The Schemer


When Very Subtle crossed the finish line first in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, she was a sophomore filly defeating elder males.  This was lost on few observers, though she was out-voted for the sprint title by Groovy, a colt she had soundly defeated.  Nevertheless, what she did accomplish that sunny day in California was to bring squarely back into focus the No. 18 family headed by the *Challenger II mare The Schemer.

This is a family most frequently associated with Alfred Vanderbilt, and from its roots came a whole slew of outstanding fillies:  Champion Conniver and her excellent daughter Plotter, the fine Prince John mare Deceit and her champion daughter Deceit Dancer, Coaching Club American Oaks winner High Schemes and her stakes placed children, and of course recent winners like Broad Dynamite and Dianehill, the latter the best offspring of Very Subtle.  There are some good males in this family, but this is a line of strong ‘women’.  And they are dominant ones.

The Taproot

In the Stud Book, this family is small enough that it has only one break-out branch, 18-A.  All other family members descend from the original taproot, a mare named “Old Woodcock Mare” or “D’Arcy’s Woodcock”.  There is no date of birth for her.

Much of this family ended up in New Zealand and Australia, where it accounted for a good group of horses like Candide (NZ) (One Thousand Guineas), Polo Prince (NZ) (Melbourne Cup), and Oaks winners Mintaway (AUS) and Bonnybel (NZ).  Also from this group is the Derby and Two Thousand Guineas winner Smolensko (GB) and Derby winner Waxy (GB), the latter the tail-male ancestor of much of the Eclipse line in existence today.

Following the family along, one continues to see such horses as Strawberry Road (AUS) and we also find solid branches in South Africa and South America.  Yet nestled in among them is the mare The Schemer, who descended from Old Woodcock Mare via the Jemima (GB) branch.  The earliest member of her tail-female line to be registered in the U. S. was the mare Pigeon, a daughter of Pacolet, no date of birth noted.

The Schemer

Since this mare descended from a matron named Pigeon, it is almost funny that she was said to be pigeon-toed.  In fact, that fault was likely what put an end to her career.

Owned by W. L. Brann and bred by his Branncastle Farm, The Schemer, a daughter of *Challenger II, had won her first two starts including the Betsy Williams Stakes.  Then, apparently never having heard the old axiom, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Brann allowed his trainer and blacksmith to ‘straighten’ the pigeon-toed filly.  The procedure turned out to be a career-ending operation.

Brann, who had also bred Horse of the Year Challendon by *Challenger II, later sold The Schemer to Alfred Vanderbilt.  The master of Sagamore Farm bred her almost exclusively to his wonderful handicap horse Discovery.  As it turned out, she helped him to create many of that stallion’s best offspring.  (Vanderbilt is listed as breeder of 17 of the 25 stakes winners got by Discovery).

Yet like Miss Disco, who was from the same crop, The Schemer’s first top daughter, Conniver, did not run in the famous pink and white Vanderbilt colors.  She was ‘the one that got away’.


Conniver was foaled on April 24, 1944 at Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm in Maryland.  Since Vanderbilt was in the service at the time, the filly was sold as a yearling to William Post, who was acting as agent for Harry La Montagne.  The price for this timeless champion?  Just $2,500.

Conniver must have been quite a handful.  Consider the description of her that was recorded in Racehorses of 1948:  “The second result (of The Schemer’s mating to Discovery) was Conniver, which in the summer of 1948 measured 17 hands at the withers, an inch and a half lower at the croup.  She was one of the largest mares in action, and though perhaps not as muscular as Gallorette, was even more rugged and rough.  To this physique, she added the disposition of a teased fiend, and the combination of these two elements very nearly got her into hurdling before her worth on the flat was recognized.  But at the end of 1948, she was generally recognized as the best handicap mare in training, and in fact, in her later starts, the handicaps did not show her much inferior to anything.”

Now that is one whale of a compliment to any mare.  And it tells us, as much as Bold Ruler or Native Dancer ever did, the real worth of Discovery in a pedigree.  He was tough as nails and sometimes showed the disposition of the Hastings tribe from whence he descended, a disposition he occasionally handed on.

Yet the mare William Robertson, in The History of Thoroughbred Racing In America said was “a long, lean, snaky-looking giantess, at 17 hands, Conniver towered over the males”, was not so masculine as to be a bad producer.  Not by a long shot, though she was something of a problem mare, having only six foals, with five barren years.

But before she began to produce, she ran like the wind, and with the heart of a lioness.  Listen to the description of her race against Stymie and Double Jay in the Aqueduct Handicap.  “Conniver, starting so slowly that for nearly a half mile she was behind Stymie, came charging in the stretch and headed Double Jay.   In the last furlong, Stymie charged her on the outside and he found a highly obstinate filly.  His rush took him a neck past her in the last yards, but Conniver flung herself at him again, and his margin at the end was only a head.”

