Every new racing season sees much interest focused on the new batch of first-season sires. While the principal table is judged on prize money, almost as much attention is focused on the numerical tables, those judged on individual winners and races won. Remarkably, the first month of the new season in Britain and Ireland has ended with all three tables topped by a stallion whose claims to siring early two-year-olds would have been far from obvious: the 2006 St Leger winner Sixties Icon, writes John Berry.
While it wasn't easy to predict that the offspring of Sixties Icon would shine so early in proceedings, it was easy to conclude that he would be a good stallion, despite the fact that he would not have been at the top of many (any) pundits' lists of potential stars. The problem was - and this, I am afraid, is a refrain that continues to crop up in this column - that, while Sixties Icon had turned out to be the excellent racehorse which he had been bred to be, the durability which he had shown by racing until five weeks short of his sixth birthday (not to mention the fact that he had been good enough to stay well) seemed to act as more of a deterrent than an attraction in the eyes of many breeders. Now that he is making such a good start to his stud career, he might be on the verge of proving how wrong it was that he should have been so scantily patronised at the outset.
In history, there have been some glaring examples of top-class fillies who have not proved good broodmares. Sheikh Mohammed's first true champion Pebbles springs immediately to mind. Similarly there have been a few phenomenally successful broodmares who did nothing on the track. One such example was arguably the great Kiwi mare Dulcie, who never raced and whose owner Ralph Stuart observed: "She was as mad as a March hare. And small. I only kept her because of her breeding." In time, Dulcie rewarded Mr Stuart's faith in her lineage many times over. She bred 11 individual winners of 115 races, including the international champion Balmerino, Brisbane and Adelaide Cups winner Fulmen, Toorak Handicap winner Gay Filou, and the high-class filly Micheline, who became the dam of the only three-year-old filly (to date) to win the Cox Plate, Surround. Incidences such as these have led some misguided souls to conclude that there is not much of a correlation between racing ability and breeding ability. This is, of course, a serious misconception, and such names as Mumtaz Mahal, Selene, Windmill Girl, Dahlia, Personal Ensign, Shadea and Urban Sea spring immediately to mind as top fillies who became legendary broodmares. Even the likes of the outstanding matrons Set Free, Hasili and Kind, if not quite Group One gallopers, were still stakes performers in their racing days.
On this basis, it was hardly surprising that Sixties Icon's dam Love Divine, a daughter of the high-class US-based sire Diesis, should have produced a high-class horse. She retired to Lordship Stud in 2001 as a mouth-watering breeding prospect. Not only did she hail from a lovely family, but she was also a Classic winner, having won the Oaks in 2000. Love Divine's dam La Sky had been a good filly when trained by Henry Cecil (winning two races and finishing second to her lesser-fancied stablemate Patricia in the Lancashire Oaks) while her very close relative Legal Case had won the Champion Stakes when trained by Luca Cumani. (La Sky and Legal Case were both from the winning Northern Dancer mare Maryinsky, with Legal Case being a son of Alleged and La Sky being a daughter of Alleged's Irish Derby-winning son Law Society). Lordship Stud had bought La Sky to be one of the stalwarts of its broodmare band, and now she was being joined by her Classic-winning daughter, who had raced for the stud from Cecil's stable.
Love Divine visited Sadler's Wells in her first year at stud in 2001. The result was a colt named Love Me Well, who was sold and raced in France, where he showed above-average ability before dying as a four-year-old. Love Divine's second mate (in 2002) was Sadler's Wells' top-class son Galileo, who was in his first season at Coolmore Stud, having won the English and Irish Derbys the previous year. This mouth-watering mating (a Derby winner covering an Oaks winner) was clearly designed to breed a Derby candidate. It must have been very tempting for Lordship Stud to keep the resultant foal, but its policy remained to sell the colts; so, having been prepared at Watership Down Stud, the colt headed to the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale in 2004, where he was bought by John Warren on behalf of the subsequent BHA chief Paul Roy and his wife Susan for 230,000 gns. His new owners named him Sixties Icon, and he went on to prove that the 230,000 gns had been money very well spent.
(Lordship Stud, incidentally, was not able to resist forever the temptation to keep a colt out of Love Divine: in 2007 it owned a Cape Cross yearling out of her who was entered in Tattersalls' Yearling Sale. However, the colt was withdrawn from the sale and ended up racing for the stud. Named Native Ruler, he put up a string of good performances during an injury-interrupted career, his best run coming when he failed by only a nose against Dandino in last year's Jockey Club Cup. He is now midway through his first season as a stallion at Louella Stud).
Sixties Icon wasn't a particularly big two-year-old, but even so he took a bit of time to come to hand. Consequently his trainer Jeremy Noseda elected not to run him at two, but to get him out early in the spring as a three-year-old. He duly made his debut at Newmarket's first meeting of 2006, contesting the Museum Maiden Stakes over a mile and a quarter. He attracted no support in the market, drifting from 16/1 to 20/1, but shaped with promise in finishing a never-nearer sixth. It was a different story when he went to Windsor three weeks later: well backed into 6/4 favouritism, he was prominent throughout before running on strongly to beat the Queen's colt Fleeting Memory by three quarters of a length, with the third-placed Pigeon Island (a subsequent Grade Two winner over hurdles who ended up landing a Grade Three steeplechase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2010) seven lengths further back.
