The Grey Panel


CATBIRD: Top Cat

The win of in the BTC Cup at Doomben was great news for Yarraman Park Stud, home of that game sprinter's sire . The weekend then became even more successful for the beautiful Hunter Valley nursery when landed the following day's Krisflyer International Sprint in Singapore - although sadly in this case the glory was of academic interest only, Green Birdie's sire having died at Yarraman Park three years ago, writes John Berry.

Green Birdie's victory has squared the ledger as regards Catbird's results as a sire, putting right an anomaly that, although he was a very fast horse in his racing days and he subsequently became the sire of many fast horses, his top-level results had previously misrepresented him as being much more a source of stamina than of speed. The truth is that, like all good sires, Catbird was capable of passing on both qualities - and now that he has been represented by a Group One-winning sprinter, he can be recognized as such.

Catbird's principal claim to fame as a racehorse was that he won the race which has arguably done more to identify brilliance than any other in Australia: the Golden Slipper. Born in 1996, Catbird went into training as a yearling in the autumn of 1998 when his sire was already at the height of popularity, having sired the Golden Slipper winners , and , members of his first three crops and victorious in 1994, '95 and '96 respectively. Being a strong colt with a pedigree suggesting both speed and precocity, Catbird was an obvious Slipper prospect, but he headed into training in neither Melbourne nor Sydney, the destinations of the majority of promising youngsters, but to Canberra, into the care of Queanbeyan trainer Frank Cleary.

Catbird's owner, Guam-based businessman Ken Jones, had already come close in one Golden Slipper. Through the summer and autumn of 1992, the Cleary-trained had been Australia's boom juvenile, carrying Jones' pale blue, black and yellow silks to victory in the Magic Millions at the Gold Coast and, to massive local delight, the Black Opal in Canberra. He'd very nearly won the Slipper too, succumbing only in the dying strides to the late thrust of the filly . Clan O'Sullivan was a magnificent front-running two-year-old, at which age he won eight of his 10 starts - even if his subsequent career proved rather an anti-climax. He truly whetted Jones' appetite for two-year-old racing, and it wasn't long before Catbird began to show signs that he might provide his owner with further excitement.

Catbird won an early-season two-year-old trial in Canberra in September 1998, prompting Cleary to send him to Melbourne for the Debutant Stakes early in the Spring Carnival - and prompting punters to send him off favourite for this traditional test of precocity. He couldn't measure up, though, finishing fifth of the eight runners. Cleary then gave him a short let-up before he stepped out two months later in another Canberra trial in December. Again he won the trial easily and again he was sent to town - on this occasion to Sydney, where he started favourite in a two-year-old maiden at Warwick Farm just after Christmas. Again he was beaten. However, undaunted, Cleary sent him back to Sydney in January and he broke his maiden on his third start. Ridden for the first time by veteran jockey Mark De Montfort, Catbird won at Randwick by a length and a half, thus beginning a run of five consecutive victories. De Montfort was in the saddle for each win, and each time Catbird improved on his previous performance. After two wins in Sydney, he was sent off the odds-on favourite for the Black Opal Preview at the end of February. His 5.5-length winning margin there ensured that he was sent off the $1.35 favourite for the Black Opal, in which he duly emulated Clan O'Sullivan's victory, winning by just over a length. Three weeks later the colt went one better than Clan O'Sullivan by landing the Golden Slipper, beating and to become the first (and to date only) two-year-old to complete the Black Opal/Golden Slipper double.

Sadly, that Golden Slipper victory proved to be Catbird's final success. Spelled after the race, he resumed at the end of winter, but proved unable to recapture his former brilliance. Seven races yielded merely one minor placing (when second of five runners in a 1000m handicap in Canberra the following summer) and he was retired after finishing second last - as a 30/1 outsider - behind in the Group Two Challenge Stakes at Randwick in February 2000. He duly began covering at Yarraman Park Stud the following spring.

Despite having failed to "train on", Catbird was clearly an exciting stallion prospect. Like any son of Danehill who had shown top-class form at two, he was made welcome by Australian breeders, and he came with the added bonus of coming from a family which regularly produced high-class youngsters. In fact, he had merely followed a family tradition in excelling in the Black Opal. Not only had his dam finished third behind in the race in 1993, but another member of the family, (a full-brother to Fitting) had won the 1987 Black Opal in a two-year-old season in which he also won the AJC Breeders' Plate and the STC Silver Slipper. Maizcay went on to become a decent stallion, the horses he produced prior to his export to Asia including the excellent , who was top-class at both two and three. Furthermore, , a Listed-winning half-sister to Maizcay and Fitting, produced the Black Opal runner-up to that pair's sire – while , a half-sister to Catbird's second dam , won the Black Opal in 1982.

