The last two posts here were about California Chrome and Sunday Silence, both linked by the races in Dubai on Saturday — and perhaps by their non-commercial female families. California breeder George A. Pope, Jr. (1901-1979), mentioned in the piece on Sunday Silence as the breeder of his first three dams (4th dam Dowager was bred by Louis B. Mayer, who also bred California Chrome’s 7th dam, Judy-Rae), was the owner and breeder of 1962 record-breaking Kentucky Derby winner Decidedly, the last California-bred to win the classic before Chrome.
Pope operated the 1,600-acre El Peco Ranch near Madera, California, in the San Joaquin Valley in the central part of the state and was a wealthy shipping and lumber man who bred horses to race, not sell. He was at the opposite end of the bloodstock spectrum from Chrome’s homebreeders, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, and hobnobbed with the racing elite of the time — he was longtime friends with Bull Hancock of Claiborne, where Decidedly stood for a time, and Robert Kleberg of King Ranch — but there is a curious link between the breeders of both California-bred classic winners.
Pope was also the breeder of the 1964 Kentucky Derby favorite Hill Rise, the Santa Anita Derby winner and a son of the El Peco sire Hillary. Hill Rise lost the Derby by a neck to Northern Dancer, who broke Decidedly’s track record of 2:00 and 2/5 by completing the distance in 2:00 flat. Hill Rise would win the Santa Anita Handicap the next year, but Pope — like Martin and Coburn — put Hill Rise on the turf, too, and the colt won the 1965 Man o’ War Stakes when it was run at 13F.
Then in 1966, Pope sent 5-year-old Hill Rise to trainer Noel Murless at Warren Place in Newmarket after winning the San Antonio Handicap, and Hill Rise made several starts in England, winning two races, including the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Stakes over a mile at Ascot in the fall.
Martin and Coburn, of course, sent California Chrome to Dubai in 2015 after a runner-up effort in the San Antonio to Shared Belief, and after a second in the Dubai World Cup, Chrome was sent to trainer Rae Guest at Newmarket to prepare for the 10F G1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in the summer. The idea of conquering Britain with a California-bred wasn’t without precedent, then, but the added route via Dubai to Royal Ascot hadn’t worked for Kentucky Derby and DWC winner Animal Kingdom — soundly beaten in the G1 Queen Anne Stakes in 2013 — and it didn’t work for Chrome, who was scratched from the Royal Ascot race after bruising a foot.
Pope bred a total of 27 stakes winners, and he had more success in Europe, too. He sent Hill Shade, like Hill Rise a product of El Peco’s Hillary, to Murless at 2, and the California-bred filly at 3 in 1968 won the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood and the Sun Chariot Stakes, both at a mile.
Pope kept Hill Shade in Europe and bred her to Crepello, getting the British-bred Mysterious as her first foal. Mysterious won the G1 Epsom Oaks, the G1 1000 Guineas, and the G1 Yorkshire Oaks in 1973 and was the second highweighted 3-year-old filly on English Free Handicap at year’s end behind Horse of the Year Dahlia — who, by the way, was also produced by a California-bred dam.
After a few years in England, Hill Shade was later retuned to the States and bred to Never Bend in Kentucky, producing Pope’s last top horse, J.O. Tobin. The latter was foaled in 1974 in Maryland because Hill Shade had been sent there to be bred to Northern Dancer at Windfields.
J.O. Tobin, like his dam, was sent to Warren Place and was the last good horse for Murless, too, who retired at the end of 1976. Brought back to North America at 3, J.O. Tobin — the champion 2-year-old colt in England — is best known as the horse who handed Seattle Slew his first loss, but he was also the champion sprinter of 1978 at 4.
Pope died in 1979 and the El Peco Ranch no longer produces racehorses. He’d developed some excellent families, such as Hill Shade’s, in his 30-odd years as a California breeder, but the family of Wishing Well noted in the post from the other day wasn’t anywhere near as prolific in stakes production. But California-bred Wishing Well did produce Derby winner and outstanding sire Sunday Silence, a lasting legacy for the El Peco.