It’s far from breaking news to declare Horse of the Year Gun Runner the runaway winner of the 2021 freshman sire race.
The resident of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., had a rookie season for the ages, breaking Uncle Mo’s record for freshman-sired earnings before the beginning of December. He led his class in practically every meaningful statistical category, and he was represented by an Eclipse Award winner from his first crop, in champion 2-year-old filly Echo Zulu.
With that being said, Gun Runner was far from the only freshman sire to give himself a solid foundation for a long career at stud with his debut runners.
In the interest of making this piece about more than one stallion, we’ll take a look at the races for second in several important statistical categories, and the horses best positioned to challenge for the throne in the years to come.
Highest Progeny Earnings, Most Winners, Most Progeny Wins, Most Stakes Winners (tied), Most Grade 1 Winners, Highest-Earning Individual Runner: Gun Runner
Candy Ride x Quiet Giant, by Giant’s Causeway
Standing at Three Chimneys Farm
2022 Fee: $125,000
Stakes Winners: 6
Grade 1 Winners: 2
Highest-Earning Runner: Echo Zulu ($1,480,000)
Well, that was easy.
It’s been a long time since the freshman sire race has seen an individual so thoroughly distance himself from the rest of his class the way Gun Runner did in 2021.
The 9-year-old son of Candy Ride was in the mix as soon as the juvenile calendar turned to serious stakes races, in all parts of the country. He had a breakout meet in Saratoga, a critical foundation-builder for any 2-year-old class, highlighted by a massive closing weekend where his runners swept the major juvenile stakes. The charge was led by Echo Zulu’s four-length dismantling of the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes, and it was followed the next day by Gunite drawing clear by 5 3/4 lengths in the G1 Hopeful Stakes.
On the West Coast, Pappacap added to the tally with a win in the G2 Best Pal Stakes during Del Mar’s vaunted summer meet, then he added runner-up efforts in the G1 American Pharoah Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Echo Zulu also came west to lend a hand with an Eclipse-securing score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Gun Runner’s $4,315980 in freshman progeny earnings was just shy of eclipsing the combined earnings second- and third-place finishers – Practical Joke and Connect, respectively – and Gun Runner’s 63 starters last year were fewer than either of the other stallions on the podium.
Gun Runner won his first two starts as a juvenile during his own racing career, but he improved by leaps and bounds with each campaign that followed. For the unprecedented level of success the stallion’s first juveniles enjoyed, they weren’t built to flame out at two, and the solid performances seen in the early Kentucky Derby and Oaks preps suggest they’ll have something in the tank for the classics and beyond. If they do, get used to seeing Gun Runner at the top of sire lists for years to come.
Most Stakes Winners (Tied): Practical Joke
Into Mischief x Halo Humor, by Distorted Humor
Standing at Ashford Stud
2022 Fee: $35,000
Stakes Winners: 6
The closest thing Gun Runner had to serious competition at the top of any major category. Practical Joke’s own Grade 1 juvenile resume and stout build, paired with an aggressive first-year marketing campaign by Ashford Stud, suggested the son of Into Mischief would be a top contender for leading freshman sire, and his runners did everything within their power in the face of a historic performance.
That charge was led by Wit, who became Practical Joke’s first graded stakes winner after taking the G3 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. He remained a player in New York’s juvenile ranks throughout the rest of the year, finishing on the board in the G1 Hopeful Stakes and G1 Champagne Stakes.
Practical Joke’s remaining five stakes winners came across a broad spectrum of locales and levels, led by Tejano Twist, who took the $200,000 Lively Shively Stakes at Churchill Downs. He also brought home stakes winners at Del Mar, Fair Grounds, Parx Racing, and Finger Lakes.
Now, let’s look at the races for second and third behind the statistical leaders, and some other stallions worth noting.
Most Stakes Winners – Honorable Mentions
– Caravaggio (Ashford Stud): 4
– Unified (Lane’s End): 3
Caravaggio was one of the more unique members of last year’s freshman class, having arrived at Ashford Stud in 2021 after standing his first two seasons at Coolmore Stud in Ireland. As such, much of what vaulted him this high on the list came from international runners.
The son of Scat Daddy accounted for two group stakes winners in Europe, with Tenebrism taking the British G1 Chevely Park Stakes and Agartha winning a pair of group races in Ireland. Dizzy Bizu also added a pair of French stakes wins to the tally.
However, Caravaggio’s success was not strictly limited to Europe. His U.S. runners were spearheaded by Her World, who won the listed Tyro Stakes over the turf at Monmouth Park.
Highest Progeny Earnings – Honorable Mentions
– Practical Joke (Ashford Stud): $2,339,717
– Connect (Lane’s End): $2,106,071
Practical Joke had a season that would have won him the freshman title by earnings in all but three other seasons prior to 2021, and two of them set the all-time record for freshman earnings: Uncle Mo in 2015 and Tapit in 2008. He’d have also finished behind Nyquist in 2020. That’s good company to keep. It’s tough to run into a record-setting buzzsaw like Gun Runner in the same freshman class, but that shouldn’t downplay the success Practical Joke had with his first juveniles.
