The Phalaris “Disease”




Ellen Parker

Long ago we read a Rommy Faversham story on the Phalaris line in an issue of the now defunct  Thoroughbed Times with great interest – and more than a modicum of frustration.   Not at Mr. Faversham, but with the futility of it all. There was nothing new in this article, but it didn’t carry the story far enough.  We’re willing to take the bull by the horns and do just that.

One of our best pedigree analyst friends frequently refers to the Phalaris “disease”.   Given that this fragile, speedy bloodline has spread like wildfire throughout the breed, that’s a pretty fair – if fanciful – description.

Consider, for instance, the sire lines of the horses in the majority of classics.   Nearly all are Phalaris-line individuals out of Phalaris-line mares.  This is now true in most parts of the world, due to shuttling sires and huge books for these individuals, most of which are –once again – Phalaris-line.  Horses now can sire 300 foals a year, where once they were lucky to sire 300 in a lifetime.

Flipping through the week’s stakes results as we always do, we routinely find almost every winner inbred to Northern Dancer or Raise a Native or both.  That’s a Native Dancer double every time the pair meets.

Such inbreeding is now almost impossible to escape.  Consider the distinctly bred (and ultimately discarded) 1997 Epsom Derby winner Benny The Dip, who was by Silver Hawk out of an Ack Ack mare, and at least sounded like a fairly outcrossed horse.  Instead he was loaded with Phalaris blood via *Royal Charger, *Nasrullah and Amerigo.  It would have been nice to have him stay, even if he bred ‘only’ 30 or 40 mares per year but due to his lack of commercial appeal he was sent to Ireland where he broke a knee and was destroyed when his eldest get were only four.

A sad story, but typical, because anything different – even slightly different – seems difficult, if not downright impossible for breeders to grasp.  How such a horse as Tiznow was able to make it – and make it he has, is still a mystery, though his offspring seldom top sales.  Perhaps enough breeders like him due to his 4 x 4 Northern Dancer cross.


Even more unique is Calumet having the courage to stand a German-bred Musketier who ran until the age of ten and is by Son-In-Law line Acatenango.  It’s downright difficult to fathom, as the environment is so hostile to horses like this that it is a wonder that anyone even tries.

Let’s not forget that American breeder are so fashion conscious that they threw away Sunday Silence, one of the world’s great sires.  This is something they routinely do with anything that isn’t by Storm Cat out of a Mr. Prospector-line mare.

So since it is not inconceivable that most of the foals of this new century will be Northern Dancer linebreds and, crossed back on Mr. Prospector linebreds the results will be horses with a true glut of Native Dancer, a horse who ran only 22 times in an era when horses routinely ran 50 times.  Why not just rename the breed?  They are no longer Thoroughbreds, they are Native Dancers.

What little “outcrossing” that is done will be to horses that just stand in Europe or the Southern Hemisphere with different versions of the same bloodlines.  It is simply a variation on a theme.

Varola’s Analysis

Varola might have thought Phalaris had not been significantly inbred to when he wrote that comment in his 1980 book The Functional Development of the Thoroughbred, but since that time, we have not only inbred to Phalaris, we have saturated the breed with this blood.   Generally, when this has happened in the past – say with St. Simon – this signals the time for a new sire line to emerge.

But from where will this line now come?   We have so depleted the other sire lines that there are only a handful of good horses from each grouping and many of them are, themselves, inbred to Phalaris.

So we have, in essence, bred ourselves into a corner.   Lacking an infusion of new blood in the form of a group of sires or dams from an entirely different breed, we are at end game and the breed has, literally, bred itself out.

So now what? We scramble to find that rare *Forli great-grandson, that odd Son-In-Law inbred, that good Argentine or German, the rare French horse with a smattering of Herod blood – who might not carry such a huge percentage of Phalaris blood?

Further, some sires can be deceptive.  Consider Unbridled.  While most definitely Phalaris-line, if we look at his fourth generation, we find Phalaris/Teddy/Phalaris/Sundridge/Himyar/Domino/Swynford/St. Simon/St. Simon/Swynford/Ancantara II (Galopin)/ Dark Ronald/Matchem/Himyar/Phalaris/Domino.

But Unbridled had a problem in that the majority of mares available to him are linebred to Phalaris.   So it’s no wonder he is considered a source of unsoundness – and classic stamina that all too often ended in tragedies like Eight Belles, by his son Unbridled’s Song and x3 Raise a Native.  That stallion (Unbridled’s Song) is himself worth studying.  When we looked at his offspring bred in Australia, they made consistently more starts than the Unbridled’s Songs in the U. S. who were loaded with more Phalaris via Native Dancer.

Make no mistake about it, this so-called Phalaris revolution is all about greed.   The Phalaris inbreds mature quickly and a quick buck is what high sales prices and quick two-year-olds, and shuttle sires are all about.

Varola also said that sire lines often rise and fall according to the times in which we live.   In an age of instant information and high tech stock gambling, what sire line better to personify instant gratification than Phalaris?

