Any homebred Classic winner is special. But for the Aga Khan, owner/breeder of Prix de Diane heroine Valyra, victory would have been particularly sweet, as she thus became the first Group One winner for his home-bred stallion Azamour, writes John Berry.
As he breeds yearlings to race himself rather than to sell, the Aga Khan is in the fortunate position of not having to worry about the vagaries of fashion. European breeding has suffered a lot in recent years because all too many breeders seem to devote as much time in trying to second-guess the future whims of yearling buyers as they do in trying to breed a good horse; so the Aga Khan’s practices are a refreshing joy to behold.
One of the sillier symptoms of the modern fashion mania is the belief that everyone wants the progeny of young stallions (which notion is exceeded in stupidity only by the fact that most people do indeed seem to want the progeny of young stallions). Of course, once a stallion has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, it is only natural that he should be overlooked by the market place in favour of untried young sires – but the crazy thing is that stallions who have been weighed in the balance and found to be good are also swiftly discarded. This makes no sense – as the Aga Khan regularly demonstrates. One such demonstration came when he sent his mare Asmara, a daughter of the top-class US-based Roberto sire Lear Fan, to the 20-year-old stallion Night Shift in the year 2000, which was Night Shift’s sixteenth year at stud. The result of this mating was Azamour, who can be regarded as the best horse whom Night Shift ever bred.
Many very successful sires have greatness thrust on them, receiving large books of high-class mares from the start. Not so Night Shift, whose greatness was entirely self-achieved. Retiring to Barton Stud in England in 1985 as a five-year-old, the son of Northern Dancer was one of the more obscure first-season sires of his vintage. His racing record (he was very lightly-raced and his only win came in a maiden race) didn’t entitle him to particular respect, while his pedigree - his dam Ciboulette had come from a top Canadian family and had been a champion in that country before breeding the great racemare and broodmare Fanfreluche (a full-sister to Night Shift) and some very good colts - would have commanded much more attention in Canada than it did in England. His family is now regarded around the world as a recognized stallion family (largely courtesy of Encosta De Lago, Flying Spur, Lode, Holy Roman Emperor and Kheleyf) but at the time its fame was very limited outside North America. As it turned out, Night Shift can take a large amount of the credit for helping the family get to its current lofty international position – but that, of course, could not have been known at the time.
Night Shift had been an instant success, getting the Group One-placed juvenile Frequent Flyer in his first crop and the champion filly In The Groove in his second. He was duly recruited by Coolmore and continued to churn out good horses, but by the year 2000 he was generally viewed as ‘yesterday’s man’. Furthermore, he had, disappointingly, failed to come up with a second horse of the calibre of In The Groove, despite having covered by now many books of considerably better (or supposedly better!) mares than the one who had produced In The Groove.
Night Shift, then, was probably not even on the radar in 2000 for most high-profile breeders. Not so for the Aga Khan, though, who included him in the wide range of stallions which he was using that year. And he didn’t just fob him off with an ordinary mare, either – not that he has any ordinary mares. Asmara had been a Listed winner when trained for the Aga by John Oxx, while her year-younger half-brother Astarabad had won the Group One Prix Ganay from the stable of Alain de Royer-Dupre. Astara had even been good enough to contest the Irish 1,000 Guineas (in 1996, finishing eighth behind Matiya). That latter fact alone was high praise, John Oxx very rarely pitching his charges into top-class races if they are not of the required class.
Asmara’s Night Shift colt, born in March 2001 and named Azamour, duly joined John Oxx’s stable as a yearling towards the end of 2002. His dam had been one of the stable’s first juvenile runners of her year and she had been good enough to contest a Group race in her first season; and in 2003 Azamour likewise turned out to be a very good two-year-old. The previous year, Oxx’s best juvenile (Alamshar) had won a maiden race on debut before beating the subsequent Racing Post Trophy and St Leger winner Brian Boru in the Group Two Beresford Stakes over a mile at the Curragh on his second start. Alamshar had graduated to the highest level as a three-year-old, finishing third in the Derby after an interrupted preparation before beating the Aga Khan’s other runner (the subsequent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Dalakhani) in the Irish Derby and routing a top-class field of weight-for-age gallopers in the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot. It was, therefore, significant that Oxx followed exactly the same strategy with Azamour, who won a mile maiden race at the Curragh (Alamshar had won at Listowel) before winning the Beresford Stakes.
Oxx’s placing of Azamour during 2003 had made his high opinion of his charge clear. Oxx is known as a man usually able to assess his horses accurately, and the colt’s form had suggested that the trainer was right to be so positive. It came as no surprise, therefore, when Oxx allowed the colt to tackle the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket first-up as a three-year-old, even if the majority of punters failed to take the hint, the market sending him off at a price (25/1) which suggested that he was likely to be out of his depth. However, the market had got it wrong: Azamour was indeed continuing to develop into a top-class colt, as he showed by finishing third of the 14 runners in the season’s first Classic, beaten 2.75 lengths by the winner Haafhd (and a length in front of the subsequent Irish Derby winner Grey Swallow).
