In 2015, Coneygree became the first British-bred winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 20 years, following the 1995 victory of Master Oats. The season ended with the outstanding novice chaser and his fellow Festival winner Dodging Bullets – not a purpose-bred jumper but a fine one nonetheless – occupying two of the top three slots in the earnings table and better was to come the following year.
The 2015/16 season saw the British-breds Rule The World, Thistlecrack and Cue Card become the three highest earners – quite some achievement for the ‘home team’ when one considers the dearth of equine representatives compared to Britain’s two closest allies and fiercest rivals in the jumping world, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, France.
Of course, it’s not simply a game of numbers. If breeders have taken anything from the most recent recession and previous bout of overproduction in 2008, it should be that breeding is about quality over quantity. It’s a lesson often hard learned, most painfully through unwanted stock at the sales.
This autumn’s auctions, particularly those for Flat horses, have demonstrated only too starkly that the increase in foal-crop numbers – which have been on a steeper incline in Ireland than in England – has led us back into that dangerous territory where supply outstrips demand.
While breeders are the source of the extra horses, they can be forgiven for increasing their production levels at a time when the market appeared to have bounced back from a difficult period. The knock-on effect of a radical rationalisation in the number of mares being covered immediately after the recession first hit was, of course, a significant reduction in the number of horses at all manner of sales.
Naturally this meant improved figures, an apparently more buoyant market and an increasingly emboldened buying bench, particularly in the pinhooking sector. The cyclical nature of the breeding industry means that mating decisions made on the back of this improved sales market have now been transformed into flesh and blood, with many of those youngsters produced specifically for the sales ring by breeders with no intention of racing them.
However, despite dramatic injections of cash into the coffers for some of Britain’s showcase meetings, there’s still not enough of a trickle-down effect to the lower tier of racing. It remains a sector overlooked and, dare it be said, looked down on despite its obvious necessity to the racing programme as a whole, not least in filling the demands of bookmakers.
The financial neglect of this section, both on the Flat and in the National Hunt world, has, unsurprisingly, led to a shortfall of people willing to race horses – a fact which is only too apparent by a glance at the horses-in-training lists for many of the country’s smaller stables and at the lower deciles of the sales returns.
Of course the good horses are not always the most expensive ones, but on the Flat the top tier of the market has remained recession-proof largely thanks to overseas investment in a country which can still trade on its rich thoroughbred heritage.
I’d rather cover 40 good mares than 140 moderate mares; the mares make the stallion
Some may find this overview of our current situation unnecessarily gloomy but it is, however, the reality for a significant number of participants within our industry – and one thing is for sure, we need to encourage people to continue to participate, along with trying to introduce a new wave of owners and breeders to the sport.
Jumping to the challenge
The British National Hunt breeding scene may have dwindled to a small pool of around 1,000 mares who produced fewer than 600 foals last year – down by about a third since 2008 – but there are signs of a resurgence which offers a number of reasons to be cheerful. On the racing front, attendance figures remain high and the enduring nature of jumpers knocks all but a handful of Flat stars into a cocked hat when it comes to public appeal.
What has been seriously lacking is the number of fillies and mares making it into training, but a sustained drive by the TBA, in association with the BHA’s race-planning department, has enhanced not only the black-type opportunities but the mares’ programme in general.
The introduction of a second mares-only race at the Cheltenham Festival in the form of the Grade 2 Trull House Stud Dawn Run Novices’ Hurdle wasn’t greeted with universal approval, but the race’s detractors are missing a fundamental point. If mares aren’t proving their worth on the track, it’s hard to justify their claims as broodmare prospects.
In a sector in which the majority of big-name trainers at one stage had few or no mares in their stables, it doesn’t take too much joined-up thinking to realise that this could prompt major welfare issues when roughly half of the foals born each year are effectively deemed to be unwanted.
Happily, and not without a major effort, this situation is gradually improving. Filly foals can still be a hard-sell, but the prices are gradually improving for fillies at the store sales and more trainers are now actively seeking fillies with which to target the enhanced number of races available to them.
