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Zabeel wins Dewar Trophy for the eighth time

Remarkably, Zabeel's eighth Dewar Stallion Trophy is not a record. His sire Sir Tristram won the title nine times between 1980 and 1994 but his tenure was broken by the successes of Noble Bijou (1982), Zamazaan (1988), Star Way (1991), Nassipour (1992) and Centaine (1993).

Zabeel's hold on the award has been uninterrupted since 1995, an indicator of both his own dominance and the decade-long decline in the number of New Zealand-based stallions with a strong presence on Australian racetracks. In 1993, for example, there were fourteen New Zealand-based stallions among the top 50 Australian sires (by progeny earnings). Last season there are two: Zabeel (now 17 years old, 7th on the list) and Centaine (23 years old and 47th). And it's not only shuttle stallions that have shoved Kiwi sires aside in Australia. There were 16 Australian-bred and -owned sires among the top 50 last season - there were nine in 1992-93.

The Dewar Trophy is awarded to the leading New Zealand-based sire on combined Australian and New Zealand progeny earnings for the season. The Trophy, donated by the Australasian office of whisky distillers Dewars, was first won in 1965 by Kinross Stud's wonderful sire Summertime.Apart from Sir Tristram and Zabeel, other multiple Dewar Trophy winners have been Le Filou, Pakistan II and Oncidium with three titles each. Zabeel's winning statistics in 2002-03 were 103 winners from 241 runners for 178 wins and prizemoney of $A5,241,169.

Although Zabeel's seventh position on the Australian sires' list is the lowest he's held during the past seven years, 2002-03 saw him shake off some of the dust his reputation had gathered since the heady days of 1997-2000. He was represented by 13 stakeswinners last season, eight of them in Australia and two of those, the three-year-old fillies Shower of Roses and Zagalia, at Group One level. A number of other horses likely to improve their records also made their mark last season, among them New Zealand Derby G1 winner St Reims, dual G2 winner Lafleur, rising star four-year-old Zafar and New Zealand St Leger G3 winner Sunray. Cambridge Stud must also be encouraged to see Zabeel represented by two juvenile stakeswinners last season, Subscribe and Winning Belle, in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.

Zabeel's first five crops (1992-1996) have produced 51 stakeswinners from 423 living foals (12.0%), an average of around ten per crop. His next four crops, 1997-2000, total 449 foals of which 14 (3.1%) have so far become stakeswinners. The figures for this second group of foals, now aged three to six years, must be considered provisional as Zabeel's progeny generally improve with time and many show their best form as older horses.

Nevertheless, it's clear that the second group, with four winners of four Group One races (Don Eduardo, St Reims, Shower of Roses and Zagalia) has not yet come up with performers to match the cumulative impact of Octagonal, Might And Power, Sky Heights, Mouawad, Dignity Dancer, Zonda, Champagne, Jezabeel and the other ten Group One winners sired by Zabeel between 1992 and 1996. Collectively these nineteen horses won 44 Group One races, all but seven of them in Australia.

By contrast, Zabeel's great rival Danehill has continued to enjoy extraordinary success in Australia, and the northern hemisphere, during the past four years. From 1842 foals of racing age he has left 222 stakeswinners (12.0%), compared with Zabeel's 65 stakeswinners from 880 foals (7.3%). These statistics are reflected in their respective 2003 across-the-board yearling sale averages (from the New Zealand Stallion Register): Danehill - $323,928, Zabeel - $183,777.

Breeders naturally expect that when a stallion "fires" as spectacularly as Zabeel did six years ago, and then attracts mares with better race and breeding records, he will leave even larger numbers of successful progeny, and horses that are superior to those he sired from so-called "lesser" mares.

The reality is that horses like Octagonal and Might and Power simply don't come along very often. Danehill has not yet managed to sire one Australian Horse of the Year, much less two of them.

It's also possible that when buyers pay much bigger prices for a stallion's progeny their management of those horses alters - they are tried more as two-year-olds, expensive colts are not gelded - and these decisions may not have helped some of Zabeel's sons and daughters. And perhaps those mares that visited Zabeel in the early 1990s weren't too "inferior" after all.

It's a foolish breeder, though, that would dismiss a stallion as proven as Zabeel at this stage of his career, especially when his fee has been reduced by more than 20%. This season, with those four prime-age crops running for him, he is poised not only to maintain his grip of the Dewar Trophy, but also to return to centre-stage in Australia.

- Susan Archer