A Christmas baby can be a matter of great joy, but not in the world of Thoroughbred breeding. And, to the discomfiture of all concerned, the highest-profile broodmare of the moment chose her timing badly when producing her firstborn. Magical Romance, who cost Lady Serena Rothschild a world auction record 4.6 million guineas in the Tattersalls sale ring last month, gave premature birth to a Pivotal daughter on 21 December.
Mother and child are, happily, doing well. But the point is that on Monday the tiny bay filly, at 11 days old, technically became a yearling. The rules of racing state unequivocally that a racehorse's first birthday is 1 January of the year after its birth, no exceptions.
What might have been a blaze of publicity for the sport has ended in farce. For next year, when she will be physically a yearling the filly will, according to the sport's authorities, be a two-year-old. In 2010, when her body clock says she should be lining up for the 1,000 Guineas, she will be officially be a four-year-old.
The situation - nobody's fault, just nature taking a rather unexpected and wayward course - could be considered a matter of huge embarrassment to an industry which has lately succeeded in attracting some serious new investors. A foal by Britain's top sire out of a Group One winner should have been priceless. Under the current anachronistic system her value, as a racehorse anyway, is virtually nothing. The technicalities of the bloodstock business are that, with the equine gestation period generally reckoned to be between 330 and 360 days, the official start of the mating season is 15 February, which should ensure foals emerge the right side of the new year. Magical Romance was covered by Pivotal, at Cheveley Park Stud, on 14 February last year, a perfectly acceptable minor gun-jump if she was sexually receptive, rather than wait another month for her next heat. Her foal was born 24 days prematurely at another Newmarket stud, Banstead Manor, where she is due to visit up-and-coming stallion Dansili.
James Wigan, principal of the Dorset-based company London Thoroughbred Services, is the agent who advised and acted for the Rothschild family when he outbid Sheikh Mohammed for the mare. "The filly is actually a very good, attractive foal, despite being premature, and is thriving," he said yesterday. "You would not normally expect a maiden mare to foal early, they normally go over time rather than under.
"It is desperately bad luck for the Rothschilds and they are, of course, disappointed, but they are horse people and understand that these things happen occasionally. But the fact that nothing can be done for the filly's racing future is not a great advertisement for the industry. The bloodstock business is trying to attract new people and the present antiquated rule does not make sense on any logical grounds, either for the good of the individual, the breed or the industry. This case has brought only bad publicity, but I hope it will highlight the need for some sort of change. It is a situation that certainly needs to be addressed."
In Australia the authorities go with nature to a certain extent, rather than being dogmatic about birthdays. In the southern hemisphere a Thoroughbred's age is taken from 1 August but leeway of 31 days is given, provided the covering certificate is in order, to allow for genuine premature births. With the modern improvement in veterinary medicine, many more early foals survive and could be viable runners.
The first steps toward revising the intransigent system here may be taken as soon as next week, at a council meeting of the domestic industry's voice, the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association. "It is a question that will be re-examined," said executive director Gavin Pritchard-Gordon yesterday. The issue is complex, and will need the Irish breeding industry on-side, but if the will is there the rules can be changed."
Not in time to help Magical Romance's baby, though. The alternatives before her are to either be sent to race in Australia, where she would be regarded as a late foal, or be trained here when she is four, when her age disadvantage would be nullified. The saving graces in her sorry situation are that she is a filly, and therefore will always have residual breeding value, whatever her track record, and that she belongs to a family who breed to race rather than sell.
* Gary Lyons, one of four people charged by the Horseracing Regulatory Authority last week, has been suspended from his role as a racing analyst with PA Sport. Jockeys Tony Culhane and Dean Mernagh were charged, with Lyons and David Watkins, Culhane's father-in-law, after an investigation by the HRA's security department.
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