Lincolnshire might be Britain’s second largest county and overwhelmingly agricultural in nature, but it doesn’t boast a rich variety of thoroughbred studs.

Limestone Stud near Gainsborough bred the Irish 2,000 Guineas hero Wassl and Queen Mary Stakes winner On Tiptoes in the 1980s, and was once where Gunner B plied his trade as a stallion, while more recently Bumble Mitchell has done most to fly the county flag from her base in the picturesque Lincolnshire Wolds.

But overall there are hardly any such establishments in Lincolnshire and even fewer further south in the county, among the patchwork fields of tulips, cabbages and rape that grow beneath the endless skies created by the flat Fenland countryside.

One operation that has bucked the trend is James and Amelia Gray’s Elusive Bloodstock, based at Hundred Acre Farm on a former Lincolnshire Council- owned farm situated south of Boston and just inland from the North Sea.

The young couple have developed a thriving business, standing three stallions — Falco, Axxos and Sun Central — and breeding from 25 mares of their own while boarding another dozen on behalf of clients.

“I was able to buy nice mares for £500 as people were getting out”

Although born and raised in Hampshire and having worked at studs in Britain and New Zealand, James Gray has been converted to the delights of Lincolnshire.

“I think being here helps us as certain things are cheaper to buy, like straw for instance,” he says. “I’ve spoken to friends in other parts of the country and they said they were paying £140 to £150 per tonne for straw, but here in the east there are a lot of cereal farms and not many livestock farms so we’re getting it for £15 or £20 a tonne.

“I’m quite value conscious like that,” he continues. “In the autumn I’ll spend a day or two driving around farms looking for hay, going back to places I’ve bought from before, so we pay less as we’re buying direct and there’s no need to go through merchants.

“Up until a few years ago I also used to go off for eight weeks each summer for the vining pea harvest and leave Amelia to look after the stud, as you can earn a fair bit of money for a job that takes little brain power. But obviously Elusive Bloodstock has become too big for me to do that now.”

The fact Lincolnshire grows so much of the country’s food (12% of England’s total according to government stats) speaks to the high quality of the land and the region’s benign climate.

James Gray in the main barn at Elusive Bloodstock, which is based at Hundred Acre Farm – Photo: Hannah Ali

“We’re on reclaimed land and our neighbour is the sea,” says Gray. “We’re on a lot of silt land, which is good for growing and you could almost say it’s a bit wasted having it out to grass for horses.

“In fact the grass is so good and there’s so much of it here that you’d be tempted to think you could stock the horses more tightly, but I’m a believer in letting horses have plenty of space to stretch their limbs and grow.

“Another advantage to being in Lincolnshire is that a lot of the farmers are now out of stock where they might have had a couple of cattle 40 or 50 years ago, so there are plenty of empty barns around which we’ve been able to use. Our neighbour has one we’re using for hay and straw and there’s another one half a mile away that we’re thinking of taking on for stabling horses in the winter.”

But all those advantages come at a price, as Gray explains.

“Our biggest problem is the cost of ground rent here is huge,” he says. “We’re competing with all the vegetable and flower growers, and things like potatoes and bulbs are high value crops so those farmers can pay a lot of money. I recently told someone else in the bloodstock industry what we pay per acre for land and they were shocked.”

“If  we were going to make it, we needed to get a top-drawer stallion”

So how have the Grays managed to fund the operation and keep it going for ten years? James — still only 31 — smiles and says: “I wonder that myself sometimes.”

He is not living up to the company name by being elusive when he says that; it is just that there was no one clear path to Lincolnshire, but rather a jumble of bold moves and smart trades, a little good luck and a heck of a lot of hard graft, with James and Amelia carrying out almost all farm duties by themselves while bringing up two young children, employing help only on a seasonal basis.

“I started gambling when I worked at Whitsbury and was quite successful at it,” says Gray. “It was before I’d met Amelia and I didn’t have much of a life then, so I was able to watch racing 24/7. I saved up all my winnings and wages and bought mares with them.

“By chance, it was the perfect time to buy mares as it was just after the economic downturn and they were much cheaper. I was able to buy nice mares for around £500 as people were getting out of the game, whereas mares at that price generally aren’t worth bothering with nowadays as there’s a good reason they’re that cheap.”

The contacts made at Whitsbury Manor came in useful when Gray was later working in New Zealand, specifically when news of a certain stallion retirement piqued his interest.

Axxos is a proven son of Monsun and is the newst recruit to Elusive Bloodstock’s ranks – Photo: Hannah Ali

“I’d been following Showcasing closely as I loved Oasis Dream, and it had just been announced he would be retiring to Whitsbury, which is a fantastic place for making sprint stallions,” he says. “So I emailed Charlie Oakshott, who was managing the stud at the time, and asked him if the horse was being syndicated.

“Charlie said he was, and that he’d put me down for a share, which was great apart from one thing — I didn’t have any money to pay for it. So I contacted Nationwide building society in the UK and told them I was coming back to England and needed to buy a car, and asked if they could lend me £10,000. They agreed, and I used the money to buy the breeding right.

“Having arrived home I had no money to repay the loan and was really struggling. I’d only just met Amelia while in New Zealand but she was having to pay for all our food shopping and living costs.”

