Search for a racing certainty

NEXT WEEK Tattersalls, Europe's leading bloodstock auctioneer, will put tens of millions of pounds worth of horseflesh under the hammer.

The annual Houghton sale at Tattersalls auction house in Newmarket is where the creme de la creme of the racing world assemble. Drawn from five continents, they come to outbid each other to buy that most elusive of properties - a yearling that will grow into a horse to be trained and pampered to win the Derby, or at least a Classic race. That, anyway, is what every buyer imagines as they bid for their dream.

This is where the big guns from the world of racing and finance do battle. The Wildensteins, the Niarchoses, the Sangsters and the Maktoums all arrive to buy and sell.

Breeding thoroughbred racehorses is big business and getting bigger. Last year at Tattersalls' Houghton sale, alone more than pounds 32m worth of yearling horses were sold. Tattersalls' annual turnover has trebled since 1992, up from pounds 42m to pounds 125m last year and, unlike the economy overall, there is no sign of recession. The firm has a wide range of sales through the year, but Houghton is reserved for the really big spenders. Auctions like this are replicated in Ireland, France and America.

Short of buying the horse, there is one other way to get your hands on a Derby winner. Breed one. But if you do, you might want to call on the services of Bill Oppenheim who is something of a guru in the world of thoroughbred breeding. He works for some of the world's most successful racehorse breeders. Large or small, he charges a flat fee of pounds 160 per mating - and there's no discount for quantity either.

Unheard of outside the tight business of bloodstock, Oppenheim is not the sort of fellow you can easily envisage on an English racecourse, the sales ring, or, for that matter, a stud farm. He's an American draft dodger who spent much of his youth demonstrating against the Vietnam War - and he is still very proud of it. But his talents and services are such that he is revered by the racing establishment. You could call him the equine version of Dateline.

Oppenheim is not a trainer or owner; he is not a breeder or jockey. He is in the game of genetics, marrying up stallions and mares with the aim of producing an English Derby winner. That he has already achieved the goal is remarkable enough in itself. But when you consider that he has also laid the mating plans that have pro-

duced 50 Group winners (Group races are the most valuable and prestigious in the racing calendar) around the world, his track record becomes all the more remarkable.

Some of the world's most successful owners rely on Oppenheim to lay the plans that will produce the horse that will end up in the winners enclosure.

"Sheikh Maktoum came to me in 1988 and asked me whether I would have a try at breeding him a horse that would win the Derby" he says.

That "try" turned out to be the 1995 wonder horse Lammtarra. Not only did it win the English Derby it also won the King George and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Arc de Triomphe, France's premier horse race. Lammtarra remained unbeaten when retiring to stud in the same year. Other successes include the horses Loving Claim and Hatoof - both Classic winners that he bred for Maktoum.

49 year old Oppenheim attended his first horse race in Colorado aged 16. He had a US2 bet on a 17-1 shot and that was it - he was hooked. After school he was given US3,000 by his parents with the proviso that he "cross the Atlantic'. They felt he says that he was "an uneducated lout."

Having loafed about in Cairo and Nairobi he found himself in New Zealand he became enamoured by the work of the late Andrew Barton Patterson, the Australian poet, and author of Waltzing Matilda.

Co-incidentally Barton Patterson was also the racing editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. So, like his hero, Oppenheim became a racing journalist but decamped back to the US when it became obvious that he wasn't going to win promotion rapidly in a foreign country against indigenous journalists.

On his return he attended Wichita University where he gained a masters degree in English Literature (his thesis, not surprisingly, was about Barton Patterson) and then in 1978 he started Racing Update - a stockmarket type newsletter for the thoroughbred breeding world. It was the first publication to put the business of breeding thoroughbreds into perspective and produce statistics to back up hunches in what is after all a business with a very imprecise science.

Around this time also saw horrendous US inflation and the rich were desperate to find a home for their savings.

"During the Carter/Reagan years you had US inflation running at 21% so naturally people were looking for a home for their money and the horse market was rising at 30% per annum and really booming" says Oppenheim.

It was also a time when racing had never been so glamorous Robert Sangster along with the trainer Vincent O'Brien and a bloodstock agent called Tom Cooper decided that they could make a proper business out of owning and breeding racehorses. Sangster had the money, Cooper was the finest judge of a thoroughbred horse of his generation and O'Brien the greatest trainer. Cooper purchased all of the Sangster horses including three English Derby winners and became a major influence on Oppenheim's way of amassing statistics.

What Cooper and O'Brien did was spot that tile Canadian bred stallion Northern Dancer fathered a higher ratio of winners and more importantly had a hit rate with Classic racehorse progeny second to none. This perhaps was the proof Oppenheim needed to develop a method of matching horses through genetics. He fed into a database as much genetic information about horses as he could lay his hands on. What their temperaments were like the length of race they performed best over, how their parents had performed and so on.

For the science that Oppenheim practices so well he has a database of 13,000 brood mares and stallions drawn from the UK, US, Canada, France and Ireland over the past 15 years. Every year, either due to mortality or non-performance, he knocks off 1,000 and adds another 1,000 to the database, which although kept on computer is mainly culled from reference books and racing literature.

Every year he meticulously records the top 2% of money earning racehorses in each of the five countries. Particular attention is given to the sire - or male - lines, not because they are stronger but because a mare can only produce one foal a year and a stallion can cover up to 300 mares a year, every year for twenty years. Furthermore a mare will produce approximately ten foals in her lifetime and ten cases is too small a sample to be statistically relevant.

And every year he lays the plans for unions of horses. These are all arranged marriages and Oppenheim is the broker for a raft of leading owners round the world. He might advise that a UK based mare is "covered" by a US stallion in order to target a particular race 4 years hence that an owner has set his heart on. With the ease of transporting horses the world of bloodstock, these can, and often are truly transatlantic romances that Oppenheim arranges.

