“I don’t need to know nothing ‘bout no stinking stallion stats” is the too-frequent response of horse folk to comments about statistics attempting to evaluate stallion performance.
There are, however, a serious cadre of breeders and racing fans, even handicappers, who do appreciate the insights that can be derived from stallion stats, and racing has a long and interesting history of trying to do something with statistics.
At the most basic level, early observers of the sport compiled lists of winners and their victories, and then at the end of a racing season, they had in hand cumulative stats for the sires with the most winners and the most wins. These were some of the most popular lists in the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
Listings ranked by sires of winners make a lot of sense because if a stallion doesn’t get winners, who cares?
The next step in listing was the fundamental development of what we now call the general sire list: the rankings of stallions by earnings. At first, gross earnings proved too high a hurdle and most listings were for winners only and first money only; the Daily Racing Form, however, expanded its statistical reach to include earnings of all placings and all runners. That proved a significant improvement in the overall assessment of how horses were performing for their sires.
Greater subtlety came with the advent of the average earnings index and the standard starts index, which helped to assess how well a sire was doing in terms of progeny volume and in contrast to all other stallions with racers. Nifty stuff if you enjoy a good roll in data charts and statistical ink.
Interestingly, the most popular list to this day is the general sire list. Who the big dog is.
Of course, there are some serious caveats to using raw earnings to judge stallion value or success. One of the more laughable leading sires was Buckaroo, a handsome bay son of Horse of the Year Buckpasser. Although Buckpasser was a landmark racehorse and a most important stallion, his son Buckaroo was notable for only a couple of things and a couple of horses.
The most important thing about Buckaroo was his son Spend a Buck, winner of the 1985 Kentucky Derby, and the most important historical footnote about Spend a Buck was that he single-handedly (single-hoofedly?) caused the Triple Crown bonus to come into being.
The fleet frontrunning son of Buckaroo did this by not racing in either the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. What, you say? Why didn’t he try for the Triple Crown?
Instead of following the great lure of history and tradition, the owners of Spend a Buck sent their classic winner to the Jersey Derby after the Kentucky Derby because, by winning that race, Spend a Buck would earn a big bonus.
It was the $1 million Garden State Bonus sponsored by Garden State Park for a horse to win their two Kentucky Derby preps, the classic, and then return to Garden State to win the Jersey Derby.
Nor did the timing of the races allow a horse to participate in the Preakness, then jump up the pike for the Jersey Derby. Nyet, comrade, the choice was tradition or bucks.
Spend a Buck was sent to Jersey for the money, and he got it. But he won the Jersey Derby narrowly in a hard-fought finish against a little-regarded bay gelding named Crème Fraiche.
In his next race, Crème Fraiche won the Belmont Stakes as the first great success of a distinguished career that included victories in the G1 Super Derby and two runnings of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Spend a Buck subsequently won the Monmouth Handicap and retired with seasonal earnings of $3,552,704, a record at the time.
Not coincidentally, that pushed his sire to gross progeny earnings of $4,145,272, which was the second-highest gross progeny earnings ever to 1985. Yet Spend a Buck’s egregious portion of that haul, 85.7 percent, made certain that breeders approached Buckaroo with a shade of skepticism.
The son of Buckpasser proved a useful horse, siring the important sprinters Lite the Fuse and Montbrook, as well as 1986 Suburban Handicap winner Roo Art.
The result of the furor about Spend a Buck slipping out of town for the Jersey Derby and the big bonus was the development of the $5 million Triple Crown bonus, which was never awarded.
Today, we have a similar purse winnings irregularity. The Pegasus last year propelled 2016 champion 3-year-old Arrogate to leading North American money earner, then completely to the top of the international heap of money winners with his victory in the Dubai World Cup. As a result, Arrogate’s sire, the deceased Unbridled’s Song, led the general sire list for nearly the entire year and was leading sire by gross earnings.
Had Arrogate retired after the World Cup, he might well have been named Horse of the Year, but instead, the gray was returned to racing and suffered three consecutive losses, the last being behind subsequent 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In January, Gun Runner bade adieu to racing with victory in the 2018 Pegasus, and his sire Candy Ride still sits atop the leading sires list of 2018 with $10,830,558. That is not likely to be enough to get the general sires title this year because Scat Daddy, with Triple Crown winner Justify at the fore, is in second with $9,609,599 and surely a good deal more to come.