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‘Always Bet the Gray:’ The History Behind Derby Favorite Essential Quality’s Silver Coat THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE PAULICK REPORT:

by Emily White | 04.26.2021 | 10:02pm

Godolphin homebred Essential Quality, ridden by Luis Saez, wins the TVG Juvenile Presented By Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance on Breeders' Cup Championship Friday at Keeneland on November 6, 2020: in Lexington, Kentucky. John Voorhees/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup/CSM

A gray Thoroughbred is often a head-turner, not only for its sterling coat but for its relative rarity. Comprising only a small percentage of the breed, they are outnumbered by their bay, brown and chestnut stablemates. This year, though, you might just see a garland of roses placed around a gray colt's neck. Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality has passed every test given to him so far, from winning the championship race for 2-year-old colts to securing victories in both his prep races for the Derby this spring. He stands above all the rest, and though anything might happen in the Run for the Roses, he looks to have the best chance of anyone to win. But of 146 victors of the Kentucky Derby, only eight have been gray, and it's been some years since a gray was even favored in the race. Could Essential Quality become winner number nine? Gray horses are so infrequent in fields that the superstition “Always bet the gray” has been whispered for decades, and those following this wisdom on the first Saturday in May may just reap the rewards. What's in a gray? Different breeds of horses have different varieties and proportions of coat colors. There are some breeds, like the famous Lipizzaners of Austria, that are dominated by gray horses. In order to breed a gray horse, however, you need at least one gray parent. A gray horse won't just pop up seemingly out of nowhere, even if a grandparent or great-grandparent was that color. There's a lot more science to it — a matter of dominant and recessive genes — but suffice it to say that every gray Thoroughbred has an unbroken gray lineage that can be traced back through their pedigree through one or both parents. The Thoroughbred was created in England in the late 17th Century as a cross between imported stallions from the Middle East and North Africa and local broodmare stock. The endurance of these desert stallions, combined with the speed of the mares, created a horse that could carry its speed over a distance. There are three “foundation sires” of the breed often cited – the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerley Turk. But these are merely the three whose direct male lines still live on. There were other stallions, too, that shaped the breed – and some of them were gray. The Alcock Arabian is chief among these early silver horses. He got his color from his mother, who in turn received the gray gene from her father, Hautboy, and his father, an imported stallion from Turkey. The famous breeder Federico Tesio called him the “fourth foundation sire” due to his immense influence on the Thoroughbred. Of course, Tesio also compared the inheritance of the gray coat in Thoroughbreds to a “disease.” And thanks to Alcock's Arabian, that disease keeps on spreading. His son, Crab, is responsible for much of that success. Crab was a nice racehorse who won a pair of prestigious races and then took his prowess to stud. He went on to sire daughters that produced the gray lines which lead us to the present day. We're not quite there yet, though. Before Essential Quality, there were other gray superstars, and many of them owe their gray coat to perhaps the greatest of them all – The Tetrarch.

The Tetrarch, King for a Gray Bred in Ireland and raced there and in England, The Tetrarch was a phenom on the track, winning all seven of his races and claiming the title of champion 2-year-old colt. His racing career was cut short due to leg problems, but luckily for his legacy, there was the breeding shed. The colt was nicknamed “The Spotted Wonder,” for the black and white dapples that peppered his silver coat. The black spots were inherited from Bend Or, grandsire of his dam. The emergence of white dapples, though, was somewhat of a surprise. Even today, gray horses exhibiting these white dapples are said to have “Tetrarch spots.” The Tetrarch was the product of a line of gray stallions from France, son of Roi Herode, who in turn was son of Le Samaritain, son of Le Sancy. They are the preeminent gray Thoroughbreds found in pedigrees at the turn of the century. If a silver horse isn't descended from The Tetrarch, they are, in all likelihood, descended from Roi Herode. Keeping in mind Thoroughbred coat color dynamics, these horses were always products of at least one gray parent. And if you trace The Tetrarch's pedigree back through the generations, you'll wind up at Crab – and more than once, at that. So the Tetrarch went to stud, and just as he was brilliant as a racehorse, he was brilliant as a sire, too. His sons and daughters won many stakes races, but the most influential in the long run was the “Flying Filly,” Mumtaz Mahal. Like her father, she, too, was a champion 2-year-old — and she, too, was gray. She's the tail-female ancestor of several of the breed's most influential horses, including Nasrullah and Mahmoud, and it's because of the latter that we can finally turn our attention to the United States and the Kentucky Derby.

