Flightline was clearly the star among stars at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies held Jan. 26 in Palm Beach, Florida, but a trio of stallions that call the rustic environs of John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa home stole the show from a sires’ perspective, accounting for half of the evening’s 10 winners among the Flat divisions.
Success at the Eclipse Awards is obviously directly correlated with horse racing on its biggest stages, and the results from the first weekend of November, not far away from Xalapa at Keeneland Race Course, hinted that a night of this sort of magnitude was a distinct possibility. Breeders’ Cup Friday featured a championship-clinching peformance from ‘TDN Rising Star’ Forte (Violence) in the GI Juvenile and the momentum carried over into the first of Saturday’s nine races when Goodnight Olive (Ghostzapper) raced away with the GI Filly & Mare Sprint. Elite Power (Curlin) turned in a bit of a surprise in the GI Qatar Sprint–with Maclean’s Music‘s reigning Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Jackie’s Warrior third, and later in the program, the GI Longines Distaff provided the race of the meeting–if not the entire year–when ‘Rising Star’ Malathaat was up in the final jump in a pulsating finish, with another daughter of Curlin, Clairiere, narrowly beaten into third. Nest was fourth as the Distaff favorite, but had long since clinched the 3-year-old filly championship.
On that evidence, Thursday evening’s results could hardly be deemed a total surprise, but Sikura is never one to take anything for granted and was duly humbled.
“It’s very rewarding,” Sikura said. “It’s hard to ask for more really. It was a magnificent evening, great recognition for the farm, the stallions and all of our supporters. It’s a very competitive business and sometimes less is emphasized with regards to achievement as compared to sales ring performance and the like. It doesn’t happen every year and hopefully it brings attention to the staff and the great work everyone does.”
In addition to his three winners–which took his total to 10 champions overall–dual Horse of the Year Curlin was also represented by two other finalists: the aforementioned Clairiere in the dirt female category and Cody’s Wish, whose work over seven and eight furlongs landed him a spot on the sprint ballot.
“Curlin has really emerged and in my own opinion, he’s the great classic sire of today,” said Sikura. “If you want to win the Breeders’ Cup or any Classic race, you have a better chance of that with Curlin than any other sire. I think that’s borne out in fact. There are a lot of really good [sires] out there, but I think he’s unique.”
So what is it exactly that Curlin passes on to his progeny?
“He’s one of those unique horses that imparts so much quality and talent into his offspring,” Sikura said. “He can sire a top-quality horse at any distance and I think that’s the separating part between the good, very good and great sires. It’s not easy to sire multiple Grade I winners and it seems like–maybe it’s just nostalgia for me–but it seemed like it happened more in the day of A.P. Indy, Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer and Nijinsky II, Alydar, Seattle Slew. I think Curlin is certainly in that category.
He continued, “It’s a tribute to Barbara Banke and her support and a tribute to all the breeders and a tribute to the horse himself. He was such a magnificent, tough racehorse and he’s not only imparted his ability, but his durability and soundness. No matter how much talent you have, if you can’t get to the races, it’s kind of insignificant. They’re tough, they’re not fragile. Whatever is their best race at two, they get better and better and better as they go.”
More Than A ‘Ghost’ of a Chance…
Ghostzapper joined the Hill ‘n’ Dale stallion roster after being transferred by Frank Stronach from Adena Springs for the 2021 breeding season. Having just turned 23, the son of Awesome Again just keeps on keeping on, Sikura says.
“I’d heard many negative comments that he’s too old, but I like to say you’re only old if you can no longer do it,” he commented. “Some people get old at 30 and some at 80 are creative and inventive in pursuing life and moving forward, and I think it’s that way with stallions. He has Moira who’s going to be Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old filly in Canada. Her best distance was a mile and a quarter on the turf, but then he can get you a champion sprinter.
“He’s such a good horse. I wish I would have had him earlier, but I thank Frank Stronach for doing a deal with me to stand Ghostzapper much the way Ken Ramsey did with Kitten’s Joy. I think we’ve brought a lot to the table and commercialized the horses a little bit. I bred 12 of my own mares to him last year and we’ll do the same this year. He can get a dirt horse or a turf horse and they’re fast, but they can also get two turns and have great versatility at the highest levels of racing.”
Goodnight Olive is a seventh worldwide champion for Ghostzapper.
A First For Violence…
The progeny of Hill ‘n’ Dale’s Violence have been increasingly sought after, both as commercial entities and also for their racetrack ability, but the 13-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro was recording a first when Forte took home the hardware for champion 2-year-old male Thursday evening.
“While Violence has always been popular in the sales ring and with breeders, to sire a champion 2-year-old, that’s an accolade that he didn’t have before,” said Sikura. “He’s bred nice mares, but a champion seems to drive the quality to the next level. When buyers know a sire can get a champion, they’re certainly more determined to have them. This adds to his resume, which was already impressive. Champions are champions, there is only one a year, and it’s a great achievement for him.