Although Union Rags went into winter quarters widely regarded as the leading prospect for the Triple Crown events, a superficial reading of his pedigree could have been interpreted to indicate than he’d struggle with the ten furlongs of the Derby, let alone the 1½ miles of the classic he did capture, the Belmont Stakes. Still, a deeper delve into the pedigree, gave us a niggling feeling it would be unwise to totally dismiss Union Rags’ prospects of stretching out.
Much of what one made of those prospects revolved around the two channels of Northern Dancer (who appears 3 x 4 in Union Rags’ pedigree), and the question of which had exerted the greatest influence. Northern Dancer himself fell short at the Belmont Stakes distance. He’d set up a bid for the 1964 Triple Crown, capturing the Kentucky Derby – in a then record time – and Preakness Stakes. In a renewal of the Belmont Stakes contested at Aqueduct – Belmont Park was undergoing renovation that year – Northern Dancer challenged for the lead at the head of the stretched, but faded to third as Quadrangle defeated Roman Brother. He ran just once more, capturing Canada’s premier classic, the Queen’s Plate over ten furlongs, before a tendon injury ended his career (the race can be seen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_Nur480kHQ).
It wasn’t long, however, before Northern Dancer appeared as sire of a Triple Crown winner, albeit an English one, in the shape of Nijinsky II. A member of Northern Dancer’s second crop, Nijinsky II, in 1970 became the only horse since Bahram in 1935 to achieve that feat (as an aside, we can note that the undefeated Camelot, a great-grandson of Northern Dancer, has a chance at the English Triple Crown this year, having already won the 2,000 Guineas (gr. I) and Derby (gr. I). Of course, Northern Dancer went on to further classic success in Europe through such as The Minstrel (out of a half-sister to Nijinsky II), Secreto, El Gran Senor, Shareef Dancer, Sadler’s Wells, Northern Trick and Lomond.
Despite his success in Europe (or perhaps in part because of it, since a high percentage of his offspring make the trans-Atlantic voyage before being tested in North America), Northern Dancer was never represented by a winner of one of the U.S. Triple Crown events. Thus, the Canadian patriarch’s unfinished business with the Belmont Stakes would have to wait until 1986, when his grandson Danzig Connection became the first Northern Dancer line horse to take the third jewel in the crown (the same year, Ferdinand, a son of Nijinsky II, had become the first Northern Dancer line horse to take the Kentucky Derby, although he was preceded as the first Northern Dancer line horse to win a Triple Crown event by Gate Dancer, hero of the 1984 renewal of the Preakness Stakes). The year after Danzig Connection’s Belmont Stakes victory, Bet Twice (a grandson of Nijinsky II), spoiled Alysheba’s Triple Crown bid with a stunning 14 lengths triumph. Since then, Go An Go, Tabasco Cat and Touch Gold (foiling a Triple Crown bid by Silver Charm) have also become Northern Dancer line Belmont Stakes winners.
Given that Northern Dancer retired to stud in 1965, it’s rather remarkable that recall there was a top-class son of Northern Dancer available to U.S. breeders as late as 2008. That horse, Dixieland Band, was another who had his limitations exposed in the Belmont Stakes. Entering the race off a victory won the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), Dixieland Band finished unplaced behind Caveat in his classic tilt. Having added a triumph in the Massachusetts Handicap (gr. II), over the same nine furlong trip as the Pennsylvania Derby, the following year Dixieland Band retired to stud at five. He proved to be a significantly better sire that he was a racehorse, with 117 stakes winners from 1,304 foals (very nearly 9% stakes winners to foals).
Although his Dixieland Band’s European runners included Drum Taps, twice winner of the 2½ mile Ascot Gold Cup (gr. I), and the French Oaks (gr. I) victress Egyptband, in the U.S., Dixieland Band has not generally been regarded as an influence for stamina. His best North American-raced performer, Dixie Union was a graded scorer over six, 6½, and eight furlongs at two. At three, he did stretch out to nine furlongs to capture the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), over Captain Steve, Milwaukee Brew and More Than Ready, but after finishing fourth over the ten furlongs of the Travers Stakes (gr. I), dropped back to seven furlongs to win the Malibu Stakes (gr. I). As a stallion, Dixie Union’s influence has tended towards the speedier end of the spectrum, although Gone Astray, Justwhistledixie, and Dixie City were graded winners at nine furlongs, and Grasshopper ran Street Sense (out of a Dixieland Band mare) to a ½ length in the Travers Stakes (gr. I). Sadly, Dixie Union was euthanized in July 14, 2010, at the age of 13, due to a deteriorating neurologic problem, but at least in Union Rags, he has a son that will carry on this branch of the Northern Dancer line for another generation.
