Premature death is always very sad. When a promising stallion dies young, there is always an element of ‘if only’ when one looks back on his life. Examples of very good horses only to sire one crop of foals include Adraan and Dubai Millennium, but at least the influence of the latter lives on strongly through his excellent son Dubawi. Another champion with only one crop posthumously to represent him was Mozart, who has already come up with one decent Irish-based sire (Amadeus Wolf) and who might well be about to come up with another, if first impressions of the first yearlings of the durable Dandy Man are anything to go by. Another stallion whose premature death proved to be a big loss was the ill-fated National Stud resident Air Express, who has failed to make his mark as a sire of sires but whose daughters continue to come up trumps, most recently courtesy of the victory in the Group Three Denny Cordell Memorial Stakes at Gowran Park of Aloof(pictured), a three-year-old daughter of Air Express’ Group One-winning daughter Airwave, writes John Berry.
It is only in retrospect that Air Express’ worth as a stallion has become fully apparent. At the time of his death in 2000, he had embarked on his second season at the National Stud in England, with his fees for those two seasons being 5,000 and 4,500 GBP respectively. He hadn’t been favoured with many obviously high-class mares, but after his death it became apparent that he had been a good enough stallion to upgrade many of those who had visited him. As things turned out, he ended up being sorely missed by British breeders, including by the many who would have given him hardly a second thought while he was alive.
It is strange that Air Express was so undervalued as a sire when he went to stud because he had won a race which has one of the best records in Britain for producing stallions. In a successful three-year-old season in 1997, Air Express had landed the Group One Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at weight-for-age over a mile at Ascot, a race which last year was won by the mighty Frankel and whose list of other winners in the fairly recent past includes Kris, Known Fact, Warning, Selkirk, Mark Of Esteem, Dubai Millennium, Starcraft, George Washington, Raven's Pass and Rip Van Winkle. However, unlike many of the more famous QEII winners who were regular winners, Air Express was a horse who ended his racing career having won only a small proportion (4 out of 15) of his races.
For all that Air Express was not a regular winner, he was clearly a high-class horse. Bred by the late Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum’s Gainsborough Stud Management Ltd, he was put into training as a yearling in the autumn of 1995 under the ownership of Sheikh Maktoum’s relative Mohammed Obaida. He joined the Newmarket stable of Clive Brittain, who had been training for the Maktoum family ever since Sheikh Mohammed had bought the great filly Pebbles from her breeder Captain Marcos Lemos after her victory in the 1,000 Guineas in 1984. Sheikh Mohammed had kept Pebbles under Brittain’s care (and presumably was very glad that he did because Brittain sent her out to land many famous victories in his maroon and white silks, culminating in a ground-breaking triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1985) and the veteran trainer continues to prepare horses for the family to this day.
It must have been hard for Brittain to know quite what to expect from Air Express because his pedigree gave out some very mixed messages. While his sire Salse, a son of the versatile Northern Dancer stallion Topsider, had been a high-class horse at up to a mile, he eventually proved most notable for siring the top-class stayers Classic Cliche (winner for Godolphin of the St Leger and the Ascot Gold Cup) and Luso (winner from Clive Brittain’s stable of four Group One races over 2400m). Furthermore, Air Express’ dam Ibitsamm was a daughter of the 1975 Irish St Leger winner Caucasus. All that, though, obviously proved academic once the colt had started galloping in the early summer of 1996 and it had became clear that he was a naturally fast and precocious horse.
Air Express duly made his debut in a six-furlong maiden race at Yarmouth’s traditional Derby Day fixture – although, of course, by now this fixture was not run on Derby Day, the world’s greatest Flat race having been moved from the first Wednesday in June to its current Saturday slot. Yamouth, though, still then raced on the old Derby Wednesday, and Air Express ran there – and ran well too, finishing second, beaten only half a length by another Newmarket-trained newcomer, Quest Express.
Clive Brittain has never been one to select an easy option if a greater challenge exists – witness his most recent stakes victory, that of the 125/1 shot Semayyel at Yarmouth on 19th September. After Air Express’ promising debut, therefore, Brittain eschewed the option of letting the colt start hot favourite in a maiden race, instead sending him straight for the world’s oldest two-year-old race, the Group Three July Stakes at Newmarket's July Meeting, five weeks later. Quest Express also made his second start in this race (although for him that was a more obvious choice, as he was obviously no longer eligible for maiden races) and the rate of Air Express’ improvement was shown by the fact that he finished ahead of his previous conqueror this time, the pair finishing third and sixth respectively of the nine runners, with Air Express losing out only in a three-way photo-finish, beaten only two heads by Rich Ground and Juwwi, a son of Sheikh Hamdan's imported Australian mare Nouvelle Star, a top filly in Melbourne in her younger days.
Further minor placings in Group races followed (fourth to Putra in the Champagne Stakes at Goodwood and third to Brave Act in the Solario Stakes at Sandown) before Brittain bit the bullet and dropped his charge slightly in class. He didn’t drop him all the way back to maiden company, instead opting for a five-runner conditions race over six furlongs at Yarmouth. Air Express was the only maiden in the field, but his form was strong enough to see him start favourite, and he duly won fairly easily. Following this victory, Air Express never ran outside Group company again. His final two starts of 1996 both confirmed his class and his progressiveness: although out of the frame for the first time in the Group Two Royal Lodge Stakes at Ascot, he was beaten only four lengths by the winner (the subsequent Derby hero Benny The Dip) while he ended his campaign with an excellent third place in the Group One Dewhurst Stakes, beaten only a head and a neck by In Command and Musical Pursuit. Those behind him that day included the Middle Park Stakes winner Bahamian Bounty and the following year’s Irish 2,000 Guineas and Irish Derby winner Desert King.
