The increasing success of French bred horses has been the most striking element of National Hunt breeding over the last decade. Mon Mome in the Grand National, Binocular and Hors la Loi in the Champion Hurdle, Kauto Star in the Gold Cup and Master Minded, Voy Pur Ustedes and Azertyuiop in the Queen Mother Champion Chase have taken jumps racing top prizes. Trainers and owners aren’t oblivious to such success and the respective champion trainers Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins are long time converts to the merits of French breds. The Irish and British breeding sectors do not seem to have actively responded to the new market realities and if nothing is done they will continue to lose market share. If the Anglo- Irish racing and breeding authorities wish to meet the challenge they need to think strategically and act courageously.
Understanding the marketplace
Someone once explained the difference between advertising and marketing as follows- with advertising you try and sell what you’ve made, with marketing you only make what you can sell. With respect to Irish Thoroughbred Marketing and British Bloodstock Marketing they are actually in the advertising game trying to promote a product that has already been produced. Their governing bodies need to think about true marketing and how their respective breeding and racing industries can produce and showcase products that are truly in demand.
The French breds that are in demand in the UK and Ireland have previously demonstrated ability on the racecourse. For a buyer this means that the horses are broken, schooled, fit and ready to run and yet they are at an age when many of their Anglo-Irish peers are still being left to develop. The problem for the Anglo-Irish store horse is that the evidence in favour of this model versus the French model is inconclusive at best. However there can be no doubt in an owner’s mind regarding the costs and time involved in bringing his store horse to the racetrack. The traditionalists used to argue that horses who had started “too early” would burn out quickly but the racing careers of such as Kauto Star (36 runs over 8 seasons and counting), Big Bucks (30 runs and counting), Mon Mome (41 runs) have changed that assumption. In addition some veterinary evidence may indicate a beneficial impact of early exercise and training on subsequent injury rates.
Meeting the challenge- race planners
Underpinning the French system is the race programme that provides lots of opportunities to test younger horses. There is no reason why elements of the French racing programme cannot be adopted by the Anglo-Irish race-planners. It might horrify some (or many), but why not run three year old bumpers, three year old hurdles from February onwards and four year old chases on a regular basis? The world would not end and traditional race programming would still exist for less precocious types. In a business situation rather than allowing a competitor an unchallenged position you would seek to win back the business and such moves would allow a segment of the market to compete directly with the French runners. An additional benefit of such moves is that it would allow breeders earlier indications of the merits of jumping stallions. Given that many jumps stallions are deceased before their worth has been established this is another important consideration.
Meeting the challenge- breeders
1. I don’t believe that French jumps stallions are manifestly superior to their Anglo-Irish counterparts but there are some lessons that might be learned. Firstly a much greater number of French stallions have actually raced over jumps. In the UK and Ireland the likes of Alderbrook, Midnight Legend, Broadsword and Monksfield performed over jumps but they represented a tiny minority of the stallion population. It seems incongruous that jumps breeders do not seem to place any weighting (and often a negative weighting) on stallions having demonstrated an ability to jump. It is also worth remembering that one of the outstanding steeplechase sires of the modern era, Roselier, won the French champion hurdle.
2. There has been a loss of diversity in the National Hunt stallion ranks. This is driven by huge books for fashionable stallions, many of whom are unproven. There has also been an unhealthy concentration on certain sire lines especially sons of Sadler’s Wells. The consequence is reduced opportunities for other stallions to make a breakthrough. The French have smaller book sizes and many stallions get an opportunity there that would not be available in the UK or Ireland. Irish and UK breeders should be less fashion conscious and more adventurous.
3. Invest in proven French stallions. Larger book sizes give Irish and UK stallion masters an economic advantage over their French rivals. This affords them the opportunity to tap into successful French lines. The purchase of Robin Des Pres and Robin Des Champs for stud duty in Ireland are indicators that some studs are adopting this policy. More studmasters should use this key difference between the marketplaces to their advantage. In a business context this is analogous to poaching your opposition’s key staff, something that can strengthen your position and weaken theirs.
Competition between breeding nations is healthy and can lead to improved standards all round. The French have done a superb job in gaining a very substantial share of the Anglo-Irish market, driven by racecourse success. This success has naturally resulted in higher prices for promising young stock and some purchasers are now questioning whether there is still value to be obtained. However it would be a very dangerous assumption by Anglo-Irish breeders that the French will price themselves out of the market. With the Anglo-Irish industry in crisis, doing nothing is not an option so radical and new thinking is required to regain competitiveness.