The English nursery that raised Churchill's family from margins of the Stud Book
Martin Stevens tells the remarkable story of the champion's obscure roots
Churchill, now a dual Classic winner as well as a champion juvenile, is a true member of the Coolmore aristocracy: a son of Derby hero and perennial champion sire Galileo, out of Meow, a Queen Mary runner-up whose sire Storm Cat commanded a fee of $500,000 when she was conceived.
Until quite recently, though, Churchill's ancestors on the distaff side were more proletarian than patrician. Meow's dam Airwave was the consummate social climber: bought by Henry Candy as a yearling for just 12,000gns at Doncaster, but the conqueror of 440,000gns yearling and future 1,000 Guineas heroine Russian Rhythm in the Cheveley Park Stakes and eventually, after several other polished performances in top sprints, sold to Coolmore for 550,000gns. Thereafter she became a concubine in the courts of the world's best stallions – Storm Cat and Galileo included.
Moreover, Airwave is descended from a mare who was only bred from after proving an uncooperative riding horse; and her granddam and many other relations were not even officially classified as thoroughbred until the 1980s.
Airwave was bred at Manor Farm Stud in the unassuming village of Braunston, near Rutland Water in the east Midlands. The quality of land and attention to detail would be on a par with any other leading nursery. In terms of size, scope and slickness, however, it is a world away from Coolmore, where the now 17-year-old mare and most of her descendants reside.
Manor Farm Stud was established as a hobby in 1970 by Richard and Tessa Watson. They have now retired and the 86 acres, with stock of around 30 to 40 head, is overseen by their son Toby and his wife Danielle on a commercial basis.
The Watsons have taken great delight in watching the rise to the nobility of the family they nurtured.
"It makes us feel really proud, to be some way associated with a horse who looks like he could be really special," says Toby Watson. "Churchill doesn't appear to do it exuberantly like Frankel; he appears to keep a bit back for himself, but I think we are a long way from reaching the bottom of him."
Fast and durable
From Penny Pincher the Watsons bred five winners, many of them fast and durable – above all five-furlong specialist Clantime, her son by Music Boy who won nine races from two to six and twice finished second in the Palace House Stakes. Clantime sired several smart horses in his own image, notably Bishop's Court and Atraf.
Atraf, in turn, achieved a degree of success as a stallion - despite standing at a chickenfeed fee, just as Clantime had. His daughter Sierra Vista burnt off all her rivals with a blistering front-running performance in the Temple Stakes ten years ago this weekend, while another Listed-placed mare by him, Folga, is the dam of dual Nunthorpe Stakes winner Mecca's Angel, bought privately by Coolmore at the end of last year to visit Galileo in an echo of the mating that led to Churchill.
As one of the first mares booked to Indian Ridge, the talented sprinter who subsequently showed a remarkable ability to upgrade his mares, Thorner Lane produced Kangra Valley - who continued the family trend of winning over five furlongs and then hit the jackpot at stud, producing both Airwave and Nunthorpe Stakes winner Jwala, who was retained to race by the Watsons.
"Airwave was by Air Express, and the National Stud were offering a big bonus for his first black-type winner," Watson recalls. "Unfortunately, he died the year she was born - but they still paid up, which was nice of them. He looked to be a stallion who punched above his weight slightly. You see a lot of good dams by him."
Watson says Airwave was "quite a character" while at Manor Farm Stud, a description that punters who followed the habitual slow starter and fast finisher might consider a polite understatement. After losing five lengths at the start on her three-year-old debut in the Temple Stakes of 2003, a jaw-dropping burst of acceleration saw her pass the field and win by three lengths. But she failed narrowly to repeat the trick when reaching the places in the Golden Jubilee Stakes, July Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup on her next three starts.
"Sometimes that rather exasperating character and immense talent go hand in hand," Watson notes, before expressing a belief that a drop of humbler, hard-knocking blood into a mating can be an improving ingredient. Galileo's Irish Derby winner Cape Blanco, out of a useful sprinter by the workmanlike stallion Presidium, would perhaps be another piece of evidence for the argument.
"It's by no means an exact science, but I've often thought you can almost have horses who are too well-bred," Watson says. "But at Manor Farm Stud we breed horses who come out and run, and the majority of them will win. We have a strike-rate of 70 per cent winners-to-runners of horses raised on the farm, so that must help."
Coolmore have cornered the market on most of the Airwave clan, although Aloof, her Group 3-winning daughter by Galileo, was sold with a War Front foal in utero to Mandy Pope's Whisper Hill Farm for $3.9 million at Keeneland in 2014.
On Friday evening, for instance, Auckland - Meow's half-brother by Galileo - broke his maiden at Leopardstown for Aidan O'Brien. And on Saturday Clemmie, a sister to Churchill himself, shaped very nicely when third on her debut at the Curragh.
Cloud's End, a winning Dubawi half-sister to Airwave and Jwala, is the dam of Zamjar, an Exceed And Excel colt who won a competitive handicap at the Chester May meeting for Ed Dunlop this month. She has a Dutch Art filly foal - who, in Watson's words, "we think could be special, so will try to find a way to retain" - and is in foal to Muhaarar, a son of Jwala's sire Oasis Dream.
Soundwave, another half-sister by Prince Sabo, was unraced and has produced the prolific winners Sloop Johnb and Frequency. She has a yearling filly by Showcasing and is in foal to Charming Thought – two more Oasis Dream stallions.
Good Health, a winning daughter of Magic Ring out of a daughter of Penny Pincher, has a Bated Breath foal and Poet's Voice yearling, both colts. Charles O'Brien trains her two-year-old filly by Zoffany, bought by Mags O'Toole for 40,000gns last year.
Cloud's End - young, by Dubawi and with a smart sprinter to her credit - appears to be the leading lady for Manor Farm Stud. But the sadness that hangs over the story is the untimely demise of Jwala, when squeezed for room and brought down in the Hong Kong Sprint. Just four months earlier the filly had delivered the Watsons the best day of their racing life by winning the Nunthorpe, a race equivalent to the Derby for a stud that prides itself on producing sprinters.
The circumstances that led to Jwala's mid-race fall still raise Watson's hackles but he is philosophical three and a half years after the event. "There's no point dwelling on it, she was insured and that enabled us to buy new stabling, make improvements on the farm and build a school," he says.
Airwave's page was full of winners but light on black type when she was offered as a yearling at Doncaster in 2001. But thanks to her own exploits, plus those of her descendants and Jwala, the same cannot be said for family members now.
Manor Farm Stud, with its fine record for producing speedy and durable stock, is the deserved recipient of those pedigree updates - having accomplished the almost alchemical feat of turning a modestly bred hunter into the taproot of a family tree full of high-class horses.