Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals’ Yeguada Centurion is still a young breeding  operation. Yet its first generations of three-year-olds have made a  sensational start on the international scene led by Big Rock, who landed last year’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and was crowned best miler in the world for the 2023 season. The son of Rock Of Gibraltar is likely to make his four-year-old return at Newbury in the Lockinge Stakes. Four-time Group 1 winner Blue Rose Cen also had a stellar three-year-old campaign, winning the Poule d’Essai des Pouliches, Prix de Diane and Prix de l’Opéra.

Others sold as yearlings also represented the stud well. Ramatuelle was runner-up in the Prix Morny and she targets the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket. Jigme was champion three-year-old hurdler in France last year and was syndicated for a record amount (for a French NH stallion) to stand at Haras du Hoguenet in 2024. And then Hard To Justify, one who was sold in the US, ended her juvenile campaign unbeaten in three starts by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. After this impressive victory, a respected international bloodstock analyst commented: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a start like it.”

A war and a revolution

To a breeder who was complaining how tough the game is, Guy de Rothschild once said: “No one is compelled to breed racehorses.” And Baron Guy was quite right. We all know too well it’s tough, and the price for a few moments of ecstasy are many painful days. In our game, the one that ‘only’ loses 80 per cent of the time are considered as great achievers. And in this difficult journey that is the breeding and racing of the thoroughbred, it is always very important to understand the source of the motivation of every player, because the nature of it will determine the rest of the history.

Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals’ personal history exerts a massive influence on how he breeds thoroughbreds. Born in Cuba in 1947 from a landowning Spanish family, he says: “My ambition was to be an agricultural engineer to take over some family farms in Cuba where we raised cattle.”

However, the Cuban revolution changed everything and the land was nationalised by the Communist government. Pujals, then only 13, went into exile with his family. His dream could have been destroyed. In fact, it was just postponed for a few decades. Like many Cubans, Miami was the next step and a few years later, he studied accounting and finance. In 1968, he enlisted in the Marines and fought in Vietnam, from which he returned with a medal – and a good deal of useful management skills. To be more specific, he did not spend the war running with a gun in his hands. His job was logistics and supply.

Pujals started to work for Procter & Gamble in 1971 but joined Johnson & Johnson soon after. Being one the very few fluently bilingual in English and Spanish, he was sent to run sales and marketing in the Madrid office. But when you have survived a revolution and a war, such as Pujals did, taking risks is some sort of lifestyle. Having lived in America, he knew how fastfood restaurants could be profitable. However, in the still very traditional Spain of the 80s these concepts were unknown. So Pujals was a real pioneer when he launched TelePizza, a company that quickly became the Spanish Pizza Hut.

Indeed, his business exploits are quite famous in Spain: according to Spanish media, he earned around €360 million from the sale of Telepizza in 1999 and then invested in the telecommunication business, where he sold Jazztel to Orange for half a billion euros. On his life as an entrepreneur, he said in 1999 to The Independent: “The market is a battlefield: you have to gain ground and fight off others who have seen the same opportunity. I try to foster an American work ethic to get hands-on experience at all levels of the business. I don’t want my executives to come straight from university and land into an office.”

His fortune made, Pujals came back to his childhood landowning dream and bought a farm in Spain. But he is not the kind of person to have a few riding horses in his garden. He has to make it big. In 1995, he established the largest Spanish horse breeding operation ever, with more than 300 broodmares, achieving very quickly top results in breeding shows and dressage competitions. Pujals then started a hunting falcon selective breeding project, which again was a success with many clients in the Gulf. “All types of breeding are different because the guidelines and criteria are very distinct in each case,” he says. “For falcons, I avoid inbreeding in the first three generations of the pedigree.”

Big Rock runs away with the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Photo – Bill Selwyn

Discovering the thoroughbred

In the 1980s, no one would have imagined that an unknown country such as Qatar was going to be a major international player in the racing world.  The truth is the next big thing in our sport can come from anywhere. As a native of the south-west of France, only a few hours drive from Spain, I would never have expected Spanish racing to one day provide an operation the size of Yeguada Centurion. Racing in Spain had its glory days from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, with good horses and a real passion for the sport among the local gentry. But the Spanish government created restrictive rules around betting shops; in turn, Spain lost lots of talented breeders, owners and trainers, many of them moving to France. Decades later, Pujals was invited to Madrid racetrack, a marvellous-looking facility where a friend of his had a runner. Discovering racing and the thoroughbred, he was hooked. Everything he liked was there: competition, beautiful animals and selective breeding.

As always before a new project, he did plenty of research, asking for advice and reading every single book available about the subject.

Ten years ago, Pujals published his autobiography Apunta a las estrellas y llegarás a la luna: Convierte tus sueños en éxitos (Shoot for the Stars and You Will Land on the Moon). In it, he said:  “Everything you need to know has already been written. Just read, study, apply and learn from the best. Since my earliest childhood, I have always read a lot.”

