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Deconstructing Black Caviar

The brilliant victory of Black Caviar in the MRC C.F. Orr Stakes (gr. I, video below) - which took her record to 18 wins in 18 starts - gives us an excuse to post an article of her pedigree that ran in the Australian publication Inside Breeding last year, which explored the potential reasoning behind the mating that led to her.

Why is Black Caviar brilliant? While perhaps not as elusive as the answer to the existential query “Why is Iago evil?” posed by Joan Didion’s protagonist, Maria, in the opening line “Play It As It Lays,” and released into nothingness with the answer “I never ask any more,” the motives that prompted the mating that produced the world’s leading sprinter are still something of an enigma. This is especially so as her breeder, Rick Jamieson, has remained mute on the subject, other than to deny the significance of most obvious feature of the pedigree, a double of the brilliant speedster Vain. In fact, he’s gone as far as to say “I don’t rate Vain.” Still, while it appears there is no point in “asking any more” of Mr. Jamieson, we still can’t resist taking up the challenge presented by the whys and wherefores of Black Caviar’s pedigree.

Before attempting to deconstruct the pedigree of the champion, it’s worth briefly recounting her background. She is from the male-line of Nijinsky II, who in 1970 became the most recent winner of England’s Triple Crown. Black Caviar’s grandsire, Nijinsky II’s son Royal Academy, is out of Crimson Saint, an extremely rapid U.S.-raced mare who equaled a world record for a half mile, and set a course record for five furlongs. In addition to being dam of Royal Academy, Crimson Saint has made an indelible impact on the breed through her Secretariat daughter Terlingua, a top-class 2-year-old, and dam of Storm Cat.

The speed that Crimson Saint displayed on the track also appears to have played a considerable part in Royal Academy’s make-up as a racehorse. A winner over six furlongs on his debut at 2, Royal Academy trailed in a disappointing sixth of seven in the Dewhurst Stakes (gr. I) on his only other juvenile outing. At 3 he won the Tetrarch Stakes (gr. III) over seven furlongs, then went down by just a neck to English 2,000 Guineas (gr. I) winner Tirol in the Irish 2,000 Guineas (gr. I). Dropping back in distance, Royal Academy stamped himself as a top-class sprinter with a win in the six-furlong July Cup (gr. I), and was then second in the Ladbrokes Sprint Cup (gr. I) to Dayjur – probably the top sprinter in the world that year – beaten 1½ lengths after not getting the clearest of runs. Royal Academy’s final run, and finest effort, came in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. I). Under a typically inspired Lester Piggott ride, he flew late to score by a neck from that year’s U.S. champion older turf male Itsallgreektome.

Royal Academy never quite became the dominant sire that his race-record and pedigree suggested he might. However, the record shows that during a stud career that saw him stand in Ireland, Australia, and both North and South America, Royal Academy has sired no less 156 stakes winners, 86 group or graded winners, and 20 group or grade I winners. In Australia, his best have included Bel Esprit – the sire of Black Caviar – Caulfield Guineas (gr. I) victor Kenwood Melody, and Serious Speed, who took the MRC 1,000 Guineas (gr. I).

Bel Esprit’s distaff pedigree also suggests speed and precocity, as his dam, Bespoken, is by Vain and out of Vin d’Amour, herself a grade I winner at 2 in New Zealand. Bel Esprit won five out of six at 2, capturing in succession the Pierre Tontaine Trophy, Maribyrnong Plate (gr. II), Blue Diamond Preview (gr. III), Blue Diamond Prelude (gr. III), and Blue Diamond Stakes (gr. I) before the streak ended with a fifth in the Golden Slipper (gr. I). In contrast to his first season, Bel Esprit won only three of 13 starts at 3, but did end the year as champion Australasian 3-year-old in the 1400m-1800m category, primarily off the strength of a win in the Doomben Ten Thousand (gr. I). Bel Esprit has been represented by ten stakes winners from his first four crops, among them Bel Mer, who took the Robert Sangster Stakes (gr. I), as well as graded scorers Gabbidon and Vivacious Spirit.

Black Caviar’s dam, Helsinge, is a daughter of Desert Sun, a stallion who staked his claim to fame as the sire of Sunline (who is actually a reverse Nijinsky II/Desert Sun cross to Black Caviar). Helsinge was unraced due to an injury suffered shortly after her purchase as a yearling, but was an A$300,000 sales purchase, one of the most expensive ever for her sire. Desert Sun is by the Danzig stallion Green Desert, so Helsinge is bred on similar lines to her half brothers Magnus and Wilander (both from the Danehill branch of the Danzig line). Magnus, a son of Flying Spur (AUS) (TrueNicks,SRO), captured The Galaxy (gr. I) and Linlithgow Stakes (gr. II), while Wilander, a son of Encosta de Lago (AUS) (TrueNicks,SRO) took the Schillaci Stakes (gr. II) and Blue Diamond Prelude (gr. II).