Furthermore, the introduction of the TBA National Hunt Mare Owners’ Prize Scheme (MOPS) should give extra encouragement for owners and/or breeders to race mares with greater financial rewards at stake for eligible runners. It’s a start, and one which will have been helped no end by the great Annie Power trouncing her male counterparts in this year’s Champion Hurdle.
Head cheerleader for the delights of National Hunt racing and breeding in Britain is David Futter, who says: “You only had to be at the recent Cheltenham meeting to feel the buzz about the place.”
The Yorton Farm Stud principal almost certainly has ‘Enthusiastic’ stamped on his passport where his middle name should be, but he has put that positive mind to good use in recent years, not simply in creating, with his wife Teresa, the most up-and-coming National Hunt stallion stud in the country but also in playing his part in galvanising his fellow members on the TBA’s National Hunt Committee to an admirably pro-active stance.
There have been plenty of initiatives launched to help jumps breeders in recent years, but the one which has been easiest to assess as successful is the TBA ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ National Hunt Foal Show, which has been held for the least four years in July and has attracted an increasing number of exhibitors and spectators.
“We’re always looking forward – the National Hunt breeding industry is so exciting but there’s more we can do to promote ourselves,” says Futter. “You may as a breeder have to be patient and have to put some of the horses in training, but there’s an increasing number of people interested in buying proven horses these days, so once they show some form the phone will soon be ringing and the rewards are there.
“But also I know breeders around the country who have sold foals straight from the field. The Irish are starting to come over more to look at stock on farms and they have greater contact with British breeders through the foal show. The show is improving and I’m hoping there will be a few French trainers there next year.
“We need to increase the numbers but it’s doing what it set out to do and it has also created a sense of community spirit through a social occasion at a time of the year when we wouldn’t all necessarily be getting together.”
Around 380 mares visited the Yorton stallions this year. The 2016 roster of Sulamani – sire of Grand National winner Rule The World – Norse Dancer, Blue Bresil, Gentlewave, Universal and Pether’s Moon has been enhanced further for next year with the addition of Clovis Du Berlais, a well-related son of King’s Theatre with proven National Hunt form.
Futter continues: “The market contracted in 2008 but since then we have levelled and in many ways it has done us a favour as it’s upgraded the mares here in this country – you only have to go to the foal show to see the quality available. We need to keep improving the quality. As a stallion owner I’d rather cover 40 decent mares than 140 moderate mares as it’s the mares that make the stallions.”
The Futters have made the most of their allegiances with French and Irish farms – notably Haras de la Hetraie and Rathbarry Stud – to offer an array of stallions over recent years, including another son of King’s Theatre, Great Pretender, and Malinas.
“You have to be patient with National Hunt stallions but you also always have to be on the lookout for a new horse in order to capture a new group of mares,” says Futter. “That’s why it has worked well for us, standing horses like Malinas. He covered more than 300 mares in the four years he was with us.
“In the French National Hunt stallion ranks four of the top six horses have all been proven over fences, and that’s why Clovis Du Berlais appealed to us. We weren’t actively looking but when Richard Venn informed us that he could be bought we couldn’t turn down the opportunity, and French breeders have held an interest in him.”
A fellow National Hunt stallion stud manager who knows all about the virtue of patience is Simon Sweeting of Overbury Stud. He has every right to bask in the reflected glory of Overbury stalwart Kayf Tara, who has led the British sires’ table for seven years and last season finished behind only King’s Theatre and Presenting in the overall jump sires’ table, with Thistlecrack as his major star.
But Sweeting knows only too well that by the time a jumps sire has ‘made it’ he will be in his twilight years and so the work must continue with younger potential replacements. In this regard he has Schiaparelli, an impeccably-bred son of Monsun, on the brink of a wave of first runners as his eldest offspring turn five in January.
He says: “Obviously Kayf Tara’s success may mean I have a rose-tinted view and really it will be Schiaparelli who will tell us if things are improving in the National Hunt world.
