Good Morning Bloodstock

El Fabiolo's British-born breeder tells all - including plans to turn the Cheltenham banker's brother into a stallion

James Thomas chats to Francis Dunn about the four-time Grade 1 winner in Good Morning Bloodstock

El Fabiolo: convincing winner of the Dublin Chase
Paul Townend and El Fabiolo comfortably win the Dublin Chase at LeopardstownCredit: Alan Crowhurst

Good Morning Bloodstock is the Racing Post's daily morning email and presented online as a sample. 

Here, James Thomas catches up with the breeder of red-hot Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase favourite El Fabiolo. Subscribers can get more great insight every Monday to Friday.

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Francis Dunn has been involved in racing his entire life. The 72-year-old has enjoyed his share of success along the way, but appears to have saved the best until last. Dunn is the proud breeder of none other than El Fabiolo, already a four-time Grade 1 winner and most people’s idea of a banker at the Cheltenham Festival.  

“He was the last one that I bred and reared myself,” says Dunn, still sounding a little disbelieving of his own accomplishment. “You think success like this is for other people, and if one day you could just have a runner in a Grade 1 it would be fantastic. We couldn’t believe it when El Fabiolo ran in a Grade 1 against Jonbon on only his second start for Willie Mullins because he’d only won a little race at Tramore. But he nearly won that and since then it hasn’t stopped. It’s incredible.”  

Although El Fabiolo is yet another triumph for French breeding, being by Haras d'Annebault stallion Spanish Moon, his breeder is very much British. Despite having spent most of his working life in France, Dunn was born and bred in Sussex, and still just about has the accent to prove it.  

It could be said that Dunn has the pedigree to succeed in National Hunt racing as his father was Tommy Dunn, a successful jump jockey who enjoyed a fruitful association with William Head, father of Alec and grandfather of Freddy.  

Tommy rode Evohé II to three wins in the Grand Prix d'Automne, and was also aboard the same horse when he won the French Champion Hurdle in 1938. Being born in Sussex also put Dunn in close proximity with another significant name from yesteryear in Auriol Sinclair, the first woman to train 100 winners. 

“I was born down in Sussex but left for France to serve an apprenticeship when I was 15 or 16 and I’ve been here ever since,” he says. “When I was a schoolboy I used to go up to Auriol Sinclair’s. She was very good and took me in and taught me to ride. My inclination was to become a jockey so off I went to France and did a full apprenticeship. 

“I don’t think I was really cut out for riding though. I’d always been interested in the breeding side, however, so once I’d failed at being a jockey I still wanted to be with horses so I went on a stud course. From there I got a job with Noël Pelat, who had Haras de la Croix Sonnet. He gave me a chance and I was there for 15 years.”  

Dunn eventually branched out on his own. Although he admits to a tricky start at Val Sery, just south of Lisieux, he said things began to turn when he took ownership of the Niniski mare Snowdrop in the early 1990s. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first step towards breeding El Fabiolo.  

“We had a bit of a difficult start but, as so often happens in breeding, things started to pick up after a bit of time,” he says. “We had a few boarders and a few of my own mares. It was very small but things started going right for me when Ted Bartholomew, who used to train for Sir Robin McAlpine, put me in line for a good mare that he had called Snowdrop. Once you’ve got the right mare then everything starts to become much more simple.”  

Dunn bred four winners from Snowdrop, three of whom gained black type. The best of those was Silver Cross, who won the Listed Prix Policeman, was second to Hurricane Run in the Prix Hocquart and was among the field in Shamardal’s Prix du Jockey Club.

Dunn went on to stand Silver Cross at stud and was rewarded for keeping the faith as he bred three black-type winners by the son of Kahyasi. However, other breeders didn’t necessarily share his enthusiasm as Silver Cross sired just 24 foals before succumbing to colic after just four seasons.  

Silver Cross (noseband) chases home Hurricane Run in the Prix Hocquart
Silver Cross (noseband) chases home Hurricane Run in the Prix Hocquart

“We wanted to stand him as a stallion but he was right down in Brittany and didn’t get much support,” says Dunn. “Silver Cross might’ve got away with it but unfortunately he died of colic after four years at stud. He was by Kahyasi and we thought standing him was a good idea, but it’s difficult to send a horse like that to stud because you don’t get much support. Although it’s understandable really, it’s all about fashion.” 

It was the desire to support Silver Cross that led Dunn to Sainte Mante, who turned out to be the dam of El Fabiolo. Even before she produced the top-class two-mile chaser she did Dunn a good turn, as two of Silver Cross’s black-type winners are siblings to El Fabiolo, namely Cross In Hand, a Listed winner at Auteuil, and Tommy Silver, whose six victories for Paul Nicholls include the Listed Scottish Triumph Hurdle.  

Although the daughter of Saint Des Saints has been a revelation at stud, Dunn doesn’t claim any amazing foresight in spotting a budding National Hunt blue hen.  

“I was always friendly with Patricia Butel and she had an owner that had a mare and they didn’t know what to do with her, so I put an offer in,” he says as he explains how he came to own the dam. “It was just one of those opportunities that come along and you go with it. The Saint Des Saints element appealed, but I wanted to support Silver Cross and that’s basically the reason I bought Sainte Mante.”  

Dunn credits the decision to send Sainte Mante to Spanish Moon for the mating that produced El Fabiolo to his friend and neighbour Ian Hanamy of Haras de Loges, with whom he now owns the mare in partnership. Suffice to say, Dunn was a fan of El Fabiolo from the start.  

