When the previous TBA Chairman took office in early 2008, overproduction was a huge concern. Four years later, we seem to have gone full circle, with a question mark over whether we are now producing enough horses to adequately fill fixtures. What is your view on this matter?
After the global financial crisis, which had an impact on all industries, a lot of people had to review their commitment to breeding and that has been shown in the figures Weatherbys have published. There’s been a decline in the British foal crop [from 5,920 in 2008 to 4,635 in 2011] but in Ireland it’s been far more dramatic.
The commitment to the racing programme means that we have to supply enough runners and at the moment it seems okay, but it’s a question of how long this economic situation will last and how long people will feel they don’t want to invest.
The TBA has now come up with BOBIS (British Owners and Breeders Incentive Scheme), which hopefully will be a help to mare owners in Britain and encourage them to carry on. It’s that middle core of commercial breeders that we want to help.
Were you surprised by how quickly the market corrected itself?
Well, we had been on the crest of a financial wave and no-one believed that the situation would change. Everyone had invested accordingly. But breeding is a long-term operation – it’s like a super tanker, it takes time to stop it and turn it round.
So it was inevitable that when the downturn kicked in there would be a reaction and that’s what we’ve seen.
Is there a danger that BOBIS, which is a self-help initiative for breeders based in Britain, will alienate people in Ireland?
I don’t think so. We haven’t complained about the French system, while the Germans have a limited premiums scheme. We also need to remember that it’s about the mare being based in Britain but you can use outside stallions, from Ireland or France for example, so it’s not restrictive in that way.
We’re happy to share the idea with anyone and if they want advice on setting up a similar scheme we’ll help them. We’re hoping BOBIS will be operational in 2013 but there’s still some fine-tuning to be done (see news story p.12 for more details).
What does the recent deal between Betfair and racing – which includes a condition to maintain a minimum number of fixtures – mean for your members?
First of all, the agreement provides racing with some certainty regarding income, which is beneficial. The breeders’ challenge is to fulfil the requirements of the fixture list but it’s difficult to look into the future and predict what will happen.
Wearing both hats, it’s the quality racing that one wants to see and if we have to cut fixtures at the bottom end to ensure that prize-money levels are maintained at a decent level, then that’s probably the right thing to do.
BHA Chief Executive Paul Bittar has talked about putting racing into different tiers, as in Australia, and that might be the way to go to ensure we retain the quality racing and the prize-money that will keep the best horses racing on these shores, as well as attracting the best horses from overseas to compete in Britain.
Why is the state of prize-money such an important issue to British breeders?
Apart from the fact that plenty of breeders are also owners, the commercial breeders will suffer if owners decide they don’t want to race here because then they won’t buy at the sales. In turn, the breeders won’t receive the money to be able to re-invest.
This sport is very much driven by the returns on the track. Like any enterprise you have a time when the harvest comes and if you don’t get the sort of returns you’re expecting, then you either downgrade or cut your losses and get out.
But is prize-money a concern to someone as wealthy as Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum?
I don’t think there’s an owner anywhere, however wealthy they are, that is content to see costs going up and prize-money going down. Every owner is conscious of how much it costs to have a horse in training and if he is not getting a worthwhile return then he will think about whether to maintain the current level. That is why there is such a call for an adequate return to all owners at all levels.
We’ve discussed the prize-money issue over the years, especially in relation to the situation in France, where the returns are wonderful for owner/breeders due to the premiums available. It makes quite a difference.
So has Sheikh Hamdan considered re-locating his entire breeding operation to France?
I don’t think it’s got to that stage but, like anybody else, we’re very conscious of the situation. On the positive side the deal with Betfair was a step in the right direction and let’s hope it will be the first step in racing getting a fairer return for its product from the betting industry.
Shadwell recently pledged not to use raceday medication, such as Lasix, on their two-year-olds in America this year. What is your position on the drugs debate?
I think that raceday medication is totally unacceptable. We are trying to breed a horse that is resilient and can withstand the rigours of racing, which is a strain on an animal’s constitution. But if we start masking these things it’s a disaster. I think America’s past is now starting to catch up with it.
It’s no secret that people are less keen to go the US sales because so much of the stock that these horses are being bred from were being helped through their racing days. We fully support the stance that the use of medication must stop.
Seth Hancock from Claiborne Farm is vehemently against medication because the number of times these horses can run in a season is nothing like what it was in his father’s day. Trainers will tell you that the breed is less resilient than it was.
You oversee the breeding operation at Shadwell. How do you select which mares visit which stallions?