“My own feeling is that they are improving steadily – it appears that trainers are keener to have fillies in their yards and the better ones are selling okay, but we’re not out of the woods yet.
“There’s still too much disappointment when a mare produces a filly foal, but I think overall we are on an upward curve.”
Kayf Tara’s success has helped to stem the flow of better British-based mares crossing the Irish Sea to be covered, but this mostly one-way traffic is still a big concern for the British National Hunt industry. This is despite the launch in recent years of the Elite Mares Scheme, which offers subsidised nominations to British-based stallions for owners of high-class racemares or producers.
“There’s no doubt now that Kayf Tara has proved that he’s well above average and breeders have appreciated that, but it’s extraordinary how quickly a stallion goes in and out of fashion,” Sweeting adds. “UK-based breeders are being encouraged to use National Hunt stallions in this country – and hopefully with Kayf Tara they realise that British stallions can do it – but they have to get out of the habit of looking to Ireland to cover their mares. The only way you can make a stallion is by supporting him in the first year or two.”
As to the reception given to Kayf Tara’s younger stud-mate, Sweeting notes: “Schiaparelli has never covered vast numbers but his book has always been around the same number each year and is going up slightly, which is encouraging – a numbers of breeders came back to him once they’d had a foal by him. So if he’s good enough, he’ll have a chance.”
Good support for Telescope
Completing the trio of major National Hunt stallion stations in Britain is Shade Oak Stud. During the heyday of Alflora, who died in April at the age of 27, it wasn’t uncommon for 300 mares to visit him alone.
In more straitened times for the industry, a little over 300 mares were sent to Shade Oak this year to be covered by either Galileo’s brother Black Sam Bellamy, Fair Mix, Lucarno, Recharge or Telescope, and by far the biggest percentage of these was reserved for the latter, who covered 129 mares in his first book.
Shade Oak’s owner Peter Hockenhull makes no secret of the fact that he feels the British National Hunt breeding industry is collectively drinking in the last-chance saloon – but that the chance can be seized and built upon.
“We’re in critical condition,” he says plainly. “There’s some hope with Kayf Tara – it’s great that we have a stallion up there. Since I’ve been breeding, he could be Britain’s only chance of having the leading stallion – not just in Britain, but in Britain and Ireland. It shows that it’s possible. But on the other hand we are down to as few jumps stallions as we’ve ever had.”
It appears that trainers are keener to have fillies in their yards, but we’re not out of the woods yet
The stallion man has, however, been encouraged by breeders’ reaction to his newcomer. “I rolled the dice one last time to buy Telescope and luckily British breeders have supported him,” he says. “He covered 129 this year, which was the second-highest launch of any jumps stallion in the country, and that shows that there’s still the enthusiasm from breeders. But we are lacking numbers.”
He echoes Sweeting’s call to retain the good mares in Britain. “The good thing is that if you look at the elite mares we actually have a greater percentage comparatively than they do in Ireland, but the secret is for us to keep them here to use British stallions,” says Hockenhull. “That’s being helped by the introduction of MOPS and the Elite Mares Scheme.
“We’ve inherited a situation where fillies weren’t racing and were deemed to be worthless, so if 50% of your production is deemed worthless it’s hardly a good foundation for a business. I do feel optimistic now in that I think we’ve turned it around, but it’s going to take ten to 20 years for it to be where we want it to be. The races are there now and trainers are looking at fillies.
“The plan is for there to be more races for fillies and mares so we can have a programme that resembles the one for Flat fillies; then, as National Hunt breeders, we are on more of an equal footing. The only way we can buck the market is by waving a little carrot and that can be done through increasing the prize-money earned by fillies.”
Hockenhull has also added to his stallion list for next year with the purchase of Scorpion from Ireland.
“I am more enthusiastic than I was last year and a little bit more upbeat,” he says. “Scorpion’s eldest are now seven and he’s had a Grade 1 and Grade 2 winner even since the deal was done to bring him here. It’s amazing how many enquiries I’ve had for him from Ireland already and he has a decent number to run for him – the sort of figure that would take me ages to achieve.”