If anything, they look more like unicorns than dinosaurs: ten supple, elegant yearlings, coats gleaming in the sunshine as they are paraded in turn across an immaculate stable yard. Their breeder surveys them with delight. Lady Bamford knows perfectly well that they represent an endangered species – but she also knows, after such a season, that champions raised and raced by British breeders are neither mythical nor extinct.
Above all, of course, there has been Golden Horn; but there has also been new evidence that her boutique operation at Daylesford is becoming a model of its type. Another Classic success, in the Prix de Diane; only the most agonisingly narrow of defeats in the King George, to follow two seconds at Royal Ascot; and Group 1 prizes still beckoning both Eagle Top and Star Of Seville as the leaves begin to turn on the Cotswold estate where they were foaled. An easy place, on such a day, to dispel the wintry contagions of pessimism: the mellow stone aglow, woods and hills basking drowsily beyond. Lady Bamford gives one of her ready, open smiles.
“There’s always hope with horses,” she says. “As we all know, spending a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re always going to win. There’s no reason why any foal that’s just been born can’t be the Derby winner. So I think that’s the thing: never give up. Of course there are moments. You do win and lose. But not to be defeated, that’s the thing.”
Daylesford is the kind of park stud that stored and recycled the lifeblood of the English thoroughbred for over 200 years. And if the Bamford fortune is itself a modern one, its provenance nonetheless rebukes those defeatists who have surrendered that heritage, once and for all, to international competition. For if Lady Bamford needs inspiration, in flying the Union flag when so many compatriots are running up a white one, she need only look across the breakfast table.
Her husband, Anthony, has likewise persevered triumphantly against perceived odds. Since the 1970s, the British manufacturing sector has shrunk by two-thirds – the de-Industrial Revolution, they call it, and on a scale endured by no other major economy. During the same period, as chairman of JCB, Lord Bamford has supervised the expansion of the family firm from one British factory to 11, employing 6,500 people. Three-quarters of their output is exported, and JCB is reckoned to be worth £1.4 billion to GDP and £555 million to the exchequer. It is not as though JCB has disregarded global trends – it now has four factories in India – but the yellow bulldozer has nonetheless become a legitimate symbol of durability for British manufacturing.
Lady B, as she is universally known at Daylesford, is too scrupulously modest about the stud to conflate its quiet consolidation with the landmark industrial achievements of her husband. But the fact remains that the same manufacturers who see no point taking on cheap imports would absolutely despair of competing with the Maktoums, Coolmore or Juddmonte. So while Bamford attributes her results as much to luck as judgement, she does concede the point: if the British bulldozer is demonstrably no diplodocus, then nor are these yearlings.
When stallions become fashionable or unfashionable I never take any notice; it’s about the long view
One especially resplendent colt, a half-brother to Eagle Top by Oasis Dream, represents a new storey upon the stud’s foundation stone: his grandam, Maycocks Bay. Bought as a yearling in 1999, for 32,000 guineas, the daughter of Muhtarram had a conservative pedigree and Hugo Lascelles, Bamford’s adviser, recalls her as “a big raw-boned thing”.
The idea of owning a racehorse had simmered quietly with Lady Bamford since her Nottinghamshire childhood, when there had usually been two or three homebred steeplechasers out in the field. But first there had been an obsession with ponies and then, until a mishap out with the High Peak, hunters. “The horse stopped at a wall and I went over,” she remembers. “George was only about three months old, and I remember the nanny taking me to hospital and saying, ‘My God! I think she’s fractured her skull.’”
While that diagnosis proved too drastic, Lady Bamford did agree thereafter to channel her love of horses through her children instead. “It was their whole upbringing,” she recalls. “In the end they all rode for England, Alice was in the A Squad for the Olympics. Anthony would arrive with the newspapers and probably take a photograph of the wrong pony, but it was great for the whole family to get away for the weekend: the smell of bacon cooking in the fresh air, plaiting up, learning to win and lose, all good character-building stuff.”