Having emphasized his class and his toughness as a two-year-old, Air Express continued to thrive at three. He only ran six times in 1997, but again he ran very well in good company every time – and this time he won half of his starts. Following Group Two victories in the spring in Italy and Germany (in those countries’ versions of the 2,000 Guineas) Air Express posted his greatest performance on his final start of the year, beating the Coronation Stakes victrix Rebecca Sharp by a short head in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes over Ascot’s round mile, with the 2,000 Guineas winner Entrepreneur and former Group One-winning juvenile Revoque among the also-rans. That was his second excellent effort that year over course and distance, having finished a one-length second to Starborough (with Daylami, Desert King and In Command in his wake) in the St. James’s Palace Stakes at the Royal Meeting in the summer.
Had Air Express retired to stud the following spring, he would probably have been able to command a fee higher than the 5,000 GBP at which he retired in 1999. However, he stayed in training as a four-year-old in 1998, during which year he was unfortunately able only to damage, rather than to enhance, his reputation. He only ran twice that year. Although he started favourite first-up in the Group One Lockinge Stakes at Newbury, he could only finish seventh of the 10 runners, beaten over five lengths by the winner Cape Cross. Worse was to follow: sent over to France for a Group Three race towards the end of June, he could only beat one horse home. He never ran again.
Air Express took up stud duties at the National Stud just outside Newmarket in February 1999. Among the mares booked to him was the former tough bread-and-butter sprint handicapper Kangra Valley. Kangra Valley has proved a very good broodmare and, to date, has bred six winners including this season’s Listed-placed sprinter Jwala. In recent years she has bred winners by very expensive stallions such as Dubawi and Oasis Dream (the sire of Jwala) but her visit to Air Express in 1999 proved easily her most fruitful union: the resultant produce was Airwave, Britain’s champion two-year-old filly of 2002 (when she won the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket) and a stakes-winning sprinter from ages of two to five inclusive.
Air Express’ small first crop also contained Presto Vento, winner of four races as a two-year-old including the National Stakes at Sandown and the Weatherbys Super Sprint at Newbury, which was good going for a 14,500-gn yearling whose dam never bred another stakes performer despite subsequently visiting the likes of Dubawi, Pivotal and Red Ransom. Presto Vento went on to increase her haul further at three, taking a Listed seven-furlong race at Lingfield. Another smart juvenile also emerged from Air Express’ second crop: Bonaire, winner of the Group Three Prix Eclipse at Maisons-Laffitte in 2003. That crop also contained Antediluvian, winner of a Listed race over a mile as a three-year-old at Sandown in 2004.
Air Express’ short stud career also saw him shuttling to Eureka Stud near Toowoomba in Queensland for one season (1999). The resultant crop included Windy Kate, who showed high-class form when fourth at Eagle Farm in both of Queensland’s Group One two-year-old races, the QTC Sires Produce Stakes (won by Lightning Star - Ambulance) and the T. J. Smith Stakes (won by Picaday). She had previously shown stakes form when runner-up in a Listed race at Doomben.
Having had so little opportunity, Air Express understandably hasn’t left a stallion behind him. However, his daughters have proved to be very good broodmares. Aloof is Airwave’s second very good daughter, following that filly’s half-sister Meow, runner-up in the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2010. Windy Kate, too, has proved very good at stud, her best produce to date being Real Saga, one of Australia’s top juveniles of 2008/’09, when he won the Group Two Todman Stakes at Rosehill and finished second in the Group One Blue Diamond Stakes at Caulfield. Another filly from Air Express’ sole Australian crop, Air's Precious, now ranks as the dam of the 2009 Queensland Guineas winner, Express Air; while the latter’s trainer Rex Lipp has also handled the Listed place-getter Just Destiny, a daughter of the Air Express mare Fortunair. Back in Europe, other good horses to have been produced by Air Express’ relatively few daughters include the Group Three-winning sprinter Glamorous Spirit and the Listed winners Pure Poetry and Airforce.
Air Express didn’t come from a startlingly high-class family, although a couple of his close male relatives (Greenwood Lake and Whitmore's Conn) won at Grade One level in the States before becoming stallions; while another relative, the smart sprinting filly Hatta, found ever-lasting fame (in 1977) as the first Group winner owned by Sheikh Mohammed. (And, if one goes back far enough, one can see that he is distantly related to the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Saint Liam as well as to Minstrella, winner of three Group One juvenile races in Europe in 1986). However, Air Express was an admirably tough horse as well as a genuinely top-class one - as was his close relative Success Express (the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, whose dam Au Printemps - who is also the dam of Greenwood Lake - was a half-sister to Air Express’ dam Ibitsamm). Success Express became an extremely good stallion in Australasia, and it is easy to understand why Air Express proved similarly useful. It was only sad that he died so young.