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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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