In 1991, only 5% of all flat races in the United States were on turf. By last year, that figure had risen to 17%. The incremental increase of turf racing over the past 27 years is vivid in the accompanying graph, which was extrapolated from racing data provided by researcher Chris Rossi (See below). This trend to turf is even more significant than the data suggests because in 2017 there were almost 50% fewer races than in 1991. The net effect is that turf racing is playing a greater role in the sport as the industry shrinks. Throw in that 39% of graded races in America were contested on turf in 2017, and you get the picture.
Stud farms in Kentucky have been adjusting to the change. In 2018, 14 Kentucky nurseries are offering 30 stallions that either won or placed in Grade I turf races (plus one, Violence, who was a Grade I winner on all-weather) with first foals age three or younger (See Chart below). That’s a revelation, but it’s not unexpected, because the trend line in the Rossi data suggests that turf racing will continue to grow in the ensuing years. Note that the Breeders’ Cup recently announced that its newest race is a $1-million sprint on turf for juveniles.
“Well, there was a prejudice against turf sires at one point,” said Pope McLean Sr. of Crestwood Farm, which stands the War Front horse Jack Milton. “For a while, people just didn’t want to touch them, but recently, with Kitten’s Joy and others like War Front, and even a horse like Artie Schiller, breaking barriers, things are changing. We were pretty pleased to get 100-plus mares to Jack Milton in his first year, and they seem to have caught on at the sales, too.”
Back in 1991, Walmac International’s Nureyev led all U.S.-based sires by yearling average and Claiborne Farm’s Danzig led the North American General Sire List. Both sons of Northern Dancer were outstanding turf sires and were favorites of European buyers, just as Danzig’s son War Front, also at Claiborne, is today. But Nureyev and Danzig operated in a different landscape than do War Front and Kitten’s Joy. For example, when Kitten’s Joy led the General Sire List in 2013, he did so primarily with domestic turf and all-weather horses that had more opportunities beyond dirt than ever before; in 1991, Danzig needed significant main-track runners–like Dance Smartly, the Canadian Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner that season, when she was also named Horse of the Year in Canada and champion 3-year-old filly in the U.S.–to land the sire championship.
“I think what everyone wants, if possible, is a versatile horse that can get both dirt and turf,” said Duncan Taylor of Taylor Made Farm, which stands three young stallions in California Chrome, Mshawish, and Midnight Storm that were successful on the two surfaces. “We were lucky we got horses that could run on both, and we like that they could run on both, but we didn’t go out consciously looking for turf. We got the best horses we could find. But we think people want a versatile horse.”
That versatility was best exemplified in 2017 by Darley’s Medaglia d’Oro, the sire of Mshawish–who won the GI Gulfstream Park Turf H. at five and the GI Donn H. on dirt at six. Like Kitten’s Joy and Artie Schiller, Medaglia d’Oro is a son of the imported El Prado (Ire), a European-raced son of Sadler’s Wells. El Prado was the first son of Sadler’s Wells whose progeny transitioned to dirt in the U.S., and Medaglia d’Oro, himself a dirt horse, has continued the duality that El Prado established as a sire of dirt and turf horses. At the Breeders’ Cup, for instance, he was represented by Talismanic, winner of the GI Turf, and Bar of Gold, first in the GI Filly and Mare Sprint. In short, he gets 2-year-olds, classic horses, and older runners, and they act on all surfaces. He’s the model of versatility at the top end of the market and as such his sons–even some foreign-bred ones–are getting their chances at stud in Kentucky.