The second dam of Black Caviar is Scandinavia, a very fast daughter of Snippets, with her credits including the QTC Cup (gr. II) and Blue Diamond Preview (gr. III), as well as seconds in the Victoria Racing Club Stakes (gr. I) and Goodwood Handicap (gr. I), and thirds in the Lightning Stakes (gr. I) and Newmarket Handicap (gr. I). Scandinavia is out of the unraced Vain mare Song of Norway, whose 11 winning progeny also include the stakes winners Russian Tea Room, Midnight Sun, and Frosty the Snowman. Scandinavia and Song of Norway were somewhat appropriately-named as Song of Norway was out of Love Song, a Danish-born daughter of the Sovereign Path horse Warpath, who captured the 1979 renewal of the Danish Oaks (gr. I).

Looking at Black Caviar’s extended pedigree, and recalling the summary above, it’s very clear that there is a lot of quality, and predominantly quality speed. The quartet of sires in the third generation are Nijinsky II, and a trio of champion sprinters: Vain, Green Desert, and Snippets. For good measure within the same range, we have two more champions in the sprinter/miler range in Royal Academy and Bel Esprit, and two brilliantly speedy mares, Crimson Saint and Scandinavia.

Turning to Black Caviar’s pedigree pattern, and as we’ve mentioned above, the most obvious factor is a 3x4 cross of Bel Esprit’s broodmare sire, Vain. If, for the moment, we assume Mr. Jamieson’s tongue was not firmly in his cheek when he disregarded the influence of Vain, what other pedigree factors might have prompted the mating? Although sire-line/broodmare-sire line nicks are generally an excellent guide the potential of the mating, it’s unlikely that this was the inspiration here. The broad Nijinsky/Danzig cross has not been a prolific one, and has produced only one other group or grade I winner (who was foaled the same year as Black Caviar, so could not have had any impact on the decision). Royal Academy sired only one, relatively minor, stakes winner from a Danzig line mare, and Bel Esprit himself has only one other stakes winner on the cross (and that after Black Caviar already was born).

After Vain and Northern Dancer, there is one other duplication in first five generations of the pedigree, a 5x5 cross of Silly Season. Bred in the U.S. by Paul Mellon (perhaps best remembered in racing circles as the owner and breeder of Mill Reef), Silly Season was by the great American runner Tom Fool. Sent to race in England, Silly Season compiled a pretty impressive record with seven black-type victories from six to ten furlongs, including the Coventry Stakes and Dewhurst Stakes at 2, the St. James’s Palace Stakes at 3, and Champion Stakes at 4. Silly Season was less successful as a stallion, although he did get Lunchtime, who emulated his sire with a victory in the Dewhurst Stakes, and who earned honors as champion 2-year-old in England. Lunchtime failed to train on at 3, and was exported to Australia as a sire. In that role he achieved a very solid record, getting 32 stakes winners, of whom Snippets was the best. The second best horse sired by Silly Season was Adios, who appears in the pedigree of Black Caviar as sire of the granddam of Bel Esprit. He also did his best work at 2, taking the Royal Lodge Stakes before embarking on a stud career in New Zealand.

What’s interesting here is that Bel Esprit’s dam, Bespoken, is by Vain out of a mare by Adios (by Silly Season), while the flying Scandinavia, the granddam of Black Caviar, is by Snippets (by Lunchtime, by Silly Season) out of a mare by Vain, so is a reverse cross to Bespoken. This means that Black Caviar’s sire is a cross of Northern Dancer over Vain/Silly Season, and her dam is a Northern Dancer over Silly Season/Vain. There are grounds for suggesting an affinity between Silly Season and Vain, who appear together in the pedigrees of well over 60 stakes winners, including other grade I winners Preserve, Starspangledbanner (AUS) (TrueNicks,SRO), Econsul, Legs, Stratum (AUS) (TrueNicks,SRO), Bel Mer, Crystal Lily, Festal, and Shellscrape.

