“In a game in which the principals all compete in the same profession, and where success and failure are both logged in the press every day, swirling envies always abound.”
For those of us who think that excellence in the racehorse breeding business, is vitally dependent upon the regular refreshment of one’s productive bloodstock, the annual retirement to stud of the world’s top performers is a matter of fundamental interest. For as long as we continue to believe that imported parent stock is superior to our local stuff, what happens in the Northern Hemisphere will remain the focus of our greater attention. After all, it has been thus ever since South Africans took breeding seriously, and the future fathers of our own prospects will be drawn from the ranks of the stallions that excel in those realms.
The bells of success have forever tolled for those that command the heights of the stallion business, and for close on three centuries, that hegemony rested with the English aristocracy, endowed as they were with the spoils of Empire. The curtain-call on Britain’s dominion over 40% of the earth’s surface, coincided with the rampant American economy of the 1940s, and the irresistible money of the latter’s industrialists soon transferred the pendulum of stallion power to the other side of the Atlantic.
Enter the son of a battling Irish farmer and his utterly gifted father-in-law trainer, backed by the riches of a football pools heir, and the 1980s spawned the emergence of a new force in the Emerald Isle. Given the economics of the time, Ireland was the most unlikely of places to champion a European resurgence, but when it comes to horses, only the ignorant would be foolish enough to ignore her horsemen.
John Magnier, Vincent O’Brien and the Liverpudlian Robert Sangster brought a new meaning to the word “genius,” and while knowing that the best racehorse (and hence, stallion) prospects were to be found in North America was, for them, the easy part, their knack in picking and funding the choice lots was what set them apart. Thus Coolmore was born, a temple to the glories of Vincent O’Brien’s masterpiece, Ballydoyle, the mysteries of which had fired the pens of journalists for five full decades.
The Japanese have long been the masters of imitation, so it wasn’t long before their own “genius”, the late Zenya Yoshida, cottoned on and developed a dominance of his own in his homeland, perfecting it by urging his domestic authorities to rewrite their racing programme to suit the discards of a European model which had served British and French racing so well for so long.
But back to centre court. Within a decade, the Irish-based triumvirate faced an onslaught from a hitherto unimaginable source with limitless pockets. Oil was the new world monetary system, and with their exposure to the intoxication of racing that comes with an aristocratic British education, the four sons of Dubai’s ruler of the time, succumbed to the charms of the sport. Magnier and Co. suddenly had a match on their hands, and before they could say “Jack Flash”, the Arab connection were the senior protagonists, if only from the perspective of what they could spend not only in the United States, but in their pursuit of the best produce of the best stallions already enthroned at Coolmore.
What has become of a rivalry that grew out of the internecine battle for racing supremacy in Europe, has been well-visited in these columns. In a nutshell, the balance of power at the racecourse ping-ponged between these two battalions, the one propelled by what seemed like a “bottomless pit”, the other by the instincts that belong only to those whose talents spring from generations of association with horses. Yes, measured by the standards of a former era, the Irish contingent had “cash”, but the resources at the disposal of Sheikh Mohammed et frère were on a scale no-one had seen or even contemplated before. The fact that the Irish were competitive at all, is the best testimony to our home-coined adage that when it comes to racehorses, a good eye can be just as good as a big cheque book.
In a game in which the principals all compete in the same profession, and where success and failure are both logged in the press every day, swirling envies always abound. The Arabs obviously had their reasons (the grapevine suggested they felt that the flow of the financial largesse accruing from their “mutual” patronage, was pretty much one-way traffic in favour of the “green” team) but out of the blue, the Maktoums decided about 8 years ago, that they would henceforth suspend their support of the Coolmore stallions, as well as their progeny in the sales ring. As the biggest buyers of thoroughbreds the world had known, in almost every other conceivable instance, this would’ve been the death knell for any operation, even one of Coolmore’s scale. After all, it didn’t only mean the withdrawal of their patronage of the stallions themselves, but it was a signal to all commercial breeders who continued their support of the Magnier stallions, that they could no longer count on Maktoum money to drive their prices. In short, it was a declaration of war, a war which has raged on for 8 unrelenting years, at considerable cost to the “boys in blue”, as the Maktoum contingent has come to be known.
It is one of the truisms of the game, that owners can be harder to train than horses, and when money and horses start to run, avarice and resentment are often not far behind. Ever since horses became a currency of their own, nothing has been quite the same. History has always served as a good teacher in circumstances like these, and for anyone plotting a strategy, a glance at the stallion logs of the moment would’ve made worthwhile reading. Sadler’s Wells had already racked up a world record sequence of 12 sires titles (he made it 14 in the end;) on either side of these, the Coolmore stallions, Caerleon and Danehill had their turns (Danehill was on the threshold of a “run” of his own, too,) and the European “top ten” seldom included fewer than seven or eight Coolmore incumbents. If you wanted to remain in the vanguard of European racing, the quick answer was that you had to stay with the Coolmore stallions. The Maktoums didn’t, and since that day, their challenge has “fizzled” to a trickle of its former formidable glory. That’s not going to change any time soon either, not until they “own the farm”.
