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story posted Tuesday 28th April 2009 09:05

SHIRLEY HEIGHTS: A nick or just the knack?

Although it is never guaranteed that a great sire of racehorses will become a great sire of sires, it wasn't too surprising that Northern Dancer, once he had proved himself to be a great sire of racehorses, was able to go on to prove himself a great sire of sires too, writes John Berry.

While elsewhere Danzig can perhaps be regarded as Northern Dancer's most influential son as regards propagating the line, in Europe Sadler's Wells has clearly been the king. Champion sire of Britain and Ireland every year from 1990 to 2004 except for 1991 (when the exploits of Generous enabled Northern Dancer's grandson Caerleon to wear the crown), Sadler's Wells, like his father before him, is now well established as a great sire of sires too, with Montjeu and Galileo the two most notable of his many good sire-sons.

During the 1970s and the '80s when Northern Dancer, despite standing on the other side of the Atlantic, was clearly the dominant stallion in European racing, the European-based stallion who came closest to threatening his supremacy was the 1971 Derby winner Mill Reef, champion sire of Britain and Ireland in 1978 and 1987. Like Northern Dancer, Mill Reef too proved able to establish a sire-line - but, such is the competitive nature of international breeding (and the desire of most breeders to follow the most blatantly successful trend), only one line can rule supreme. It has thus proved the case that the Mill Reef sire-line has been unable to threaten the pre-eminence of Northern Dancer's dynasty, but at the same time Mill Reef and his sons (and grandsons) continue to exert a colossal influence on big-race results as broodmare sires. This is easy to rationalize: it is understandable that many of the mares covered by Northern Dancer and his descendants will have hailed from other sire-lines, and hence the Mill Reef line is one of the most obvious to provide a ready supply of well-credentialled mates for the world's most highly acclaimed stallions. Mares by Mill Reef himself have bred numerous high-class horses, including to Northern Dancer-line stallions such top-liners as Breeders' Cup Mile winner Last Tycoon, King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes winner Pentire, Irish Oaks winners Pure Grain and Wemyss Bight, Prix de Diane winner Vereva and Lockinge Stakes winner Fly To The Stars.

It is nowadays generally accepted that an extremely successful cross - whether one wishes to call this a 'nick' or merely to regard it as the natural consequence of a good stallion covering numerous well-related mares - is Sadler's Wells over a mare by Mill Reef's grandson Darshaan. This pattern has produced numerous top-class horses over the past few years, with dual Derby and dual Breeders' Cup winner High Chaparral, Breeders' Cup heroine Islington, Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Yesterday, St. Leger winner Milan, Irish Oaks winner Ebadiyla and Irish St. Leger winner Septimus among the Group One winners which have resulted from this formula. Sons of Sadler's Wells, too, have done well with Darshaan mares, with Entrepreneur's Group One-winning daughter Damson being the most obvious example. Of exciting three-year-olds to have scored in style this spring, Nell Gwyn Stakes heroine Fantasia looks like being the next top-liner for the Sadler's Wells / Darshaan cross, while impressive Leopardstown maiden winner Stately Home, a son of Montjeu from the Darshaan mare Pescia, appears to be one of the likelier members of Aidan O'Brien's potential Derby squad.

However, before one gets too carried away with the well-worn Sadler's Wells / Darshaan 'nick', it is worth remembering that Darshaan mares produce plenty of Group One winners by stallions from other lines, and that Darshaan himself, by excelling as a broodmare sire, is merely emulating his sire Shirley Heights and his grandsire Mill Reef.

Shirley Heights (pictured) was a member of Mill Reef's first full crop. Champion three-year-old in 1971 (when his victories included the Derby, the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe), Mill Reef looked equally good the following year, winning the Prix Ganay in superb style before adding the Coronation Cup to his haul despite being under the weather at the time. Sadly, a broken front leg, sustained in homework at Ian Balding's Kingsclere stable, brought about his premature retirement. Had, in fact, Mill Reef not been such a star it would have brought about his death too, because surgery on horses was not common practice at the time. However, an experimental procedure was carried out to stabilize the limb. Mill Reef survived and went to the National Stud. Still not yet fully healed, he was restricted to a limited book of 21 mares in 1973 before covering the (then) standard complement of nearly 40 mares in 1974. This crop included two colts who were to become star three-year-olds: Prix Lupin and Prix du Jockey-Club winner Acamas, and Shirley Heights.

