Progress on stayers and Brexit realities top upbeat agenda
Martin Stevens reports from the annual gathering at Tattersalls
The title – Solving Breeders' Problems – was so optimistic it appeared tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, if the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association annual seminar held at Tattersalls on Thursday did not quite live up to its ambitious billing, it certainly would not have left the delegates demanding a refund, either.
Perhaps it is the Levy reform and its promise of an increased flow of funding for racing that has put a spring in the step of the TBA, but there appeared to be an air of positivity at Park Paddocks and even consensus that progress was being made on issues such as the plight of the staying-bred horse and the challenges presented by Brexit.
Certainly there were none of the prickly exchanges that have been a feature of the floor being opened to questions at previous seminars.
I expectantly wetted the tip of my pencil and turned to a fresh page in my notebook as delegates were given the microphone but, alas, I was thwarted in my pursuit of a juicy argument to relay, as most spoke in support of the board's measures or at least suggested achievable modifications.
Overproduction was barely mentioned but, again, breeders may be hoping that the increased prize-money in the middle and lower tiers of the sport derived from the reformed levy will drive demand at the sales and ease the problem. It might also be an issue residing in the long grass, as sales companies can afford to be picky as they inspect yearlings for an auction programme in the autumn that is unlikely to be expanded too much in order to protect figures.
For now though, optimism abounds and, as TBA chairman Julian Richmond-Watson noted in his opening speech, “with extra money coming into racing it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we must make sure we use it wisely”.
One of the wiser ways of spending money has been the rehabilitation of the profile of stayers and one of the most engaging, and encouraging, talks was given by Ruth Quinn, director of international racing and racing development for the British Horseracing Authority. She gave an update on efforts to arrest the decline of stamina breeding in Britain – in her own words, “a subject close to her heart”.
Quinn presented statistics that illustrated how stamina had fallen out of favour: the fact that the majority of horses running in Britain are sired by stallions that never won beyond a mile; that the percentage of runners who are by stallions that won over 12 furlongs or beyond at least once in their racing career has declined from 19 per cent in 1996 to 15 per cent in 2016; and that the percentage of the race programme over long and extended trips has declined from 21.3 per cent to 17.9 per cent in the same time-frame.
Some of those falls do not sound precipitous but, if the downward trend continued, we could eventually find ourselves in the same position as the US, where staying racing is all but non-existent and a 12-furlong trip is regarded as a marathon.
Quinn also outlined the steps taken to reverse the situation. A consultation with all sectors of the racing and breeding industries was undertaken, and it was established that there was demand for high-value and high-profile enhancements to the stayers' programme. To that end, a sub-committee of the European Pattern Committee was set up to address the issue and Quinn sought support from her fellow members to at least maintain the gene pool for stayers.
The EPC agreed to a number of overarching principles, including that no Pattern race in Europe over 13 furlongs and further would be downgraded before 2022, while high minimum prize-money levels for newly promoted top-level staying contests was agreed – hence this year we have a Group 1 Goodwood Cup and a Group 2 Queen's Vase.
Away from the top end, there have been other measures including an increase in the number of maiden and novice races for two-year-olds run over nine and ten furlongs in autumn and early winter and the introduction of four new valuable staying handicaps for three-year-olds.
More work is being done, too, with the BHA joining with the TBA in exploring the creation of incentives for breeders and seeking further enhancements to the staying black-type programme.
It is hard to imagine the likes of Richard Hannon, Richard Fahey or Clive Cox adjusting their buying plans this autumn and stocking up on stayers in response. Months before many stayers will even see a racecourse, those trainers will have sent out sprinters and speedy two-year-olds to win a couple of races and have sold them on to turn huge profits for their owners.
But that is not to say the BHA and TBA's work on stayers is not admirable and absolutely crucial. As Quinn was at pains to make clear, their efforts demand patience, commitment and determination. Making the stayer a more attractive prospect to purchase will be like “changing the course of a slow-moving ocean liner,” she said.
As Peter Stanley of New England Stud pointed out in the questions that followed Quinn's talk, demand is so dire that a future stayer he consigned to Book 2 last year, hailed as one of the best yearlings in the sale, attracted attention from only two camps – Sir Mark Prescott and John Foote looking for a Melbourne Cup horse.
If only a few more trainers' and owners' hearts and minds could be won, breeders would be more encouraged not to focus their efforts on producing sprinters and milers.
Stanley asked whether the Plus 10 bonus scheme could incorporate an incentive for people to buy stayers, and Richmond-Watson seemed receptive to the idea. Enthusiastic, even.
Chris Richardson of Cheveley Park Stud, famed for its sprinters, took the argument back a step further and said that stallion operations like his had to have encouragement from the market to invest in standing middle-distance horses and stayers, pointing to the fact that Pour Moi, the sire of this year's Derby hero, is already covering jumps mares and that Nathaniel, who had the Oaks winner, had been written off in some quarters before even his first three-year-olds had run.
Clearly, market perception of stayers needs to change, and in Quinn such horses appear to have a passionate supporter, one who is prepared to go to her European counterparts in race planning and fight their corner.
Really, she is wasted at the BHA and should be in Brussels negotiating Brexit.
Rules of engagement
Talking of Britain's disentanglement from the European Union, TBA board members Paul Greeves and Peter Mendham set out the rules of engagement for breeders in another of the key speeches at the seminar.
Although nearly one year on from the referendum we are none the wiser as to what form Brexit will take – so much so that a call for questions after the talk yielded no response from the floor; perhaps because no one yet has the faintest idea what exactly they should be inquiring about – their words were surprisingly reassuring.
Because, although the consequence of no deal being struck would be disastrous for horse transportation, you realise from the import and export figures supplied by Greeves that the racing industries of Britain, Ireland and France are so interdependent that no party in the negotiations would stand to gain from letting that happen. In fact, Ireland in particular would have much to lose.
The challenge for British breeders will be to maintain the highest possible standards of health, welfare, and traceability to achieve equivalence with, or surpass, those set by other EU countries so that reciprocal agreements on transportation can be agreed.
There were many other thought-provoking discussions in the seminar – not least news of a revamped approach to training for stud employment as well as important updates on veterinary matters – but surely there can be no greater compliment to its upbeat nature this year than the fact I left feeling more optimistic about Brexit.