As we have seen over the course of the Reine-de-Course series, great breeders acquire their foundation mares in many ways – dispersals, private purchases and claims. But Aspidistra came into the possession of Tartan Farms owner William L. McKnight in quite a different manner. McKnight, co-founder of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (aka 3M), was 70 years of age when a group of 3M executives found him an ideal birthday present by purchasing the Better Self mare Aspidistra for a reported $6500 from E. H. Lane. The bay mare, foaled in the “magic” year of 1954 (the same year Bold Ruler, *Gallant Man and Round Table were foaled), was bred by King Ranch and was named for an Asiatic plant from an old Gracie Fields song.
Despite her exotic name, Aspidistra was not much of a racehorse, winning only two races from 14 starts in her only season of competition as a three-year-old. She earned the less-than-impressive sum of $5,115 and never won in the Tartan colors.
Aspidistra was barren in 1959, her first season as a broodmare, then produced a filly by *Esmero (a son of brilliant Chef-de-Race British Empire) in 1960. Named Perplexing, Aspidistra’s first offspring won four times and produced two stakes placed horses, Interest Due and Loss Wages.
Aspidistra’s next three foals, A. Deck by First Cabin, Chinatowner by Needles and Aforethought by Intentionally, all were winning colts. A. Deck and Chinatowner won stakes while Aforethought earned $40,645 and became a good sire of Thoroughbred sprinters and Quarter horses.
Aforethought was a result of the first mating engineered by John Nerud. In a 1994 Blood Horse interview, Nerud said, “When I went to work for McKnight, I bought him a farm in Florida, a stallion in Intentionally, and some broodmares. The first year I was there, I bred every one of our good mares to Intentionally. The second year, I wanted to breed to a proven stallion. We had high hopes for Intentionally, of course, but no one really knows what a horse is going to do, and we couldn’t afford to have two bad years in a row, if he turned out to be a bust.
“So I bought five shares in Rough’n Tumble, who was the best stallion in Florida at the time, and bred all of our best mares to him.”
Nerud’s common-sense approach netted him the best horse he ever trained and one of the greatest horses ever to set foot on the American turf – Dr. Fager. Before he retired at the age of four, the bullish bay horse had won over $1 million, run a world-record mile, and had earned four national titles – Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter and champion grass horse of 1968. No horse before him or since has achieved so much in a single season.
But statistics and mere words pale in comparison to the living reality of Dr. Fager. It was written of him that if Man o’ War was as close as one can come to a living flame, then surely Dr. Fager was the whirlwind, for he left impressions on followers of racing like unto some powerful storm – a freak of nature, wreaking havoc and rendering helpless those in its path.
A headstrong, free-running horse, Dr. Fager was named for Dr. Charles Fager, the Boston neurosurgeon who had saved Nerud’s life by removing a blood clot on the trainer’s brain. Nerud told the good doctor that he would one day name a horse – a really good horse – after him.
Not only did Dr. Fager give the impression of a whirlwind, he was a great weight carrier, as well. At seven furlongs, he won under 139 pounds. He carried 135 and 132 to victory at 10 furlongs, 134 at 1 3/16 miles. At a flat mile, the distance for which he set the world record of 1:32 1/5, he won under 134. At nine furlongs, he carried 132 first to the wire, and at 1 1/16 miles, 130 pounds.
Trainer Nerud was unashamedly in love with Dr. Fager. A sensible, highly intelligent and intuitive man, passion alone comes through in Nerud’s memories of “The Doctor.” Of Dr. Fager’s place in history, Nerud said, “I’m not saying he was the best mind you. But God, he was a big, beautiful, thundering ball of fire.” Of his appearance, “Some days he was bay, some days he was bronze, some days he was gold. It all depended on his mood and how the sunlight hit him.”
Aspidistra had crossed the border from broodmare to foundation matron. Her great son had “made” her. But she was not finished.
In 1965 she produced the Intentionally mare Captivate, a winner and stakes producer, then in 1966 she proved herself more than a one-horse producer by foaling Ta Wee, champion sprinter of 1969 and 1970. Ta Wee loved to play the fast game against the big boys. In fact beating colts was her speciality and this she did with regularity in the Fall Highweight (twice), the Vosburg, and the Interborough Handicaps (twice). She was no less effective as a broodmare, foaling Great Above, the stakes-winning sire of Holy Bull, her first season as a broodmare. Her other major offspring include stakes winners and producers Tax Holiday and Tweak.
Aspidistra slipped her 1967 foal but in 1968 she produced Highbinder, a full brother to Dr. Fager who ran second in the Withers and Vosburg and third in the Saranac and Toboggan. Highbinder went to stud in Florida and New York but was not a very successful sire.
