Producing champions unquestionably raises a stallion's profile. But to stallion owners, how much is a champion worth in attracting breeders versus other statistics, such as the number and percentage of black-type stakes winners or graded stakes winners?
In the case of WinStar Farm's Pioneerof the Nile , getting a second juvenile champion in Classic Empire out of four crops to race helped erase a perception lingering throughout 2015 that the son of Empire Maker was a one-hit wonder.
A multiple grade 1 winner on the racetrack, Pioneerof the Nile started out well as a sire, finishing second on the 2013 freshman sire list by earnings and getting grade 2 winner Cairo Prince . Then came along American Pharoah , who was one of five graded stakes winners representing Pioneerof the Nile in 2014, but who attracted all the attention as his sole grade 1 winner. American Pharoah got easy wins in the Del Mar Futurity and the FrontRunner Stakes (both G1) by a combined eight lengths but missed the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) because of a bruised foot. He did enough, though, to be named the champion 2-year-old colt for 2014.
Because American Pharoah was so dominant throughout 2015—sweeping the Triple Crown and taking the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1)—and because Pioneerof the Nile had only one other North American graded stakes winner that year (grade 2 victor Midnight Storm ), the breeding community began doubting whether the talent flowed deep enough among Pioneerof the Nile's progeny.
"Before Classic Empire came along, we were running an ad telling the story about Pioneerof the Nile, because there was this misconception that he was a one-horse wonder," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar. "Out of his first two crops, he had a horse entered in five out of the first six Triple Crown races for which his progeny would have been eligible. He had Social Inclusion , who had beaten Honor Code by 10 lengths and went on to finish third in the Preakness. He had Vinceremos in the (Kentucky) Derby, who had won the Sam Davis to become eligible. He didn't run well, but he got there. And we are not even talking about a horse who didn't make the Triple Crown races in Cairo Prince."
Early in 2014 Cairo Prince was a star in the making. After he won the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) by 5 3/4 lengths and earned a 4 Ragozin speed rating, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he had extraordinarily high hopes heading toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
"He had a couple of wide trips—some unlucky trips," McLaughlin said. "He got hung wide and finished fourth in the Florida Derby, but he was sitting on a big race heading into the Kentucky Derby. He was a very talented horse."
Cairo Prince missed the Kentucky Derby because of an injured left front fetlock that forced him into early retirement. He now stands at Airdrie Stud, and his first foals are yearlings of 2017.
As WinStar worked to convince breeders that Pioneerof the Nile could produce a high caliber racehorse, along came John Oxley's Classic Empire. Out of the Cat Thief daughter and multiple stakes producer Sambuca Classica, Classic Empire won at first asking at Churchill Downs and followed up with his first graded stakes win in the Bashford Manor (G3). He went on to win the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (both G1). The only blemish on his record came in the Hopeful Stakes (G1), when he wheeled at the start and dumped his rider.
Classic Empire was the unanimous choice for champion 2-year-old male. He will make his sophomore debut in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park.
"With Pioneerof the Nile, getting that second juvenile champion was really important," Walden said. "He has been able to back up what we had been saying with another champion in the first opportunity after American Pharoah.
"Pioneerof the Nile is able to get the caliber of horse everyone is looking for, and the chance to have a Derby horse. We bred 18 mares to Pioneerof the Nile last year because we believe in him. Now the market believes in him."