The Saratoga Race Course meet has a deeply ingrained reputation as one of North America’s major proving grounds for the mettle of a freshman sire, offering some of the deepest 2-year-old competition for both maidens and graded stakes horses.
As one of the meets on the calendar that has the full attention of breeders and stallion operations alike, coming out with a big debut meet at Saratoga can help drum up full books of mares for years to come. In the short-term, however, leading the rookie sires by winners in upstate New York is far from a guarantee that a stallion will finish the year at the top of the freshman list.
Figures provided by Horse Racing Nation show that the leading freshman sire by winners during the Saratoga meet finished that year as North America’s leading freshman sire by earnings in eight of 21 years from 2001 to 2021. In fact, seven stallions that finished the year as the top freshman by earnings went winless during their first Saratoga season.
Leading Freshman Sires By Saratoga Winners Vs. Leading General Freshman Sires By Earnings
|2001||Smoke Glacken||3||Valid Expectations||0|
More Than Ready
|2012||Majestic Warrior||3||Spring At Last||0|
|2014||Super Saver||5||Super Saver||5|
|2016||Dialed In||3||Dialed In||3|
|2021||Gun Runner||4||Gun Runner||4|
Of course, this is far from a perfect “Point A-to-Point B” comparison. One metric measures the number of winners, while the other is based on earnings, and the year-end freshman sire race can be heavily influenced by a handful of big-money 2-year-old races over Breeders’ Cup weekend.
However, between the high maiden purses in Saratoga and the plentiful stakes opportunities for 2-year-olds at the track, there is plenty of money to be had at the meet, and a sire whose first runners show precociousness in the mid-to-late summer can help a stallion set the kind of pace that could hold sway if the freshmen are blanked in the Breeders’ Cup. That margin is best achieved by getting lots of winners at big meets.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable sire groups in this data set.
The racing world has been enraptured by the success of Gun Runner’s debut crop at stud since they first hit the track last year, and his record-setting freshman season included a powerful stand in Saratoga, where he led all rookie stallions with four wins from 10 starts.
That group included eventual champion 2-year-old filly Echo Zulu, who broke her maiden in Saratoga by 5 1/2 lengths, then dominated the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes by four lengths. Her Spinaway triumph was part of an epic weekend at the Spa for Gun Runner, who was also responsible for the winner of the Spinaway’s counterpart for colts and geldings. A day after the Spinaway, Gunite posted a minor upset in the G1 Hopeful Stakes, kicking away to win by 5 3/4 lengths at odds of 11-1.
Earlier in the meet, Wicked Halo put her sire in the graded stakes win column with a gate-to-wire score in the G2 Adirondack Stakes.
Gun Runner finished 2021 with combined progeny earnings of $4,315,908, which surpassed the previous freshman record of $3,632,214 set by Uncle Mo in 2015. His performance in Saratoga was a clear preview of his meteoric ascent within his class and the overall stallion ranks, but was not as much the case for the previous two record-holders by freshman earnings.
Uncle Mo finished the 2015 Saratoga meet with two wins in 11 starts, which trailed New York-based Girolamo’s four winners on the season. His meet was led by Uncle Vinny, who was promoted to first in the G3 Sanford Stakes.
Uncle Mo picked up the freshman sire record from Tapit, who himself eclipsed Danzig’s 24-year-old record in 2008 without a single Saratoga winner.
Now considered one of the surest things in the North American stud book, with a progeny record in Saratoga that includes last year’s G1 Travers Stakes and G2 Jim Dandy Stakes winner Essential Quality, Tapit went winless from eight starts during his debut Saratoga meet.
Tapit would go on to rake in $2,762,036 from his freshman crop, led by champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Stardom Bound.
Gun Runner is an example of the best-case scenario when it comes to a freshman sire, leading the way in Saratoga before shattering the earnings record. The ones who “only” annexed Saratoga en route to the freshman title without the earnings record, still include some of the biggest recent names in the stud book.
Distorted Humor tied with a murder’s row of Grand Slam and Elusive Quality, each with two Saratoga winners, before going on to take the freshman sire title for himself in 2002. Awesome Humor was responsible for both of those wins: the G2 Adirondack Stakes and the G1 Spinaway Stakes.
In 2011, Scat Daddy posted two wins during his inaugural Saratoga meet as a sire, tying with English Channel and Pure Prize, before going on to top the overall standings without the benefit of a Breeders’ Cup winner. Scat Daddy didn’t have any stakes winners at the Spa that year, but future multiple Grade 3 winner and Kentucky Derby starter graduated during that meet, going 1 1/16 miles on the turf.
