The Grey Panel


FLOWER ALLEY: Flower's come up smelling of Roses

With its massive field, taxing conditions, furious tempo and pressure-cooker atmosphere, the Kentucky Derby represents a challenge unlike that posed by most other Grade One races. On that basis, one sometimes feels that it might be more of a lottery than a method of identifying a champion. One could make similar observations about its European equivalent, the Derby - but the fact is that, year in and year out, it takes a very special horse to win the premier Classic in either America and in Europe. This year's Kentucky Derby winner , therefore, deserves massive respect, as does his sire , writes John Berry.

The form of the Kentucky Derby looks rock-solid. Each of the first three had won a Grade One on his last start; fourth-placed was a lightly-raced improver who had won his last two, while fifth-placed (a Grade One winner as a two-year-old who had been placed in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile) had been beaten only a nose by I'll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby on his final prep race. The consistency of this year's batch of Classic colts in the States is clear, which sets us up very nicely for the remainder of the Triple Crown Series. I'll Have Another's victory also sets Flower Alley up nicely for the future, as I'll Have Another is a member of his second crop.

Flower Alley's sire crops up regularly in this column. Distorted Humor has worked his way up through the ranks to his current position as one of the very best proven sires in America. Reaching his peak when winning two Grade Two races as a five-year-old in 1998, Distorted Humor was not one of the most brilliant colts of his generation, nor one of the most precocious. However, the grandson of Mr Prospector has consistently passed his own toughness onto his progeny and has regularly upgraded his mares. As his son Flower Alley has now done, Distorted Humor sired a Kentucky Derby winner early in his career (his first-crop son ). That batch also included the Grade One-winning juvenile , and he has continued to come up with a solid flow of high-class horses since then, including the reigning Breeders' Cup Classic victor . Distorted Humor's position of eminence is thus secure, and Flower Alley ranks as one of the several stars who helped to establish it.

A member of Distorted Humor's third crop, Flower Alley was bred by George Brunacini at Bona Terra Farms. Brunacini sold him as a weanling at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale in 2002 for $50,000, a price which allowed the purchaser to make a profit: he was resold as a yearling for $165,000 at the same venue 10 months later. The bulk of the credit for the appreciation in the colt's value must lie with the boost which Distorted Humor's status had received in the intervening period, courtesy primarily of Funny Cide's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and his third place when bidding to complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont. The bottom half of Flower Alley's pedigree hadn't improved noticeably in the intervening period: his dam , the winner of three minor races, still hadn't bred a winner (he was only her second foal) while his non-winning second dam was still had an unremarkable record. However, Distorted Humor had now started to demonstrate that he could upgrade his mares - which gave plenty of potential for hope for the young Flower Alley, who had plenty of class in his lineage if one delved far enough back: his fifth dam had bred the high-class French-trained Northern Dancer colt , who remains revered as a world-class sire, responsible for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winners and . It is possibly worth mentioning that Goofed appears in the fourth generation on both sides of Princess Olivia's pedigree: she is a daughter of the disappointing Mr Prospector stallion , whose dam was a daughter of Lyphard.

Funnily enough, it was possibly not the credentials of Flower Alley's dam which decided his destination after the yearling sale, but her name: Eugene and Laura Melnyk clearly liked the colt out of Princess Olivia, but their decision to bid for, and ultimately buy, him was probably made easier by the fact that they have a daughter named Olivia.

Having been purchased by the Melnyk Racing Stables, the young Flower Alley joined Todd Pletcher' s stable. He was not one of the stable's more precocious two-year-olds of 2004, not making his debut until December when, having been sent down to Florida for the winter, he finished third in a two-year-olds' maiden special weight at Calder. He duly broke his maiden early in his three-year-old year, winning at Gulfstream Park in February 2005, before continuing to progress rapidly enough to earn himself a berth in the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday of May. He got there courtesy of victory in the Grade Two Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park at the end of March and second place behind (albeit beaten eight lengths) in the Grade Two Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in the middle of April.

Unsurprisingly, Flower Alley wasn't quite ready to take a starring role in the Kentucky Derby (he finished a respectable ninth of the 20 runners, beaten just over seven lengths behind the winner ) and wisely his connections resisted the temptation to back him up in the Preakness, which was won by Afleet Alex. With neither Giacomo nor Afleet Alex lining up in the Belmont, Flower Alley started favourite for that race. He ran very well too, finishing second to , beaten only half a length.

Flower Alley's tremendously progressive season continued with two excellent wins at Saratoga over the summer (in the Grade Two Jim Dandy Stakes and the Grade One Travers Stakes) and, bouncing back from a disappointing fourth behind in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on his first start against older horses, he ended off his superb season with a terrific second place, on his tenth run of the preparation and ninth of the year, in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont, beaten only a length by the five-year-old . As Flower Alley was the only three-year-old to finish in the first eight, his performance clearly had to be given maximum respect: he could now arguably be regarded as the best of his generation.

Disappointingly, after such a wonderful first campaign, Flower Alley's four-year-old season in 2006 was rather a let-down. He had again spent the winter down in Florida, but this time without racing there. He had clearly deserved a good spell after his arduous campaign the previous year, and when he resumed - in the Grade Three Salvator Mile Handicap at Monmouth Park in June 2006 - he looked as good as ever, winning by more than three lengths. Sadly, this impression proved false: he raced three more times that year (in the Whitney, the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup Classic) and he ran worse every time. He started favourite in the Whitney but could only finish seventh, nine lengths off the winner ; next time he started at longer odds and was beaten farther; and finally he lined up as an outsider in the BC Classic and finished among the tail-enders, more than 18 lengths behind Invasor this time.

This lack-lustre end to Flower Alley's career was particularly disappointing bearing in mind how progressive he had been the previous year. However, it should not be allowed to erase the memory of his terrific campaign at three, when he had shown himself to be as tough and genuine as he was talented. And at least he fared better in 2006 than either his breeder or the horse who had beaten him in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Classic. Tragically, George Brunacini was killed in a plane crash at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington in August 2006 the same month that Saint Liam was killed in a freak accident after completing only one season at stud.

Happily, Flower Alley's stud career now looks set to be more prolific than that enjoyed by Saint Liam (whose sole crop contains the recently-retired Horse of the Year ). Flower Alley too has come up with a top-liner early in his stud career (his second crop son I'll Have Another) but that is far from the full extent of his achievements even at this early stage of his stud career. Standing at Three Chimneys alongside the likes of and (and until a couple of weeks ago the recently-deceased champion ), Flower Alley has already been represented by one first-crop juvenile graded stakes winner () and one first-crop Grade One-winning three-year-old: , successful in last year's Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. He has also come up with , a Grade One winner in Puerto Rico.

Flower Alley's stud career looks certain to progress further from here, and his fee of $7,500 (stands and nurses) looks set to rise considerably. He stands as a great advertisement for his terrific sire Distorted Humor and as a reminder that horses who have proven themselves both top-class and very tough are very likely to become good stallions. Primarily, though, Flower Alley stands as a great advertisement for himself. He was a thoroughly admirable racehorse and now he looks sure to continue to establish himself as an excellent stallion.

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