'People shunned him but the best is yet to come' - lowdown on Al Shaqab aces
Bouquetot's Sebastien Desmontils with Scott Burton ahead of Route des Etalons
When Al Shaqab's fledgling French stud first appeared on the Route des Etalons in 2014, even locating the farm proved a challenge for the Racing Post's roving team.
Haras de Bouquetot didn't feature on any GPS service and signage by the roadside was somewhere between limited and non-existent.
When the front gate was eventually located, the impression was of a place driven by grand ambition, albeit one where the paint might still be drying in a couple of corners.
And while each returning visit might reveal a new dimension to the infrastructure, it is the arrival of new horses and the development of others that keep breeders and journalists alike coming back.
The Route des Etalons - the French stallion trail, taking place this Saturday and Sunday - demands some harsh decisions to be made in terms of scheduling but each year Bouquetot somehow manages to make itself, in footballing terms, "undroppable."
This year is typically frenetic for the Al Shaqab line-up in France, with Toronado and Shalaa having stayed in Australia and the nine-stallion roster having been augmented by Galileo Gold and newcomer Thunder Moon, about whom nominations manager Sebastien Desmontils requires little encouragement before enthusing.
"He's not a big horse at 1m 60cm [15.3 hands] but he moves fantastically and has a lot of presence," says Desmontils.
"He was one of the rare horses to beat St Mark's Basilica and that was in the Group 1 National Stakes, which is far from a small detail. Moreover, he had seven horses who either won or were placed in a Group 1 behind him.
"It was a top performance and came when he was a two-year-old, which is important in the French market. On top of that, he was at his best over seven furlongs, so he brings more than just raw speed to the table."
Thunder Moon's finest hour for Joseph O'Brien may have been at two but he came within a short head of repeating the Group 1 trick at three when just touched off in the Prix Jean Prat by Laws Of Indices, then trained by Ken Condon and most recently seen chasing home two of the world's best milers in Hong Kong for his new Australian connections.
"Thunder Moon maintained a high level of form at three and four, albeit his very best run was at two," says Desmontils. "And he is pitched at a price that we know works in France, and is in a similar range to Romanised.
"If you go up to the next bracket, you are then out of reach for a large number of French breeders."
That opening fee of €6,000 is right in the Bouquetot wheelhouse for starting a stallion, and it is a theme Demontils returns to frequently.
Bouquetot's policy of renewal means that, even if one of their stallions earns promotion beyond the means of some of the mare-owners who helped to make him, another Group 1 recruit will soon be in place.
Romanised himself has remained steady at €7,000 for his third year at Bouquetot and the Irish 2,000 Guineas and Prix Jacques le Marois hero is likely to turn plenty of heads among the Route's pilgrims once again.
"He was well supported as a proper Group 1 horse who was very precocious - remember, he made his debut in April at two - and wasn't beaten far in the Coventry, and was also twice Group-placed as a juvenile," says Desmontils.
"Breeders were prepared to go to him straight out of the blocks and he covered 125 mares in his first season, around 150 the next year, and I expect him to be booked for a similar number in 2023.
"Monsieur Ng has supported him as well and he has been given every chance of producing good horses.
"It's interesting that often in France the Group 1 winners that go on to prove themselves as stallions start in this sort of price range. Horses like Siyouni, Wootton Bassett and Le Havre were all Group 1 winners, and all by sires that weren’t completely in vogue when they began covering.
"You wouldn’t say either Holy Roman Emperor or Zoffany [the sire of Thunder Moon] have yet had stallion sons that have performed miracles, so they have similar profiles as those three and come from that same price bracket that they emerged from."
Galileo Gold is already proving himself an upgrader of his stock, having sired Phoenix Stakes winner Ebro River - who also starts his second career this year at another Route des Etalons haunt, Haras de la Haie Neuve - and Oscula among his first crop at Tally-Ho Stud.
"Al Shaqab is lucky enough to share ownership of two stallions with Tally-Ho Stud, and you know all about Mehmas," says Desmontils. "He and Galileo Gold are both shared 50-50 and there was a moment when things weren't all that advanced in negotiations to get Thunder Moon.
"Knowing that we wouldn’t be bringing Toronado back from the southern hemisphere, Galileo Gold looked a good fit to ensure we had a new stallion at Haras de Bouquetot.
"He covered around 165 mares in Ireland last year and was well supported, while his first two crops boasted some very good statistics.
"We felt we would be able to guarantee the same volume of mares in France at the same fee he stood for in Ireland, and so we reached an agreement with Tally-Ho for him to come to France for two seasons."
Wooded provided a huge highlight for Sheikh Joaan and his team when winning the Prix de l'Abbaye on Arc day in 2020, and the striking 16.2 hands son of Wootton Bassett has recently returned from his first shuttle season at Swettenham Stud.
"Adam Sangster came to see him here and he felt that he was absolutely made for Australia, so he went down there last summer and will do so again this year," says Desmontils.
Some shrewd breeders nearer to home have also backed Wooded, with Jedburgh Stud, Haras d'Ellon and Haras de Bourgeauville all participating in his syndication, while Desmontils gives a particular nod to one colt bound for Arqana's Yearling sales for Haras de Maulepaire, a half-brother to recent Chantilly winner Belinskov.
It would be wrong to leave the conversation with the affable Desmontils without a mention of Zelzal, who will lead the line at €15,000 for the second season.
The son of Sea The Stars is another to elicit mention of French breeders' beloved 'W' word.
"He has really proved himself and is a little like Wootton Bassett in that he didn't cover that many mares in his first couple of years," says Desmontils.
"People shunned him a little because he didn’t win a Group race at two, and he perhaps didn’t have quite the size they were looking for.
"French breeders have always prized physique and these days they are looking for signs of precocity as well, so he got slightly ignored.
"But despite the modest size of those initial crops he produced horses who were more than useful, including Dolce Zel, who won a Grade 3 in the US, as well as horses that proved themselves in France."
Once the results began to emerge on the track, those initial prejudices quickly evaporated and Zelzal covered a book numbering 190.
Desmontils points out that those that keep the faith with him for the next couple of seasons and are rewarded with a filly could be sitting very pretty if his much larger third and fourth crops bear fruit, before dropping the name of the Francois Rohaut-trained Brisbane into the Racing Post Tracker.
"The best is certainly yet to come and he's a horse we believe in," says Desmontils. "You have to be patient, but when they take off it can be explosive."
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