Most Winners – Honorable Mentions
– Connect (Lane’s End): 27
– Caravaggio (Ashford Stud): 26
Grade 1 winner Rattle N Roll is obviously the star of Connect’s freshman class, but the Breeders’ Futurity counts the same as a maiden claiming race in this category. Other horses of note that contributed to the Lane’s End stallion’s total were Grade 3 winner Hidden Connection and stakes-placed runners Beneath the Stars, Queen Camilla, and Kneesnhips.
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Most Progeny Wins – Honorable Mentions
– Connect (Lane’s End): 34
– Practical Joke (Ashford Stud): 34
Connect’s most prolific winner in 2021 was Beneath the Stars, who won on debut at Charles Town, and later took a pair of allowance optional claiming races at Laurel Park. She’d finish her season with in-the-money efforts in the Gin Talking Stakes and Xtra Heat Stakes, both at Laurel.
Practical Joke’s 34 winners included a pair of runners who found the winner’s circle on three occasions in 2021. Girl With a Dream took her first start at Ellis Park, and she wrapped up her campaign with an allowance win at Churchill Downs and a front-running score in the Letellier Memorial Stakes at Fair Grounds. Stand Up Comic started her career with a maiden special weight win at Parx Racing, followed by an allowance optional claiming score at Delaware Park. Her final start of the year saw her win the Parx Futurity.
Connect at Lane’s End
Most Grade 1 Winners – Honorable Mentions
– Connect (Lane’s End): 1
– Caravaggio (Ashford Stud): 1
Rattle N Roll put Connect in the hunt in the freshman sire race when he took the G1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Caravaggio got on the board with Tenebrism, winner of the G1 Chevely Park Stakes in England.
Highest-Earning Individual Runner – Honorable Mentions
– Connect (Lane’s End): Rattle N Roll – $379,460
– Valiant Minister (Bridlewood Farm): Outfoxed – $372,000
Prior to his Grade 1 victory, Rattle N Roll won a six-figure maiden special weight at Churchill Downs to pad his bankroll.
Florida stallion Valiant Minister’s first crop was led by Outfoxed, who made $372,000 with a pair of wins in the Florida Sire Stakes series: the Susan’s Girl Stakes and My Dear Girl Stakes.
Value Play: Cupid
Tapit x Pretty ‘n Smart, by Beau Genius
Standing at Ashford Stud
2022 Fee: $5,000
With a race record and pedigree as solid as Cupid’s, his introductory fee of $12,500 in 2018 seemed more than fair. Now that he stands for $5,000 after finishing fifth on the freshman sire list by earnings, the Ashford Stud resident has the potential to be one of Kentucky’s biggest bargains.
Make no mistake, Cupid’s fee dropped to this level for a reason. His runners were somewhat slow to gain traction en masse last year, and his foals haven’t been commercial world-beaters. Of his 75 starters last year, 23 were winners, putting him on the lower side of the top 20 freshman sires by earnings in terms of percentage of winners to starters.
However, once they dug their heels in, the best of Cupid’s runners showed they could reward shrewd connections with a serious racehorse.
All three of Cupid’s North American black type performers in 2021 came in October or later. Leading earner God of Love broke his maiden in the Cup and Saucer Stakes at Woodbine last October, then he became his sire’s first graded stakes winner a month later in the Grade 3 Grey Stakes at the same track. West Virginia-bred The Sky Is Falling won a pair of Charles Town stakes in October, while Arizona-born Desert Dawn finished third in the G2 Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita the same month, prior to a start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Cupid didn’t reach his true cruising altitude as a racehorse until the summer of his 3-year-old season, into his 4-year-old campaign. He’s shown that he’s capable of moving regional mares up to stakes competition both locally and nationally, and if it turns out his October rush was a prelude to a pattern of later bloomers, a breeder might look pretty smart sticking with Cupid at $5,000.
Regional Standout: Neolithic
Harlan’s Holiday x Swingit, by Victory Gallop
Standing at Pleasant Acres Stallions
2022 Fee: $5,000
Neolithic at Pleasant Acres Stallions
Florida’s leading freshman sire of 2021 finished 16th nationally, with earnings of $636,849.
Nearly half of that was generated by Make It Big, whose unbeaten juvenile campaign started with an 8 1/2-length pummeling of a Gulfstream Park maiden special weight, then rolled into a clear win in the Ocala Stud Juvenile Sprint Stakes at the same track. He then took his show out of state to win the Springboard Mile Stakes at Remington Park as the post time favorite, and established Neolithic as a stallion whose foals can win on the road just as well as they can in the sunshine state.
This doesn’t mean Neolithic was strictly a one-hit wonder. Cattin bested open competition in the Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs after finishing third in the In Reality division of the Florida Sire Stakes.
Beyond his stakes winners, Neolithic did a fair bit with a relative small pool of runners. He had six winners from 14 starters last year, and all but one winner in that group graduated on debut.