We have often said that one can learn more about a horse by how he loses than how he wins.  Conniver’s run at these two wonderful colts is an example of that.

Conniver As A Producer

Today, it is almost entirely through Conniver that The Schemer’s line lives on.  Though she did not have many foals, she made them count.  And her old rival, Double Jay, was the agent through which most of her best work was done.   Her son, Clandestine by Double Jay, was a very good runner, winning the Withers Stakes, and the Palso Verdes and San Carlos Handicaps.  He provided a useful sire, and is most notably the broodmare sire of Star de Naskra.

Harry La Montagne bred Conniver’s first foal by Double Jay, the wonderful Plotter, who won the Top Flight and Vagrancy Handicaps and placed in the Beldame and Distaff Handicaps.  Running against such history-makers as Rare Treat, Princess Turia and Searching, Plotter was a slow developer, but at her best she could beat them all.  Like her mother, she was best known for a race she lost, the Beldame Handicap.

Setting all the pace and getting the three-quarters of the nine-furlong test in 1:09 3/5, completing the mile in 1:36, she began to tire and lost in the last yards by a neck to Pucker Up.  Searching and Princess Turia as well as Gay Life were behind her that day.

As a producer, Plotter was not Conniver’s best daughter, which might have had something to do with her inheriting her dam’s problems.  Plotter, too, had only six foals with seven barren or dead-foal years and one foal that was never named.  Thus the honor of Conniver’s best producing daughter went to Plotter’s full sister, the minor winner Double Agent.  But Plotter did get stakes winners Raise A Bid and Gallant Knave, as well as stakes placed Demigod and Platitude.  The latter got the stakes winning colt Watch Word.

Double Agent, Extending The Line

Double Agent was four years Plotter’s junior and had won only one of her six starts and less than $4,000.  She also had a dead foal her first year at stud, and was barren the following season.

But as a full sister to such a good stake mare and being the daughter of a champion, she was persevered with and the breed is better for it.  Before she was retired, Double Agent produced 10 foals.  Two of them, Deceit by Prince John and Double Deceit by Northern Dancer, won stakes.  Two others, Gallant Agent by *Gallant Man and Pondelli by Prince John, placed in black-type events.

Deceit was the best of the lot.  She won seven major races, including the Fashion, Astarita, Mother Goose and Acorn Stakes.  Her placings were just as impressive:  The Demoiselle, Spinaway, and Ashland Stakes and the Delaware Handicap.

She was also an excellent producer, getting such good ones as Canadian champion Deceit Dancer, who sadly died at age four.  But another daughter, Diana Dance by Northern Dancer, won a Group 2 race in Germany and is the second dam of another German highweight =Deva (GER).

Other stakes producers for Double Agent include Double Deceit, and the winning Rare Lady (who got G1 La Brea Stakes winner Magical Allure).  But it is under the four-time winner Sweetly Scheming by Crème dela Crème that we find the real “meat” of Double Agent’s gifts to the breeds.

Sweetly Scheming

Bred by Leslie Combs II and Charles H. Wacker III, Sweetly Scheming was a hardy mare for a daughter of the soft-boned Jersey Derby winner Crème dela Crème, lasting 25 times.  Obviously taking at least some measure of her female line’s toughness into the next generation, Sweetly Scheming was a fine producer by any standard.  She was sold by Combs as agent carrying her first foal at the 1974 Keeneland January breeding stock sale and was purchased in foal to Prince John by J. Howard King, for $116,000.

Like her ancestors, Sweetly Scheming had her fair share of barren years – eight in all.  However, she also had more foals – 12 to be exact.  One of these was the CCA Oaks winner High Schemes, another El Camino Real Derby winner Double Quick and a third was stakes placed Sweet Tryst.

High Schemes was bred by King and consigned to the 1981 Keeneland Fall Yearling sale.  Joe Morrissey paid only $9,500 for the eventual classic winner and said, “It was a late night session; we’d all had a few drinks, I liked the filly, and I liked the Crème dela Crème in her pedigree.”

High Schemes was a bit disappointing as a producer but she was by a stallion, High Echelon, who was not a whopping success at stud.  Nevertheless, she produced two stakes placed horses, Vermont (2nd in the G3 Tremont) and RB’s Boy, 2nd in the non-graded Peppy Addy S.

Never Scheme, an unraced daughter of Never Bend, was far and away her best daughter.  She is not only the dam of Very Subtle, but also of Honorable Miss Stakes winner Schematic; stakes placed Constant Change and three stakes producers, including Subtle Raise, dam of Astarita Stakes (G2) winner Broad Dynamite and stakes placed Everyday Angel, 2nd in the Arlington-Washington Lassie.  Another daughter, the unraced Slew City Slew mare Slew City Slicker, is the dam of Ruffian H. (G1) winner Pool Land.

A Chance For Very Subtle

Very Subtle was a game and unique filly and deserves some special comment.  She was by a stallion named Hoist the Silver, a son of Hoist the Flag from the immediate family of Alysheba and Lear Fan (*Macaroon).

