A portent of the future came with Chris Harper’s decision to hand over Whitsbury Manor Stud to his son, Ed, back in 2010.
Harper spent 36 years building up the stud but he still thought of himself as a dairy farmer. He’d worked in that capacity at Whitsbury since 1963 when, aged 22, he was appointed farm manager of the estate. So you can imagine his chagrin when the first thing Ed did on succeeding him was to sell the dairy.
“It broke dad’s heart,” Ed relates, “but he could hardly ask me to take over the business and then kibosh my first decision.”
That was 12 years ago, since when the stud has evolved apace. In Showcasing and Havana Grey, it is home to two of the most desirable stallions in Britain. And it basks in the reflected glory of having bred a classic winner in Chaldean, which Whitsbury Manor sold to Juddmonte for 550,000 guineas as a foal in 2020.
“The stud has been my life and I like to know what is going on, but I don’t tell Ed what to do”
All of this is Ed’s doing. And hindsight relates that the sale of the dairy telegraphed his intention to do things his way.
His father confirms this. “Ed always comes to me and tells me what he has done once he has done it,” Chris says. “The stud has been my life and I like to know what is going on, but I don’t tell Ed what to do.”
The consequence is that Whitsbury Manor has never been in ruder health. It is that rare, 21st century outfit: one of a shrinking handful of British entities that stands stallions and breeds commercially from around 100 broodmares.
In truth, time’s passage demanded a changing of the guard. Chris barely recognises the business he embraced when he stood his first stallion at Whitsbury, Philip Of Spain, back in 1973. That detail is never more evident than in the background to Havana Grey’s purchase five years ago.
“When Ed told me he had just bought the horse and asked what I thought, I said Havana Grey was just the job,” Chris recalls. “But when Ed told me what he’d paid, I nearly fell off my chair. It was twice as much as I thought the horse was worth. I thought Ed had made a serious cock-up but he insisted that was the going rate. I would never have paid that money, which shows how much things have changed.”
For his part, Ed is quick to acknowledge good fortune has played its part in Whitsbury Manor’s success story. Showcasing was the first stallion prospect he bought, while Havana Grey’s stock continues to rise with the exploits of his first three-year-old crop this year.
“We always ask ourselves: ‘Would we be pleased as punch to send several of our own mares to his horse?’”
There have been failures, of course, but Harper has displayed a knack of hitting the mark. Are there any golden rules when assessing stallion prospects?
“There are absolutely no rules except for one,” he responds. “We always ask ourselves: ‘Would we be pleased as punch to send several of our own mares to his horse?’ If the answer is no, the horse is not for us. It’s as simple as that.
“The other factor is that you can’t have the whole package or you’d been trying to buy a Baaeed, which would be a waste of time,” he continues. “You have to forgive something at our level, although it’s laughable when you listen to some of the things that are said (about the dos and don’ts) in this industry.”
So how much is down to luck? “About 60 per cent,” Ed replies. Whichever genes have passed from father to son, the archetypal farmer’s reserve is evident in Ed.
Whichever genes have passed from father to son, the archetypal farmer’s reserve is evident in Ed. He baulks when told he deserves rather more of the credit.
“It’s not really for me to judge,” he responds. “What I do know is that for 40 years before I took over, there were a hell of a lot of people working bloody hard at Whitsbury with dad at the helm.”
Those 40 years were the proverbial roller-coaster. It’s a fact that most stallions are destined to fail, yet in Compton Place and Young Generation, together with the latter’s son Cadeaux Genereux, Whitsbury often had one successful stallion to carry the rest of the tribe.
“I always try and learn from things that haven’t worked”
Standing stallions, always a high-risk business, has become even more fraught – not least for the damage a dud inflicts on the stud’s broodmare band. That was Whitsbury’s experience with Sakhee’s Secret, whose innings was abruptly curtailed towards the end of 2014, when his oldest crop were four-year-olds.
The wreckage was plain to Ed, who’d returned home from a three-year stint with the estate agents, Savills, soon after Sakhee’s Secret arrived at Whitsbury towards the end of 2008.