But as the thoroughbred population has increased by more than 90% in the past 40 years Oppenheim's task has become more difficult because of the expanding gene pool.

He believes it takes between ten and twelve years to create a success from what he terms the "brood mare band" that is the pool of mares he will advise owners on. And having control of the horse's environment is absolutely crucial to the success or failure of the operation.

People who breed their own horses have control; and the advantage of being a breeder rather than a buyer is that they know the quirks, problems, history and family background of the horse they bred.

"Although it is not something I can quantify there is some statistical evidence that home-bred horses are more successful than horses bought in a sales ring. The margin is about 10%, but in the racing game that is a heck of a margin" says Oppenheim.

You might assume that Oppenheim lives in Newmarket or Kentucky where there is little to occupy the mind outside of the thoroughbred racehorse. You'd be wrong he lives on the shores of Loch Tay in the highlands of Scotland - although he does spend at least six months of the year travelling to sales and overseeing his breeding programs.

duced 50 Group winners (Group races are the most valuable and prestigious in the racing calendar) around the world, his track record becomes all the more remarkable.

Some of the world's most successful owners rely on him to make the plans that will produce the horse that will end up in the winner's enclosure.

"Sheikh Maktoum came to me in 1988 and asked me whether I would have a try at breeding him a horse that would win the Derby," he says.

That "try" turned out to be the 1995 wonder horse, Lammtarra. Not only did it win the Derby, it also won the King George and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Arc de Triomphe, France's premier horse race. Lammtarra remained unbeaten when retired to stud in the same year. Other successes include Loving Claim and Hatoof - both Classic winners that he bred for Maktoum.

Oppenheim, 49, attended his first horse race in Colorado aged 16. He had a $2 bet on a 17-1 shot and that was it - he was hooked. After school he was given $3,000 by his parents with the proviso that he "cross the Atlantic". They felt, he says, that he was "an uneducated lout". Having loafed about in Cairo and Nairobi, he found himself in New Zealand and fell in love with the work of the late Andrew Barton Patterson, the Australian poet, and author of Waltzing Matilda.

Coincidentally Barton Patterson had also been the racing editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. So, like his hero, Oppenheim became a racing journalist, but decamped back to the US - when it became obvious he wasn't going to win promotion rapidly in a foreign country against indigenous journalists - to attend Wichita University and gain a masters degree in English Literature (his thesis, of course, was on Barton Patterson). Then in 1978 he started Racing Update - a stock market-type newsletter for the thoroughbred breeding world, and the first publication to put breeding thoroughbreds into perspective and produce statistics to back up hunches in what is a very imprecise science.

That time also saw horrendous US inflation when the rich were desperate to find a home for their wealth. "During the Carter-Reagan years, you had US inflation running at 21 per cent, so naturally people were looking for a home for their money, and the horse market was rising at 30 per cent per annum - and really booming," says Oppenheim. And racing had never been so glamorous.

Robert Sangster, along with the trainer Vincent O'Brien and a bloodstock agent called Tom Cooper, decided that they could make a proper business out of owning and breeding racehorses. Sangster had the money, Cooper was the finest judge of a thoroughbred of his generation, and O'Brien was the greatest trainer. Cooper bought all the Sangster horses, including three Derby winners, and became a major influence on how Oppenheim collected statistics.

What Cooper and O'Brien did was spot that the Canadian-bred stallion, Northern Dancer, sired a high ratio of winners, and, more importantly, had a hit rate with Classic racehorse progeny second to none. This seemed to be the proof Oppenheim needed to develop a way of matching horses genetically. He fed into a database as much genetic information about them as he could lay his hands on: what their temperaments were like, the length of race they performed best over, how their parents had performed, and so on.

For the science that Oppenheim practices so well, he has a database of 13,000 brood mares and stallions from the UK, US, Canada, France and Ireland over the past 15 years. Every year, either due to mortality or non-performance, he knocks off 1,000, and adds another 1,000 to his computer database, which is mainly culled from reference books and racing literature.

Every year he meticulously records the top 2 per cent of money-earning racehorses in each of the five countries. Particular attention is given to the sire - or male - lines, not because they are stronger, but because a mare can only produce one foal a year and a stallion can cover up to 300 mares a year, every year for 20 years. Also, a mare will produce about ten foals in her lifetime, and ten cases is too small a sample to be statistically relevant.

And every year he lays the plans for horse unions - all arranged marriages. Oppenheim is the broker for a raft of leading owners round the world. He might advise that a UK-based mare is "covered" by a US stallion to target a particular race four years hence that an owner has set his heart on. With the ease of transporting horses, these can be, and often are, truly transatlantic romances that Oppenheim arranges.

But as the thoroughbred population has increased by more than 90 per cent in the past 40 years, and the gene pool expands, Oppenheim's task has become more difficult.

He believes it takes between 10 and 12 years to create a success from what he terms the "brood mare band", the pool of mares he will advise owners on. And having control of the horse's environment is absolutely crucial to the success or failure of the operation.

People who breed their own horses have control; and the advantage of being a breeder, rather than a buyer, is that they know the quirks, problems, history and family background of the horses they bred. "Although it is not something I can quantify, there is some statistical evidence that home-bred horses are more successful than horses bought in a sales ring. The margin is about 10 per cent, but in the racing game that is a heck of a margin," says Oppenheim.

You might assume that Oppenheim lives in Newmarket or Kentucky where there is little to occupy the mind outside of thoroughbreds. You'd be wrong: he lives on Loch Tay in the Highlands of Scotland - but he does spend six months of the year at sales and overseeing his breeding programmes.

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