However, as we’ve said, Union Rags has two sources of Northern Dancer in the pedigree. The second appears through Union Rags’ granddam, Terpshichorist, a daughter of Nijinsky II and the Irish 1,000 Guineas heroine, Glad Rags II (by the stamina influence, High Hat, also sire of the granddam of Thunder Gulch, who not only won a Belmont Stakes, but sired a winner of that race in Point Given). Terpsichorist was first of two notable runners produced by the Nijinsky II – Glad Rags II mating. The second, Gorytus, who began his career in England, looked like a coming superstar when on his first two starts he won thelisted Acomb Stakes by seven lengths, while breaking the two-year-old course record, and the Champagne Stakes (gr. II). Long odds-on to confirm his standing in the Dewhurst Stakes (gr. I), Gorytus trailed in more than 30 lengths behind the winner, Diesis. He raced on a three in England and at four in the U.S., but never showed a shadow of his earlier form, and frequently gave the impression that he was giving somewhat less than his best. He subsequently became an equally disappointing sire.
Terpsichorist didn’t show the precocity, nor brief brilliance displayed by Gorytus. And although she excelled on the grass, it was going long in such races as the Sheepshead Bay Handicap (gr. II), Long Island Handicap (gr. III), and Rutgers Handicap, in which she set a course record for 11 furlongs at the Meadowlands. As another pointer to the potential for classic stamina here, we could also note that Terpsichorist, is also very closely related to Snuggle (by Nijinsky II out of a daughter of Glad Rags II), the dam of Colonial Affair, who captured the 1990 Belmont Stakes.
Union Rags’ dam, Tempo, is a daughter of Gone West, which might mean anything as far as aptitude is concerned. Best at around a mile himself, and although tending to be regarded as an influence for speed, Gone West, could get a distance runner from a mare with stamina in the background, examples including the 2000 Belmont Stakes captor, Commendable, Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) dead-heater Johar, and Lassigny, who took the Rothmans Ltd. International Stakes (gr. I).
Tempo herself scored both her victories over six furlongs, and to an earlier mating to Dixie Union produced Union Rags’ brother, Geefour, who scored all four of his wins at six and 6½ furlongs, and was also third in the 5½ furlong Le Grande Pos Handicap at Philadelphia Park. So on the basis of the aptitude displayed by Tempo and Geefour, it would have been no surprise if Union Rags had ended up as a sprinter/miler this year. Still – and this was the reason for our fear of dismissing him as a classic candidate – when you take into account his physique, which is far more reminiscent of the tall and rangy Nijinsky II, perhaps the most untypical of all Northern Dancer’s major sons, you had to wonder if some of that Nijinsky II stamina hadn’t found its way through Terpsichorist.
If Geefour and Union Rags are another demonstration of how the same mating can produce radically different types, the overall pedigree of Union Rags is another reminder of how a couple of ancestors have come to dominate the modern American pedigree. Union Rags not only has Northern Dancer (Nearco/Native Dancer cross) 3 x 4, but also has Mr. Prospector (Native Dancer/Nearco cross) 4 x 3, and for good measure also carries Seattle Slew (by Bold Reasoning, who is bred on a cross of Nearco over Native Dancer’s sire, Polynesian). From that perspective, the story wouldn’t have been very different if I’ll Have Another had made the line-up and taken his place in history as Triple Crown winner number 12: he is by Flower Alley, who has Mr. Prospector 3 x 3 and Northern Dancer 4 x 5 x 4, and himself has five Northern Dancer crosses (Danzig, twice, Lyphard, Sadler’s Wells and Nijinsky II) and a third cross of Mr. Prospector’s sire, Raise a Native, through Alydar (another Native Dancer/Nearco cross). By that standard, this year’s narrow runner-up, Paynter, is virtually an outcross, with only three lines of Northern Dancer, and one each of Mr. Prospector and Seattle Slew.