The man whose bloodlines left an indelible mark on the thoroughbred
Chris McGrath on the most influential breeder the sport has ever known
Published in the Racing Post on May 25, 2017
Never mind its greatest breeder, full stop – by no means every reader would necessarily credit the 17th in the line even as the turf's most significant Earl of Derby. There have been plenty of others, after all, since the creation of a first one for his artful vacillations at the Battle of Bosworth.
The 12th Earl, for instance, won immortality through the inauguration of a race for three-year-olds on Epsom Downs, if merely by dint – so it has long been said – of a coin tossed with Sir Charles Bunbury. He owned the eighth winner, Sir Peter Teazle, in 1787, later sire of four others.
His grandson, the 14th Earl, was three times prime minister and won four Classics, albeit not even the great John Scott could win him a Derby. And the present Earl, the 19th, gave the black and white silks renewed distinction through Ouija Board, herself since dam of a Derby winner.
In the meantime of course he has been introducing an uncomfortably literal variation to the Stanleys' ancestral flair for redrawing the map – at least in the vicinity of Newmarket. The 12th Earl had a share in instituting the world's greatest horserace; the 14th, along with another great racing man in Disraeli, in bringing back the Conservative Party from two decades in the wilderness. The 19th, however, appears notoriously intent on rebuilding the House of Stanley in bricks and mortar.
Yet the fact is that he could transplant the entire population of Kowloon to Hatchfield, and replace the clock tower at the top of the High Street with the Burj Khalifa, and he would still not match the figurative impact of the 17th Earl on the modern thoroughbred.
Purely in terms of scale, that is. For no breeding historian would do other than applaud the legacy of Edward George Villiers Stanley (1865-1948). Whether measured by quantity or quality, the 21st Century stud farm – from Arrowfield to Claiborne, from Coolmore to Shadai – is saturated with bloodlines tracing to the one he revived, along with his father, at the end of the 19th Century.
It is a curious state of affairs. On the face of it the Lord Derby who qualifies as arguably the breed's ultimate game changer was known to contemporaries, if anything, for a rather stolid and unimaginative approach. He was warm and wholehearted, yes; and had none of the airs others might have cultivated along with immense rent-rolls across the industrialising north west. With the right audience, in fact, he was not averse to permitting a homely Lancastrian accent to infect his tones.
He was so straight, so palpably full of good intentions, that he proved a surprising success – as one considered too lacking in conviction and subtlety ever to become a true statesman – as a mediator and diplomat, whether in sectarian disputes on Merseyside or as ambassador to Paris after World War I. At one stage he even had a bizarre incognito summit with De Valera in Dublin.
And the sense of mutual fidelity between Derby and his local community – Randolph Churchill titled his official biography The Uncrowned King of Lancashire – inspired many young men to volunteer for his Pals' Regiments in 1914. Lloyd George called him his chief recruiting officer, and promoted him to fill the vacancy as Minister of War when himself taking over from Asquith as premier. However, it did not take long for Lloyd George to decide that Derby was disastrously out of his depth – indecisive in everything except a stubborn loyalty to the generals presiding over carnage in the trenches.
If his personal strengths and weaknesses define Derby the politician, the same might have been said at the time about Derby the breeder. He did not bequeath any revolutionary new theories. As an exceptionally busy man, he had the good sense to delegate much responsibility for the operation of his stud and stable. If he often showed excellent judgement in identifying those equal to that responsibility, he could hardly match the obsessive commitment of a Federico Tesio. Nor, when he did involve himself, did he reliably get things right. Of the two most important stallions he produced, he exported one and tried his damnedest to sell the other abroad as well.
Derby's one great ambition
To that extent, however, he would be no different from anyone else. Even the cutest minds to have become engrossed by the challenges of breeding have always made mistakes. And the bottom line is that his stud has passed the test of time like no other in the 300-year history of the thoroughbred.