There are some other elements of cohesiveness too. Tom Fool, the sire of Silly Season, is often seen in successful combination with Bel Esprit’s grandsire, Nijinsky II. This is no surprise given that Tom Fool is by Menow out of a mare by Bull Dog, and Flaming Page, the dam of Nijinsky II, is by a grandson of Bull Dog out of a Menow mare (and with a second dam by a grandson Bull Dog’s brother Sir Gallahad III). Royal Academy is particularly notable in this respect, as his third dam is by Menow out of a Sir Gallahad III mare, and so is a three-quarters relative to Tom Fool. With all this Menow present, we’ll note that Sir Ivor (in the pedigree of Black Caviar’s broodmare sire) has as his third dam Athenia, a multiple stakes-winning three-parts-sister to Menow. With regard to this portion of the pedigree, it’s worth recording that Royal Academy has sired at least nine stakes winners with Sir Ivor in the dam, seven of them group or graded.

The pedigree has another unusual factor: Scandinavia has the talented but willful sprinter Grey Sovereign 5x5 in her pedigree, and her sire, Snippets, is by Lunchtime (by Silly Season) out of a mare by Grand Chaudiere (dam by Grey Sovereign), where Adios is by Silly Season, and his third dam is a half sister to Grey Sovereign.

For our money, the key to the pedigree is the parallel in found in both halves of the pedigree, that of Northern Dancer over the combination of Vain and Silly Season. Together, this trio produced both Bel Esprit, as well as Helsinge, the dam of Black Caviar, with Silly Season/Vain combining in both the dam of Bel Esprit and in Scandinavia. The general cohesiveness of the background was doubtless of benefit too. Of course, as to whether any of these factors played a part in Mr. Jamieson’s though processes is an entirely different question!

Searching in Vain?

While Black Caviar’s breeder doesn’t “rate Vain,” from our standpoint it is hard to dismiss his impact in the pedigree. A winner of 12 of his 14 races, and a champion at 2 and 3, Vain, and another magnificent speedster, Manikato, are the benchmarks that all subsequent Australian sprint stars have been measured against. At stud, Vain was champion sire of Australia once, champion sire of 2-year-olds twice, and champion broodmare sire twice.

These credentials alone should make one wary of dismissing the potential impact of relatively close inbreeding to Vain, but there is more concrete evidence to back the impression. As far as duplicating him via Bel Esprit is concerned, Vain is not only 3x4 in the pedigree of Black Caviar, but at the same remove in the pedigrees of grade I winner Bel Mer, and stakes winners Belcentra and Mooring. This quartet has been produced from just 36 starters by Bel Esprit out of mares with Vain in the first four generations of the distaff side of the pedigree (11% stakes winners to starters, compared to around 2% stakes winners to starters for the sire with all other mares).

Black Caviar and Bel Mer are two of only three group I winners inbred to Vain, and oddly enough, the only other horse with that distinction is Golden Slipper (gr. I) heroine Crystal Lily, who has pedigree similarities to Black Caviar, as she also has a double of Lunchtime (not to mention both Nijinsky II and Danzig, although in this case both are in the sire’s side of the pedigree).

Given these results, it’s likely that Bel Esprit will cover an increasingly high proportion of mares that have Vain in their pedigrees. Under that circumstance, will Bel Esprit maintain his strike-rate with Vain inbreeding? The answer is, it’s highly unlikely. If Vain is the principal reason for the success of Black Caviar, and on the presumption that both Helsinge and Drop Anchor (the dam of Bel Mer) have been fortunate enough to inherit similar genetic characteristics, then among the other mares carrying Vain that visit Bel Esprit, only a limited number will possess those same key genes. And that is a puzzle that we’ll have to leave to the geneticists to resolve.

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speed, speed, speed!!!

with it the imposible becames posible.

