Small breeders building a Lamanver empire with TBA bonus prizes
Martin Stevens speaks to Donna Christensen about her success on a shoestring
Nearly all incentive schemes have their knockers – you might as well try nailing jelly to the wall as get all industry bodies and participants to agree on the best way forward – but here is an example of how they can work most effectively.
Donna Christensen and husband Phil Burnett, retired doctors based in Cornwall, are not so much small breeders as tiny breeders, with one thoroughbred broodmare bought for peanuts, from whom they are producing foals with limited financial means.
But thanks to that solitary broodmare, Lamanver Homerun, proving to be a golden goose, and the NH MOPS bonus payouts scooped by one daughter in particular, Lamanver Odyssey, the couple have been able to keep the show on the road and, indeed, have overseen the foundation of a growing jumps dynasty.
Lamanver Homerun, a daughter of Relief Pitcher bred locally in Cornwall, carried the American-born Christensen's stars and stripes-inspired silks to win four races and to bustle up high-class jumps mares of the age such as Aimigayle and Gaspara in placed efforts.
The first three foals Christensen bred from the mare – all daughters of Lucarno – have each graced a winner's enclosure.
The seven-year-old Lady Of Lamanver was first past the post but demoted to second in last year's Listed EBF & TBA Mares' Novices' Hurdle Finale at Newbury and scored at Fontwell last month by six lengths after a long layoff, while the five-year-old Lamanver Odyssey has landed a bumper and two hurdles contests, including a competitive Class 2 handicap at Wincanton last month, though she fell in a similar event at Cheltenham on Saturday.
It is those three victories that have earned Lamanver Odyssey £25,000 in prizes from the NH Mare Owners Prize Scheme, open to fillies bred in Britain or by British-domiciled stallions.
Christensen picks up the story, from leading a Doc Martin-like existence in Cornwall to hitting the big time with the homebreds.
She says: “My husband Phil is British, having been raised in Kent. After I finished my surgical training in the States I came back to marry Phil in 1987. We decided to reside in Cornwall; he took a job as a Falmouth GP and I became a consultant at the local hospital, Treliske.
“We bought a run-down farm called Lamanver Farm, with eight stables and at that time 14 acres, to which we added ten more acres later on. As a family we loved our hunting and for that reason we started breeding hunters.”
It was a quirk of fate that led to Christensen, with no prior knowledge of thoroughbred bloodstock, acquiring Lamanver Homerun as a five-month-old foal.
“My hunter broodmare developed a ventral hernia and although we did deliver a live foal, the mare was too poorly to feed or nurture it,” she explains. “We were bucket feeding and knew we would have to get a companion foal as soon as possible. The mare had foaled at home but had spent many months at Vauterhill Stud, owned by Graham Heal, where the sire Bandmaster was standing. It was the year of foot and mouth and the stud was near the epicentre of the disease, so we couldn't move her home.
“As it happened, Lamanver Homerun was also bred because of foot and mouth, as Graham had her dam Bizimki staying with him and he thought he might just as well put her to Relief Pitcher. Thus, when I needed a foal I went back to Vauterhill Stud to look at all the 2002 young stock.
“Our children were competent riders and we thought a companion foal that we could later point-to-point or race under rules might give one of them a start racing if it came to that. So I took two friends with me and watched all the 2002 foals galloping in Graham's fields and one stood out: she floated across the ground; had extraordinary balance; was always the lead; just perfection in her movement. She was cheap – under £1,500 – as she was a filly foal and no one wanted them to race, and she had no pedigree.
“But with the movement I had seen, nothing else mattered. So she came down to our farm weaned and very wild at five months of age.”
The foal was named Lamanver Homerun, in honour of the farm and her sire, and she was backed at the neighbouring farm and eventually sent to Richard Barber who was satellite training for Paul Nicholls. He took her on a three-week trial and she stayed with Nicholls for three years.
“She was as good as I thought she would be,” continues Christensen. “She won one bumper, two hurdles and a chase and ended up with an official rating of 139. She came first, second or third in eight of her 14 races. However, in 2009 she clattered into a fence at Newbury and needed to mend. Ruby Walsh, who had ridden her five times, said we should breed from her and the TBA Elite Mares Scheme [whereby TBA members who own mares rated 130 or higher are provided with subsidised nominations] gave us the funding and encouragement and advice to do so.”
Lucarno was chosen – three times – because “he is a very good-looking, sound athlete. He was the right size, had good bone and really captured my eye when I saw him. And we went back to him twice more because the foals, particularly the first one, Lady Of Lamanver, were so well put together.”
After Lucarno moved to France, Lamanver Homerun went to Apple Tree, the result of which is a four-year-old gelding called Lamanver Pippin, who is set to run early next year, Black Sam Bellamy for a three-year-old gelding called Lamanver Bel Ami, and Geordieland for an unnamed two-year-old colt.
Reflecting on why the mare has flourished at stud, Christensen says: “If it is down to her alone, it is because of her temperament. She is a solitary mare, happy to be alone in a field, confident and determined in her attitude. These attributes allow her to put her nose in front and keep it there. And she always gives 100 per cent in doing so. We saw this in her first three offspring.
“The first two were always galloping away from their mother and Lamanver Odyssey, the third filly foal who was meant to be following her mother into the yard at four weeks of age, instead ran up the three steps of a mounting block and then jumped off the top – thankfully emerging unscathed. She is also an eater, as are five out of six of her foals: very important for racing mares in particular.”
Christensen accepts, however, that Lamanver Pippin will provide the acid test of whether it was in fact an alchemical spark between Lucarno and Lamanver Homerun that was the reason for the daughters' success on the track.
It is thanks to the TBA initiatives, the Elite Mares Scheme and NH MOPS, that the dam is returning to British-based sires and her offspring are retained and sent to British trainers.
“We've put considerable energy and finance into producing the young stock here on the farm, particularly now that we're retired and doing all the horsework ourselves,” says Christensen. “We've had to hold our nerve for some years as proving the matings were correct is a long-term endeavour. The thought of six useless racing homebreds haunted us. Thankfully it doesn't look as though this is going to be the case.
“We would hope that all three of her female progeny would attain Elite Mare status by continuing their racing and prove themselves worthy of breeding in the future for us or someone else. Two are well on their way.
“We're retired from our NHS day jobs and as pensioners now have four horses in training which is not inconsequential financially. NH MOPS has helped us greatly, as our only eligible mare has already earned £25,000 in prizes.”
That £25,000 exceeds the prize-money Lamanver Odyssey has earned in her three victories and three other placings, underlining what a difference the scheme can make.
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