Punters were more on the ball three weeks later, sending Azamour off for the Irish 2,000 Guineas at an SP which more accurately reflected his ability. Starting the 6/4 favourite, Azamour ran a great race, finishing second to the shock winner Bachelor Duke (who had finished only seventh at Newmarket). Bachelor Duke thus joined the small band of horses to win a Classic as a maiden, but that proved to be the only victory of his career. Not so Azamour, who continued subsequently to go from strength to strength, most immediately by landing his first Group One victory when taking the St. James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot three weeks later, beating two of the principals from the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (Diamond Green and Antonius Pius) with Haafhd fourth and Bachelor Duke only seventh.
Azamour’s hugely successful second season finished with him venturing beyond a mile to post two top-class performances in the autumn, each over ten furlongs: he won the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown before finishing third to his old rival Haafhd in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket.
Under normal circumstances, Azamour’s career would have ended at that point: the Aga Khan generally favours his grandfather’s preferred policy of letting his top-class colts begin their stud careers as four-year-olds. When his grandfather had first made this practice his norm, it had caused a degree of consternation, most obviously when he retired the 1935 Triple Crown winner Bahram to stud at the end of his Classic campaign, a move which prevented what would have been a unique meeting of Triple Crown winners: the 1935 American Triple Crown winner Omaha contested the 1936 Ascot Gold Cup, a race which, had Bahram been under different ownership, would surely have been on his agenda too. (Even without Bahram’s presence, incidentally, the 1936 Ascot Gold Cup still ranks as one of history’s greatest races, courtesy of the magnificent battle which Omaha fought with Quashed, who gained a narrow verdict after a titanic struggle). Nowadays, however, there is nothing particularly remarkable in Classic winners covering mares at the age of four – but what was remarkable was that Azamour, rather than retiring to stud as a four-year-old, became a rare top-class Aga Khan-owned colt to race at that age.
The Aga Khan must presumably have felt that Azamour had potential for significant further improvement. He was proved correct. Azamour only raced five times in 2005, but two of these runs produced Group One victories. Both races would normally have been held at Ascot but, as that track was closed for the year to allow its gargantuan new grandstand to be built, Azamour’s victory over 10 furlongs in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes took place at what one might have termed ‘Royal York’; while his victory, on his first try at a mile and a half, in the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes took place at Newbury. The latter victory was particularly notable: not only did Azamour have a swag of Group One winners in his wake, but he also broke the track record. (It should, incidentally, be pointed out that the 12-furlong record at Newbury was probably not a particularly hard record to break, as the track usually never holds top-class races at that distance). Azamour finished his career with a very honourable third place behind Shirocco in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Belmont Park in New York before heading off to begin stud duties at the Aga Khan’s Gilltown Stud in Ireland at a fee of 25,000 euros, which did not seem excessive for such a special horse.
With Azamour having begun his stud career in 2006, his first foals were born in 2007 and are now aged five. Unsurprisingly, he has come up with some nice horses every year. His first crop of two-year-olds (in 2009) included Azmeel, who suggested that he might be a Classic contender for the following year when winning the Washington Singer Stakes at Newbury. Azmeel did indeed win a Derby trial the next spring (Chester’s Dee Stakes) after splitting Chabal and this year’s Ascot Stakes winner Simenon in the Sandown Classic Trial; while another colt to win a Classic trial from this crop was Puncher Clynch, who beat the subsequent Derby runner-up At First Sight in the Ballysax Stakes at Leopardstown. Among Azamour’s first fillies, Eleanora Duse was placed in an Oaks Trial (the Musidora Stakes at York) before winning the Ballymacoll Stud Stakes at Newbury, finishing third behind Midday and Snow Fairy in the Yorkshire Oaks, and then winning the Group Two Blandford Stakes at Leopardstown.
Azamour’s second crop of three-year-olds last year continued to hint that he was a budding sire of Classic winners. Native Khan had been a good two-year-old in 2010, winning the Solario Stakes at Sandown, and he duly won the Craven Stakes first up as a three-year-old before finishing third to Frankel in the 2,000 Guineas and fifth to Pour Moi, beaten only two and a half lengths, in the Derby. The same crop also included Colombian (who finished fourth to Reliable Man in the Prix du Jockey-Club and who has won a Group Three race over ten furlongs this year) and Shankardeh, who finished third in the Prix Royal-Oak after winning the Group Two Prix de Chaudenay at Longchamp over Arc weekend.
And now Azamour has hit the Classic bullseye this year with his third batch of three-year-olds, courtesy of the victory of the hitherto unbeaten Valyra in the Prix de Diane. Azamour has also sired Group/Graded winners in Germany (Lindenthaler) and America (No Explaining). He has always seemed likely to establish himself as a Classic sire; Valyra's Prix de Diane victory confirms that that is now exactly what he has done. And it also confirms that Night Shift will remain a factor along the top line of the pedigrees of good horses, Azamour’s influence in this respect being augmented by that of Night Shift’s grandson Turtle Bowl, who should be regarded as one of the best young sires in France.