“I always try and learn from things that haven’t worked,” Ed says. “Sakhee’s Secret blew a huge hole in our business which took years to repair. But you know what? I didn’t feel bad about it.
“For whatever reason we got it wrong with that horse and we had to bear the consequences,” he continues. “But it’s much more frustrating when you feel you have got it right with a stallion but don’t get support from the market because you haven’t shown the market what it needs to see.”
That has been Harper’s experience with Due Diligence, whose first two-year-old crop showed ample promise in 2019 but was hamstrung by having covered too few mares in the previous two years to capitalise. That has since changed: Due Diligence’s two-year-olds of 2023, the first since his debut juvenile crop of runners, are more plentiful.
“At the time I felt we couldn’t have done much more,” Harper reflects. “We cannot do it on our own; we needed the help of British breeders [in years two, three and four]. It’s a fairly strange business whereby even if we make good decisions, it still comes to nothing unless we get other people on board.”
Harper resolved the conundrum by ensuring strong support for Whitsbury’s stallions in those fallow years. And since Havana Grey followed Due Diligence to Whitsbury, the stud reaped a significant financial dividend last year through the sale of yearlings and foals by Havana Grey.
In official sales company returns for 2022, Whitsbury was listed as having sold 11 yearlings by Havana Grey for gross receipts of £954,000 at an average price of £86,727. The stud also sold five foals for £402,000 at an average of £80,400. Havana Grey’s covering fee for the two years in question was £6,500 and £6,000 respectively.
The same process has been followed with the stud’s newest recruit, Sergei Prokofiev, whose first crop are yearlings this year. It’s a necessity for every stud standing stallions even if the business model leans overtly towards having too many eggs in one basket.
The vast majority of British breeders are cognisant of the risks in standing stallions without necessarily appreciating the harsher financial implications. Harper’s frankness in spelling them out is nothing less than startling.
“Dad and I both have a cavalier streak in us”
Despite the ongoing success of Showcasing, who has been covering at an average fee of £40,000 for the last nine seasons, Havana Grey was bought with borrowed money. “We maxed out our limit so much to buy him,” Harper relates.
“We had to borrow money on top of money we had already borrowed. I thought to myself there was no middle ground: we would either make a success of it or go down in flames.
“If Havana Grey had been a failure the appetite for us carrying on with stallions would have been seriously diminished,” he continues. “It could have been the final nail in our coffin. We could well have gone the same way as so many other studs by doing away with stallions and reducing the broodmare band to 20.”
It’s not just a farmer’s reserve that has passed from father to son. “Dad and I both have a cavalier streak in us,” Harper says. “At the end of the day we are adrenaline junkies.
“I’ve had discussions with bank managers (about borrowing money against land assets) which made them look at me with pity. I could see what they were thinking: just give us the deeds to the acres and we’ll take that from you when it all goes tits up, thank you very much. “But I don’t think I would have the risk-taking philosophy unless I’d seen that dad had started with nothing,” he continues. “This isn’t some fifth-generation aristocratic thing where we are worried about what we might lose. Even if it crashes down around us at least we can say we gave it a proper lash.”
In 12 years at the helm Harper, 39, has come to view the business in a different light. All commercial concerns have to make money but he now sees the merit in leaving enough within a sale for the buyer to make a turn further down the line. He admires the Irish mindset whereby all horsemen are delighted when one of their competitors makes a handsome sale. And he hopes that the four-stron collective which owns Lope Y Fernandez (comprising Coolmore, the National Stud and Nick Bradley, together with Whitsbury) is something of a template.
“It has been a great success so far and a new string to our bow,” Harper says. “The four of us coming together has opened our eyes to the opportunities of working with other operations. Perhaps it’s a glimpse into the future.
“I have spoken to others before about standing horses as partners and got the impression they wanted us to do all the heavy lifting while they receive a pay- check. Well, that doesn’t work for us. We have a vision; we want to work with people who share it. If people appreciate what we can do for a horse, we take that as a compliment and want to rise to that challenge.”