But ask Pujals which racing book is actually the most inspiring and he replies: “The book by E. P. Taylor on the life of his homebred Northern Dancer is the best I have read about racing. Taylor said, ‘Mate the best with the best… to hope for the best’.  This is what we are trying to do! E. P. Taylor was an entrepreneur. And that’s something that speaks to me. Very early in my professional life,  particularly when I worked at Johnson & Johnson, I stepped out of the box because I had this entrepreneurial spirit.”

Pujals decided to follow his instinct and to start a thoroughbred breeding operation. But again, he is not the kind of person that can play for small stakes. It has to be big and it has to be ambitious. “I was 72-years-old when I started to breed thoroughbreds,” he says. “In its very essence, that’s a difficult activity. And I partly did it because of that challenge.

“It is often said that to become a millionaire in horses you have to start I wanted to take it up.”

Pujals has already experienced some wonderful days at the races. When Blue Rose Cen won the Prix de Diane, the atmosphere was incredible.

“Family, friends and the team were there for Blue Rose Cen’s victory in the Prix de Diane,” he says. “It’s great the enthusiasm this has generated among our employees, including those who work in Spain. Everyone really fell in love with this filly. The gallop gives you shivers, goosebumps.

“My wife tells me that with every victory, we get a dose of adrenaline. The racehorse offers you a capacity for identification and projection that is quite remarkable. We also had the feeling of having been very well received by the galloping world. Everywhere.”

Blue Rose Cen, pictured winning last year’s Prix Marcel Boussac, was one of the headline acts of a memorable season last year for Yeguada Centurion. Photo – Bill Selwyn

Huge investments

The Yeguada Centurion colours appeared in public for the first time in August 2019 with La Venus Espagnola. Three months later, Pujals made a sensational breakthrough as a buyer. Almost unknown in the international market, he appeared as the top buyer during the second session of the Keeneland November Sale when he bought seven mares for $1.4 million. From 2018 to 2020, he spent approximately €12 million at public auctions on both sides of the Atlantic. The sum doesn’t include private purchases such as Queen Blossom, the dam of Blue Rose Cen.

Results were quick to come. If there is an exercise where Pujals proved to be extremely talented, it is in the buying of mares. To date, the team have sourced the dams of five Group 1 homebreds. On top of that, they have also purchased the dams of Taiba and Queen Goddess when both of these future North American Grade 1 winners were untried youngstock. Taiba won the Santa Anita Derby, Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes while Queen Goddess landed the American Oaks. In fact, over ten per cent of the mares Pujals bought are now the dams of a Group/Grade 1 winner.

Surprisingly, Pujals does not work with any particular bloodstock agents, even if in the early days the mares were bought with Francisco Bernal of Outsider Bloodstock. When asked what his criteria for a broodmare are, Pujals says: “There are many things to look at. We try to buy broodmares with some size. They have to be correct. We like them to be good movers but with movement that matches their ideal racing distance. You can’t expect a sprinter to walk like a stayer. In all cases, the hindquarters must be strong.”

There is no magic trick or secret formula for matings and finding mares. But breeders that start from scratch have the chance of not carrying all sorts of prejudices and preconceived ideas. Pujals was advised to reach a critical mass in terms of number of mares. Instead of creating a boutique operation by spending millions of euros, he bought them by the dozen, with the most expensive costing around $400,000.

Focusing on mares with performance but not necessarily the greatest catalogue page, Pujals did not follow the damline obsession of our industry. For instance, Queen Blossom, the dam of Blue Rose Cen, remains the only Group 1 producer among Jeremy’s daughters at stud. Her immediate family is not impressive but she was a proper racing filly, with two Group victories. Just like the  Yoshida family in Japan or Guy Pariente in France, every time a new breeder makes performances his number one criteria, it can be viewed with suspicion. Yet for many of them, it has proven to be most effective.

The American influence

The first ten mares, acquired in 2018, were represented by their first Yeguada Centurion-bred three-year-olds of 2023. They are all European but Pujals, having noticed the success of some European breeders with American blood, began to import broodmares from the US. On various occasions he has mentioned Alec Head as an inspiration, and now you can find on his Normandy farm some mares with a real dirt influence in their pedigrees being mated with proper Classic European sires.

“Among the first foals born in Europe from my American purchases, some went back to the US to be trained in Tampa in Florida,” he says. “Very gradually, I want to mate American mares with European stallions here in Normandy.”

There is also the intention, by using American blood, to produce horses with early speed that can lead the pace. This is a favourite tactic of Pujals and he asks his horses to be ridden that way. 

Pujals was among the first to give a chance to the young Christopher Head, at that time an outsider with a small string of horses. The pair enjoyed some outstanding results, notably through Blue Rose Cen and Big Rock, before the string was switched to Maurizio Guarnieri, a Group-winning trainer from Italy with a lot of experience but a small number of horses.

“From time to time, Christopher and I would talk about what the life of an entrepreneur is,” says Pujals. “He grew up in a family where people succeed generation after generation.”