Alice, in turn, became too brave a rider for her mother’s nerves but agreed to change tack, from eventing to dressage, until a skiing accident abruptly deprived Lady Bamford of even her surrogate addiction. This, following the move to Daylesford in 1992, was the void to be filled by the Turf. Robert Sangster, whose own career had shifted the sands beneath the traditional owner/breeders, gave her some chastened advice. “Never pay too much,” he said. “You’ll have just as much chance.”
Her first experiment was Sundari, bred from a Sir Ivor mare and third in the Cherry Hinton. Then came Maycocks Bay. For once, she is prepared to take the credit for providing the mare with a smaller mate, In The Wings: Maycocks Bay, though perfectly in proportion, could just do with a little scaling down. The result, only her second foal, was Gull Wing – now the dam of Eagle Top.
Third time very lucky
Maycocks Bay’s third foal, by Pivotal, was also a filly. She remembers the birth well, recalling: “She was huge, the biggest I’ve ever seen I think, 132lb or something, a whopper.” But she did not stand out in any other way, either at Daylesford or when sent on to Malcolm Bastard’s nursery. Then one day Michael Bell was on the phone. “My goodness,” he said. “I think I’ve got something here.”
In 2006 Sariska went on to win the Oaks at Epsom and the Curragh. The whole family was now captivated, especially Alice – albeit Lady Bamford’s husband had to be put straight when asking, the following season, which would be the new Sariska. “Don’t you realise?” Lady B laughed. “That was once-in-a-lifetime!”
As though to underline the point, Sariska herself promptly and vividly lost interest in racing. But her presence now, among 20 mares grazing the paddocks, attests to the accelerating cycles of quality achieved here by careful pruning and grafting. Sundari has just been retired, a luckless breeding career salvaged this year by Mr Singh (among the favourites for the St Leger until ruled out by a bad scope).
New blood on the stud is being tapped from some of the world’s richest gene pools: a half-sister to Ruler Of The World and Duke Of Marmalade; a young daughter of Goldikova’s half-sister; a daughter of the Aga Khan’s Arc runner-up Behera.
To accommodate such upgrades, Lady Bamford had that same morning grasped the nettle, in a dreaded annual ritual with Lascelles, to identify the mares to make way. “It’s always the hardest discussion we have, because I get too fond of them,” she admits. “I love them being at home. They’re nearly all foaled here, so I’ll get a telephone call at 1am and I’m straight down in my nightie. I’d hate it if you had a lot of horses, so that you didn’t know who they were: it doesn’t make any sense to me.
“Walking the dogs every morning, I love to see them grow, develop and change – there might be ones you think are going to be something, and others you think won’t, and six months later everything has changed round.”
This empathy with the unhurried processes of nature is entirely consistent with her place in the vanguard of the organic farming movement, to the delectation of customers at the Daylesford estate shop and café, her gastropub at nearby Kingham and various outlets in London. If the brand is unabashedly luxurious – no less than her clothing label – then its creator believes that the short-term savings of chemical agriculture are made at a terrible price to posterity.
She traces her conversion to a single moment, pushing Alice’s pram in the 1970s. She noticed that the roses at their Staffordshire home were wilting and asked her husband what sprays were being used on the estate. A week later, at an agricultural show, she heard a voice in the wilderness.
“There was a little organic stand in a tent,” she recalls. “And this man talked to me for about two hours about pesticides and chemicals and how bad it all was for the land. I went back to the farm manager and said, ‘Look, we can’t do this any more.’ He looked at me like I was crazy – this was 36 years ago, remember – and he said, ‘Well, we won’t make money.’ But I said we had to change. If we don’t look after the soil, we don’t look after plants, we don’t look after the animals – and we don’t look after ourselves.
“It became a passion with me. It took about seven years, but you could see how the land was gradually cleaning itself, and everyone got on board. In the end, the farm manager became more organic than me: he was even tending the sheep homeopathically.”