The investment might have been reckless but it paid off spectacularly when Showcasing blossomed into an elite sire. Gray sold his breeding right to a leading stud several years ago for a handsome profit, which was sunk back into improving the facilities and stock in Lincolnshire.

A foal resulting from the breeding right and one of Gray’s bargain mare buys also contributed a considerable sum to the pot. Azita, a Tiger Hill half-sister to the useful pair Danadana and Semeen purchased privately for just £100, produced a Showcasing filly sold as a foal for 55,000gns. She is still in production for the stud.

“We also felt that everyone at the National Hunt sales wants big, bay produce and Falco really offered that”

Money has also been spent on the stud’s three stallions, all of whom are wholly owned by Elusive Bloodstock. Sun Central, a Listed-winning Galileo half-brother to George Washington, was the first on board in 2015 and he was followed by Falco, the Classic-winning son of Pivotal who has supplied top- level winners on the Flat (Odeliz) and over jumps (Peace And Co), after his purchase from France in 2019.

Axxos is new to the Elusive Bloodstock roster in 2021. A Group 2-winning son of Monsun, he has sired useful jumpers Calett Mad, Dame Du Soir and Earlofthecotswolds from his earlier stint at stud in France.

“We bought Falco because we wanted to raise our profile,” says Gray. “If we were going to make it, we needed to get a top-drawer stallion so that’s what I asked Richard Venn to source for us. He found Falco, a horse everyone had heard of, and when I looked further into his stats I saw he had loads of good horses coming through the system in France. Hitman and Hudson De Grugy have borne that out.”

Hitman has won a Ffos Las beginners’ chase by 30 lengths and finished a close second to Allmankind in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase this season after joining Paul Nicholls from Guillaume Macaire, while Hudson De Grugy eased to victory in a Sandown juvenile hurdle for Gary Moore early in the new year.

“We also felt that everyone at the National Hunt sales wants big, bay produce and Falco really offered that from what we had seen of his foals,” Gray says of the stallion, who won the Poule d’Essai des Poulains by three lengths for his owner-breeders the Wertheimer brothers.

Amelia Gray taking the yearlings at Elusive Bloodstock for a walk – Photo: Hannah Ali

On the subject of Axxos, he adds: “He has a slightly different profile to Falco as he doesn’t have the same number of horses coming through in France. But I liked the idea of having a Monsun and I just felt he’s well capable of getting a good horse, and from only three runners over fences in the UK all have won.

“He’s 16.1 hands, good-looking, black and has never sired a chestnut. At a fee of £1,500, he offers breeders on a budget a great opportunity.

“We’ve been offered a lot of stallions over the years but I wouldn’t stand one I wouldn’t use on our own mares. I always ask myself: even if no one else supported him, would I still use him myself? The answer has to be yes; if you’re going to try to convince breeders to use the stallion, you’ve got to believe in him yourself.”

Elusive Bloodstock has gone from a share in Showcasing to those three National Hunt stallions, but the move from Flat towards jumps breeding was organic.

“We never had a blueprint, we’ve just gone with what’s worked,” says Gray. “Jumps breeding is often more attractive because you’re working from a lower cost base to produce the horse. Stallion fees and some sales fees are a lot cheaper, and so a price as low as £5,000 for a foal can be your break-even point at the sales.

“On the Flat it’s probably more like £20,000 because of the higher cost of nominations, and at the point at which we’re playing in that market — at around the £7,500 to £15,000 mark for a fee — there’s not that many stallions to choose from in the UK.

“On the other hand, I think we have a good range of £2,500 to £5,000 jumps sires standing in Britain, so there’s plenty of choice.”

Gray says that Elusive Bloodstock’s broodmare band is split between 16 for jumps and nine for the Flat, but adds: “We might go even more strongly National Hunt in future, as it just makes sense with the stallions we stand.

“We never had a blueprint, we’ve just gone with what’s worked”

“The only thing with the Flat, though, is you just always have that dream of paying off the mortgage with one spectacular yearling sale or a big update on a broodmare.”

Gray was along the right lines to achieving just that when purchasing the Librettist mare Little Book for a mere 7,000gns at Tattersalls in 2011, but traded her on long before her son Roger Barows won the Japanese Derby in 2019.

Dreams of selling a Derby winner’s dam aside, Gray is keeping his feet firmly on the ground with his ambitions for Elusive Bloodstock as it enters its second decade of operation.

“I want to keep going the way we are, while adding to and upgrading the facilities on the farm so we’re continually improving what we offer our clients,” he says.

“Jumps breeding is a slow game and our oldest homebred crop are only five-years-old, so in another ten years’ time I’d hope to be able to say that we’ve bred some good horses and have attracted a reputation in the industry for doing so.”

But don’t go thinking that if Elusive Bloodstock continues to flourish, the operation might decamp to one of Britain’s more conventional centres of National Hunt breeding.

“We see our future here,” says Gray. “There are personal reasons, as it’s where our children are growing up and we wouldn’t want to separate them from their grandparents, but it also makes good business sense. If we were next door to one of the big jumps studs in the west country we’d be struggling to compete.

“But in Lincolnshire, we’re in no one’s shadow.”