Meanwhile, already ensconced at Coolmore were the successors to Sadler’s Wells; Danehill, his son Danehill Dancer, Montjeu and High Chaparral, aspiring champions the lot, as well as the inimitable Galileo, most people’s idea of the world’s best sire of the present era. To a man, they are products of a single lineage, the genesis of which lay in the early recognition of Northern Dancer as the “daddy of them all”, long before the rest of the world woke up. By contrast, the very ample ranks of Darley stallions in Europe, are populated by just a handful of quality proven stallions: Dubawi (a son of their own prematurely-deceased Dubai Millennium), Shamardal and New Approach, ironically the products of two Coolmore-owned horses, Giant’s Causeway and Galileo. In a sense, this is akin to “sleeping with the enemy”, and only serves to highlight the cost of that fateful decision to an operation whose ratio vivendi is centred entirely on the frequency of its visits to the big race winner’s podium, and blighted this year by two very unwelcome but much publicised charges for the possession and administration of quantities of illegal medications.
The one thing you can’t do though, is underestimate the ambition and determination of Dubai’s ruler: what Sheikh Mohammed wants, Sheikh Mohammed gets. In the wake of the “declaration of war”, he set out to corner the American stallion market by acquiring the top four performers of the three-year-old generation of 2007; together with his exceptional homebred, Bernardini, a cool $200 million laid claim to the Kentucky Derby star, Street Sense, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday. Then he reached into a rich vein of genetic quartz, and brought home the exalted sire, Medaglia D’Oro. While the reigning champion of America, Giant’s Causeway (three titles 2009, 2010 and 2012) resides at Coolmore’s Ashford operation, Bernardini looks every bit the successor to his own illustrious father, A.P. Indy, and Medaglia D’Oro remains a force, though not with quite the zest he enjoyed at the height of his “heady” acquisition.
If the penny hasn’t already dropped, this is the background to the world of stallion supremacy, and why, in that battle, the only two parties that matter (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) if only because of the financial and genetic resources at their disposal, are Coolmore and Darley. Yes, there are pockets of genuine resistance (Juddmonte’s Dansili and Oasis Dream and the immense but as yet unknown presence of Frankel) Claiborne’s War Front (Danzig’s successor, they say) and down South, the exceptional influences of Redoute’s Choice and, can-you-believe-it, another continental champion for Coolmore, Fastnet Rock. But the reality is, for the foreseeable future at least, these two leviathans of the industry, as diverse in their character as a lion and a hippopotamus, are likely to define the course of things.
Just four years ago (a few months after the fall of Lehmann Bros.) American studs announced the fees for their top new retirees: Curlin ($75,000), Big Brown ($65,000) and Henrythenavigator ($65,000). Since then, only four Northern Hemisphere stallions have stood for $50,000 or more, all in Europe, and two of them veteran “Australians”: Fastnet Rock, shuttling at an “opener” of €35,000 (+-$50k), and in an act of unusual daring most likely engineered by his own bloodstock chief, Georges Rimaud, the Aga Khan took on Redoute’s Choice at €70,000. The other two, arguably the two best European racehorses of the past 30 years, reinforced both the Aga Khan’s new-found entreprenurial verve as well as Prince Khalid Abdullah’s place at the main table of international breeding’s greatest players. Sea The Stars retired to Gilltown Stud for €85 000, while Frankel joined the Juddmonte roster at £125 000. Most betting men will tell you, the Europeans got the best end of that bargain, and looking at the prospects for 2014, it’s another case of “odds-on” Europe.
Top of the European “pops”, at least from a pricing perspective, is Coolmore’s aptly named Declaration Of War, given the theme of this report, who comes at a solid €40,000 (+-$55,000). Coolmore have obviously identified his sire War Front, as the reincarnation of his own father, Danzig, and as a font of future prospects, as they’ve done a fistful of business with that stallion’s principal Joseph Allen, and this fellow combines a “Giant’s Causeway” constitution and mind, with an enviable “milers” record for his place at the top of the stud fee tree.
