What do modern day Turf celebrities Alpinista, Dubawi, Frankel, Ouija Board and Sea The Stars have in common? Answer: they all kickstarted their respective run towards greatness in a race sponsored by the European Breeders’ Fund (EBF).

This year sees the 40th anniversary of the scheme, which was launched in 1983 with the singular aim of boosting the value of two-year-old maiden races. The initiative has become a copybook case of racing self help, as money is contributed by stallion farms in return for the progeny of their sires being eligible for EBF races. In turn, those races receive the financial benefits of increased, EBF-backed purses.

The landscape may have changed plenty in the four decades that have followed, but the strength of the concept has not only seen the EBF develop a near ubiquitous presence in European racing, it is also closing in on a colossal prize-money contribution of €150,000,000.

But if the development of the EBF is now considered an unmitigated success, its origins trace back to a near crisis. Discussions began in 1982 as a result of the Levy Board proposing cuts to prize-money that would have left juvenile maidens being run for nothing.

By sheer coincidence, it was around the same time that John Gaines first went public with the notion of the Breeders’ Cup being horseracing’s answer to the Super Bowl.

The seven-race end-of-season finale would cater for a complete cross-section of the thoroughbred population on both dirt and turf. Each race would be worth $1 million, with the exception of the day’s headline event, the $3m Breeders’ Cup Classic. These lucrative pots would be generated from stallion owners, with contributions paid on a sliding scale relative to each sire’s nomination fee and the number of mares covered per breeding season.

The same funding mechanism inspired the EBF’s founding committee of Peter Willett, who also played a pivotal role in establishing the European Pattern, Bob McCreery, and Sam Sheppard. But whereas the Breeders’ Cup focused on one end-of-season championship, the EBF’s plan was to spread its dividend across the sport’s grassroots to plug the gap created by the Levy Board’s funding cuts.

“It was introduced very much because the Levy Board was interested in funding races that appealed to the betting public,” says Philip Freedman, British EBF Chair from 2008 to 2016 and Chairman from 2017 to 2022. “It was perceived that two-year-old maidens in particular were not attractive races from a betting point of view, so there wasn’t going to be any central funding of those races. Or if there was it was going to be absolutely minimal. I’m sure those races would have still been run, but it would’ve been very unattractive to have horses in training in Britain.”

While the EBF’s 40th anniversary highlights how the scheme has stood the test of time, its introduction was not welcomed by all. One prominent and vocal opponent was John Hislop, owner-breeder of the brilliant Brigadier Gerard.

The EBF intended to shore up support for the scheme by confining 70 per cent of two-year-old races to the progeny of EBF-registered stallions, but when an approach was made to the Jockey Club it transpired that Hislop had already taken legal advice on the matter. The EBF was told that the move was ‘ultra vires’, meaning it was beyond the Jockey Club’s powers to enact such a change.

Simon Sweeting of Overbury Stud

Simon Sweeting: ‘the British EBF has put £40 million into prize-money, £2m this year alone’. Photo – Tattersalls

The ruling authority may not have sanctioned the proposal at the first opportunity, but once the racecourses and RCA got behind the scheme the Jockey Club eventually followed suit. Hislop stood by his position and Brigadier Gerard was never registered with the EBF.

“The fact the EBF has carried on in pretty much the same vein from when it was started is a huge tribute to the people who set it up originally,” adds Freedman. “Their vision hasn’t really been altered. And it’s so important for the wider racing industry to see that breeders are actually putting money into it, otherwise it would be easy for racecourses to say that breeders are commercial animals who don’t put anything back into prize-money.”

Britain and Ireland were the first member countries, followed soon after by France and then Germany in 1986. The scheme also has stallions registered in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.

The amount of money contributed by the EBF is quite staggering

The EBF acronym has become part of the furniture of European racing in the four decades since its inception. Indeed, it is Britain’s most active sponsor by number of races, while 90 per cent of two-year-old maidens run in France are restricted to EBF-eligible horses. What is easier to overlook, however, is the sheer scale of its contribution, which now exceeds €140m.

“The fact that the EBF has not only survived but prospered for 40 years is probably proof of its importance,” says John O’Connor, Managing Director of Ballylinch Stud and Chairman of the EBF Coordinating Committee. “It’s one of those institutions whose longevity brings stability and a sense of cohesion, and I think that’s very important.

“Prize-money in virtually every country could do with being better because costs are rising all the time. The amount of money that’s being contributed by the EBF at this stage is quite staggering really. It’s heading towards the €150 million mark, which is a quite extraordinary figure.”

More than 650 stallions are currently registered to the EBF, and the list is not merely confined to those standing in Europe.

Japanese powerhouse Shadai Stallion Station has been a long-standing international supporter, including with the epoch-defining Deep Impact, while the US operations involved include Lane’s End Farm, which has registered the world’s joint-second highest rated racehorse, Flightline. There had previously been a cross-registration agreement with the Breeders’ Cup, although that came to an amicable end in 2011.

O’Connor says that the scheme’s success relies less on the presence of some headline thoroughbred names, but the collective contribution from right across the spectrum of stallion operations. Each registered stallion must pay a fee equal to the average value of that year’s nominations, with a graduated payment scheme in place to ensure those who cover the biggest books of mares contribute more to the fund.

“One of the things that makes the EBF so strong is that both the big stallion operations and the smaller farms all contribute their fair share,” he says. “I think that cohesion is a wonderful thing and I’m very keen to make sure that continues into the future.

