Like old soldiers, the great stallions at the end of their siring careers tend to just fade away. For those blessed with longevity – which can be a factor in their greatness – their crops gradually dwindle in size; then, on their death, their progeny gradually disappear from the racetracks.
Star Way, the marvellous chestnut stallion who was for so long the patriarch at Windsor Park Stud, died more than four years ago; on April 18 2008 to be precise. His numbers on the racetrack are down to a relative handful.
But the events of last weekend suggested Star Way's small final crop has come up with at least one very good one; a decidedly above-average horse who, barring accidents, may push his sire's name out there at elite level for a good while yet. An end-of-career flourish, in other words, rather than a slow fade.
In a $25,000 late-season three-year-old race over 1600 metres at New Plymouth last Saturday, a lanky brown colt named Wanabefamous came up against a scratchings-depleted field in his tenth raceday start. He romped in with stunning ease, his margin nearly eight lengths.
OK, he had just five rivals, but three of them had recent winning form.
OK, it was a heavy track, and testing ground can sometimes result in wide margins that exaggerate the level of superiority. Furthermore, some horses that win impressively in bad ground don't measure up on good footing.
But Wanabefamous's rivals had already shown they could handle heavy going. And, conversely, Wanabefamous had already shown he could perform on top of the ground. There wouldn't have been many who watched that race, his owner-trainer Ralph Manning included, who didn't think they'd just seen a very good performance from a very smart horse.
Manning, already too tall for anything other than a brief career as a jockey, was still riding when Star Way arrived at Windsor Park in the spring of 1981. His subsequent career as a trainer might have been predicted, but who would have thought that he'd be doing well with a young son of Star Way all of 30 years on?!
Older readers will remember him as a very good apprentice, riding winners while he was still a student at Te Kauwhata College. He wound up riding around 150 winners, including nearly 20 over fences, before weight forced him to give race riding away. And by that time he was already a trainer, having taken out his licence aged 20.
In that role he has been a quiet achiever for years. He trained a New Zealand Cup winner, Oak Vue, when he was 22, and another, Laud Peregrine, 12 years later. Rainbow Myth, sire of recent Wellington Steeplechase winner Tom's Myth and Waikato Steeplechase winner Myths And Legends, was another good stayer nurtured by Manning to number a Queensland St Leger among his nine-win tally.
But it was the champion Seachange who put Ralph Manning under an unaccustomed spotlight as he trained the wonderful wonky-legged mare to win 14 of her 28 starts, seven times at Group One.
Wanabefamous may not be in Seachange’s class – certainly not yet – but it seems just as certain that wins in much better class than he encountered last weekend lie ahead of him. He holds a nomination for the EstarOnline Winter Cup at Riccarton next week and is currently about 30 on the entry list. If he doesn't make it, says Manning, an unhurried sort of bloke in manner and approach, there are a couple of R85 miles which he could contest at the Grand National carnival.
Manning first encountered Wanabefamous when he was asked by breeding doyenne Ada Parnwell to educate her weanlings – 15 of them – in the autumn of 2009. “He (Wanabefamous) was one of four I ended up buying privately,” recalls Manning.
Wanabefamous was a tall colt who has furnished into the highly promising but still lightly framed galloper who was so impressive last Saturday. The other Manning picks from Mrs Parnwell's weanling “herd” haven't done badly, either. Civics Rock (Civics-Jahan) has won five races this year, the last of them an open sprint at Ellerslie. Ocean Bound (Deputy Governor-Beach Girl) accumulated nine placings from 10 starts before winning his last start over 2100 metres at Ruakaka. And the last of them, Slumdog Millionaire, has run four seconds.
In that final breeding season which produced Wanabefamous, Star Way, then a venerable 31 years of age, served just five mares – and got four in foal! Apart from Wanabefamous's dam, Irish Era, the mares were English-bred Peripherique, who produced a grey colt now racing as Dubosc; Madame Bettina, dam of a filly foal subsequently named Last Star; Clare Valley (the one who missed) and Chantilly, whose brown colt foal now carries the laughingly predictable name The Last Star Way. Last Star, Star Way's final daughter, is already at stud and was served last spring by Volksraad. The Last Star Way has had a few trials so far without showing up.
But Dubosc, the grey son of the grey imported mare Peripherique, is showing much promise with Wanganui trainer Kevin Myers, having won a maiden 1600 metres at Riccarton back in February by four and a half lengths in just his second start.
I'm sure virtually every New Zealand breeding enthusiast would have a soft spot for Star Way. The British-bred son of Star Appeal (a stallion who was bred in Ireland but by an Italian sire from a German mare) was unlucky to come to stud in the era of Sir Tristram, and to spend his first decade in the great Sir T's shadow.
Star Way was nonetheless the Dewar Award (combined Australian-New Zealand stake earnings) winner of 1990-91 and twice second in that award (to Sir Tristram, of course). He was twice second on the Australian general sires' list and, early in his career, was champion New Zealand sire of two-year-olds.
Star Way produced some near champions, like Sky Chase, Filante and Waverley Star, and a swag of good horses too numerous to list.
How great it would be to see Wanabefamous and Dubosc, from Star Way's last miniscule crop, make the leap from promising to first-rate and thus end their sire's splendid career with a spectacular starburst rather than a genteel sparkler.