CIRCLE GAME: GUESS HOW FAR HE’LL GO

For us, from a standpoint of pedigree, physiology and genetics, one of the most interesting horses on the Triple Crown trail is Secret Circle, who won the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) last weekend. There certainly is no doubt about his speed and courage, but against the evidence of his pedigree page, his stamina potential is still something of a mystery.

If we just looked at the paper, we would tend to form the conclusion that Secret Circle is bred for the classics. He’s the first stakes winner from the first three crops sired by Eddington, who was smart at three, when he won the Calder Derby (gr. III), and placed in the Preakness, Travers and Wood Memorial Stakes (all gr. I), but better at four when he captured the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. II) in a new track-record, and the Pimlico Special (gr. I).

Eddington had plenty of stamina in his pedigree too, as he was by Unbridled – winner of a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) – out of a mare by Chief’s Crown, who was a champion at two, but also took the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and hit the board in all three legs of the Triple Crown at three. For good measure, his second dam is by Sir Ivor, winner of the Epsom Derby (gr. I) at 1½ miles.

Secret Circle’s dam, the Dixieland Band mare, Ragtime Hope, did win the Catcharisingstar Stakes at five furlongs, but she also took the 8½ furlong Noble Robyn Stakes, and was fourth in the nine furlong Calder Oaks. Ragtime Hope is half-sister to Really Polish, a Polish Numbersfilly whose credits included the Dogwood Stakes (gr. III) at 8½ furlongs and a rallying third in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). Their dam, Good ‘n Smart (by Smarten, who was very effective at 1½ miles) is a sister to Chesire Kitten, successful the Suwannee River Handicap (gr. III) at 8½ furlongs. The fourth dam, R Thomasina, does have connections to a couple of very fast horses, as she is granddam of Rise Jim, two-time winner of the Tom Fool Stakes (one gr. II, one gr. III), and is a sister to R. Thomas, whose premier victory came in the Vosburgh Handicap (gr. II). The family goes back to Lea Lark, ancestress of LeallahMiswakiSouthern HaloLacovia,TobouggJump StartTargowice, and Singletary, to name but a few that come mind. However, we can also note that three of Secret Circle’s four grandparents were major stakes winners at ten furlongs, and placed in top-class events at 1½ miles. The fourth, Fappiano, is remembered for his speed, but he too was a graded stakes winner over nine furlongs.

One aspect of the pedigree that does raise a distance question is the record of the cross gleaned for a TrueNicks Enhanced report. Secret Circle is bred on the cross of sons of Unbridled, out of mares by Dixieland Band. This hasn’t been a high-frequency stakes producing cross – there are four stakes winners from 62 starters, which look at the TrueNicks report, is about in line with what one would expect give the overall class of all the sires and dams involved – but it has produced quality, the quartet of black-type scorers being Secret Circle, grade one winner Cotton Blossom, the tragic Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles, and graded winning and grade one placed Sindy With An S. Interestingly enough, the TrueNicks Enhanced Report also shows that the horses bred on the cross have an average winning distance which is shorter than their average distance raced, demonstrating that the nick is not exactly a stamina influence.

If a conventional reading of Secret Circle’s pedigree tells one story, his race record to date suggests another. A runaway winner over 5½ furlongs on his debut, he took the six furlong Jack Goodman Stakes by 5¼  lengths on his second start, clocking 1:08.27. The Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint saw his blast through fractions of :20.96, and :44.55, before gutting out a length victory over Shamoos. Secret Circle’s first race of 2012, the one mile Sham Stakes (gr. III) suggest that he might be reaching the limits of his stamina, as he was run down close home by Out of Bounds after leading in the stretch. However, in the second division of the Southwest Stakes (gr. III), he turned stalker himself, and wore down a game Scatman to win by a ½ length. Try a sixteenth further in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), Secret Circle produced another gritty effort to score by ¾ length from the on-rushing Optimizer, but closed in 26 1/5 and :06 4/5, an ran the slowest Beyer Speedfigure of his career to date.

Guessing – and guessing is the appropriate word – at the stamina potential of the U.S. dirt performer is a hazardous business. In comparison with human runners, thoroughbreds compete over a very narrow range of distances, rather in races that extend to the extreme end of the distance spectrum. There is a tremendous variety of different combinations of biomechanics, cardio-vascular ability, muscle-fibre types, neurological factors, and processes impacting the energy systems, that can have a similar performance outcome. This particularly so at the 8½-9 furlong distances, where such a tremendous proportion of top-class U.S. dirt racing takes place.

Using a human analogy from the world of track and field, in the 800m event (metric equivalent of a half mile) – which in time duration is about as long as an 8½ furlong horse race – we can look at the examples of success Olympic champions, Alberto Juantorena and Steve Ovett. Juantorena was an extremely speedy type, who won both the 400m (metric equivalent of a quarter mile) and 800m (metric equivalent of a half mile), both in record times, at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Fifth in Montreal was Steve Ovett, then an international novice. He was destined to win the 800m at Moscow Olympics in 1980, but was a very different physiological type to his predecessor. Almost three seconds slower than Juantorena at 400m – a huge margin an international level – Ovett was also a superlative miler, was to win a Commonwealth Games title at 5000m (3.1 miles), and defeat an Olympic Marathon runner in a Half-Marathon. So despite virtually equivalent performances at 800m, Juantorena and Ovett physiologically and genetically represented something totally different, and would have likely had a very different genetic impact in their offspring (in thoroughbred terms they would generally sire different types).

So it is with thoroughbreds. In our work with Performance Genetics (www.performancegenetics.com), we have come across Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winners that have the genetic make-up of sprinters, but through a combination of superior maturity to their contemporaries (an edge that the speedier types still often have by the first Saturday in May), pace factors, or training style, have carried their speed beyond their theoretical optimal distance. This is one of the reasons that we can have what appears to be a staying pedigree throw up horses as fast as Secret Circle, Discreetly Mine, or Midnight Lute, or a Belmont winner like Touch Gold, who is genetically more like a sprinter, and thus very often mismatched with the mares he is sent, but can sire runners as speedy asMidas EyesMass Media, and Medallist.

As far as Secret Circle is concerned, as a runner we’d put more taith in what we’ve seen on the track to date, than what we see on the pedigree page. Our ‘guess’ is that, like Baffert-trained The Factor last year, he’ll ultimately mature into a sprinter/miler type, but for now he’ll probably be one of many such types lining up on the first Saturday in May to take his shot at the Run For the Roses.

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