“I know people always say this about horses that turn out to be good, but I really liked him as a youngster,” he recalls. “He was the last year we were breeding and we only had two foals that year. He did everything right and had a good character. He was a big lad but he was always so easy to deal with. He had to be easy because I was getting on a bit by the time he was born, so it’s good that he wasn't too boisterous.”  

El Fabiolo headed to the sales at two but, despite being a sibling to two black-type winners, was led out unsold at €70,000. “Ian took him to the sales but we didn’t get what we expected,” says Dunn. “We were scratching our heads wondering whether we’d been too greedy.”  

That unsuccessful sale wasn’t the setback it might have been, as Dunn sent El Fabiolo to Patricia Butel and Jean-Luc Beaunez, who gave the horse one start on the Flat at Clairefontaine before he debuted over hurdles in the Listed Prix Finot. His third-place finish caught the attention of David Powell and Highflyer Bloodstock’s Anthony Bromley, and soon a deal was struck that saw El Fabiolo (pictured below) transferred to Willie Mullins for owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede.  

“It’s great that he went to Mullins because he waited a long time while he matured,” says Dunn. “When you’re a small person like me and you get a big offer you have to sell, but we’re so glad that he went to Mullins. I’m so pleased with the way it’s turned out for the owners and the trainer, and I’m so glad for the horse too. My heart rate goes up something terrible when the horse runs though!” 

And, moreover, El Fabiolo’s future races are not the only thing Dunn has to look forward to, as he is still involved in breeding from Sainte Mante and her daughter Silver Bell. Among the youngstock Sainte Mante has on the ground is the three-year-old Semper Fortis who has gone into training but has been left an entire, with the breeder revealing he has one eye on a potential stallion career for the son of Nirvana Du Berlais. 

“He’s really nice and has been sent to Marcel Rolland,” says Dunn. “We’ve got dreams of having him back as a stallion. He’s so like El Fabiolo, so laid-back and such a nice character. He might be an entire but he’d never try to bop you one with his front feet like some would.

Marcel Rolland (left, with Willie Mullins' talent scout Harold Kirk) has
Marcel Rolland (left, with Willie Mullins' talent scout Harold Kirk) has Semper FortisCredit: Racing Post / Scott Burton

“When Ian said it was time that he could be gelded I said let’s leave him and see what happens. It’s all a bit of a pipedream at the moment but you never know. The last time Ian asked about the horse they told him they were very pleased with him. He does everything right at the moment so we can hope. And it’s a hoping game really, racing.”

Dunn says that breeding to Haras de la Hetraie’s Nirvana Du Berlais was another of Hanamy’s suggestions, although he was able to call on first-hand experience of the pedigree himself, adding: “With Nirvana Du Berlais there’s Mansonnien in the pedigree and he’s a horse that I foaled when I was a stud groom at Noël Pelat’s, so that was a little bit of a nod to the past. Nirvana Du Berlais is a lovely horse too.”  

Semper Fortis has been leased to Munir and Souede, who also own El Fabiolo’s sister, Si Se Puede. The five-year-old has joined her illustrious sibling at Closutton.  

Having spent his whole adult life working hands-on with horses bred in France, Dunn is well placed to comment on how and why the French are having so much success at places like Cheltenham. He says that the precise reasons aren’t easy to pinpoint, but suggests a willingness to put form over fashion is putting French breeders at an advantage.   

“It’s probably not just one thing, it’s the combination of a lot of things,” he says. “A lot of these jumpers are bred down in the middle of France where they don’t care two hoots about fashion. Sometimes you torture yourself trying to come up with the right stallion to send your mare to, looking at the book a hundred and one times. You imagine how they’re going to turn out but then they don’t turn out like that at all.  

“These chaps just go to the stallion down the road. That’s what it used to be like in Ireland too, you used to walk your mare down the road to the local stallion and you used him. I don’t think it’s just that one thing though. We also benefit from the French breeders’ premiums. I kept a leg in horses like Cross In Hand and Tommy Silver, and you can get big breeders’ premiums with horses like that. You mightn’t get the money when you sell but you get the money afterwards.”  

Dunn has also seen first hand how quickly fashion can change. Not only with Silver Cross and El Fabiolo, but with other horses he has bred too, including one by arguably the hottest jumps sire around.  

“We’re not far from where Walk In The Park was in the beginning,” he says. “It was a vet [Marc Semirot] who bought him and he used to come in and see us. He was only down the road, and even though he wasn’t fashionable at the time, I thought why would I take my mare miles away? So we went down the road and gave him a bit of support. At the time he didn’t get many mares, but then all of a sudden he gets lucky with a good one and now he’s covering hundreds of mares each season.  

“At that time we actually had some chaps come over from Ireland and we showed them the youngster we had that we were trying to sell, but they said they wouldn’t have any interest at all in a Walk In The Park, would you believe!”  

Putting form before fashion certainly never did Dunn any harm, as El Fabiolo has shown to sensational effect.  

El Fabiolo: another winner's blanket at Cheltenham next month for Francis Dunn to be proud of?
El Fabiolo: another winner's blanket at Cheltenham next month for Francis Dunn to be proud of? Credit: CAROLINE NORRIS

“I’ve been in this game all my life and I just can’t believe it,” he says as he reflects on the journey he’s been on over the last couple of seasons. “The probabilities of a small chap like me that’s only got a few mares breeding a horse like him are vast.  

“We were more or less thinking of stopping but we basically bought the mare because we wanted to give some support to Silver Cross, and then it goes and bounces in your favour with a horse like El Fabiolo. It’s a great thing and shows you can get away with being sentimental about horses. It’s not all about money and trying to do things that are fashionable.”  

Amen to that. 

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James ThomasSales correspondent

Published on 22 February 2024inGood Morning Bloodstock

Last updated 09:55, 22 February 2024