Derby, in that unsurprising way of his, had one great ambition for his turf career – and that was finally to add to the family's solitary success in the race endowed with their own name. He had a series of near-misses before finally fulfilling the dream with Sansovino in 1924, following up with Hyperion in 1933 and then Watling Street, in a wartime substitute at Newmarket.
Hyperion, for a good while, seemed likely to prove Derby's greatest legacy. He was champion sire in Britain six times, while dozens of his sons were exported to propagate his genetic potency. At one stage, starting in 1944, eight members of his male line won the Kentucky Derby in 20 years; then there was Kelso, who did not contest that race but went on to be named Horse of the Year five times.
The likes of Citation, moreover, were meanwhile extending Hyperion's American dominion as a broodmare sire. Yet it was in the same capacity that Hyperion contributed to the eventual downfall of his own sire line. For it was his daughter Lady Angela, exported to Canada carrying a foal by Nearco, who proceeded to deliver Northern Dancer’s sire Nearctic. And the Northern Dancer dynasty is not even half the story.
For one thing, before reverting to sire lines, it should be noted that three strains in Nearctic's pedigree traced back to Derby's foundation mare. Two of these were through Lady Angela, whose sire and dam were both out of granddaughters of Canterbury Pilgrim.
Bought as a yearling out of the Duchess of Montrose's dispersal sale in 1894 – on the recommendation of her stud groom, who had been hired to restore the Knowsley stud – Canterbury Pilgrim was by the extraordinary Tristan, a model of soundness, versatility and pluck yet prone to such wild fits of temper that he ultimately dashed his brains out against a wall.
Although she inherited a degree of volatility, Canterbury Pilgrim won the Oaks to seal the nascent partnership between the future 17th Earl – then still Lord Stanley – and the dashing aristocrat George Lambton, whose recruitment as the family's trainer represented a turning point in the social standing of his profession. But Canterbury Pilgrim would proceed to a far more momentous role in retirement.
Although only three of her ten foals were colts, these included two who would have an indelible impact on pedigrees in the new century: big Swynford, little Chaucer. And both feature in the first three generations of Lady Angela's pedigree.
Chaucer also had a role on the other side of Nearctic's family tree as the sire of Scapa Flow. Derby had nearly culled this filly from his stable during the war – in fact, she would have been claimed out of a Stockton seller before a friendly intervention brought her back to Lambton's yard – but she improved sufficiently to earn a date with her owner’s latest stallion, Phalaris.
The result, one of just 16 foals in the sire's first crop, was named Pharos. His narrow failure to get home in the Derby – under a reckless ride – made his owner wonder whether he would ever win the eponymous race and, only three seasons into his stud career, Pharos was discarded to Normandy. But when Derby's new stud manager denied a strange little Italian access to Fairway for his mare Nogara, Tesio had to make do with that stallion's exiled brother, Pharos. That match, unscheduled as it was, produced Nearco: fount of Nearctic, Northern Dancer, Sadler's Wells and Galileo.
Which brings us back, inevitably, to sire lines – the only practical way we can reduce the exponential proliferation of pedigrees, with each past generation. And, if we take a couple of steps back down that upper staircase of males begat by males, we reach the undisputed cornerstone of the modern breed in the sire of Pharos.
For it is Phalaris, against all odds, who has overwhelmed every other influence – not just in Derby's stud, but across the entire breed. It is through Phalaris, a plainly bred animal who emerged as a sprint handicapper in the truncated wartime programme, that the Darley Arabian line has all but eradicated those of the two other founding fathers. In this era of huge books and shuttle sires, nearly every mating today brings together a sire and a damsire tracing to Phalaris. He has become the square root of everything.
And that's because he does not depend purely on the line descending through Pharos and Northern Dancer. Most obviously, his mating with Selene – the dam of Hyperion, herself by Canterbury Pilgrim's son Chaucer – produced Sickle. And it was Sickle who founded the Native Dancer line nowadays focused on Raise A Native and especially his son Mr Prospector, as strong as ever thanks to Unbridled and company.