One of the most convincing debuts came from Super Saver, who led all freshman sires by Saratoga wins since 2001, with five, en route to the year-end title in 2014. That group was led by the tag team of I Spent It and Competitive Edge. After winning the G2 Saratoga Special Stakes, I Spent It finished second to Competitive Edge in the G1 Hopeful.
Freshman sires leading their class by Saratoga wins and following through to win the year-end title has become more commonplace in recent years, with four of the past six leaders seeing it through to the end.
Dialed In picked up three winners during the 2016 meet, including G2 Saratoga Special winner Gunnevera, who would go on to earn over $5.5 million during his on-track career.
Three years later, the eagerly-awaited first juveniles by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah hit Saratoga, and his three wins tied with Constitution for the most of the meet. The charge was led by Sweet Melania, who broke her maiden going 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf before finishing her 2-year-old season with a win in the G2 Jessamine Stakes and a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.
American Pharoah picked up another Saratoga stakes winner in Another Miracle, who parlayed a victory in the Skidmore Stakes into a third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint.
In 2020, Nyquist’s leading season was included a three-win season in Saratoga, highlighted by eventual champion Vequist, who destroyed the field in the G1 Frizette by 9 1/2 lengths. Lady Lilly, who finished third in that Frizette, broke her maiden earlier in the meet.
As Tapit displayed, the road to the top of the freshman sire ranks does not necessarily have to loop through upstate New York.
Furthermore, Tapit’s winless season was not a fluke among stallions that would become breed-shapers.
Street Cry’s first crop was a hit machine, featuring 2006 champion juvenile and 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Hall of Famer Zenyatta, and multiple Grade 1 winner Street Boss.
However, his runners went 0-for-2 in Saratoga during his freshman season, while Johannesburg notched three wins to lead the meet. Among those winners for Johannesburg was future meet-leading sire Scat Daddy, who took the G2 Sanford Stakes.
Congrats went on to a long, productive stud career after going winless with five starts in Saratoga. He bounced back with a strong fall season that featured Grade 1 victories by Wickedly Perfect and Turbulent Descent.
Offlee Wild spent several years standing in Kentucky, even after his lone Saratoga runner finished out of the money in 2009. His class-leading success was instead coming in the Midwest, with champion 2-year-old filly She Be Wild. Offlee Wild would later go on to sire Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern.
The Summer Flings
Whether they finish the season at the top of the freshman list or not, leading the Saratoga meet by first-crop winners has proven to be a strong indicator of long-term success at stud.
Three leading general sires were once the top freshman sire in Saratoga since 2001: Elusive Quality, Distorted Humor, and Kitten’s Joy.
Elusive Quality and Distorted Humor both debuted in 2002, notching a pair of victories. Elusive Quality would become the leading general sire two years later on the strength of Smarty Jones’ failed Triple Crown bid, while Distorted Humor claimed the title in 2011 when Drosselmeyer won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Kitten’s Joy shared his Saratoga freshman title with Afleet Alex in 2009, and he’d go on to top the general sire list in 2013 and 2018. His runners won three of 18 starts in Saratoga during his freshman season.
Though Kitten’s Joy did not have any stakes winners during that meet, it did serve as a launching pad for the likes of Dean’s Kitten, who bested Paddy O’Prado in a maiden special weight on the turf, and later won the G2 Lane’s End Stakes en route to a start in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
Beyond the leading general sires, the roster of stallions who claimed Saratoga’s freshman title and finished somewhere besides first on the year-end charts features some of the most proven names in the stud book. Top sires including Grand Slam, Forestry, and Speightstown were leading freshmen at the Spa during their respective meets.
The top spot is not just reserved for Kentucky’s best. Freud, an all-time great sire in the New York program, pulled in three victories during the 2005 meet to lead his rookie class. Other Empire State residents to earn that distinction include Precise End (three in 2004), Girolamo (four in 2015), and Central Banker (two in 2018).
Arguably the biggest upset among the group of leading Saratoga freshmen is Mark Valeski, who tied Central Banker and fellow Airdrie Stud resident Cairo Prince with two wins in 2018. He managed that feat with just 15 starters on the year, and with three total starts in Saratoga.
Backtohisroots picked up a 3 3/4-length maiden claiming score in Saratoga, before winning the Atlantic Beach Stakes at Aqueduct two starts later. He was joined at that meet by Network Effect, who won a maiden special weight on debut by three lengths, then went on to finish second in a pair of Grade 3 races at Aqueduct to finish his 2-year-old campaign. He’d become a multiple Grade 1-placed runner.
The strong Saratoga meet helped Mark Valeski relocate from his starting point at Woodford Thoroughbreds in Florida to a spot at Airdrie Stud, but the commercial market never fully warmed up to him, and he was later relocated to Arkansas.