marc 16 Feb 2012 1:39 PM

Most interesting piece, Alan. You have certainly illuminated many of the pieces to this intriguing puzzle. Let's first state the obvious just to be clear-There is a genetic basis for Black Caviar's greatness. Ferreting it out as to what are, and aren't, most contributory to her exceptional phenotype is an incredibly daunting if not impossible task. When one sees this degree of racing ability coupled with a pedigree less apparent for such acomplishment it inspires the constant revisiting of that pedigree, at least for me. It's a real challenge, but the enjoyment of the process is always tempered by the realization that one cannot achieve any semblance of certainty. The most one can hope for is a sense that some progress has been accomplished in a correct direction. That's where I feel I'm at (re-Black Caviar) as my study of her pedigree repeatedly led me to a Tom Fool focus. I readily admit that the genetic "reasons" for Black Caviar's greatness are many/varied, but the Tom Fool aspect/component may be the highest contributor. While I tried to explore this impartially, know that Tom Fool, for me, is the #1 positive genetic influence on the thoroughbred breed-the genetic superstar of superstars. I've concluded that it's just possible that Black Caviar has managed to assemble in her genome a relatively high proportion (concentration) of the genes that enabled Tom Fool to be the horse he was (she received selectively, Tom Fool's better and best genetic material). A thorough look at Black Caviar's pedigree allows the possibility for such an occurrance (I realize this could be postulated for other influences as well). You have already noted the 5x5 Silly Season (by Tom Fool) directly through his two best sons, and the pedigree similarities of Nijinsky II and Sir Ivor to Tom Fool. There are also several commonalities between the pedigrees of Crimson Saint and Tom Fool. You have also noted the apparent (line breeding) "nicks" between Tom Fool and Nijinsky II, and Nijinsky II and Sir Ivor-all contained within Black Caviar's pedigree. Add to this the known "nick" between Nijinsky II and Blushing Groom (not in Black Caviar's pedigree)-which could again be a line breeding nick (see pedigree of Spring Run, dam of Blushing Groom's sire). Tom Fool was by Menow out of Gaga by Bull Dog. Pieces of both Tom Fool, himself and ,perhaps, some of the better/best pieces of what formed a Tom Fool permeate Black Caviar's pedigree. If one were so inclined, it might be in part possible to find some concrete evidence to support this thesis- It may be possible to reconstruct Tom Fool's genome and then, with far more difficulty, somewhat isolate (through observation of the genomes of Tom Fool's best descendents) the "better" components of Tom Fool's genome. Once accomplished (very tall task), one could explore Black Caviar's genome for the prevalences of this better/best Tom Fool genetic material.

sceptre 16 Feb 2012 6:56 PM

BEN JONES Was asked the question brothers and sisters to

the GREAT CITATION his reply was Mrs. Sullivan had 10

children but only (1) John L

Larry L 16 Feb 2012 7:08 PM

You asked the question why is Black Caviar so brilliant?

The answer is quite simple really anything with Northern Dancer blood in it is capable of becoming a superstar. As you say she is from the male line of one of Northern Dancer's greatest sons, Nijinsky the last horse to win the English Triple Crown. Before Nijinsky matured to win longer races like the Epsom Derby and the St.leger his speed in winning races like the group 1 2000 Guineas and as a 2 year old the very important Dewhurst Stakes was absolutely astonishing.

If you watch re-runs of those two races there is no doubt whatsoever were Black Caviar inherited her great speed from.

John T 16 Feb 2012 9:56 PM

Interesting re Tom Fool is that one strain is through Snippets, a horse who I thought had a lot of Tom Fool about him physically

Alan Porter 17 Feb 2012 7:29 PM

Kind of you to entertain my ramblings with your mention of Snippets, Alan. Snippets and Tom Fool also share that lone white left hind pastern-as did some of Tom Fool's better descendants (sometimes on right rather than left).- evidence for + "linkage"? An observation like this was sometimes asserted for the black dorsal stripe with many of Ribot's best get.

Black Caviar does have a talented full-brother, but I see where today her 1/2 sibling (whose sire has no Tom Fool "patterns") won first time out. While this new piece of evidence is small, I'll admit it does weaken my position (hope). Looks like Black Caviar's dam is a high quality producer, and this alone probably trumps all other conjecture.

John T-while I grant that anything is possible, I strongly doubt that Nijinsky II was much responsible for Black Caviar's great speed. Unlike a Tom Fool (and many others), Nijinsky II sired very few sprinter-types. Also, Nijinsky's prowess at 2 was somewhat emulated by his son Gorytus, who at that age was also considered to be a freakish phenom. His form, though, deteriorated thereafter, and he essentially failed at stud while siring stayers. Yes, I do remember Shadeed, but he and Royal Academy were the exceptions. Also doubt that Royal Academy inherited much of his speed from Nijinsky II, as Crimson Saint was a notorious influence for speed-take a look at Pancho Villa (by Secretariat no less).    

sceptre 18 Feb 2012 1:38 PM

Crimson Saint was a closet Quarter Horse. She had incredible speed from the gate and she just kept going as fast and far as she could.

I first saw her race on the daily TV replay of Hollywood Park races while at university in Southern California. She was in the Meteor H. at 5 on the turf, a 3yo filly against older male sprint stars like Miles Tyson and Indulto in May. She flew out of the gate and quickly put many lengths on the field; flying into the turn, she looked like she was going too fast to negotiate it, but she hugged the rail and came home with a 2 length victory.