Certainly, this is a business and breeders and stallion owners are in the business to make money.   But if in the rush to fill their bank accounts, they effectively bankrupt the breed, then where do they turn for their next money-making scheme?   And how much fun is the new investor going to have if it consistently costs him $2 million to buy a yearling who may or may not run six times and may or may not be syndicated for enough money to repay the sale price?

Varola likewise stated that Phalaris was “trans-brilliant”, and thus able to sire horses whose speed could be carried over a distance of ground.   There is no mystery about this.   In 1977, Abraham Hewitt wrote in Sire Lines, “Initially, perhaps Phalaris blood was regarded as a source of speed.   With the intermingling of the stout blood in Lord Derby’s stud, however, the Phalaris strain became middle-distance horses capable of classic performances anywhere.”

This is where dosage has always erred – it is based on the sire only and not the contribution made by his mates and their families.   For example, consider the so-called Chaucer “nick” that worked so well with Phalaris.   This cross merely sex-balanced St. Simon, Stockwell and Hermit and effected linebreeding to Pocahontas and Newminster.

In the U. S., Phalaris prospered almost exclusively via Pharos/Nearco and Hyperion’s half brother *Sickle, all via horses who were not particularly sound; *Turn-to, Bold Ruler and especially Native Dancer via Northern Dancer and Raise a Native.  While Pharos’ full brother Fairway was a far better racehorse and was sounder into the bargain, crossing the pair never really caught on and the Fairway line never developed a very strong branch in the U. S.

*Sickle’s full brother *Pharamond II gave us Buckpasser but little else and his male line is almost extinct.  Ditto Hyperion, the most accomplished of the line who gave us *Alibhai (unraced), *Forli, Nodouble, Vaguely Noble and others

If we are, in fact, condemned to linebreed to Phalaris ad nauseum, then the least we can do is use Fairway or Hyperion to up the soundness quotient.   Deceased (and underused) Lord At War and Island Whirl were outstanding ways in which to use Fairway, but neither was very popular and the male line is extinct.   Their daughters will help, but not enough.

As for Hyperion, we should really have held on to some of the very versatile (and tough) Nodouble sons, but they tended to be unattractive and hard-knocking.  The *Forlis were more fragile and few were as beautiful as he – he tended to throw to the dams and they came in all shapes and sizes.  Plus of course his best, Forego, was a gelding.  We will not belabor here the tragedy that was Exceller, Vaguely Noble’s best son who had a real chance to further the line, being from the sire source line of Too Bald.

While we are on the subject of the Hyperion (by Gainsborough)/*Sickle (Phalaris)/*Pharamond II (Phalaris) brothers (all out of super-Reine-de-Course Selene) let us recall that inbreeding to these fellows works – especially if one crosses Raise A Native on Buckpasser.   But it’s well to keep in mind that what you are doing when this cross is affected is breeding bad ankles to bad feet.  Over time, the whole breed is impacted and the result is today’s fragile animal – a mere shadow of the two-mile heat ancestors from whence he came.  And before that, the melding of Eastern/Arab sires with heavy English mares stout enough to carry armor-clad knights into battle!


Broodmare Sire Nonsense

There is discussed in Faversham’s article – and there is a widespread belief throughout the racing community – that some horses are better broodmare sires than they are sires of sires, or even sires of runners.   So, we ask the following – what exactly is a good broodmare sire?

Well, the answer to that is a no-brainer. He’s a horse who was bred to mares of good family, because it is the family breeding on, not the broodmare sire.   Thus failures like Spectacular Bid can have some good broodmare daughters because during the time the horse stood at Claiborne Farm he was bred to mares of good family.

There is quite simply no such thing as a broodmare sire who arrived out of the blue from a minor farm in the Midwest to suddenly become a good broodmare sire.   Twenty of the 25 top broodmare sires on the current list stand at major farms in the bluegrass. My, what a surprise!

Most good sires – sires who lead the sire lists or who are at or near the top of that list consistently, usually are good broodmare sires, too.   There is little doubt, for example, that Seattle Slew is both a good sire of sires and a good sire of broodmares.   Ditto horses like Raise A Native, Halo and Roberto to mention only a few.

We doubt, too, that what a sire does as a broodmare sire of sires is very important. If his daughters are from families which consistently get good stallions and are bred to good sire of sires which fit them well, then they will produce good stallion prospects.   Thus, every single male out of every single Northern Dancer-line mare would have to be analyzed for overall pedigree content, soundness, opportunity and so forth.

History has taught us that the best racing animals are not always the best producing or siring animals, thus if a good racing daughter of Northern Dancer like say, Fanfreluche, from a family which is not noted for producing good stallions is bred to, respectively; Buckpasser, *Le Fabuleux, Sir Ivor, Tentam, Secretariat, Hoist the Flag, Slew o’ Gold, Spend A Buck, Devil’s Bag, General Assembly and Alydar – not a single one noted as a sire of sires – then she is not going to get a good sire son, is she?   (By the way, Fanfreluche was bred to Mr. Prospector once – and foaled a daughter).