Sixties Icon was clearly a very progressive young stayer. Going straight from his second-up maiden victory to the Derby understandably proved too stiff an assignment (although he still ran well at Epsom, finishing seventh of the 18 runners, beaten less than six lengths by the winner Sir Percy) but he basically did everything right through the season. Having finished third behind Papal Bull in the 'Ascot Derby' (the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot), he justified favouritism in one of the principal St Leger trials, the Group Three Gordon Stakes over a mile and a half at Goodwood. That victory ensured that he started favourite for the St Leger (run that year at York, while Doncaster was closed for renovations) and he did not let his supporters down: he won impressively by two and a half lengths under a confident Frankie Dettori. This race not only confirmed Sixties Icon as a top-class young stayer, but also confirmed Galileo as a top-class young sire: he was responsible for the trifecta, with his first crop sons Sixties Icon, The Last Drop and Red Rocks (who won the Breeders' Cup Turf on his next start) filling the first three places. To emphasise the merit of the form, the admirable Ask (subsequently winner of six Group races, including the Coronation Cup and Prix Royal-Oak at Group One level) finished fourth.
Sixties Icon's first season of racing ended with a slightly disappointing (bearing in mind that his connections had paid 60,000 euros to supplement him into the race) unplaced run in Rail Link's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, although he still fared fairly well against some top-class horses, finishing not far behind Pride, Deep Impact and Hurricane Run and in front of Shirocco. He was back to form first up at four, however, when he easily landed the Jockey Club Stakes over 12 furlongs at Newmarket on his reappearance in April 2007. That impressive Group Two victory, however, proved to be misleading: his connections suffered a very disappointing year thereafter as he only ran twice more that season, running badly both times.
Happily, whatever ailed Sixties Icon during 2007 seemed to be a thing of a past come 2008. The horse enjoyed a terrific campaign in which, although unplaced on the three occasions when he contested Group/Grade One races, he dominated his rivals in lesser stakes races. During the year, he won a 10-furlong Listed race at Goodwood and three Group Three events: the Glorious Stakes at the same track over 12 furlongs, the Geoffrey Freer Stakes over 13 furlongs at Newbury and the Cumberland Lodge Stakes over 12 furlongs at Ascot. He finally retired, sound, after finishing unplaced in the Japan Cup at the end of November, passing the post six and a half lengths behind the winner Screen Hero (but one place ahead of his old rival Papal Bull).
Admirable a horse though Sixties Icon was, it was clear that he was not going to be well supported at stud. For a start, he had raced too often and for too long. Furthermore, he stayed too well. Added to the sins of having proved his toughness, soundness, courage, stamina and durability, there was an extra black mark against his name: he had reportedly had a wind operation when out of form as a four-year-old.
Wind operations are nowadays as fashionable in Britain as premiership soccer. They are, however, probably less well understood. Many horses when not fully fit, or otherwise not at their best, or even just racing on ground which they don't like, will 'make a noise', which is caused by lack of muscular control of the horse's soft palate allowing it to become displaced and thus to interfere with the flow of air through the horse's wind pipe. Generally, this can be cured by nothing more complicated than getting the horse fitter, healthier, running him on better ground, perhaps tying his tongue down, or even riding him more patiently. However, it is now the fashion at the first opportunity to subject the horse's soft palate to a minor surgical procedure believed likely to reduce the chances of it becoming detached. This scenario is vastly different to a horse having a wind problem (ie suffering partial or total paralysis of one side of the larynx). It appears to be the case that Sixties Icon endured treatment to his soft palate while out of form (for whatever reason) as a four-year-old - but he showed (by winning several good races) the following year when back on the top of his game that his wind functioned perfectly satisfactorily. There is no evidence that Sixties Icon had any laryngeal malfunction whatsoever - and yet the shadow of his supposed wind operation came back to haunt him when he retired to stud.
Thankfully, while the quidnuncs opined that Sixties Icon wasn't what one was looking for in a stallion, the proprietors of Norman Court Stud in Wiltshire took a more rational view. He has stood there from the outset and he has now got his stud career off to a flying start. It is, of course, almost certain that the current impression of him as a sire of early two-year-old sprinters will prove to have been grossly misleading. His stock will surely show their best form given both time and distance, but the initial impression is that, like their sire, they are sound, hardy horses who can gallop. West Ilsley trainer Mick Channon is very closely involved with the stud and hence trains many of Sixties Icon's two-year-olds - and as Channon is a master at getting horses ready to run fast and early, some of the two-year-olds have already run, and most of those who have run have won. As of the first day of May, Sixties Icon has had five runners. Four of these are trained by Mick Channon, all of whom have won.
Sixties Icon is swimming against the tide, having covered only relatively small books of largely unremarkable mares. Under the circumstances, he will find it hard to sire significant numbers of stakes performers, which is seemingly what is required nowadays to be granted any sort of recognition. However, he appears to have the potential to be a very good stallion, and the early evidence is that he is going to give his offspring the qualities which they will need for success. If there is any justice, he will become better patronised forthwith and will go on to establish himself as a stalwart of the British breeding industry.