Rising to the challenge involves a “team Whitsbury” philosophy. Harper is at pains to emphasise the contributions made by his key personnel, among them stud manager Phil Haworth and broodmare manager Ben Tappenden.
They have been joined by Joe Callan, head of bloodstock and sales, whose arrival six months ago released Harper from what he describes as “ten years of having no personal life whatsoever.”
“We’re forever discussing our business strategy and testing each other out,” Harper says. “They are invaluable, and I find you come up with less shockers when you bounce ideas off others. Phil has looked after the horses for the last ten years and I see us as a bit of a duo. I wouldn’t be able to do it without him.”
Whitsbury has never been as well placed to anticipate the coming years with optimism. Harper with his farmer’s reserve rebuts the thought, yet having initially resolved to walk away from the business, he must reflect that his decision to leave Savills and return to the fold was very much the right move.
It was something of a calling. “At the time I didn’t realise how boring a real job was,” he reflects. “I’d go home at weekends and see all the young stock, with dad, who was then in his early 70s, having put his whole life into it without having anybody to hand it over to.
“I felt a bit selfish,” he adds. “Dad had created this amazing opportunity and I was not going to take it. What put me off initially was seeing how hard he worked, but your priorities soon change when you do a nine-to-five.”
Hard work never hurt anyone. Least of all those who work with horses.
‘Tremendous triumph’ 50 years in the making
The gloaming of a late November afternoon at Tattersalls last year made the perfect setting for the apogee of Chris Harper’s long involvement in the horse business.
A reverential hush greeted the ringside arrival of Lot 1025, a Kingman half-sister to Chaldean consigned by Whitsbury Manor, which Harper had put on the thoroughbred map. The foal was out of Suelita, the last mare Harper bought before he passed the Whitsbury reins to his son Ed in 2011.
Little wonder, then, that Harper was engulfed by a torrent of emotions when the gavel came down at 1 million guineas. The bell had rung loudly for a man synonymous with breeding in the west country.
“It was a culmination of 50 years of battling through and hoping that one day we might have a real killing, and there we were,” Harper relates. “It was a tremendous triumph for everybody at Whitsbury because the whole team watches over these animals, picking up on any problems they might have.”
Harper bought Suelita for 21,500 guineas in 2013 largely because her granddam, Horatia, descended from a distinguished female line cultivated by Gerald Leigh at his Edyon Hall Farm. Leigh and Harper were friends who’d shared the odd horse until Leigh passed away in 2002.
Since Suelita’s purchase, her progeny have generated auction-ring receipts of £2.4 million for Whitsbury. Chaldean had been sold through the same ring as a foal two years earlier for 550,000gns and added the 2,000 Guineas in May to his Dewhurst Stakes triumph for Juddmonte last year.
The irony is that Chaldean might never have been foaled at all. Born on May 10, he was conceived to Suelita’s solitary cover by Frankel in June when Suelita might just as easily have been rested.
“It was very much last-chance saloon,” Harper recalls.
Harper was employed as farm manager at Whitsbury, which was then owned by the bookmaker, William Hill, as a 22-year-old in 1963. “I knew nothing about racing, he says, “but William [Hill] asked me to sort out the horses he had and introduced me to people he knew in Newmarket. That’s how it started for me.”
Harper became a tenant farmer at Whitsbury soon after Hill died, when the property was sold to the Legal and General Company in 1986. He borrowed heavily to buy the estate, which now embraces 2,000 acres and which he still farms. The stud itself sits in 600 acres.
“I am basically a farmer who had horses, rather than a horseman with a farm,” he says. “There were times when the farm carried the stud financially but I never thought about selling up. In hard [economic] times my approach was to go to the bank and borrow even more money to buy more land.”
With those loans now repaid, Harper can sit back and savour the rest of Suelita’s legacy. She has a colt foal by Showcasing and is safely in foal to Frankel once more.