Star-Spangled grays – from revolution to Roses Thoroughbred horses first came to America in the colonial era, and the breed began to take shape after the American Revolution and throughout the 19th Century. One of the first leading sires in the United States was Medley, a son of silver stallion Gimcrack, with the blood of Crab and Hautboy in his veins. Medley was a successful racehorse in England, and in 1784, he was sent to Virginia to stand at stud. There, he produced many winners — some gray, some not — and left a considerable mark on early American bloodlines. But that influence waned in the wake of bay and chestnut stallions to come. Diomed soon became preeminent sire in America, followed by horses like Leviathan, Glencoe, and the dominant Lexington, whose bay portrait still graces the cover of the Blood-Horse's Stallion Register. Medley's blood lived on, but his silver coat did not. In fact, it wasn't until 1946 that a gray horse was again top sire in the United States. That just happened to be Mahmoud, grandson of Mumtaz Mahal and great-grandson of The Tetrarch. Ten years earlier, he had won the Derby at Epsom Downs, and was purchased to stand at stud in America in 1940. He went on to sire numerous stakes winners, and his daughter Almahmoud is the direct female ancestor of Derby winners Northern Dancer and Sunday Silence. (They're not gray, but they're still quite important.) Even considering Mahmoud's success at stud, a gray horse had still never won the Kentucky Derby. That would change soon enough, when Determine won the race in 1954. It nearly came a year sooner, when the legendary Native Dancer went to post.

Native Dancer

Native Dancer had raced eleven times prior to the Derby and had never been defeated. In a sea of bays and chestnuts, he stood mostly alone. He was one of those that didn't get his gray gene from The Tetrarch; his female line consisted of silver mares all the way back to his great-great-grandmother La Grisette, a daughter of Roi Herode. While Mahmoud was making a name for himself as a sire, Native Dancer was leaving it all on the track. He broke from the gate as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and nearing the finish line, he was making up considerable ground on 25-1 shot Dark Star. Surely he'd get up in time? It was not to be. Native Dancer lost the roses by a head. He went on to add the Preakness and Belmont, among other prestigious races, to his list of victories; the Derby was the only race he ever lost. The next year, Determine won the Kentucky Derby. This gray colt's mother was a daughter of Mahmoud. In 1962, his son Decidedly became a Derby winner, too, and they remain one of the few father-son pairs to both win the race. Despite the Derby loss, Native Dancer achieved racing immortality through not only his track record but his sons and daughters as well. You'd be hard-pressed not to find him in a modern racehorse's pedigree — gray or not.

Caro, Tapit, and the gray-volution Mahmoud's influence lived on in subsequent gray Kentucky Derby winners Spectacular Bid (1979) and Gato Del Sol (1982). The former even came close to winning the Triple Crown, coming up short in the final race, the Belmont Stakes. Lady's Secret, a daughter of Secretariat, was a gray champion who traced her bloodlines back to Native Dancer. But Mahmoud and Native Dancer were only two stallions. Even with their great influence, along with other descendants of The Tetrarch and Mumtaz Mahal, gray horses were still vastly outnumbered in the United States. The color received a boost in the form of Caro, an Irish-bred, French-raced stallion who was sent to stand at stud in America in 1979. The move paid off nearly immediately. His first American crop boasted the gray Cozzene, Breeders' Cup Mile winner and breed-shaper in his own right. Other stakes winners soon followed. His greatest claim to fame, though, came perhaps in 1988, when Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors was not only a gray horse, but a female horse – only the third filly to win the Derby in its storied history. A gray filly winning the Run for the Roses was the statistical equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack, and yet, she beat the odds.

Holy Bull won the FSS In Reality as a 2-year-old, shown here with Mike Smith and his trainer Warren A. Croll, Jr.

From there, more and more grays shone on the national racing stage. Holy Bull, who was descended from Mahmoud not once but twice, didn't win the Derby but won pretty much everything else. Silver Charm, another descendant of Mahmoud, nearly claimed the Triple Crown. Monarchos, with Caro in his pedigree, took the roses in 2001, and Holy Bull's gray son Giacomo won the race at gargantuan odds of 50-1 in 2005. That was the last time a gray horse won the Derby, but in the years since, the tide has turned even further in favor of the color. A year before, the silver Tapit finished a distant ninth on the first Saturday in May, but he's been nearly unbeatable as a stallion. Since Mahmoud in 1946, just a few gray horses have been named leading sires in the United States – the aforementioned Cozzene in 1996, and El Prado in 2002. Tapit, meanwhile, was leading sire in 2014 … and 2015 … and 2016, too. Unbridled's Song, another gray, followed him up in 2017. Like Native Dancer, Tapit's female line is all gray. In fact, you have to go back nine generations of silver mares before you get to Silver Beauty, a granddaughter of The Tetrarch. Back from The Tetrarch, you get to the French gray stallions. And from them, you get back to Crab, and the Alcock Arabian. And that's where this story comes full circle, because Tapit is the father of 2021 Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality. The historic odds may be stacked against the silver colt, but the betting odds sure won't be. And it's not as if gray horses have been completely absent from contention in the Run for the Roses in recent years. Since Giacomo, they have finished second, third or fourth on several occasions. The genetic legacy that Essential Quality brings to his Derby favoritism is beyond compelling. When he enters the starting gate, the blood of Mahmoud and Mumtaz Mahal and Roi Herode will course through his veins, and perhaps the ghosts of Native Dancer and Winning Colors will be at his side, too.

But maybe that's getting too philosophical.

Maybe we should keep it simple, follow track superstition, and just bet the gray.

Emily White is a writer and photographer in the Philadelphia area with racing and breeding interests in the Mid-Atlantic region.


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