Foals secure future of Falklands' racing

Richard Edmondson on the Maktoum influence on a South Atlantic outpost
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Just as 14 years ago, when President Galtieri sent his troops in, there has been the sound of heavy feet arriving in the Falkland Islands this winter. This time, though, the greeting has been a little warmer.

The first 12 foals of the regally bred Thyer have just dropped to enhance the quality of bloodstock in the British Crown colony. Racing in the Falklands, which was brought to its knees by the Argentinian invasion, is back up and running.

Thyer's existence in the South Atlantic is due to the generosity of Sheikh Maktoum, who donated this son of Nijinsky (value pounds 500,000) as a stallion when he learned the islanders were seeking to upgrade their bloodstock.

Thyer, who was formerly trained by Jim Bolger, won several races as a two-year-old and finished 13th in the 1992 Kentucky Derby, when Dr Devious and Arazi were also among the trailers. While Arazi now reposes in sumptious quarters at Sheikh Mohammed's Dalham Hall Stud, Thyer is in the windswept stable block at Stanley. He arrived by boat from Europe in late 1993 in a custom-built container. The trip took just short of a month.

Racing has long been a part of the Falklands heritage and as long ago as the last century contests between shepherds riding home after a day's work drew spectators.

The sport is in good shape today too, according to Mike Summers, the chairman of the Stanley Sports Association, who reports that Thyer and his new family are also thriving. "He's a very good-natured horse for a stallion, he's placid and behaves himself extremely well," Summers said yesterday. "The foals look good and strong, but they are clearly finer than the mares they're coming from so he's obviously having an effect."

It has not always been as rosy as this. In 1982 racing was suspended for two years after the Argentinian occupation. "They made a hell of a mess," Summers said. "Soldiers were camped on the racecourse and were using the buildings up there to live in. The fences were chopped down and used for fire wood, there were gun emplacements on the racecourse and just general destruction."

A more acceptable military presence is the camp which now houses close to 2,000 personnel (roughly the same population as locals), 35 miles from Stanley. Many from that base, and up to a third of the indigenous number, attend the Falklands' two-day meeting every Boxing Day and 27th December. There is another main meeting in March, and racing elsewhere on the islands, if not with the sophistication of Stanley, which has two stands.

There is a pool of about 40 horses (who do not race until they are four) which compete in races up to a mile and a pool of another sort for punting. The Falklands has a Tote monopoly.

Thyer has got a bit of a monopoly of his own and when it comes to mates he can choose from a most disparate catalogue. "The mares are quite diverse," Summers said. "In days gone by, when the shepherding was done on horseback, they were big, strong old things. These days people generally use motorbikes or three-wheelers, but the descendants of the horses are still around.

"Arab stallions have been brought across from South America, there is the polo pony blood from Argentina, and lighter horses brought in from Chile. So what we have is a real mixture of part thoroughbred, part Arab and part working horse.

"There is a balance to be struck between importing the thorougbreds and fining up the horses and keeping them good and strong for the conditions. Very few people here have the facilities to stable their horses during the winter and so most of the horses live outside. They need to be robust to cope." That goes for the humans too.