In the aftermath of the Cheltenham Festival, the standings in the National Hunt sires’ table are bound to be given a bit of a shake-up, though the leaderboard currently retains an air of familiarity.
The late King’s Theatre, champion sire for the last two years, remains on top with Beneficial, who died last April, not far behind. Of those still active, the dependable names of Oscar, Presenting, Milan and Flemensfirth, all with a sizeable array of representatives, are to the fore as usual. Kayf Tara leads the charge for British-based sires, just as he has done for the preceding four seasons. Both Kayf Tara and Midnight Legend boast strike-rates in excess of 32% and higher than any of their active counterparts, but with fewer offspring running for them, it’s hard to make an impression at the top of the table.
Percentages of winners to runners, or winners to foals, are the most reliable way to gauge any stallion’s success, though they can’t of course convey the quality of mares to have visited each horse, merely the number. Ripples formed from the ebb and flow of stallions’ popularity at stud take a long time to reach the racecourse, especially with jumping stock, which makes the early loss of sires such as Montjeu’s brother Gold Well – who currently boasts a 42% winners-to-runners strike-rate – even more lamentable.
In the case of Shirocco, now 13 and only officially standing under the National Hunt banner for the first time this season, some breeders are fortunate in being ahead of the curve. The late Liam Cashman had singled him out as a potential star of the jumping ranks from his first season at stud, and so had David Johnson, who died last year. Johnson’s great racemare Lady Cricket visited Shirocco on three occasions, the first of which resulted in the unbeaten Cheltenham contender Red Sherlock.
Eamon Cleary, breeder and former owner of Shirocco’s daughter Annie Power, sent her initially to Jim Bolger and the pair had the good sense to give the statuesque mare time to fill out and find her feet. The wisdom of that patience is evident in the most exciting jumps mare in training since Dawn Run.
Thoughts may be focused on Cheltenham, but the covering season is now in full cry, making it a very busy time for stud farmers. Though the elite stallions will have had ‘book full’ signs posted since the breeding stock sales, for the more affordable sires and some new to the ranks, a trip to the TBA Stallion Parade at Tattersalls’ February Sale is worthwhile, if the packed ring which welcomed the 13 on show is any guide.
The TBA’s National Hunt Committee didn’t shy away from borrowing a good idea from the French in launching an annual National Hunt foal show
Appearing at the parade was Finjaan, who is the first public stallion representative for Gazeley Stud near Newmarket since the days of Hotfoot. He is not alone in the stallion barn, however, as Gazeley’s owners, David and Deborah Curran, have also retained their triple winner Mighty, a Cheveley Park Stud-bred son of Pivotal.
“Mighty’s my pet really. We only sent him one mare the first year,” said Deborah Curran of the 11-year-old. “That foal is now a two-year-old and in training with Gary Harrison. I also have five yearlings by him.”
She added: “We’ve had plenty of interest in Finjaan and we’ll be supporting him. We’ve refurbished the stallion boxes and the aim is to stand four eventually.”
The TBA parade followed hard on the heels of the great French initiative La Route des Etalons, now in its fifth year and growing in popularity all the time. It’s quite something to coordinate the opening of 27 farms to show off 98 stallions within the same weekend but the persistence of the organisers has been rewarded by an increasing number of international visitors. It’s a subject I’ve raised previously but I’d still like to see a similar flagship weekend organised to promote British breeding and stallions.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the TBA’s National Hunt Committee didn’t shy away from borrowing a good idea from the French in launching an annual National Hunt foal show last summer. Such gatherings are popular among AQPS breeders and the result here was a convivial day with an air of competition which demonstrated that, with good organisation and goodwill, such initiatives can reap benefits.
Yorton Farm’s David Futter, whose enthusiasm for National Hunt breeding should be bottled and sold, would like to see studs working together to help improve the lot of British breeders. That doesn’t just go for the jumping farms. With the current high calibre of Flat sires on offer on these shores, a similar stallion open weekend would be one way to showcase the strength of British breeding.