Further, if a stakes winning Bold Ruler mare from the good sire family of La Chica like Bold Princess is bred to Northern Dancer, then she will get a Sovereign Dancer, and so forth. This type thing is far too individual to generalize about.  And let us not forget that luck, too, plays a part.  Consider the truly great racemare Zenyatta who has yet to foal a winner.

And even if the daughters are, indeed, not producing their share of good stallions, we imagine it is more a case of their not being appreciated in time to be valued.   This could also be said of any of the other good male-dominant lines of Phalaris, including Bold Ruler.

This also goes back to the old belief that a stallion cannot do both, which is rubbish and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.   If the only really ‘big’ money is being paid for a stallion’s sons, then the daughters will go where there is less opportunity.

This is equally true of any of the sire lines which are dying out. People want Mr. Prospectors, not sons of a Nodouble-line horse. So just where do you suppose the daughters of that Nodouble-line horse end up?

Why some sire lines are better noted for their sons is that the sire is giving the buyer a quick return. Stamina in a sire line is not fashionable; thus the *Herbagers and *Princequillos and their like are left to contribute via their daughters. If someone had given their better sons a more even playing field on which to operate, we’d still have those sire lines today.

A Handful Of Hope

Is there any hope?   Well, yes and no.   We are not going to rid ourselves of Phalaris, nor should we try to, any more than we should try to rid ourselves of any other good sire line.   But we do need balance.   We cannot consistently breed Phalaris to Phalaris to Phalaris to Phalaris and expect it to hold up.   Remember the lesson of last year’s Triple Crown and learn it well.

American Pharoah, while an Unbridled line horse, had a wild series of very different bloodlines to offer in the balance of his pedigree – names we almost never see like the above-named Lord At War, Key to the Kingdom, Flying Paster, Tri Jet and Crozier.  Surely, he had Storm Cat and Raise a Native but his tail-female line was Hooper tough and Tartan deep (Fappiano over Minnetonka).  Learn from this pedigree and know that it was meant to be a Triple Crown pedigree.  We can honestly say we never doubted him.  This is the rarest of types in our time and he was bred to do what he did.

But now that we have him, what do we do with him?  The mare population is loaded with the ‘wrong’ blood he carries, not the Hooper/Tartan lines of old.  How many Cozzene-line mares are out there for him?  Can Toussaud carry enough toughness to tolerate inbreeding via Chester House or a son of Honest Lady?

When this story was first written, we suggested several horses.  Here’s what happened to them:  Silver Charm was sent to Japan, Skip Away got few chances and died young; Go For Gin was never popular and his blood is almost gone; Deputed Testamony and Stalwars have an occasional ‘hit’ but were largely regional.  Pok Da Pok, a member of Ruffian’s family, has died out.

Still in play via sons like Macho Uno (and his son Mucho Macho Man) is Holy Bull – though much of the line is now full of Native Dancer.  There is hope for Giacomo still getting something if not to carry on at least to get a few good daughters.  Now in Oregon, he is in good hands and one hopes that something will come of it.

Then there is our true great white hope in K One King who owns no Northern Dancer or Raise a Native but does have one Native Dancer cross.  His sire lines read:

St. Simon/Rock Sand/Bend Or/Bend Or/Phalaris/Teddy/Bend Or/Blandford/Phalaris/Fair Play/Hyperion/Teddy/Phalaris/Domino/Hyperion/Ben Brush.

He’s been given a second chance.  Every time one takes the track from this new group of mares Gunpowder Farms has had the vision to get for him, our good wishes and prayers go with them.  The St. Simon line has been pronounced dead before.  Like Domino, it seems to find a way.

And speaking of Domino, we still have Include (inbred to Hidden Talent) but we need a major son to help the cause.  So far it has not happened, but like his sire Broad Brush and his sire before him, Ack Ack, it only takes one.

Are we suggesting these offbeat lines, or even popular horses like American Pharoah are the sire lines of the future?  Not necessarily.  But if one of their daughters comes along and your sire has a glut of Phalaris blood and she fits him, that daughter may well be a way to avoid some of the pitfalls the “Phalaris revolution” has caused.

Revolution can be a good thing, but it seldom comes without harsh lessons.

As the industrial revolution brought machinery, so too did it bring cruel child labor practices.   And as the Russian revolution brought freedom from Czarist tyranny, so, too, did it bring the dark days of Communism.

The Phalaris revolution brought speed, a commodity without which a Thoroughbred runner is useless. But it also brought fragility and lack of substance. We amended our child labor laws and Communism is dying out around the world.

Now we need to amend the Thoroughbred revolution that tempered our plodders with speed, to tip the scale back toward the middle again.

Without learning from the mistakes that revolutions inevitably bring along with violent change, without finding a happy medium, we are all doomed to fail.

This is the real lesson of the Phalaris revolution.