It is a sad reflection though, on the role which fashion plays in the setting of stud fees, that as admirable a racehorse as Camelot should kick off at just €25,000. It is all the more mystifying since his own sire Montjeu, Galileo and High Chaparral, all giants of the stallion firmament, were like him, Derby winners. His “sin” obviously rests in the extended distances at which he excelled, while Dawn Approach, who like Camelot, was also a winner of the Group One Two Thousand Guineas at a mile, starts life at €35,000. Dawn Approach’s redemption rests in the fact that, unlike our Derby hero, he failed in the Derby, suggesting that his forte’ was at the shorter trips. Damn good miler that he was, there wasn’t €10,000 worth of stud fees between him and Camelot as racehorses. End of story.
Besides having displayed his prowess in Group One company at a mile, Camelot had the added distinction of crushing his Derby adversaries by five, in faster time than any of his mighty Ballydoyle predecessors, Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Roberto, The Minstrel and High Chaparral, all stellar stallions in their own right. Here was an athlete with the precocity of a Champion Two-Year-Old, the speed to win a Guineas at three, and whose owners were the first since Nijinsky’s Charles Engelhard with the courage and the enterprise to allow a colt of his talents a crack at the Triple Crown. His pedigree spoke of “Elegance” and the “Enforcer”: by Montjeu from a Kingmambo mare, out of a daughter of Danehill, Camelot had done exactly what it said on the “tin”. When it came to the extended trip of the St Leger, the third leg in the “crown”, things just unravelled. One of the brutal truths of the game, is that when things seem almost too good to be true, they almost certainly are. All seemed so well in the world. It only took one race to change it. And, it only took a horse called Encke, who’s not been seen or heard of since, to do it. That was Camelot’s sin.
Mercifully, the Coolmore team knows better. While Declaration Of War heads their freshman roster pricewise, it is Camelot’s honour to decorate the cover of their newly-released stallion brochure for 2014.
Dawn Approach aside (enigmatic he may be, but on his day, a world class performer with a big shot at Darley,) we’re not departing Europe without a word about Al Kazeem, recently syndicated among the “who’s who” of European breders for duty at The Queen’s Sandringham Stud. The son of Sheikh Mohammed’s highly accomplished Dubawi, this debonair entertainer debuts at a fee of £18,000 (+-$30,000). Horses like Al Kazeem are an inspiration. In the simplest way, they symbolise the highest of athletic virtues, rock solid minds and massive physical appeal. It is always dangerous to get too anthropomorphic about horses, but given the calibre of those who’ve invested in him, there’s always mystique in the thought of how such a tough character will fare when he moves to the sultan’s life at stud.
The profiles of American debutants for 2014, is somewhat lower than that of their European counterparts, and appears to herald a subtle fall from grace of Kentucky, not long ago the undisputed capital of world thoroughbred breeding. Nice enough horses they certainly are, but in Orb, Paynter, Point Of Entry, Oxbow, Shanghai Bobby and Take Charge Indy, there’s little among those names to shiver the timbers of European breeders. The one horse who might’ve stirred some emotions across the waves were it not for his “non-event” at Ascot, is Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby ace who, for a stretch of three months earlier in the year, bestrode the world as its highest-rated middle distance performer. He opens at Darley for a mouth-watering $35,000.
Hot off a nail-biting second in the 2012 Breeder’s Cup Mile, Animal Kingdom carried the colours of his breeders, Team Valor to victories in a brace of Group Ones in the opening months of the year, including a crushing defeat of an international line-up in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. South Africa’s Robin Bruss has previously engineered international transactions involving major racehorses and stallions, and one of his more celebrated achievements was the acquisition of the former Chilean champion sire, Hussonet, for duty at John Messara’s fabled Arrowfield in Australia.
Here Bruss was again, coupling Team Valor’s Barry Irwin with Arrowfield in a deal that saw Animal Kingdom go to “post” for the world’s richest race, in their joint ownership. A visionary in the Magnier class, Messara has always been pretty nimble when there is business to be done, especially when a “shrewdy” like Irwin has marked his card. Animal Kingdom’s World Cup was one of those moments when triumph is so complete, vindication so unarguable.
As he’d also demonstrated so often in the past, Sheikh Mohammed is seldom too far out of range when there’s the scent of a good horse in the vicinity, and he too, was quick to pounce in the World Cup aftermath. Few horses have gone to Royal Ascot with such expectations, and with the combined powers of two of the world’s great marketers and the money of one of the world’s richest men behind him, Animal Kingdom arrived in England carrying the aspirations of three different countries. The racehorse is such a symbol of hope and vitality though, that when they go down, as Animal Kingdom did before the eyes of the world at Ascot, the flame is so instantly extinguished, it comes as a choking shock, even in the remembrance. Otherwise, he should’ve been standing for $50,000 or more.
One race: that’s all it takes. Success governs everything in racing. It always has. And it always will.