Racing: Big daddy stakes claim as dominant male

The clock rewound 11 years at Ascot last month, from the rough and, often literally, tumble of the winter game back to one of the sport's glittering summer stages. In 1993, the four-year-old Alflora produced a shock start to the Royal meeting by winning the Queen Anne Stakes at 20-1. Eleven days ago, his son Hand Inn Hand provided a significant jumping milestone at the Berkshire track as he took the Ascot Chase.

The victory gave Alflora his first Grade One success in Britain as a sire and established him as the undisputed leader of the emerging generation of National Hunt stallions. There has not been a British-based champion jumps sire since Spartan General took the crown 25 years ago but the domestic breeding industry, traditionally overshadowed by that of Ireland, is beginning to fight back.

The Irish have long had all the advantages: cultural, fiscal, environmental and, above all in the modern era, numerical, a factor that turns possibility into probability. For the jump-breeding business is different from its Flat equivalent in several respects. It does not involve mega-buck stud fees; the time-scale involved from conception to track action is much longer, with a consequent higher wastage rate; and although nearly every Flat runner is bred for that job, the reverse is not true. Plenty of jumpers are Flat cast-offs; among the élite, Red Rum and Istabraq are two names that spring to mind.

Yet a horse costs the same to feed whether he is covering mares for £2,000 or £200,000. Making a jumps sire is a long, drawn-out affair, barely a get-rich project, let alone a get-rich-quick one. But when it works, it is rewarding, and with the 2004 covering season just about under way, pulses are racing that bit faster at Alflora's home, Shade Oak Stud in Shropshire.

The big horse - he stands nearly 17 hands - is about to start his 10th term in his second career, in which his reputation has been growing since his first jumps winner, Workaway, in November 2000. The likes of Red Imp, Ulusaba, Paxford Jack, Fragrant Rose, Alvino, Little Flora, Bourbon Manhattan, Farmer Jack, plus Hand Inn Hand, from his first crop, and smart Irish-trained novice Central House, who became his first top-level success at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, have added to it and he has earned his hike in fee to £4,000. Last year he was recorded as covering 263 mares, more than any stallion in Britain ever in one season.

Alflora, who made his reputation as a miler in his racing days with Clive Britain, may not have seemed an obvious choice as a potential sire of jumpers, but an examination of his pedigree decrees otherwise. He is by Niniski, a solid influence for stamina and although his dam, the Bold Lad mare Adrana, raced and won just the once, over five furlongs at two, she is a half-sister to the dual Ascot Gold Cup winner Ardross.

"We liked his breeding a lot," said Peter Hockenhull, manager at Shade Oak, "but when we saw him we wondered if he might be too big, the sort that would get late-maturing, slow boats. But then his dam was very quick, and he didn't win beyond a mile. So we marketed him as the biggest, fastest National Hunt sire in the country.

"And another crucial point, I think, has been the change in the jump-mare population, which is becoming smaller and speedier. There are not so many of the big old-fashioned ones around. There are more coming into this game as Flat rejects and it's turned out that Alflora suits them ideally."

Shade Oak, a former dairy farm, is a family business and Alflora represented a considerable gamble. The development of overseas racing markets means more foreign competition for stallion prospects and he was expensive to buy; the Hockenhulls had to match an offer from Ireland and could not have topped a subsequent one from Turkey had owner Robin Olley chosen to accept it. "He was the big one as far as we were concerned," he said, "massive. And if it had not come off it would have crippled us. As it is, we've been able to turn down offers for him from Irish studs. And we've actually had Irish breeders sending mares to him, which is almost unheard of for an English stud."

One point hugely in Alflora's favour has been that he went straight into the jumps market at an affordable fee at a mainstream stud with a strong client-base, which enable him to get quality as well as quantity on the ground. "For us here," said Hockenhull "decent performers come along only in ones and twos, not like in Ireland, where if you lose one through injury you've still got another 10 running for you."

Alflora shares his home with Terimon, Rakaposhi King and new boy Cloudings. Still missed is Gunner B, who died a year ago at the splendid age of 30. "All the stallions who have been here before Alflora and helped build the foundations have played their parts," added Hockenhull. "And at last we've got the right horse in the right place at the right time."

Henderson sweet on Geos

Nick Henderson, who has won the Tote Gold Trophy three times in six years, including with Geos in 2000, yesterday said: "I think everyone is underestimating Geos, who isn't badly handicapped on his best form. Marcus Foley rides and Andrew Tinkler will be on Saintsaire as his claim cancels out that he is out of the handicap. Dancing Bay goes best in testing ground and would like it to rain all week."

Racing in brief: Pipe's team Tassel benefits as odds-on favourite is pulled up

* Martin Pipe added another string to his Cheltenham bow when newcomer Team Tassel won impressively at Market Rasen yesterday after the departure of the odds-on favourite Trabolgan. The Nicky Henderson-trained 4-7 shot was pulled up by Marcus Foley, who said: "I honestly thought he'd broken his leg. His head was tilting to one side and I didn't want to risk going round again." Later inspection revealed no injury and Trabolgan seemed sound.

* The £100,000 Vodafone Gold Cup, a handicap chase over two and a half miles, is to be the feature of Newbury's new meeting on 6 March.

* Bangor will be inspected at noon today to assess prospects for Friday's card. The track is saturated in areas as the River Dee has burst its banks and racing would not have been possible yesterday.

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