He adds: “That being said, we cannot just reproduce the methods of the past and hope to succeed today. As an entrepreneur, I have never tried to copy. You have to adapt, make changes. I have always wanted to give young people a chance. Sometimes even to individuals with little experience. And give them the keys to becoming proper working partners. If you want your company to succeed, this must be the case for each member of the team. I wrote my autobiography in 2014. Its title is “Shoot for the Stars and You Will Land on the Moon”. You have to try to aim as high as possible in what you want to do.” 

The plan, as Yeguada Centurion is growing fast, was to split the increasing number of horses between two Chantilly-based trainers. Blue Rose Cen was moved at the start of the year to Guarnieri, a switch that prompted speculation. The idea behind this strategy was to show a sign of confidence to the new trainer in the team while spreading the risks and indeed, Pujals initially remained faithful to Head. However, it was announced late last month that Big Rock and 12 other horses would also follow Blue Rose Cen across Chantilly to Guarnieri.

Hard To Justify: last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine was also bred by Yeguada Centurion. Photo – Bill Selwyn

Buying a stud

In the early days of the project, the idea was to race only in Spain. But quickly his country appeared to him to be too small for his equestrian ambitions. After weighing the pros and cons and taking advice, Pujals finally chose France.

“The stud farm that I bought in Normandy, in Nonant-le-Pin, is very good land with lots of grass… and it grows fast!” he says. “I have chosen France because I wanted to be close to my other businesses and get from one point to another quickly.

“Furthermore, the French system provides incentives for breeders, especially with the premiums. We had looked around Newmarket as well but it was shaping up to be difficult. However, France offers interesting opportunities for breeders who, like me, want to invest. In Spain, I only kept horses in training because I want to support the local industry. But the focus is really on France  because that’s where you can compete with the best.”

His runners have been raised in various French studs, but mostly at Haras de l’Hôtellerie in Normandy before the mares moved to the new farm last year. It was formerly in the hands of the  Corbieres family for over a century and its purchase means that Pujals is now the neighbour of Haras de Montaigu and Jean-Pierre Dubois.

Pujals also plans to be involved in the stallion game. “To have a sustainable breeding and racing operation, standing stallions is necessary,” he says. “Fingers crossed that Big Rock continues to  shine as maybe he will be our first stallion. He has exceptional health and cardio. Everything is expensive when it comes to racing and breeding. Only stallions and very good racehorses can help you find a certain balance.”


‘A massive opportunity for us to have worked for him’

During the first years of his breeding operation, Pujals boarded the majority of his mares at Haras de l’Hôtellerie in Normandy. Its owner Guillaume Garcon pays credit to the breeder.

“We’ve been lucky enough to raise Blue Rose Cen, Jigme and Ramatuelle on behalf of Yeguada Centurion,” he says. “Now most of their mares are in their own stud but we carry on preparing and selling yearlings for them. It proved to be a massive opportunity for us to have worked for him. Partly thanks to the success of their horses, the Haras de l’Hôtellerie is now completely full. I would also say the achievements of Yeguada Centurion horses pushed our team and our other clients to raise their standards. It’s certainly a decisive moment in the history of our farm.”

Reflecting on his client, Guillaume Garçon says: “Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals is a very analytical person. You can see he worked a lot on pedigrees and has done a lot of research on how previous successful breeding operations were structured. He is also a person that really makes his own opinion and his own decisions. And to do so, he really seems to spend a lot of time planning everything. 

“I have to say I do believe that bringing American blood to Europe, such as Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals did, is very positive. It’s something that was less common these days but it proved to be very successful for him. He made a good decision when using Justify very early in his career and the stallion provided him with Ramatuelle and Hard To Justify. For us it’s very exciting to follow Ramatuelle’s career and we hope she does well in the 1,000 Guineas. She seems to have trained on.

“Now the Yeguada Centurion is entering a new phase, with its own stud. The work they did on this farm is quite impressive. It’s really a very beautiful place now.”

For the Garcon family, working for Pujals changed a lot of things. Thanks to their client, they met Christopher Head, who is now training horses for the stud including Nevercry, runner-up in a Classic Trial early this year.

“Meeting Christopher was very positive for us,” says Garcon. “It was really fascinating to understand his training methods. He is a very ambitious young trainer and works very hard.” 

When Jigme was consigned by l’Hôtellerie at Arqana, Garcon told Pujals in advance that they were willing to buy him as a jump stallion prospect. The horse became a champion over hurdles and the Garcon family is now deeply involved in his stallion career. 

“Now Jigme is gone to stud, everybody realises he has beaten very good horses as they keep on winning big races in Auteuil this spring,” he says. “Jigme is very popular and will cover between 140 and 150 mares this year. With our clients, we will send him 25 mares. He is supported by a very good syndicate and will be given every chance. Jigme really fits what the modern National Hunt market requires, with a need for more Flat class than in the past.”