'There are still plenty of reasons to maintain a spring in the step'
Industry figures tell us how they are managing in self-isolation
Adrian O'Brien, who runs Newmarket-based boarding and consignment business Hazelwood Bloodstock, tells us about how he is managing – both personally and professionally – with the Europe-wide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus
How is life ticking over for you at the moment?
At this time of year most bona fide stud managers are in a type of lockdown anyway.
We live just outside Newmarket on the farm and the breeding season continues without too much interruption. This has been enabled by great work from the TBA and by adhering to its clear and concise coronavirus measures set out back in March.
We had some staff disruption at the beginning of lockdown, but our core team members have been amazing as usual and while the requisite social distancing guidelines are observed, it has been business as usual for the most part.
Our last mare foaled a couple of weeks ago and ordinarily we would mark the occasion with a night out, but obviously that’s on hold for the moment. We're very fortunate that the covering sheds have been allowed to remain operational, and the stallion farm personnel have been brilliant at continuing to work efficiently and with a smile on their face during trying times.
My wife Philippa and I live and work in the same environment at all times routinely. I’m lucky that she’s very tolerant, it’s her coping mechanism! However, not having our five- and six-year-old girls at school for the last few weeks has been a little challenging at times...
Can you give us a taste of some of the well-bred foals you've been welcoming this season?
Everyone’s geese are swans at this time of year, particularly when it comes to cute and cuddly foals, but I really think that we have seen a very good crop born here this season.
January seems like a lifetime ago in light of current events, but it delivered an outstanding Kingman full-brother to the unbeaten King Leonidas. Another very good Kingman colt foal of note is the full-brother to one of our expensive yearlings sold at Tattersalls last year, out of Australian Group winner One Last Dance.
I’m quite taken by a couple of Frankel foals too: one a colt out of the Listed winner and Cornwallis Stakes third Shadow Hunter and the other a filly out of Shahad who was Group 2-placed in Australia.
We didn’t have that many mares in foal to first-season sires this year, but among those few are a lovely filly by Expert Eye out of a Frankel mare. And I've been impressed with some of the Cracksman foals, particularly the colt out of Astrelle, the dam of Fearless King who was third in a Group 3 in Germany a few days ago behind the obviously talented Rubaiyat.
What's your view on online sales, if they had to happen in Europe this year?
For the last couple of years my friends in Australia have been enthusing about the online auction platforms in operation down there; not necessarily for the top end of the market, but more so for the middle and lower tiers.
Inglis and most of the major participants down there have shown great resolve in making the best of a terrible situation, but they did have existing infrastructure in place from which to adapt and build.
I think it's fair to say that the European auction houses haven't kept pace with their southern hemisphere peers in establishing online sales platforms. The current crisis will undoubtedly accelerate the process and I would welcome any such progress, as there is certainly a case to be made for moving some of the lesser breeding stock sales to an online format when we return to something that resembles normal.
That said, I, like most other consignors and vendors certainly hope that we can present our premier sale yearlings in the conventional manner later in the year. The Covid-19 landscape is a fast and ever-changing one, so it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the coming months.
But we’re an optimistic bunch and will continue to hope for the best. Firstly though, it's obviously important that the breeze-up market is supported to sustain that part of our symbiotic industry.
The North American Jockey Club livened up lockdown by announcing the 140-mare stallion cap – would you welcome a similar move in Europe?
This is a topic that has divided opinion for quite some time. Like a lot of things in life, the side of the argument on which you sit is driven frequently by self-interest.
Stallion farms will obviously want to maximise revenue, that's easy to understand. However I also understand that if we as breeders and industry professionals consider ourselves to be custodians of the breed, we should be conscious that to continue to cover very large books of mares with a limited number of popular stallions will act only to decrease the genetic base.
Do we have the right to possibly jeopardise the entire thoroughbred breed for future generations?
In any case, I question the timing of this proposal. If a cap is enforced in any jurisdiction, stallion farm revenue will decrease and job losses are inevitable. In the current economic climate, it's probably prudent to take every measure possible to preserve livelihoods.
I will watch the American situation with great interest, but I expect it to be a litigation minefield.
What's your best guess on what will happen to the market this year, and how long it will take to recover?
Now where did I put my crystal ball? As I mentioned at the start, life on the stud continues more or less as normal at the moment. But the impact will obviously be economic and will last for several years; it would be naïve to think otherwise.
I'm hoping that when racing resumes there will be a lasting appreciation and appetite for what we have previously taken for granted. Hopefully this will encourage existing owners to remain and help salvage the market in the short term.
Do you think there will be any positives to come out of the crisis eventually?
From a personal point of view, I will certainly make more of an effort to go racing and to enjoy a day at the races. I rarely go racing these days without having a work-related reason for being there. But the past few weeks have reminded me how much I love the game and why I wanted to get involved in the first place.
The multitude of fundraising events among industry members has also been heartwarming. While we're all rivals on the racecourse or at the sales, nobody can stand alone.
We're uniting in crisis and hopefully we can remain united when better times return.
Any film, TV or book recommendations to share to get through home confinement?
I'm ashamed to say that I don’t read many books outside of racing and breeding publications. Philippa on the other hand is a prolific reader and recommends Educated by Tara Westover as a book that she recently enjoyed.
Lately we became a little obsessed with the TV series Normal People (the book also comes recommended also by Mrs O’Brien!). It was one of the most enthralling series I've seen for ages, co-starring two brilliant young actors in Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones of Cold Feet fame.
Many people have been recommending various shows on Netflix. Despite living very close to civilisation, our broadband speed is not fast enough to support it. Our local MP Matt Hancock and his office were trying to help us with the matter, but he’s gone a bit quiet lately. He must be working on something else!
What are you most looking forward to when racing returns?
Oh, there is so much to look forward to. I'm fortunate to look after the racing and breeding interests of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum in the UK and I’m really looking forward to Dubai Warrior continuing his interrupted season.
He won the Winter Derby under a very good ride by Frankie and would have started favourite in the Easter Classic on Good Friday. He is such an imposing, good-looking horse and clearly very talented.
We've had such a fantastic time in the sale ring during the last couple of years and I really look forward to seeing the half-brother to Barney Roy that topped Book 1 last year, I believe he is named Ides Of August and is in training with Charlie Appleby.
Also out of Alina, the three-year-old named Thames River and trained by Joseph O’Brien is another that was born and raised here. He won his maiden at Dundalk at the back-end of last year and looks as if he'll improve with time and distance.
The John Gosden-trained King Leonidas topped Book 2 for us in 2018 and was an impressive maiden winner on his only start on unpleasant ground in Newmarket last year. He's another I will be watching closely.
The very talented Mehdaayih, also trained by Mr Gosden, is very much on the watch-list as she will one day retire to us as a broodmare.
Aside from our high-profile sales horses, we have as many that go straight into training on behalf of their owner-breeders; therefore we have several exciting well bred two-year-olds to look forward to also.
Even in these uncertain times, there are plenty of reasons to maintain a spring in the step!
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