In the crystal ball world of bloodstock buying, it takes a versatile eye to spot the next Queen Mary Stakes winner, followed by the unbroken store who could one day land a Champion Hurdle or Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Kevin and Anna Ross are giving themselves this Flat and jump challenge as they breeze their way from sales of two-year-olds at Doncaster and Fairyhouse to the major-league store-horse auctions of prospective jumpers that take place in June at Kill and Fairyhouse. That diversity in the types of horses they buy has been achieved through successful purchases of jumpers and Flat racers.
Based in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland, just a short drive from Belfast International Airport – and dreading the prospect of a ‘hard’ Irish border should Brexit lead to one – the couple have shared out the elements of running Kevin Ross Bloodstock, which he created in 2006.
“When it comes to looking at horses at a sale we have so much trust in each other,” says Kevin. “If Anna wasn’t at a sale I don’t know who I would get to help because she’s brilliant. If we both like a horse we try to find a client who would be interested, and it’s pretty rare for one of us to like a horse and the other to be cold on it.”
Working largely from home suits a couple with three young children and quite a few young horses to raise. Anna’s accounting degree has led to her handling that side of the business, while Kevin trawls through catalogues and creates lists of horses to view. At the sales they share the process of inspecting horses, but since she is the daughter of Kildare trainer Arthur Moore, and Kevin the grandson of a legendary amateur rider and brought up on a stud farm, they know a good sloping shoulder or an off-set knee when they see one.
“When it comes to looking at horses at a sale we have so much trust in each other”
If a sales recruitment agency was to comb Ireland looking for hard-selling staff they would get little response at the Rosses’ home. “We’re not pushy,” says Kevin, a man who prefers to work the sales like a sniper, rather than a front-line attack troop. “We hope the horses do the talking for us. The clients who have been with us for a long time know we are not going to be forcing a horse on them every week. If we see a horse we think they might like we ring them, but we accept the position if they say, ‘No thank you’. It’s a compliment to us that the clients we started with are still with us.”
Not that the Rosses confine themselves to sales catalogues and pedigree study when not travelling to stud farms and sales. Their Mount Top Stud at Newtownabbey, which is still home to his parents, John and Eyssen, no longer stands stallions, but is a hive of nursery activity, with young horses from foals to stores – plus the occasional point-to-pointer – engaged in levels of education and development.
Kevin says: “We always have a few young horses around the place. We’ll buy a foal out of a field, rear it here on the farm, then break it in. If it looks the part we’ll sell it on, but if we have any doubt we might run it to assess its merit before offering it to a client.”
Mount Top is also a holiday home to racehorses owned by some of the Rosses’ clients. In a corner of one paddock lies the body of Imperial Commander, the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, who two years ago breathed his last while living out his days at Mount Top. Now younger Imperials have taken his place for the summer before returning to their trainers’ yards.
Twist of fate with a happy outcome
Mount Top Stud was created by Kevin’s maternal grandfather, Welshman Willie Rooney, who left the Principality, crossed the Irish Sea and eventually set up home in Northern Ireland. A formidable amateur rider, he set a record for the most wins in Irish point-to-points until it was lowered by Enda Bolger, while his daughters, Kevin’s aunts Ann and Rosemary, were pioneers for women riders. In 1984 Ann became the first woman to win the Irish Grand National when scoring on Bentom Boy, trained by her father, while her sister finished third.
Kevin caught the bug, and although his father was a dental technician it was the love of horses handed down by his mother which rubbed off on him and his brother, Gerry, who now manages Kenilworth House Stud in County Tipperary. Apart from a stint with Curragh trainer Kevin Prendergast, Kevin stayed closer to home, and rode in point-to-points while based with point-to-point trainer Ian Duncan and then leading producer George Stewart.
Kevin says: “George was a former international showjumper who trained pointers – not only was he a good producer of young stock, but he had a great eye for buying a store. He was a good horseman and a good judge, and I learned a lot from him, and also from my mother, who didn’t ride in races as much as her sisters but was a great teacher and remains a wonderful help to Anna and myself today.”
Rugby had been Kevin’s first love, but riding winners was appealing too, and in 1999 a point-to-point victory on Bindaree provided a memory that was to be enhanced when that horse won the 2002 Grand National for trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. By then Kevin’s riding career had been ended when he suffered a broken neck in a point-to-point.
While recuperating and pondering career prospects he was asked by Peter Hannon, whose father, James, had been Bindaree’s former owner, to help with some bloodstock work, which, six years later, led to the creation of Kevin Ross Bloodstock.
Long-term clients include a syndicate, headed by Ian Robinson, which raced Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander, the gelding who gave the agency a banner horse in its early years. Grade 1-winning chaser The Storyteller and Cheltenham Festival winner Flaxen Flare are but two horses bought for Joe and Pat Sloan, while this year’s Triumph Hurdle runner-up Coeur Sublime is one of many winners bought for Chris Jones, whose father, also Chris, owned Klairon Davis, the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner trained by Anna’s father, Arthur Moore.