Over-raced to the point of absuse at age three, Hoist the Silver began to show his sire’s horrible temperament and by the time he got to stud he had a reputation as a nasty, dangerous horse.  None of it was really his fault.

Having seen him in person, we know that Hoist the Silver did not start out this way, but that he was made mean.  Sadly, he ended his days in obscurity when he was sold to California, where it was thought he would do well because of Very Subtle’s exploits.

Very Subtle inherited none of her sire’s killer inclinations, for she was a sweet-tempered mare with as powerful a gaskin as we have ever seen.  Her driving power was something to see in action, too.  She did not possess a pretty stride, but she did possess an impressive amount of speed up to seven furlongs and her heart was unquestioned.

Bred by J. Howard King, Very Subtle was consigned by Bahman Abtahi’s Castleridge Farm to the 1986 CTBA March two-year-old-in-training sale.  Mel Stute, the popular California trainer, paid $30,000 for her on behalf of Ben Rochelle and Carl Grinstead, who also owned Preakness winner and champion Snow Chief.

Sadly, Very Subtle only lived until the age of 13.  She died in 1997 after fracturing her pelvis in a paddock accident at Ashford Stud near Versailles, Ky.  Even sadder, she was never bred with much thought – thrice going to Snow Chief, which did not suit her very well.

Her first foal died, as did one of the Snow Chiefs.  But she left several fillies, most importantly her lone stakes winner, Dianehill (IRE) by Danehill.  Dianehill won the listed Stravinsky Stakes and placed in the G3 Royal Heroine and Wilshire Handicaps and several other G2 and G3 events.  She won over $425,000.

Though she is Very Subtle’s best hope, Dianehill has yet to get a stakes winner.  She had a colt by A. P. Indy which, oddly for such a well-bred animal, was gelded.  He only placed, as did her Seeking the Gold filly, Hilogold, who is now a two-year-old.  She has two other reported foals, a 2006 colt by Smarty Jones’ sire Elusive Quality and a filly by Unbridled’s Song who was consigned to this year’s Keeneland September sale.  We made a point of seeing her and she looked very much like Very Subtle, but she was a late ‘out’.  We’re hoping nothing serious happened and that we’ll see her in action down the road.

Very Subtle left behind a couple of other foals as well, including fillies  Aly Sweet, her first foal by Alydar who won $121,875 though no stakes.  Aly Sweet was also unfortunately bred to Snow Chief and she has some daughters of her own already, the best bred of which is probably Intentions, a 2001 filly by Forestry.

Very Racy (her last foal by Sri Pekan) has had three foals to date, but no fillies; Aunt Diane has two fillies, one of which belongs to one of our Pedlines subscribers, Dr. Rick Irvin of Tulsa, Ok.  Dr. Irvin’s filly, Subtle Remark, has a 2006 colt by Silic which is inbred x2 *Rough Shod II, x3 Lalun and who also has a treble of Lady Juror via Fair Trial x2/Sansonnet in her sire’s contribution.  His dam is inbred to Tom Rolfe and Double Jay and he has a sex-balanced cross of Never Bend via Riverman and Never Scheme.  We hope he wins a graded stake to supplement Very Subtle’s record!

Finally, there is a 1994 Snow Chief filly born in Ireland where Very Subtle was sent to be bred to Caerleon and Danehill.  She produced nothing of note, but does have a daughter in production by Night Shift named =Harry Night (IRE) who has had foals by Spinning World and an Almutawakel (GB), the latter a filly.

The Schemer’s Pedigree

Our story on The Schemer would not be complete without a word about her pedigree.  And it is a fascinating one at that.

This 1934 mare was inbred to Queen Mary via a double of the great sire Bonnie Scotland and a cross of his sister, Braxey.

Sire *Challenger II was inbred to Pilgrimage via Canterbury Pilgrim and Loved One, and her dam, Granny, was inbred to full siblings Domino and Correction.

Most important of all, perhaps, is that she was linebred to “large heart” mare Pocahontas (1837) via Stockwell x3/King Tom x2/Knight of Kars and Araucaria.

There is more inbreeding, of course, but these are the highlights.  They are also horses who were the very foundations of the breed.  The Schemer always had what it took, and judicious breeding down through the years has kept that foundation alive.  And while one wishes for a fine sire to represent the line in order to facilitate inbreeding to the family, we aren’t going to hold our breath.  Better to take Raise A Bid at face value and be glad he occurred at all, or hope that the Florida sire Halos And Horns does something worthwhile.

New Reines

Sometimes it is difficult to decide who deserves to really become a Reine-de-Course.  And there are few mares we would like to put on this list more than Very Subtle – one day perhaps.

For the present, however, we add The Schemer herself, Conniver, Double Agent, Deceit, and Sweetly Scheming to the list.  It’s a real pleasure to welcome them into the fold.

Family 18