Both her sire Crimson Satan and her damsire Bolero were known for the speed they imparted to their offspring, despite the fact that the former won major stakes at 10f and was a close 3rd in the Belmont and the latter won the 9f Del Mar Derby. The next dam was by Menow, whose own dam Alcibiades was a famous and speedy 2yo (although she won the Kentucky Oaks at 3). Meanwhile, Crimson Satan's sire Spy Song was another notable speed source, out of yet another famous and speedy 2yo filly, Mata Hari. All these influences blended together and created a pure distillation of sprinting speed called Crimson Saint.

We had another speedburner of similar talents out in California at about the same time, a colt named Vikingson who regularly ran first quarters under 21 seconds. He went on to be a sire, primarily of Quarter Horses. I always said they should have bred Crimson Saint to Vikingson and sneak it into the Appendix of the QH stud book somehow; it would be a cinch to win the the richest race in the country at the time, the $1 million All American Futurity. Instead they tried to get foals who could stretch her speed by breeding her to staying-type sires; she never produced a foal who was anything more than a sprinter/miler.

Pedigree Ann 18 Feb 2012 8:32 PM


 I was'nt thinking about anything that Nijinsky bred but rather the influence that Nijinsky had as a rachehorse particulary his days as a 2 year old when all his races were sprints.Nevertheless i'm sure as you say the Tom Fool line has contribuated well to the success of Black Caviar. I well remember the son of Tom Fool, Silly Season back in the 60's and was perhaps a little unlucky to finish second in the 1965 2000 Guineas to Niksar but by the end of that year under a very inspiring ride by Lester Piggott he was able to turn the tables on that rival in the 10 furlong Champion Stakes.

John T 18 Feb 2012 8:52 PM

Hi Sceptre,

From what we are learning in the course of our studies for Performance Genetics it wouldn't be a shock if a gene variant for a phenotypical characteristic (such as that for a color marking) frequently travelled with a variant that was a positive for performance.

I'm sure that you are right re Gorytus - the sister, Terpsichorist, could run all day. The Minstrel, a very physically different three-parts-brother to Nijinsky II could get a sprinter, but from memory, Royal Academy and Shadeed, who both had their biggest wins at a mile were about as good as the fast Nijinsky II's got.

Alan Porter 19 Feb 2012 9:24 AM

Hi Alan

 I can understand what you are saying that Royal Academy

and Shadeed were as fast as Nijinsky got but all it takes

is one good nick on the sire or dam side to come up with a

brilliant racehorse like Black Caviar. I know most experts

favour the dam side but as you know Pretty Polly was one of

the greatest racemares of all time yet she never produced

anything even half as good as herself. There is nothing written in stone to suggest that the same won,t happen to

Black Caviar or even Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra for that

matter.The good news is that it can happen for example Meld

won the same important races as a 3 year old that Pretty Polly did,1000 Guineas,Epsom Oaks,Coronation Stakes,and St.

Leger and she went on to produce the 1966 Epsom Derby winner

Charlottown. If I may just add the following to things that

are mentioned in this article, I think the ride that Lester

Piggott give Royal Academy to win the Breeders Cup Mile was

one of his best ever mainly because of his age at the time.

It is mentioned at 3 Royal Academy won The Tetrarch Stakes,a

race that of course is named for''The Spotted Wonder''who

only ran as a 2 year old.He was a very bad actor at serving

a mare but we are forever grateful that he sired the very fast Mumtaz Mahal whose daughters went on to play such a

major part in the stud book. The Tetrarch was actually the

official title of Herod The Great at the time of Jesus.

John T 20 Feb 2012 9:49 PM

Sorry to hear about the passing of Royal Academy,he give us

lots of memories as a racehorse and he done the best he could as a sire.

John T 22 Feb 2012 11:40 PM

I think what we are forgetting here is the Vain factor to go so far back in her pedigree I feel is irelevant and also her dam being unraced so we did not get to see what type of race horse she would have been, she has also left 2 other winners 1 with the same sire as Black Caviar the other by Casino Prince, I believe that she is High Class producer, as was Eight Carat she was unraced also, black caviar in her racing here in australia she has this stride that when she quickens she takes 2 and the rest take 3, I feel that if you sent Helsinge to Bel Esprit you would get a high class horse but not to the class of Black Caviar.

I am doing a experiment for myself as i would like to breed back to seattle slew to see if i can reproduce him but am very limted with his sire sons in australia have sent a mare to Super saver a great grandson.

Gaspare 06 May 2012 4:47 AM

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