A fortnight ago the TBA held a press conference to launch a campaign to protect the future of the British stayer on the same day that the BHA announced the formation of a committee to review the state of British jump racing. Both projects highlight concerns with falling numbers – whether it’s the decline in staying-bred horses being produced or the fall in the participation of grass-roots National Hunt owners.
The catalyst for the TBA campaign was the downgrading from Group 3 to Listed status of a staying race for three year-olds – the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot – along with another, the Bahrain Trophy, being put on the ‘at risk’ list for possible demotion from Group 3 level. The last three winners of the Queen’s Vase – Estimate, Leading Light and Hartnell – have all subsequently won Group 1 races.
The British-bred Hartnell, who also won last year’s Bahrain Trophy, left Mark Johnston in September and is now racing in Australia for John O’Shea. His Group 3 victory at Rosehill in March was followed by a Group 1 strike in The BMW a fortnight later – a pattern of perceived improvement which is common for European-bred imports to Australia. Whether or not they all do actually improve is debatable. It’s more likely that horses with naturally progressive profiles are more able to dominate in a weaker pool of stayers in the southern hemisphere.
It’s hard to imagine that many in the industry favour a situation where Britain and Ireland end up breeding only sprinters
Although Hartnell remains under the ownership of Sheikh Mohammed, plenty of British-bred horses have been bought by Australian interests and permanently exported. A dearth of staying-bred horses domestically is blamed for the Antipodeans’ regular treks to European yards and sales in pursuit of the perfect cup horse, and a decline of staying blood in the gene poool is what the TBA wishes to avoid in Britain as breeders with an eye on the sales ring shun middle-distance stallions in favour of those likely to produce earlier, speedier types.
This call to the industry to act now to preserve the type of progressive staying horse for which Britain is famed has been misinterpreted by some parties in Australia as an attempt to halt the export of such gallopers. This is not the case. Over the last decade the number of Australian buyers at Tattersalls’ Horses-in-Training Sale – never mind those engaged in private transactions – has risen to the extent that several million guineas are added to turnover each year from that country alone. It is not in British breeders’ interest to close off this outlet for potential lucrative sales of bloodstock and that was never the TBA’s intention.
Terry Henderson of OTI Racing has been one of the fore-runners in buying stayers from all over Europe and, interviewed recently on the radio in Australia, he said: “If you look at the horses we buy, they are the type of horses that [Europeans] don’t want to put in their gene pool anyway. We buy them and bring them out here and geld them.”
As anyone who has ever attempted to find a stud berth for a stayer with a successful but lengthy career on the track will likely agree, it’s a valid point. It is perfectly illustrated by the fact that a stallion of just such a profile, Phoenix Reach, covered only 14 mares last year but has shown he is perfectly capable of producing a top-class two-year-old in Elm Park, while lesser-credentialed racehorses who have retired to stud with only one season of action under their belts swiftly attract three-figure books of mares.
This situation is unlikely to be reversed but in its bid to provide a progressive racing programme for stayers, the TBA’s aim is to encourage more breeders to patronise middle-distance stallions in the knowledge that there are better opportunities for their offspring to prove their worth, in turn making them more desirable to yearling buyers.
Henderson also stated in his recent interview: “If Australians are buying horses then that creates demand so the breeders should be clapping their hands.”
Again he makes a good point, and another factor to be considered is that the increased demand from overseas buyers for staying horses in training has made it harder for jumps trainers to participate at those sales. This in turn must be an element in the improved results at the store sales which was vitally needed after some woeful years.
It’s hard to imagine that many in the industry favour a situation where Britain and Ireland end up breeding only sprinters but both countries have an advantage over Australia in this regard in that we have the extra ‘outlet’ of a thriving National Hunt scene for horses with proven stamina.
The TBA’s study of British stayers highlights the “vital relationship” the Flat has with jump racing, pointing to the leading National Hunt sires who were stakes winners at 12 furlongs or more. These include King’s Theatre, Kayf Tara, Oscar, Milan, Beneficial, Presenting and Flemensfirth – in other words pretty much the entire top table of jump sires.
The fairly drastic decline in British National Hunt breeders has already been highlighted recently by the TBA, and the number of jump and dual-purpose-bred foals fell again last year to 1,011, from 1,689 in 2008.
What is not falling is the number of people going racing, as evident by recent excellent attendances figures. Despite concerns over small-field sizes, it’s clear that racecourses and the BHA need to maintain the diversity of British racing by incentivising breeders, and in turn owners, to provide performers across the range of distances. After all, the most important element of any race meeting is the horse.