A tour de force: why the Normandy sire scene is stronger than ever
Scott Burton looks into the robust health of the French stallion market
On a tour of Al Shahania’s stud and training facilities in Qatar a couple of years ago I was amused to discover a purebred arabian filly, Kahraman, blissing out during her feed to the unmistakable strains of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
Many will argue there is a Beatles tune for just about any occasion but, when casting an eye across the huge renewal of stallion blood currently underway in Normandy, it is their contemporaries, Buffalo Springfield, that seem best to capture the mood.
“There’s something happening here.
What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Eleven individual Group 1 winners will begin their stud careers in France this covering season, including not just last year’s Derby winner but three Prix du Jockey Club heroes.
In very recent memory the notion that - taking them in strict chronological order of their ‘Derby’ successes - any one of The Grey Gatsby, Almanzor, Wings Of Eagles or Brametot would be stationed first in France, would have been cause for celebration among local breeders, as well as perhaps a little surprise further afield.
That the owners of all four have selected Normandy to launch their respective careers marks a sea change.And of course the roster of star names who will debut in 2018 doesn’t begin and end with those that struck June glory at Epsom or Chantilly.
Ultra, Ectot and Elm Park all recorded Group 1 success at two, something which they share in common with three of the stars of what might be termed the nouvelle vague of the French stallion ranks, namely Siyouni, Wootton Bassett and Dabirsim.
That leaves four more newcomers with exceptional claims - both in terms of their racecourse performances and their genetic heritage - in Al Wukair, Our Ivanhowe, Zarak and Zelzal.
Bubbling under the headline Group 1 acts are a cluster of interesting recruits which again blend attractive racing CVs with bloodlines that should attract plenty of interest.
And as France returns to blooming health as a major player in the stallion market, then owners have followed the example of those that relocated Dream Ahead and Dabirsim to Normandy early in the careers, with Reliable Man, Pastorius and Shamalgan all heading across the Rhine from Germany, while Toronado adds yet more firepower to Al Shaqab’s burgeoning station at the Haras de Bouquetot after three years standing at the National Stud in Newmarket.
A landmark year
What has led to this rush of potential new talent being established? After all, it is not news to anybody in European racing that France boasts an excellent system of breeding and prize-money incentives as well as generations of know how in the art of raising horses.
The president of the French Thoroughbred Breeders’ Federation, Loic Malivet, believes there is a combination of factors at work.
“We always used to get a few foreign breeders who would send their mares but not that many,” says Malivet. “Now they are coming in greater numbers and base their broodmare bands in France. The premiums definitely help on that score. On top of that, some have not been content to just have their mares covered here but have kept the offspring to be trained and raced in France.”
In fact, not so long ago it was not just foreign-based breeders but many of the major French-based operations who looked predominantly to British, Irish or US-based stallions.
“Fifteen or twenty years ago the French stallion ranks were filled with renowned names but we went through a difficult period more recently whereby Group 1 winners were unlikely to stand in France the first year they were retired to stud,” says Malivet.
“We might get them back after a period of time at a foreign stud, in Ireland, Britain or Germany.
But 2018 is a landmark year, first of all for the number of horses that will be standing in France, and above all the quality of those new recruits.”
France Galop director general Olivier Delloye picks up on the theme, and points to a line in the sand drawn several years ago by some key players.
“I believe there is virtuous circle which has operated for several years now,” says Delloye, who witnessed the fluctuations in the French stallion market first hand during ten years with Arqana before joining France Galop.
“Firstly there has been a growth in the number of stallions stationed in France at a relatively high level. We saw several major players take a conscious risk in choosing France: the Aga Khan sent some stallions here and among them turned up Siyouni; and you had Gerard Augustin-Normand with Le Havre and also Guy Pariente with Kendargent. These people made a conscious decision to establish their stallion prospects here, backed by their own mares and sometimes through syndication.
"There was also an element of chance that came into play in these operations producing those three horses that I would say are now beyond doubt recognised as improvers of stock and are very much in demand.”
There is little doubt that French owners and breeders showed collective determination to help establish the reputations of the new wave of stallions and to that extent deserve any luck going.
But the remarkable run of first-season or early-crop sires producing Group 1 winners must be one of the single most powerful motivating factors for those who now seek to establish the Class of 2018.
Just among the Classic heroes and heroines, the list is impressive: Avenir Certain and La Cressonniere for Le Havre; Ervedya for Siyouni, Almanzor for Wootton Bassett and now Brametot for Rajsaman. All were conceived at a time when their sire was standing for a relatively low introductory fee.
