Stud fees aren’t real.
Every autumn, farms bombard us with announcements of their advertised stud fees for the upcoming breeding season, but the key word there is “advertised.” There are always exceptions, but that number is often just the starting point for negotiations; whether demand for a hot sire drives the price up, urgency to fill a lesser sire’s book leads to discounts, or a program like “Share the Upside” changes the number entirely.
However, this is not to say there is no value in a stallion’s advertised fee. Though the final number might be fluid, the posted fee is a public endorsement of where a farm places that stallion in the greater commercial hierarchy. If a horse is standing for $7,500, the expectations from the farm and the people breeding to him are much different than they would be for Into Mischief at $250,000.
The stallions advertised with lofty fees will be the ones most likely to grab the headlines when their foals go through the sale ring and hit the track, but they don’t represent the majority of North America’s Thoroughbred population. Breeding to the star of the barn is a luxury that most breeders can’t afford.
The rest of us need to find the value.
In that search for value, I’ve assembled the All-Value Sire Team, comprising North American stallions standing for an advertised fee of $20,000 or less in 2023, filling various age brackets and perceived skill sets. Each position will have a “first team” and “second team,” the same as you’d find for the All-Pro Team of a professional sports league.
These selections were made through a combination of in-person inspections, statistical comparisons, and a general sense of the market’s direction, both in the greater scope and toward each individual.
For me, a successful stallion needs to answer in the affirmative to the following four questions. Because we’re looking for value, we might have to compromise on a point or two, but a member of the All-Value Sire Team has to answer at least one of these questions with authority.
Can they get you a winner?
It’s important to get winners. It’s more important go get stakes winners. It’s most important to get graded stakes winners. I’m also interested to see if a stallion’s runners are adept at getting multiple wins over the course of their careers, instead of just flaming out after notching their first victory.
Can they get you a sale horse?
How likely am I to get multiples on my stud fee in the auction ring? It might be harder to hit a home run from this price bracket, but the middle market keeps the lights on with horses bred on modest stud fees seeing solid returns on their investment.
Can they get you a stallion?
So much of the modern Thoroughbred industry is built toward cultivating lucrative stallion prospects, from the high-dollar colt-buying partnerships at auction to the careful mapping out of a colt’s racing career in the aim of earning Grade 1 black type. If a sire has proven that he can get his sons to stud, that’s going to make his ensuing sons more desirable on the commercial market.
For younger stallions that don’t have runners of age to retire, I’ll take into consideration whether they hail from a “stallion-making” pedigree. For certain sire lines, a nice allowance winner can find a home on someone’s stallion roster, where one from a less fashionable line might have an uphill battle, even if their on-track resume is airtight.
Does the stallion have momentum?
If a stallion’s progeny hits, will you look like a visionary for getting in during their ascent at a bargain price, or is the stallion’s career trajectory settled enough at this point that a big runner won’t drastically change their place on the ladder? Having a decent-sized pipeline of young horses coming up helps in my judgment here. This is far from the most important factor in sorting out value sires, but in a market that holds new, shiny things above all but the most proven members of the stud book, having a bit of perceived wind at your back can help break some ties.
With all of that squared away, let’s have a look at the first members of the All-Value Sire Team.
The Captain: The star player of the All-Value Sire Team, making him, in my opinion, the best value at stud in North America.
First Team: Lookin At Lucky
B. h., 2007, Smart Strike x Private Feeling, by Belong To Me
Standing at Ashford Stud, KY, $10,000
Lookin At Lucky
Simply put, there is no active stallion in North America standing for under $20,000 with a resume more complete than that of Ashford Stud resident Lookin At Lucky.
On a roster that features Triple Crown winners, champions, and plenty of fresh faces on an annual basis, it can be easy to forget just how much Lookin At Lucky has done in a relatively short amount of time.
He’s proven more than capable of getting winners at the highest levels, including Kentucky Derby winner Country House, Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate. He’s gotten Grade 2 winners or better on both turf and dirt, and around one turn or two. Reminiscent of his own sire, Smart Strike, Lookin At Lucky has proven he can meet a breeder’s intent at a high level.
Looking beyond his best runners and focusing strictly on the rank-and-file, his average progeny lifetime earnings come in at $100,858, which is the best by a healthy margin among commercial-level sires standing for $20,000 or less. Lookin At Lucky entered stud in 2011, and his very best runners were almost exclusively born in the mid-2010s or later, suggesting that his lofty average wasn’t the result of breeders packing into his first book and then forgetting about him.
In producing that many stars, Lookin At Lucky is also at the head of the class among value sires by the number of active sons he has at stud, with six. In Kentucky, he has Country House, Accelerate, and Dolphus filling the ranks, while his regional stallions include Lookin At Lee, Madefromlucky, and Breaking Lucky. That number puts him ahead of a lot of stallions that have stood for more money, and had longer careers.
That’s part of what makes Lookin At Lucky’s record so impressive. He’s accomplished a lot, but he is by no means a graybeard. There could very well be more to come.
With nine crops of racing age, he’s put up a resume that can stand up against the veteran flagship sires of other farms, and he’s stood for $20,000 or less for all but one season since 2014. That resume is going to continue growing, and he’s proven capable of moving up mares at lower price points.
Even scarier is the fact that his numbers don’t take into account the local product from his many shuttle trips in South America, where his cumulative stats become even gaudier. Some of his best have come up to do graded stakes-level damage in North America, suggesting the quality doesn’t drop drastically south of the Equator.
The only soft point in his resume comes in the auction ring. Though his lifetime average yearling price is north of $53,000, his last two seasons have seen him finish with an average in the mid-$30,000 range.
