Last month we asked why Irish-breds no longer dominated the Gold Cup. This month we speak to Irish bloodstock agent Sean Tiernan, who champions small French breeders, making a name by sourcing from unproven sires.
What began with eight-time Grade 1 winner Solwhit, by little-known Solon, has grown into buying Grand National hopefuls from goat farmers and Cheltenham Festival heroes from yards without a flat surface to trot on.
“Solwhit was by nothing, out of nothing, but a gorgeous young horse with a great walk and a nice presence about him,” said Tiernan. “We bought Itchy Feet [by Cima De Triomphe] as a yearling standing in muck up to his knees, in the middle of nowhere.
“Within ten kilometres, all near Belgium where Solwhit came from, I also bought Ch’tibello [Sageburg] and Le Breuil [Anzillero]. Neither of those guys have anywhere to trot the horses. They have a place to gallop and hack around, but to trot up, they have to stop the traffic lights on the main road.
“Dominateur [Desir D’Un Soir] was owned by a goat farmer who produces goat milk about three hours from Moulin. We got some lovely goat milk, and cheese, and two horses! He doesn’t even have a mobile phone.
“We are buying an individual on looks”
“When you have a relationship with these guys, they will ring [vet] Bernard Stoffel and the message gets back to me. They won’t be the price of a second- hand car. They don’t cost a fortune.”
The Wexford man now lives in Copenhagen and is employed to buy high-end jumpers by owners Kate and Andrew Brooks, thanks to Ch’tibello, who put Tiernan on trainer Dan Skelton’s radar. The partnership is just four years old and only now is the system Tiernan devised paying dividends.
Switching from buying horses in-training, Tiernan now buys broken but unraced two- and three-year-olds for the Brookses. They are then sent to trainer Tom Cooper in County Kerry for pre-training, where they are schooled over hurdles and fences at a young age, before progressing to schooling bumpers, and some to point-to-points. Before Cheltenham comes the meeting to decide which will make the grade and be put into training in the UK.
“We had 42 winners in the UK last season, which was their best ever,” said Tiernan. “We didn’t have a Grade 1 win, but we have that now [with Itchy Feet in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase], and five runners from the system at Cheltenham, which is their ultimate goal.”
Not all are from France but that is Tiernan’s preferred source because he feels upbringings there are more natural – and more professional.
“For example, Jean Pierre Dubois; his foals are taken out from under the mares at four months,” he says. “Then they are all out together until being brought in during November and put on the walker. They are treated as professionals from day one. Mostly they live out, even when they are in pre- training, from yearlings to two-year-olds. This seems to be the way to get a really healthy horse.
“Where Dominateur was bred, they all live out, and they are fed the leftover goats’ milk, mixed into their food. They are fantastically healthy, big and strong.
“I’ve no worry about the sire, because we aren’t there to sell commercially. We are buying an individual on looks; if it has a pedigree, brilliant. If the stallion is unknown, do some homework. Make sure he’s not throwing horses with wind problems, for example, or horses that are half nuts.”
“We bought Itchy Feet as a yearling standing in muck up to his knees”
In January and February, Tiernan and the Brookses won a Grade 1 with Itchy Feet, a Grade 2 with Rouge Vif, and Cheltenham handicaps with Simply The Betts – subsequently successful at the Cheltenham Festival – and Skandiburg.s
As the season has finished, the one to watch for next term is Brave Kingdom. In keeping with Tiernan’s favourite theme, he’s by French hurdles winner Brave Mansonnien, and cost €10,000 as a yearling.
“He’s four now and was third in a point-to-point, but wasn’t drilled like the others,” said Tiernan. “Andrew named him for Tom Cooper, because he’s from the Kingdom of Kerry.”
There is a final strand to Tiernan’s system – life after racing – which has not yet been fully tested, though came to the fore last April.
“There’s been only one serious injury since I started, with Willy Boy,” he said. “He suffered a sever to his tendon but no expense was spared and he’s now with a 15-year-old girl in Wicklow – he’s her pet. It is my job to find them a home.”