Kendargent is often regarded as something of a fairytale success, given that when he retired to the nascent Haras de Colleville it was at a fee of just €1,000.
But that would be to overlook the enormous investment made by Pariente in supporting him.
Similarly Le Havre now stands at €60,000, having started off in 2010 at £5,000, while Siyouni opened up a year later at €7,000 and will be fully booked once again in 2018 at €75,000.
Success breeds success
Delloye’s virtuous circle makes full reference to the infrastructure and the incentives in place in France, but he is the first to admit that success breeds success.
“Yes there are the premiums and yes there are good farms with very good staff but the emergence of these sires has made France more and competitive and more attractive,” says Delloye. “The environment as it exists now encourages more investors to make it their choice to station their stallion.”
And as day follows night, stallions which recently began their careers elsewhere are now being relocated to this booming market.
“Look at a horse like Dabirsim, who began his career in Germany,” says Malivet. “I was very disappointed that he wasn’t retired to a French stud first up but now he has come back here at a time when his results on the racecourse have been very good and that to me is a good sign.”
Delloye adds: “In recent years we have seen more European shuttling with stallions such as Intello and Charm Spirit, and now the relocation to France of horses like Dabirsim and Reliable Man very early in their careers. That proves that France is viewed in a very different light than before and that it is viewed far more favourably in terms of the stallion market and the potential to stand horses at €15,000 or more.”
There are of course plenty of small and mid-level French breeders for whom that elite band of Normandy stallions - as well as Almanzor or one of last season’s star recruits like Shalaa - have quickly moved out of reach.
But there are those among the 2018 intake that weigh in at considerably less: Montfort and Preaux’s Recorder - a son of Galileo bred and raced by the Queen - is on offer at €6,000; Haras du Quesnay’s Attendu (by Acclamation) as well as Bouquetot’s Ectot (Hurricane Run) at €5,000; and Balios (Shamardal) standing at Haras de Hoguenet for €2,500.
As for the wider world, the bocage-lined lanes of Normandy will be filled with horse transporters of every nationality this covering season.
Cooper casting net wider
Formerly the owner of the famous Normandie Stud in West Sussex, Philippa Cooper has built up one of the most important independently-owned broodmare bands in Britain.
And she will be perming established stars with newcomers and relocated stallions in her choice of nine French-based covers this year.
“This year I'm casting my net wider in the sense that I'm using Almanzor as well as [Haras du Thenney’s] Reliable Man, who I'm a big fan of,” says Cooper. “I would have used him while he was in Germany but it was a bit too far to send my mares. I've sent nine mares to France this year: two are going to Zarak, two to Siyouni, two to Almanzor, two to Reliable Man as well as one to Wootton Bassett.
“The balance of power has really shifted and I'm lucky in a way in that I'm independent and I don’t have to pin my colours to anybody’s mast. I think they have some fabulous stallions and I just hope that Almanzor and the rest can do well.”
Cooper was first drawn across the channel when the Aga Khan switched Dalakhani - the sire of her Irish St Leger hero Duncan - from Gilltown Stud in Kildare to Haras de Bonneval.
Infirmity in Dalakhani (not coincidentally the sire of Cooper’s new beau, Reliable Man) led her to try Le Havre and she has been coming back to France ever since.
“I'm debating - and will make my decision soon - whether to keep some mares in France,” says Cooper. “It would make more sense in a way since I don’t have a stud anymore, while the owners’ and breeders’ premiums would be a big help to me if I chose to have some horses trained there. I am hoping to have more fun now I am not tied to the stud so why not have some horses trained in France?”
It is the very model of Delloye’s virtuous circle.
And the whole French stallion scene has a whiff of Buffalo Springfield’s revolutionary ode.
“It’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound.
Everybody look what’s going down.”
SIRES RETIRING TO FRANCE IN 2018
Group 1 winners
Al Wukair (Bouquetot)
Elm Park (Saz)
Our Ivanhowe (Thenney)
The Grey Gatsby (Petit Tellier)
Wings Of Eagles (Montaigu)
Selected other retirees
De Treville (Thenney)
Johnny Barnes (Granges)
Kingfisher (Mont Goubert)
Magneticjim (Haie Neuve)
Recorder (Montfort et Preaux)
Storm The Stars (Lion)
The Anvil (Grand Chesnaie)
Victory Song (Preux)
Whitecliffsofdover (Haie Neuve)
Moving to France
Reliable Man (Thenney)
Let us take you on a visit to the French studs throwing opening their doors for the Route des Etalons weekend