Bred and raced by the late Lord Halifax, Shirley Heights was trained by John Dunlop and enjoyed a successful season as a two-year-old in 1977, breaking his maiden third time out at Newmarket's July Meeting and going on to win Royal Lodge Stakes over a mile at Ascot in the autumn. Hitherto the veteran Australian rider Ron Hutchinson had been John Dunlop's regular jockey, but Greville Starkey was on board Shirley Heights for the first time in the Royal Lodge and, with Hutchinson having finished his 16-year tenure as retained jockey to Dunlop's patron the Duke Of Norfolk and riding instead in 1978 in Singapore and Malaysia (where he was champion jockey), Starkey retained the ride on the colt for his three-year-old campaign. Together they made a formidable combination: after going down to Whitstead in the Sandown Classic Trial, they won consecutively the Heathorn Stakes at Newmarket (beating subsequent King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes winner Ile De Bourbon), the Dante at York, the Derby and the Irish Derby, defeating Hawaiian Sound in a photo-finish in both Classics. That proved to be their lot, sadly, because Shirley Heights broke down on the Arundel gallops during his preparation for the St. Leger, and was retired to the Royal Studs at Sandringham.

Despite the fact that he came from what seemed at the time to be a relatively plebian dam-line (it subsequently seems much more exalted, with Shirley Heights being followed by such distinguished relatives as the Group One winners Pentire, Divine Proportions, Whipper and Konigstiger, plus the Ribblesdale Stakes heroines Gull Nook and Miletrian, and the Group One place-getters Mr Pintips and Ocean Silk) and was perceived to be a stayer (which even thirty years ago had already become become an unfashionable profession), Shirley Heights was an instant success as a sire. Four of his first five crops included at least one Group/Grade One winner, with Darshaan defeating Sadler's Wells and Rainbow Quest in the 1984 Prix du Jockey-Club to become the star of his second crop and Slip Anchor turning the 1985 Derby into a procession to become the star of his third. High Hawk, Shady Heights and Infamy were others to win at the highest level from these early crops, while his seventh crop contained the leading two-year-old of 1988 High Estate (winner of the Coventry, Vintage, Solario and Royal Lodge Stakes, and subsequently the sire of the 1998 Derby winner High-rise). Ascot Gold Cup winner Arcadian Heights and Italian Oaks winner Valley Of Gold were Group One winners for Shirley Heights in the 1990s, while his sons born when he was 20 or above included Hardwicke Stakes winner Zindabad, John Porter and Ormonde Stakes winner Sadian, and Prix du Jockey-Club place-getter Sestino, as well as the Royal Ascot place-getter Kilimanjaro who in 2003 had the distinction of siring three (Mount Street, Masai and Terrain) of the first five home in the New Zealand Derby. Shirley Heights died in 1997 at the age of 22.

Since then, Shirley Heights' reputation has continued to grow, most notably as a broodmare sire. The concept of a 'nick' between Sadler's Wells and Mill Reef-line mares was instantly established when Sadler's Wells had his first winner: In The Wings, a son of Shirley Heights' Group One-winning daughter High Hawk and a winner on debut over 1200m at Chantilly as a two-year-old in June 1988. As In The Wings went on to win the Coronation Cup and the Breeders' Cup Turf, the pattern was well and truly set. Shirley Heights has subsequently appeared as the broodmare sire of numerous top-class horses, from a variety of sire-lines. Among the stars have been Oaks winner Lady Carla, German Derby winners Fragrant Mix and Dai Jin, Cheveley Park Stakes heroine Wannabe Grand, Hollywood Turf Cup winner Frenchpark, Prix de la Salamandre winner Lord Of Men and Tattersalls Gold Cup winner Shiva. To the Sadler's Wells line, Shirley Heights mares have been responsible for French Group One winners Montare (Prix Royal-Oak) and Alberto Giacometti (Criterium de Saint-Cloud), but the most noticeable example of a Shirley Heights mare clicking with this line has been Shouk. To Sadler's Wells himself she bred the outstanding triple Group One-winning filly Alexandrova, while to Sadler's Wells' son Barathea she produced the Cheveley Park Stakes heroine Magical Romance; and she has produced the 2008 Group Two place-getters Washington Irving and Masterofthehorse to Montjeu and Sadler's Wells respectively.

Masterofthehorse has to be regarded as a candidate for Group One honours from Aidan O'Brien's stable this year, a remark which applies even more to recent Ballysax Stakes winner Fame And Glory, a son of Montjeu and the Shirley Heights mare Gryada. A Group One-winning juvenile last year, Fame And Glory is currently vying for Derby favouritism: were he to win at Epsom, he would add merely the latest chapter to the already lengthy Shirley Heights success story.

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