At this point, the stallion’s reputation is pretty set with breeders, and I doubt even another Grade 1 winner or two would do much to raise that average but so much. However, Lookin At Lucky’s $10,000 fee is the lowest of his career. With an entry point that reasonable, a breeder wouldn’t necessarily need to blow up the board to get out ahead on a yearling.
I didn’t go into this expecting to put Lookin At Lucky on top, but stacking his performance against his peers made him impossible to ignore. With an incredibly high ceiling for his runners, and a strong average earnings figure, Lookin At Lucky is perhaps the best “shoot for the moon, land in the stars” prospect on the market today.
Second Team: Dialed In
Dk. B. or br. h., 2008, Mineshaft x Miss Doolittle, by Storm Cat
Standing at Darby Dan Farm, KY, $15,000
Dialed In was the leading freshman sire of his class, has sent multiple runners to the Kentucky Derby, racked up a trio of Grade 1 winners (with $5.5 million-earner Gunnevera just missing that accomplishment in some of the world’s biggest races), and his average yearling sale price over the past two years (hovering around $63,000) is higher than his lifetime average of $51,226, which means buyers are starting to catch up on to what Dialed In can do. Somehow, this horse still feels like he’s spent most of his career flying under the radar.
Darby Dan has never advertised Dialed In at a fee higher than $25,000 since he retired to stud in 2013, and at his current rate of $15,000, the probability of making a solid return with a foal, regardless of the breeder’s intentions, appears incredibly strong.
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The Turf Sire: A veteran sire who either has a proven track record of throwing successful runners on the grass, or a young stallion who has the racetrack performance or pedigree to suggest his foals will excel on the surface.
First Team: Karakontie
B. h., 2011, Bernstein x Sun is Up, by Sunday Silence
Standing at Gainesway, KY, $10,000
For a stallion that sent a runner from his debut crop to the Kentucky Derby in 2020 (Sole Volante), this season might have been an even bigger statement year for Karakontie as a guy that’s here to stay in the Bluegrass State.
Spendarella provided Karakontie his first Grade 1 winner in this year’s Del Mar Oaks, but it was her runner-up performance in the G1 Coronation Stakes during the Royal Ascot meet that truly made her sire’s resume pop.
She ran the kind of race in the Coronation that that would have won a lot of renewals of the world-class tilt for 3-year-old fillies, and that kind of showcase against top international competition is so valuable for a young sire trying to establish turf credentials. Achievement on the North American turf is certainly a big deal, but the annual drubbing of our best by European shippers at the Breeders’ Cup proves how far we have to go. Going into their house and running that well on one of their biggest stages holds a lot of weight for me, in terms of Karakontie’s ceiling at stud.
It makes sense. Karakontie’s pedigree is a veritable United Nations of black type (with a global-level sire close-up in the family in Kingmambo), and he did almost all of his running in France, save for a couple trips to the U.S. for the Breeders’ Cup, including a win in the 2014 Mile. As a runner that excelled between seven furlongs and a mile, his distance preference fits well with the precociousness of the U.S. running style, as does the fact that he was a Group 1 winner at two and he beat older foes in the Breeders’ Cup at three.
Physically, he’s a solid blend of local and international influence. As a paternal grandson of the great Storm Cat, you can see that powerful fast-twitch muscling in his neck and shoulder. Unlike Storm Cat, and many of his sons, Karakontie has spurned the Quarter Horse body type for a scopier frame, which he has maintained after a few years of settling in at stud. The type of mare that could work with Karakontie isn’t limited by the stallion’s physical, which I love to see.
Let’s talk about some numbers. Gainesway has priced Karakontie carefully since he retired to stud in 2016, never rising him above $15,000, and he’ll stand for $10,000 once again in 2023. His average yearling price this year was $46,313, which was an improvement of more than $10,000 from the previous season. His average earnings per starter sits at $66,828, which is a strong number considering his oldest foals are just five years old, and most haven’t run what might be considered a full career.
Karakontie is a young sire with a ton of momentum, and buyers are starting to get wise that he can do plenty for them. At a $10,000 fee, an average foal by Karakontie stands to make multiples on that initial investment, and win big races. Right now, turf racing is the land of opportunity on the North American landscape, and breeders getting in promptly on Karakontie could find themselves in the right place at the right time.
Second Team: Oscar Performance
B. h., 2014, Kitten’s Joy x Devine Actress, by Theatrical
Standing at Mill Ridge Farm, KY, $20,000
Oscar Performance at Mill Ridge 10.07.20.
With the passing of Kitten’s Joy, the championship belt for best North American turf sire is still very much up for grabs, and Oscar Performance is in a great position to claim his father’s mantle in a few years. He earned a deserved bump in fee next year to $20,000 from $15,000 (where I think some breeders are going to look very smart in retrospect for having gotten in when they did) after meeting expectations as the flagship turf sire of his freshman class, led by Grade 2 winner Andthewinneris.
Physically, Oscar Performance represents the second wave of Kitten’s Joy runners, when his books of mares comprised more than just Ken Ramsey trying to prove his stallion out with anything he could claim that fit the cross. When Kitten’s Joy cemented himself as an elite sire, and outside breeders started to send more and better mares, what we saw from his foals morphed into something more refined and powerful.
Oscar Performance showcases the best of that transformation, with a solid engine behind him, paired with length to carry it over two turns. His foals have emulated that in their own running style, already performing at a high level at 1 1/16 miles, and his average yearling price improved in 2022 over 2021.
The sky is the limit for Oscar Performance as his first foals get older and really sink their feet in the turf at longer distances. At this rate, he won’t slide under the “value sire” price point for long. Watch this space.
Check in for future installments to see who made the All-Value Sire Team among stallions of various ages and specialties, including first-year stallions, freshman sires of 2023, sires of sprinters, regional sires, and more.