“I’ve always felt that it needs to be recognised that stallion farms both large and small contribute a significant proportion of their income to the EBF, and that’s all for the greater good. I’m sure there are times when stallion farms look at the sums and think they could do without paying it, but I’m also sure the same farms realise the importance of the EBF to their clients.”

Stradivarius: iconic stayer is one of eight Group 1 winners to have begun his career in an EBF Future Stayers’ Series maiden. Photo – George Selwyn

Moreover, it is not only a matter of where the money comes from that makes the EBF such a significant contributor, but where the prize-money is allocated.

The organisation’s aims have broadened beyond the early days, with the key goals now being to ​implement and support races that are of benefit to the development of the breed; strategically support races that maintain and enhance the diversity of the racing programme; support equine research beneficial to the thoroughbred breed; and to oversee an emergency fund for use in the event of an equine disease outbreak.

“The British EBF has put £40 million into prize-money, and £2m this year alone,” says Simon Sweeting, Manager of Overbury Stud and British EBF Chair since 2020. “We’re very fortunate that at the moment we have Dubawi, Frankel and Kingman, who put in the lion’s share, and while we have contributors like that we’re able to maintain high amounts of money.

“But the important thing is that it’s focused. We’re not just spreading it out, we’re thinking hard about where it’s going and we’re trying to push it in directions where it’s going to be of use to the breed. It’s really important not to just go with the flow, and instead try to gently assist and nudge the breed in what a lot of people think is the right direction.”

Sweeting highlights the Future Stayers’ Series as one focused initiative that the British branch of the EBF has supported since 2015. Initially the initiative saw a series of maiden or novice races open to the progeny of stallions who had won over ten furlongs or further. In 2017, at the BHA’s request, this was broadened to allow the offspring of mares who had won over ten furlongs or more. A nursery handicap was also added to the schedule in 2018.

These races have been a springboard for over 70 black-type performers and eight Group 1 winners, including household racing names like Cracksman, Hukum, Hurricane Lane and Stradivarius.

Other recent initiatives include the British EBF £100,000 two-year-old series, which gives a high-value end-of-season target for the progeny of commercially priced stallions. Since 2017 the British EBF has also contributed towards a select number of lucrative juvenile maiden and novice races at flagship meetings. These include Europe’s richest contest from this category, the £100,000 Convivial Maiden held at York during Ebor week.

While this ability to adapt to the prevailing trends ensures the EBF’s funds remain as beneficial as possible, it is the clarity of the overall concept that has underpinned the scheme’s longevity.

The stallion farms have held together really well and have been very determined

“The EBF hasn’t been swayed by short-term issues and has a very clear objective of continuing to raise money to put back into various parts of the prize-money structure,” says Sweeting. “We don’t allow it to chop and change as short-term problems arise. In the last 40 years there have been goodness knows how many recessions and dips and financial disasters, but so long as the EBF carries on with the same objective, that objective is always going to be useful to racing and breeding. That’s why it has carried on for so long, and hopefully will continue for a lot longer.”

Those sentiments were echoed by O’Connor, who says: “I would put the longevity down to the wish of stallion farms to contribute positively to racing. The stallion farms have held together really well and have been very determined in their efforts to make sure racing prize-money is as good as it can possibly be. I think it’s particularly important in light of rising costs for everybody at this point. The EBF contributions are more important than ever in many ways.”

The funding structure of the EBF has seen a rising tide lift all ships, as the upward trajectory of the Anglo-Irish stallion roster has resulted in record levels of prize-money contributions.

“They’ve risen as the stallion roster in Europe has strengthened over the last number of years vis a vis international competition,” continues O’Connor. “The stallion contributions have risen to the point where both the Irish and British EBF are making record contributions to prize-money. The most successful horses obviously contribute the greatest amount, but that gets spread across all sorts of targeted races to help make sure that it is shared democratically across the various standards of racehorses.”

Another cornerstone of the EBF’s enduring success is the calibre and diversity of those who have contributed to its running. There have only ever been two Chief Executives of the EBF, with co-founder Sam Sheppard spending 30 years in the role before being succeeded by Kerry Murphy at the beginning of 2013.

The small but dedicated full-time team have worked alongside some distinguished names who have sat on the coordinating committee. This has included stallion masters, breeders and journalists, and currently features Julian Richmond- Watson, Nicolas de Chambure and Joe Foley.

“Some very successful and innovative people have contributed so much for free down the years,” says O’Connor. “These are mostly very busy people, and often people who compete strongly with each other in the market. But, down the years at the EBF, I’ve found that everybody has cooperated really well for the greater good of the industry, and I think that’s been an important part of the success.”

Plenty has changed since Willett, McCreery and Sheppard first discussed the idea of the EBF back in 1982, from the stallions registered, the people involved and the nuances of how the fund is spent. But at the same time so much remains the same, not least the need for sustainable levels of funding for the kind of races that make the greatest difference to breeders. As such, the EBF continues to play a vital role in the sport.

“I hope it will be here for another 40 years – and more,” says O’Connor. “The concept was started by some very wise people 40 years ago, and they really were on the right track.

“I think it will evolve, I’m sure, as the racing industry evolves. But the guiding principles will still be the same whereby stallion farms contribute strongly to prize-money and to the rest of the industry. I hope that will continue for many years to come. A lot of other things have changed in the meantime, but the EBF goes on as strongly as ever.”

John O’Connor, pictured with Bayside Boy, is a major presence in the EBF. Photo – Bill Selwyn