The Daylesford thoroughbreds cannot be raised on an exclusively organic regime, because of clover. But otherwise the stud borrows the same principles of conservation and sustainability that underpin all good husbandry – from the rigorous, old-school supervision of a cherished Stud Manager, Charlie Brewer, to the mining of neglected genetic seams.
“There are parallels, with the horses,” Lady Bamford says. “We’ve tried to do everything the old-fashioned way, rather than cut corners. People are often in such a hurry, but there’s no quick fix. When stallions become fashionable or unfashionable I never take any notice. Again, it’s about the long view.
“You can be sending out a mare to a stallion that’s very in vogue – and then three years later nobody wants to know him any more. A prime example is Star Of Seville. Nobody wanted Duke Of Marmalades but we kept her and she’s been a star.”
True, she suspended her habitual disavowal of expertise to insist Star Of Seville run in the Oaks, when her trainer favoured the Prix de Diane. But all was well that ended well: the filly ended up contesting both, eased down when hampered at Epsom and then, in a masterly punt by John Gosden, winning at Chantilly just nine days later. “I thought it was crazy,” Lady Bamford concedes happily.
As a rule, it is precisely his patience that she admires in Gosden. Eagle Top himself had still only made six starts before the King George, where he was just run out of it after hitting the front. Lady Bamford thought he had held out, until she turned round and saw the grimace on the face of Lascelles. The rest of the afternoon was a daze, and it was only when she got home and looked at the photo she suffered a real pang of hurt. But the fact was that Eagle Top, though below form next time, had confirmed himself a top-class colt. He will be kept in training as a five-year-old.
His owner is touchingly aware of the incongruities that qualify her, for all her wealth and privileges, as an underdog against the Turf’s superpowers. But she adores the fact racing transcends all classes.
“JCB take a box at Cheltenham and a lot of the guests have never been racing before,” she says. “And they’re hooked. I just love going through that Guinness tent on the way to the box, seeing everybody having fun. And if the horse from round here wins, he’s brought into the pub the next day. Racing should be fun, and should be for everybody. I’ve been going to my hairdresser in London for 30 years, and all we talk about is the racing. He knows more about Eagle Top practically than I do.”
A characteristic remark, from a lady with a wholesome dread of presumption. She instead divides all credit among Lascelles and the team at the stud, headed by Brewer and Martin Grassick. “I’ve had the best advice,” she stresses. “They’re all experts in their field; I’m certainly not. Hugo comes up at least once a month and assesses them all.
“There are so many elements, and I think it’s just a combination: physique, breeding, land. Getting a very good trainer. Getting a very good jockey. And the babies are all very well nurtured from the beginning. Charlie’s very hands-on, and believes in making them hardy. We leave ours out in the wind and rain during the winter. I think a lot of studs today make them too precious. So many little things that fit together, to make the whole thing as smart as you can, in your way.”
It can hardly be a coincidence that these dividends should be achieved by someone who commits herself so ardently to so many other projects – when others in her shoes, not least as they neared 70, might very well favour a life of indolent indulgence.
Her father-in-law, who founded JCB in a lock-up garage in Uttoxeter, bequeathed not just his initials but also an attitude that caused the French to represent Joseph Cyril as Jamais Content Bamford. This motto has been warmly adopted at Daylesford.
“However well he has done today, he always wants to do better tomorrow,” Lady Bamford remarks of her husband, and plainly takes a similar view herself. Certainly her dynamism is one resource that could be usefully emulated by many who excuse its absence by a want of other means.
As for the next generation, she is comforted by the enthusiasm of Alice. “That’s a real boost to me,” she says. “It’s a very small stud – I didn’t think it would get this big, but it’s still small – and I want to keep it small. But any stud takes a long time to build, and we’re only just at the beginning, really.”
For all the progress made in 14 short years, after all, Lady B knows never to rush time and tides. “Generations of breeders knew what they were doing, and did it for a reason,” she says. “It’s the same as with the soil. Our grandparents didn’t have all these pesticides and chemicals, they did it naturally. We think it’s progress when often it’s not. What we’re trying to do isn’t clever. It’s just necessary.”