Blood, sweat and yearlings

Ascot is the industry's ultimate shop window with competition as fierce off the track as on it; Sue Montgomery talks to the manager of a stud for whom a crucial week beckons
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The Independent Online
SHOW us a steaming winner, and we'll show you a set of smiling faces enjoying the glory: owner, trainer, jockey, stable lad. But that predictable line-up is only the public manifestation of what is Britain's sixth biggest industry. In the bloodstock world, it's not only horses and punters who sweat on results.

And the best annual showcase for those who earn their living by producing baby racehorses is Royal Ascot. Sure, the Derby is the Derby, but it is a one-off. The top-class sport on the Queen's manicured heath lasts for four days, which means quantity as well as quality, in front of an international audience. To be associated with a Royal Ascot success brings a cachet that may one day be translated into pecuniary advantage.

"It is just the ultimate shop window," said Richard Lancaster, manager of the huge Shadwell Stud in Norfolk. "There are so many top-class races. You have the first significant two-year-old races, the Guineas horses coming out to confirm that form, and you start to get a line on the best of the older horses. People in our industry come to Ascot from all over the world; they get to see the products of stallions at first hand, which makes much more of an impact than just reading statistics."

The two sides of the bloodstock industry are, broadly, those who offer the services of stallions for a given fee and those - the breeders - who own mares and pay that dowry for the privilege of producing a foal, either to keep or sell at some stage. The structure of the business means that there are overlaps within it, at all levels.

Shadwell Stud, for instance, is owned by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, who does not get involved with the commercial sector as a breeder. But his operation does stand four stallions - Green Desert, Nashwan, Unfuwain and Muhtarram - at the Nunnery division of the establishment, and although he does not sell the produce of his 200-odd mares he is in the market for buying foals and yearlings.

The performance of the stallions is important to Shadwell's financial equation and the flag is at present being carried to considerable effect by the oldest of them, the 15-year-old Green Desert. The exploits of his sons and daughters so far this season have put him top of the European earnings list.

The well-bred, bonny little horse's finest racecourse moments came in 1986, when he was not far from being the best exponent of the sprinter's art. Since he retired to stud he has been consistently successful, but even a horse of his calibre needs to keep proving it. Competition is as fierce off the track as on it. Those running for Green Desert this week offer an impressive cross-generation representation. The four-year-old Cape Cross goes in the Queen Anne Stakes; three-year-old Desert Prince in the St James' Palace Stakes; another of the Classic generation, Tamarisk, in the Cork and Orrery; and the filly Bint Allayl, arguably the season's fastest two-year-old, in the Queen Mary Stakes.

"Commercial breeders in particular have to keep an eye on what is in vogue," said Lancaster, "and that can make them fickle. If a horse is not in the first flight of fashion and is getting a little older, they can forget him.

"Green Desert, bless him, is on a roll at the moment, and we have already had some enquiries for next year on the basis of his early season results. We will - touch wood - be getting many more after Ascot. But it is going to be a tense week."

Three of those four above-named Green Desert offspring race in-house, as it were, for members of the Maktoum family. The odd one out is Desert Prince, who carries the colours of Edward St George.

The colt was sold from one of the country 's leading mares-only commercial nurseries, the Swinburn family's Genesis Green near Newmarket. And the sums have added up all the way; the fee for Green Desert services was pounds 25,000, the yearling Desert Prince cost 62,000 guineas and has earned St George nearly pounds 180,000 thus far.

However, hopes at the Suffolk stud on Tuesday will be pinned on one of Desert Prince's rivals, Victory Note. "We don't have the mare who produced Desert Prince any more," said Wally Swinburn, "but we do still have Victory Note's dam. And we will have her future offspring for sale."

In Britain and Ireland there are some 20,000 thoroughbred mares and 700 stallions at present active. Every result at this week's grandest of racing occasions means a boost to someone, somewhere, at every level.

Switch the focus from chic East Anglia to deepest Gloucestershire, where an unconsidered stallion called Whittingham is holding his own as Britain's leading first-season sire. He stands at a fee of only pounds 1,250 at Barry Minty's Hollybush Farm and has just 12 two-year-olds in training.

Two, Patriot and Inya Lake, are due to run in the Norfolk Stakes on Thursday. "Just having runners good enough for Royal Ascot has been tremendous for the horse," said Minty. "If one of them could reach a place it would be incredible. I'll probably be able to put his fee up next year, and I've got a full sister to Inya Lake to sell in the autumn."

Shadwell Stud, 6,000 acres, or Hollybush Farm, 150 acres. The scale may be radically different but the hopes and fears met in Berkshire this week will be just the same.