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Smarty Jones Didn't Fall Far From Family Tree

June 05, 2004|Robyn Norwood

Until Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby, his pedigree was considered modest by many.

Now experts are dusting off ancestors deep in the lineage of the undersized Pennsylvania-bred colt to justify why he is a Triple Crown contender who can break the record for winnings by topping the $10-million mark with a victory in today's Belmont Stakes.

He is a great-grandson of Foolish Pleasure, the 1975 Kentucky Derby winner, and a great-great-grandson of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

A great-great-grandfather, Northern Dancer, won the 1964 Derby and Preakness Stakes before becoming perhaps the most successful sire of the second half of the 20th century.

And among Smarty Jones' 32 great-great-great grandfathers are four more winners of Triple Crown races: Nashua, Bold Ruler, Tim Tam and Native Dancer, the colt known as "The Gray Ghost," who suffered a close and controversial loss in the Derby, then won the Preakness and Belmont.

Native Dancer's influence on the breed remains evident today, with 17 of the 18 starters in the Kentucky Derby traceable to him within six generations, largely through his grandson Northern Dancer, present in 16 of the starters' pedigrees.

Yet geneticists caution against making too much of ancestors beyond three or four generations, particularly in the small and inbred world of thoroughbred racehorses, where common ancestors are routine.

"It's like shuffling a huge pack of cards when you cross two horses together and expecting to get the same hand dealt," said Steve Harrison, managing director of Thoroughbred Genetics Co., a British company that uses DNA analysis to advise clients on breeding and purchases. "If you go back 12 generations it would be like shuffling 2,000 decks of cards, each containing 60,000 cards."

Consider, too, how many offspring a successful stallion produces. Native Dancer sired 304 foals in a relatively brief career. His son, Raise a Native, sired 863, and grandson Northern Dancer sired 645.

Steven Roman, creator of the modern theory of dosage, a pedigree classification system, limits his analysis to four generations.

"You can make any argument you want about any horse if you go back far enough," Roman said. "What matters is what's winning on the racetrack. It's still the final arbiter."

-- Robyn Norwood

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