Sickle's brother Pharamond meanwhile gave us the Buckpasser line, replete with outstanding broodmare sires. Fairway, the brother of Pharos, had a grandson who sired Shergar and Grundy. And then there are the other branches founded, alongside the Nearctic one, by Nearco himself: Royal Charger and, especially, Nasrullah.
This latter produced the eight-time American champion stallion Bold Ruler – sire of Secretariat – and the Seattle Slew line still flourishing through A.P. Indy. Nasrullah also set up the Red God and Never Bend branches. You even find Arkle hereabouts.
All this resulting from a horse Derby tried to sell to Australia before he began at stud. Elements of judgement, then; and elements of luck. It was ever thus. Phalaris had only been bred on a hunch. Lambton and Derby's stud manager Walter Alston felt the Derby stable needed a bit more pep and urged the purchase from a dispersal of a mare named Bromus. If she only had a solitary win to her name, at least that put her ahead of her dam and all her siblings. But she was inbred 3x2 to a fast horse called Springfield, so they took a punt and bred her to an outside sire, Polymelus.
In fairness, Derby – along with Lambton's brother Jack Durham – had been absolutely critical to resisting calls to ban racing altogether during the war. Had that happened, Phalaris would never have had the chance even to break the surface of the bottomless new foundations he excavated for the modern thoroughbred.
As it was, Derby would end up credited as breeder of 19 British Classic winners and owner of 20 – from a broodmare band that seldom exceeded a couple of dozen. Now, moreover, those same numerals combine in a different signature. For the fact that 19 out of 20 modern racehorses trace through the male tail to the Darley Arabian is almost exclusively the work of Phalaris.
Yes, the Tory magnate who owned him always played the straightest of bats: the very last man to think of tearing up any rule books. Even so, the transformation he has worked in the breed qualifies him as the bloodstock equivalent of the footballer who picked up the ball and ran.
The Italian wizard with a maverick approach
By reputation, at least, many would identify Federico Tesio as the ultimate game changer in the breeding of thoroughbreds. Yet if he unmistakably brought true genius to his vocation – more than could sensibly be claimed for the 17th Earl of Derby, in what was after all only his hobby – the Italian wizard's idiosyncrasies were such that he cannot claim quite so enduring an impact.
The legacies of Tesio and Derby combine in Nearco – the principal conduit, if hardly the only one, for the inundation of Phalaris blood in the modern thoroughbred. But some of Tesio's theories were not so much quixotic as hopelessly unscientific, occasionally downright superstitious.
It is instructive that we are indebted not to Tesio, but to his eloquent business partner and biographer, for the "piece of wood" axiom with which he is most associated – the one about the winning post at Epsom. Operating by instinct, as he did, his methods would always require interpretation of this kind for future generations.
But they worked for him, and on a spectacular scale. The stud he started at Dormello on the shores of Lake Maggiore, almost simultaneously with Derby’s revival of Knowsley, produced 22 Italian Derby winners. As John Hislop wrote, anticipating his grandchildren's request to name the greatest breeder, sire and racehorse of his time: "The answer will probably be 'Tesio, Nearco, Ribot'."
Perhaps Tesio's most significant legacy, bloodlines apart, was in training all his champions himself – turning even top-class horses into punchbags for rising stars as soon as they had established their limitations – and sustaining his stud and stable by selling stallions (not least Nearco himself, to a British bookmaker in 1938).
That paved the way for a commercial reconfiguration of the bloodstock business in the postwar era. In time, the men with the big money – from EP Taylor to Sheikh Mohammed – would contest an overheating marketplace through the judgement of professional horsemen. The ultimate example was the partnership between Robert Sangster and his bankrolled experts, Vincent O'Brien and John Magnier.
At the same time commercial imperatives have made the priorities of the business today so robotic that perhaps we should go back to Tesio and borrow more of his intuitive, maverick approach. As he said himself: "I have no method. Method is imitation. I invent."
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