That’s done on a committee basis. Stephen Collins is involved in the matings, Angus Gold has input from the racing side and Carol Palfreyman from the pedigree side. She will draw up a list of suggestions, we’ll sit down in the autumn and make recommendations that go to Sheikh Hamdan for his final approval.
It’s always been a policy that the foals are weaned in Ireland. They stay there until they are yearlings and allocated to trainers.
For many years Shadwell had three top stallions in Nashwan, Unfuwain and Green Desert. Would it be reasonable to suggest you’ve struggled to replace them?
Yes, I think that’s fair. But you need to remember that for every ten horses that are retired to stud, one, or maybe two, if you’re lucky, will really make it. In those early years we were exceeding that and were very lucky. The sires came through with great regularity and it was wonderful. At the moment, like a football team having to rebuild after a period of success, we haven’t got the big stars.
Nayef is doing a solid job but he needs a couple of really nice horses to come along. Sakhee is doing a great job and he’s had three individual Group 1 winners, but it’s difficult for these middle distance horses to make their mark. We have great hopes that Aqlaam, who was well patronised, can come through and he has yearlings this year at Tattersalls.
Mawatheeq wasn’t a Group 1 winner but he was a horse we had to take a chance on. He’s a son of Danzig, extremely well bred and very good-looking. He got 42 mares last year and not that many this time but you just hope there’s something in his first crop that catches people’s eye.
You once said that Shadwell was the Arsenal of the breeding scene, implying that you achieved success without spending as much money as your rivals. The Arsenal management have been criticised for not spending enough on new signings and allowing the opposition to steal a march. Has this happened to Shadwell?
Well, if the right horse was around then I’m sure we would [buy it] – look at Derrinstown [in Ireland] where we stand Arcano, who was bought from the Sangsters. It’s very competitive out there.
We also had Act One who stood at Shadwell, he was an outside horse that we owned shares in. But if we could find a real top miler to join Aqlaam I’ll love to add one to the roster.
Talking of top milers, I’m sure you would have loved to stand Makfi…
You’re always going to lose one; if you lose a Classic winner, that’s even worse. But with the number of horses that Shadwell has there’s always going to be one that slips through the net.
It would have been wonderful to have him, certainly. We haven’t sent any mares to Makfi but that’s not to say we wouldn’t do so in the future.
Are you happy to continue with your less expansive marketing policy, compared to the likes of Darley and Coolmore?
When a horse first goes to stud, that’s the time to market him, with a responsibility to ensure good books of mares in those first few seasons. Once he’s got runners on the ground the horse either sells himself or he doesn’t.
Sheikh Hamdan hasn’t had a Group 1 success in Europe in the last two seasons. How disappointing is that?
We’re going through a quiet time but then so does everyone in this industry. The Aga Khan, Sheikh Mohammed, Cheveley Park – they all have great runs and then spells when it’s not so fruitful. But the foal crops we’ve had over the last two years have been outstanding and one just has to hope that the system works its way through.
Sheikh Hamdan loves the sport so much that he just wants a top horse. He’s had sprinters like Dayjur, Classic horses like Nashwan, Erhaab and Salsabil – he just loves racing so much and wants to race the best at any distance. He enjoys winning the big two-year-old races and that’s why it’s great we’ve now got horses with Richard Hannon, who is such a past master at producing juveniles for those contests.
Would you like to see Shadwell breeding speedier types?
From a commercial point of view, in the sale ring, that’s what people want – early maturing horses with plenty of speed. Yet it seems a bit strange when you think that, apart from the Guineas races, our Classics are over 12 furlongs and further. Breeders shouldn’t forget that you need a horse with a certain amount of stamina to win the Derby!
If thoroughbred racing is about that piece of wood at the bottom of the hill at Epsom, as [Federico] Tesio said, then a lot of horses bred today will never have the stamina to compete in that race.
What would you like to achieve in the next five years?
I’d like the TBA, along with the other racing groups, to get prize-money to an acceptable level. I would hope that we maintain a market – nationally and internationally – for British-bred stock.
The TBA covers a wide church, from the big studs to the hobby breeder, on the Flat and over jumps, and to represent all our members is a tough task. We need to ensure our members are getting the best possible service and encourage a well-trained workforce to work with the horses that we’re breeding. We must also continue the excellent political lobbying that has been carried out by the TBA under Kirsten Rausing’s guidance.
On the veterinary side I’d hope that we can ensure that vigilance is maintained against the increasing threat of diseases around the world. And on the Shadwell front, a few Classic winners would come in quite useful!