Apart from being Royal Ascot winners, there would appear to be little in common between the top-class middle-distance mare Park Top, winner of the 1967 Ribblesdale Stakes and the Hardwicke Stakes two years later, and the speedy American two-year-old filly Shang Shang Shang, winner of the latest Norfolk Stakes.
Park Top raced in the ‘straw’ colours of the Duke of Devonshire. Owned by a member of the aristocracy, Royal Ascot winners do not come much more traditional than that. Royal Ascot remains the most British of occasions yet for that very reason has become an event in the twenty-first century which owners and trainers around the world want to be part of too. Nobody from outside Europe has embraced the challenge quite so successfully as Shang Shang Shang’s trainer Wesley Ward.
Here is the story of how these two Royal Ascot winners are surprisingly connected by pedigree, with reference to the Duke’s 1976 book in which, writing as Andrew Devonshire, he recounts his mare’s fascinating story in Park Top A Romance of the Turf.
Given what she went on to achieve, Park Top was a remarkably inexpensive purchase – just 500 guineas – as a yearling. More remarkable still was that the Duke had owned her dam Nellie Park but it took some twists of fate which led to him owning her daughter too.
The Duke had bought Nellie Park as a yearling, principally because she was a half-sister to the brilliant sprinter Pappa Fourway, winner of all eight of his starts as a three-year-old in 1955, including the King’s Stand Stakes* at Royal Ascot and the July Cup. However, plans to retain Nellie Park as a broodmare when her racing career was over changed after she failed to win from five attempts.
Nellie Park’s sale took place at Tattersalls in December 1961 when she was bought by Mrs Scott of Buttermilk Stud for 480 guineas. In due course, Nellie Park was sent to the stallion Kalydon, a son of Gold Cup winner Alycidon, and in May 1964 she produced a bay filly who went through the ring at Tattersalls in October of the following year.
By this time, the Duke’s trainer was Bernard Van Cutsem who was given the task of buying a couple of yearlings on the Duke’s behalf. Here the stars began to align because Van Cutsem had bred and owned Kalydon. So it was that he made that winning bid of 500 guineas for Kalydon’s daughter out of Nellie Park, completely unaware that the dam had once been owned by the gentleman who would become the filly’s new owner! Another twist of fate was that the filly later named Park Top had originally been earmarked for a wealthy American but Van Cutsem had had second thoughts about such a cheap purchase for an owner who had told him that money was no object.
For that reason, she was then offered to the Duke instead. Unraced at two, but kept in training until six – unusually for a top-class mare, certainly in those days – Lester Piggott described Park Top (in a letter to her owner reproduced in the book) as ‘the best of her sex I have ever ridden.’ She won 13 of her 24 races, her big wins besides her Royal Ascot successes including the Coronation Cup and King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes as a five-year-old, a season in which she also finished second in the Eclipse, Arc and Champion Stakes.
Park Top’s broodmare career began with a visit to the champion two-year-old Tudor Melody. The Duke takes up the story:
‘Unfortunately, the resulting foal was born more than two months prematurely. The filly was tiny, with a twisted off-hind leg. Had she been a colt it would have probably been put down at once. Since she was a filly, she was reared, but while the hind leg gradually straightened, she never overcame the handicap of her early birth. As she got older, she became increasingly like a miniature of her mother, the same colour, the same star on her forehead and the same sweet temperament.’
Named Willow Song, the little filly ran four times as a two-year-old, her best placing being when second in a six furlong maiden at Nottingham. But it was by this slender thread that Park Top’s female line was perpetuated. Willow Song’s first foal was a filly by Sharpen Up named Sing Willow who made a winning debut at two in a five furlong maiden at Windsor for Michael Stoute. At the end of that same year, 1979, she fetched 50,000 guineas at Tattersalls, her sire having a high profile that year thanks to the exploits of his three-year-old son Kris in the season’s top seven furlong and mile events.
Sing Willow had just two runs, without success, in the USA for her new owners before joining the Tartan Farms broodmare band of John Nerud. But in 1987, Sing Willow was on the move again, finding a Canadian buyer for $23,000 as part of the Tartan-Nerud Dispersal**. Meanwhile, Sing Willow’s daughter Wooden Whistle was sold to Argentina where she became dam of a champion sprinter there, Wooden Girl.
It wasn’t long before Sing Willow was heading to South America too, in foal to the Canadian Travers Stakes winner Runaway Groom. The foal Sing Willow was carrying turned out to be a filly and, named The Best Sing, she became a Grade 2 winner in Argentina and founded a flourishing family there. Indeed, in 2017, The Best Sing’s grandson Glory Seattle won the Gran Premio Ciudad de Buenos Aires, a Grade 1 five furlong sprint, while her great grandson The Great Day won the Gran Premio Polla de Potrillos, the first leg of the Argentine Triple Crown.
But Sing Willow left her mark in North America too, where her winners included Elderberry Drive who was by Nijinsky’s much-travelled grandson Strawberry Road. Elderberry Drive therefore had a very un-American pedigree, her sire coming from a New Zealand family and her British-bred dam a granddaughter of Park Top. But Elderberry Drive won six races on dirt, four of them at Woodbine where they included the listed Duchess Stakes over seven furlongs, and at stud she produced the Grade 3 Cowdin Stakes winner Fistfite.
Now, though, some fifty years after Park Top, the family can boast another Royal Ascot winner after Shang Shang Shang’s success in the Norfolk Stakes, the latest Wesley Ward-trained two-year-old to be successful at the Royal meeting. She’s by the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby out of a granddaughter of Elderberry Drive, Yankee Victoria, a listed-placed sprinter in the USA.
*Then run as the final race of the meeting on the Friday when it was the least valuable race on the card. Another sibling of Nellie Park and Pappa Fourway was Peggy West, grandam of the influential broodmare Flying Melody. Among Flying Melody’s offspring were the Royal Ascot two-year-old winners Lyric Fantasy (1992 Queen Mary Stakes) and Royal Applause (1995 Coventry Stakes).
**The sale grossed more than $25m and included the future Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled ($70,000), then just a foal.