Ireland. "She was a marvelous little show girl," said Knight proudly, "just a spectacular horse." Ms. Dubious, a granddaughter of the great broodmare Anne Campbell, foaled a nearly all-white colt in 2001, but this foal has zebra-like stripes of black in his mane and tail and tiny gold speckles scattered across his coat. "He's an incredible-looking baby," said Knight. Observers would never suspect that Ms. Dubious could mother such unusual foals. "She's all brown, not a speck of white on her," said Knight of her mare. "But what she lacks in markings, she makes up for in genetics." Looks aren't everything, and Knight has launched a major commitment to upgrade her broodmare band. She wants head-turning horses than can really run. Explained Knight, "We want to turn out horses with lots of quality and flashy looks, too." In some 200 years of breeding, one axiom remained true: There was no such thing as a white Thoroughbred. Then in 1963, a filly appropriately named White Beauty arrived. White Beauty was born pure white, not a black or brown hair in sight. Her skin was soft pink, but she was not albino, just pristine white. "She's the very first one," said The Jockey Club's Cooney, who has become somewhat of an expert on this quirk of the breed. To be classified as white, a foal must have only white hairs and pink skin. White Beauty was the product of a mutated gene, a million-to-one longshot in nature. But she started her own line, passing that white gene to new generations. According to Cooney, only five white Thoroughbreds have ever raced. "None of them turned out real special," he said of their records. White Beauty won two of 16 starts. Another white foal didn't hit the track until 1979. Clarence Stewart, a 1977 colt, went one for 29.
He was followed by Grand Espoir Blanc (1984 gelding, three for 16), White Flight (1987 gelding by Clarence Stewart, one for 23), and Patchen Beauty, a 1995 filly who retired in 2000 two for 23 with earnings of $54,268. That's an 8.4% white win rate overall. None ever won a stakes. Belvoir is confident Arctic White has the look of a runner.
"He's a very well-built horse," said the trainer. "He's very mature and sturdy with a good mind. He acts like he has a lot of ability. We're taking our time with him to develop him right." That's why Belvoir is starting Arctic White out in Washington instead of California. "He's never going to run in the claiming ranks, and California can be pretty tough," he said. "We want to build his confidence." Arctic White already has a good sense of himself and his difference. "He can be pretty ornery," said Belvoir. "He likes to rear up like Trigger or Silver (the Lone Ranger's horse)--but he's just feeling good. The hardest part is keeping him clean." Other horses tend to spook a little when they first see Arctic White, said Belvoir. "They definitely react; they haven't seen anyone else like him." Colorwise, white Thoroughbreds will always stand out in the crowd, which remains heavily dominated by bays--regular or dark. The Jockey Club breaks down the current Thoroughbred color scheme like this: 34% bay, 32.1% dark bay or brown, 25.5% chestnut, 8.2% gray or roan, and 0.2% black. Although that tiny slice of pure black seems minuscule, it dwarfs the number of whites. "We get about 100 blacks every year," said Cooney. Knight will be the first to tell you: White is in the genes. This unusual horse color did not evolve from gray genes or a dilution gene that can lighten coat color through generations. And these white horses are definitely not albinos. "People ask us about this all the time," said Knight. "True albinos do not exist in the equine world; white Thoroughbreds have color in their eyes. Our white foals have eyes as black as coal." Continued...