Fitting, Maizcay and Donna Cara were three of the nine winners bred by Corn, a daughter of the good English stallion . Corn's dam was exported to Australia carrying Corn; and in her new homeland Donna Nook went on to prove a splendid matriarch, responsible for numerous very fast horses. Her two high-class sons and both became good stallions (sires respectively of the top-class sprinters and ) while Corn's various half-sisters bred several very good horses, including the Queensland Derby winner .

It is, incidentally, remarkable that Donna Nook should have proved such an influential source of speed because she was a proper stayer herself. Trained in Newmarket by Bernad van Cutsem, she was unplaced on her only start as a back-end two-year-old in 1974 before breaking her maiden in a 14-furlong maiden race at Newmarket in May 1975, beating the subsequent Cesarewitch place-getter . She followed up by winning a 14-furlong handicap at Aintree before being covered by Hotfoot at Gazeley Stud to southern hemisphere time and exported in foal. That stamina was her strong suit might have made her seem an odd choice for export, but in her favour was her liking for firm ground (her win at Aintree came on going described as 'hard') and her pedigree. By the Derby winner from a daughter of the Derby winner , she came from an excellent family (which traces back to the great racemare and massively influential broodmare ): her unraced half-brother was already established as a respectable sire, and they came from the same family as the influential stallion , whose dam ranks was Donna Lydia's third dam. Of paramount importance, perhaps, was the fact that she was out of a daughter of Hyperion, and thus could provide the opportunity for interesting inbreeding to Australian stallions descending from Hyperion's prepotent grandson - stallions such as (to whom she bred both Beans and , the dam of Half Hennessy) and (to whom she bred Dieu D'Or), and also Biscay's champion son , who clicked so well with Corn and Donna Cara.

Catbird duly had his first runners in the 2003/'04 season, by which stage his pedigree had been further enhanced by the exploits of his full-brother , winner of the Group Two Pago Pago Stakes at Rosehill as a two-year-old in March 2003. Unsurprisingly, Catbird proved an immediate hit at stud, ending the season as Australia's leading first-season sire in terms of individual winners (of whom he was represented by 15). None of these 15 horses, admittedly, won a stakes races at two, but one of them - the Ken Jones-owned , who had broken his maiden on debut in the last month of his two-year-old season by winning at Canterbury - became Catbird's first black type winner by landing the Hawkesbury Guineas as the odds-on favourite in the summer of his second season. A second member of the crop, , gained black type by landing the Group Three Cameron Handicap at Newcastle, another sprint, as a four-year-old; and the same horse doubled his tally of stakes victories two months later by becoming Catbird's first metropolitan stakes winner, taking out the Group Three Frederick Clissold Stakes at Randwick. A third member of the crop would eventually become a stakes winner at the age of five when won the Group Three Craven Plate at Randwick in October 2006, three months before a fourth member, , broke through for her first stakes success by landing a Listed sprint in Brisbane.

Catbird's second crop included the sire's first Group One winner: . This son of the Zabeel mare , from a relatively stout NZ damline, proved untypical of his sire's stock by excelling beyond 2000m, winning the Group One WATC Derby in Perth as an autumn three-year-old - with subsequent dual Group One winner 1.25 lengths behind him in third. Cats Fun subsequently reaffirmed his stamina and proved his durability by posting a notable feature-race double at the Perth summer carnival as a five-year-old, landing a brace of Group Two races by winning the C. B. Cox Stakes over 2400m and the Perth Cup over 3200m.

While the stars of Catbird's first two crops had not proved among the sire's more precocious offspring, his third crop contained a swag of juvenile stakes winners. First off the mark was the Gai Waterhouse-trained , successful in the Canonbury Stakes at Randwick in December 2005. The following month saw the David Hayes-trained win the fillies' heat of the Blue Diamond Preview at Caulfield. Diego Garcia further enhanced his achievements by taking out the Group Two Todman Stakes at Rosehill in March 2006, while , trained like Jumlah by David Hayes, became Catbird's third juvenile stakes winner of the season when successful in the Keith Mackay Quality at Randwick in April - six days before another Hayes-trained youngster, , won the Oaklands Plate at the now defunct Victoria Park in Adelaide. These horses helped Catbird to end the 2005/'06 season as Australia's leading third-crop sire by individual winners (94).

The most distinguished member of Catbird's third crop, however, waited a while longer before showing his hand: recorded his first feature-race victory when taking the Hong Kong Derby Trial over 1800m at Sha Tin as a four-year-old in February 2008. He is now more established as a sprinter, in which role he recently underlined his merit with his Group One victory in Singapore. That success has been merely the latest of Catbird's several feature-race victories this year, which list also includes the Group One victory of in the WATC Derby, a Group Two win in Sydney over 1400m for and Group Three sprinting victories for in Hong Kong and for in Adelaide. All told, Catbird's recent successes have made it abundantly plain that his premature death at the age of 10 in June 2007 (from laminitis, the final setback in a run of problems which included a tendon infection and colic) was a major blow not just to Yarraman Park Stud, but to the Australian breeding industry in general.

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