The year 2000 heralded the start of an obsession. A long-standing fan of jump racing who could get away with saying that out loud while working for Horse & Hound, I was soon taught the error of my ways by my new colleagues at Pacemaker.
The intimidating trio of purists that was Julian Muscat, John Boyce and Jeremy Early made sure that there was so much collective brow-furrowing at the mere mention of Istabraq that, by the time that year’s Classics came around, I was well and truly persuaded into a new-found love of Flat racing.
For that reason, the names King’s Best and Sinndar will always hold special resonance: the brilliant Guineas winner, whose career was cruelly ended in the Irish Derby, and the hero of Epsom, the Curragh and Longchamp. How pleasing then to be able to see these two cherished creatures in the flesh, more than a decade on, as part of La Route des Etalons, an open weekend of Normandy-based studs at the beginning of February.
Both stallions started their careers in Ireland and now stand respectively at Haras du Logis and the Aga Khan’s Haras de Bonneval. King’s Best’s star is in the ascendant thanks to the exploits of Workforce, while Rosanara’s Prix Marcel Boussac win and Youmzain’s annual Arc outing showed those who needed reminding the type of horse Sinndar is capable of siring. Each has been joined at stud in France by one of his sons over the last two years: Creachadoir stands alongside his sire King’s Best at Logis while his half-brother, the aforementioned Youmzain, has been added to the Haras du Quesnay roster.
The Head family’s historic stud was mobbed by visitors over the open weekend. Its most famous established stallions of recent years, Highest Honor, Anabaa and Bering, are much missed, not just at Quesnay but in France generally, as is former champion sire Linamix (who stood at Haras du Val Henry).
Quesnay’s newest recruits Dunkerque, Mr Sidney, Fuisse and Youmzain have a long way to go before they can match the records of these luminaries. And therein lies France’s problem: despite a recent influx of new stallions (27 in 2010 and another 25 this year) the country is lacking in superstar names, though King’s Best made plenty of headlines last year.
FRBC in strong position
The rapid decline of first-season sires in Britain and Ireland in the last few years may be concerning, but exciting young prospects like Invincible Spirit, Oasis Dream, Dubawi and Shamardal, backing up Coolmore’s big guns of Galileo, Danehill Dancer and Montjeu, mean France has much catching up to do to be on an equal footing in the European stallion market.
No-one, however, could argue that the country’s racing industry, with its envied Tote monopoly, isn’t streets ahead with regard to ploughing money back into the sport. This filters through to its marketing arm, the French Racing & Breeding Committee, which has the sort of budget British Bloodstock Marketing can only dream about, and is consistently excellent in encouraging foreign visitors to France, be it for racing, sales or stud tours.
While France may lag behind Britain and Ireland in the Flat stallion market, its jumping sires hold their own, undoubtedly aided by the fact that the French training programme for jumpers tends to encourage precocity, meaning stallions don’t have to be in their dotage before they have produced a good National Hunt horse. It’s a situation which is being addressed in Britain via the introduction of such incentives as junior bumpers. This is vital, not just to try to compete with France but to tackle the erosion of the store horse market.
As we have seen, plenty of money changes hands for horses with form in the jumping sphere, where big bucks are paid for French imports such as Big Buck’s. That said, the current run of success for the progeny of Alflora and Midnight Legend, to name but two British-based sires with a rash of good winners this season, gives hope that the fightback from Britain, not just against French-bred runners but also the swathe of good Irish-sired jumpers, has begun.
Don’t think for a second that because a rookie’s passion for jump racing has been forced underground it has died. The torch for the winter game still burns bright, which is why I made sure the much talked-about Martaline was also on the list of stallions to see in France, and why the Cheltenham Festival is still anticipated more keenly than any other race meeting. Just don’t tell Muscat and co.