More recently, and with notable impact, has been the Rosses’ work for Paul and Clare Rooney, whose spread of racing interests across both codes has upped Kevin and Anna’s involvement in buying Flat horses.
In less than three years to the middle of May they had bought the Rooneys the winners of 118 races, including 40 on the Flat including the exciting two-year-old Good Vibes, yet the principle of finding value for money has remained unchanged. If The Cap Fits, who carried the Rooneys’ colours to victory in the Ryanair Stayers’ Hurdle at Aintree, cost £30,000, while the same owners’ Get In The Queue, an exciting bumper winner who provided Noel Fehily with a winner on his final ride, cost £40,000 – both horses were sourced at Goffs UK’s Spring Sale as stores. The Storyteller was €67,000 at the Land Rover Sale.
In common with most agencies the couple focus on certain areas of the market. They would happily buy Flat foals or mares, but don’t have clients in that sphere, and while they are fully up to speed with the high-flying market for top-grade point-to-pointers, and visit meetings most weekends during the season, their customers are more likely to be investing at a level below the peak.
That may cost the Rosses in terms of publicity, but not in success, and when they dug deep at the Goffs Punchestown Sale last year, spending €260,000 on the horse who finished second on the top-ten board, they were well rewarded: the horse in question is the aforementioned high-class juvenile hurdler Coeur Sublime.
“To get value we don’t tend to look at the clock”
“It’s true, we have clients who could afford to pay top prices for stores or pointers, but they seem to enjoy finding value,” says Kevin.
“At Newmarket recently a £35,000 filly we bought for Paul and Clare [Good Vibes] finished second behind a Godolphin filly who cost 750,000gns. Running so well against a horse who had cost much more gave Paul a buzz.”
Flat purchases tend to be sourced as yearlings or breezers. The David Evans-trained Good Vibes, the recent winner of the Marygate Stakes at York, was sourced for £35,000 at the Goffs UK Premier Sale. Crack On Crack On was bought at Goresbridge for €70,000, won three races and was then sold to Hong Kong. That horse and Getchagetchagetcha took the Rosses to Royal Ascot last year, and now hopes run high for a bold showing by Good Vibes at the same venue this month.
Anna says: “To get value we don’t tend to look at the clock, but at the more backward, less obvious type. If they have a bit of pedigree, come out of the breeze well and are a nice type, that is more important than the time of their breeze.”
Kevin adds: “The Royal Ascot horses are the ones who do a quick time and are usually expensive – at the moment that’s not where we’re at, but we’d love to buy a Royal Ascot winner.”
From the sales ring to a wedding ring
Being a daughter of Arthur Moore, and grand-daughter of L’Escargot’s trainer Dan Moore, might have led Anna to a training career, but she says: “Training was never really on my agenda. When I finished an accounting degree at college I went travelling, in part to figure out whether I was going to stay in the horse world. When I came back a job came up at BBA Ireland; I went for the interview and stayed ten years.”
During that time she bid on a horse who was to change the course of her life, as Kevin recalls, saying: “I was underbidder on a horse that Anna bought for Oliver Sherwood. As we passed each other in the barns later that day she said, ‘I beat ya’, which kind of stuck in my mind.” Anna interjects, saying: “He decided to get even, by marrying me!”
What’s in store for the stores?
As the twin peaks of the store sales’ season hove into view, with Goffs staging its Land Rover Sale (June 11 and 12) and Tattersalls Ireland putting on the Derby Sale (June 26 and 27), it is a busy time for the Rosses.
The store market has been surfing on the popularity of jump racing’s Saturday meetings and spring festivals, plus the demand from pinhookers who buy to race horses in point-to-points before selling again. That can make it hard for buyers, but few would begrudge working in a buoyant market when the alternative is to find easier pickings in a slump.
As Kevin says: “I read a tweet by [trainer] Nick Alexander recently which reflected that jump racing is in rude health, and it is at the moment. When you see Cheveley Park and owners like that coming into jump racing it’s marvellous.”
So what are they looking for in a store? Sharing their thoughts, they say: “We’re looking for correct horses that walk well and are trainable.
“We’re also looking for an acceptable pedigree, but we wouldn’t put too much emphasis on the stallion. We’re relying more on the dam’s side, while the dam-sire and sire of the granddam can be important. Most of our store purchasers are end-users who are buying a store to race, not pinhook. If a client is buying one store a year they will probably want an established sire, but if they are buying half a dozen you would probably look for a couple by established sires, and then others by lesser-known stallions.”
Tattersalls Ireland’s May Store Sale (where the Rosses bought two stores) and Goffs UK’s Spring Sale have passed, but the Land Rover auction and Derby Sale offer treasure troves. Kevin says: “It used to be the case that the Derby Sale had the bigger, chasing types, but in the past three or four years the two events have become quite similar.”
They also buy at the lower-tier August Sales, where they might find a store for themselves. If that horse makes up into something special they could offer it to a client, but, as Kevin puts it: “We’ll go the long haul and race it ourselves if we are in any doubt about its ability.”