Dr. Fager, on the other hand, was just making a name for himself when he died suddenly of a twisted intestine in August of 1976. The following year, he led the North American sire list. Shortly before the great horse’s death, John Nerud told Patrick Robinson, author of Classic Lines, “Look at him showing off. He knows he’s being watched. Look at him carrying his head down just like when he was racing. Look at that eye, still determined. Isn’t he magnificent? I could probably get him fit and winning races in one month, even now at the age of 12. Damn it, I love that sonofabitch.”
Even after Dr. Fager, Ta Wee and the lesser brilliance of Highbinder, Aspidistra was not finished. Though no one could have known at the time of her death on November 11, 1968, her link to the future had been firmly established in the form of an unraced Buckpasser daughter named Magic, later to become the third dam of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.
Not coincidentally, Unbridled was inbred 4 x 4 to Aspidistra and it was John Nerud who planned the mating. Said the trainer, “Magic never ran but had some bottom in her through Buckpasser. She was a big mare and I bred her to In Reality and got a medium-sized mare in Charedi who could run seven-eighths of a mile and was close to stakes quality, though she never actually won a stakes.
“I thought at that point that the family needed some more bottom so I bred Charedi to *Le Fabuleux, a Wild Risk horse who was another stamina influence and a good sire of broodmares. We came up with Gana Facil, who was a good allowance winner – again close to a stakes mare, but not quite. So I said now we have bred bottom back into the line, so I’ll go to speed in Fappiano, and that’s how we got Unbridled.”
Actually, a great deal more than Unbridled came from the genes of Magic. Gana Facil also foaled Unbridled’s full brother, Wood Memorial winner Cahill Road and Magic’s own daughter Charedi foaled Pentelicus, a three-quarter brother to that stakes winning pair who is a successful sire in Florida.
In addition to Charedi, Magic also got the good Caro producer Magaro, dam of $661,376 earner Coolawin, a Grade 2 winner, and Sunday Silence’s Japanese Derby winner and Guineas second Tayasu Tsuyoshi. There are many young mares from this branch of the family which are just starting their careers so it is impossible to say which will further enrich the family, but it is certain that one or more of them will.
After Magic, Aspidistra had four more foals, a winning *Prince Taj horse named Weyand, who became a sire in New Zealand; the unplaced Bold Reason mare Quit Me Not whose family has produced stakes winners Miss Prospector ($106,405) and Judge T C ($181,660); the Buckpasser colt Pollinize, a sire in Canada and a full brother to Magic and Auraria, a winning son of Minnesota Mac who is a sire in New Zealand. Aspidistra was bred in 1978 but came up barren. She was put down later in the year due to the infirmities of old age and was 24 at the time of her death.
Although Dr. Fager has always been described as an “All American” horse, this is not strictly true. Aspidistra had her fair share of foreign blood as a close look at her pedigree will reveal.
On the surface, the strength of Aspidistra seems to lie in her sire Better Self, a son of Bimelech (out of *La Troienne) from the famous Baba Kenny family of Col. E. R. Bradly’s Idle Hour Farm. Her female family was nothing of note and had produced no important horses for several generations when McKnight’s people discovered her.
Better Self was in fact inbred to Black Toney, the very fast son of Peter Pan who helped to advance the Domino line, a line known for its sheer speed. Adding Aspidistra’s female family to the mix produced a total of three Peter Pan (Domino) crosses, thus laying a firm foundation of speed. Further “Americanizing” the pedigree was Ben Brush, broodmare sire of Black Toney plus a double of Sweep (also by Ben Brush) as well as a cross of Broomstick, yet another Ben Brush son.
With all the American blood, some European mix seemed ideal for balance and this was done with two very classic horses, Teddy and Rock Sand. Teddy appears twice – as the sire of *La Troienne and *Bull Dog as does the English Triple Crown winner Rock Sand through his daughter Mahubah and son Tea Caddy.
Knowing John Nerud’s philosophy of adding ‘bottom’ or stamina back to a horse’s speedy foundation, the pedigree of Aspidistra might well have been designed by the wise trainer. It is credit to his breeding philosophy and training expertise that he was able to mold the greatest foal of such a mare to the heights achieved by Dr. Fager.
Also of note is that Dr. Fager was bred on the same speed/stamina pattern although Nerud had yet to implement it. Mating Rough’n Tumble to Aspidistra netted a Bull Dog (speed) double as well as a treble of Spearmint (stamina) to further crosses of Sweep and Peter Pan (Americanization).
Aspidistra has a lot of young female relatives out there so we are confident we will revisit her and add some of these descendents to the Reine-de-Course list. And we find her particularly deserving of Reine status as she was overlooked as a Broodmare of the Year and since inbreeding to her has produced three horses of the stature of Unbridled, Cahill Road and Pentelicus. When a mare this (relatively) young shows that kind of strength when two crosses of her name appear, then she is the kind of mare of which we unquestionably think when considering mares for Reine-de-Course inclusion.
For the time being, with the firm belief that this is a family to which we will be returning to add further names, we add Aspidistra and her daughter Magic. Few gift horses have gone on giving as has this magnificent Florida matron.