Racing: Gunner on target for breeding record

Europe's oldest active stallion has embarked on his 24th successive season at stud

At the time of year when the Fantastic Lights and Galileos of this world are starting to gird their youthful loins in their new lives as stallions, there is one remarkable old horse they could turn to for advice. Gunner B, who earned fame on the track as winner of the Eclipse Stakes and in his second career as sire of last year's Grand National hero Red Marauder, has embarked on his 24th season in the breeding shed at the age of 29, making him the oldest active thoroughbred sire in Europe.

At the time of year when the Fantastic Lights and Galileos of this world are starting to gird their youthful loins in their new lives as stallions, there is one remarkable old horse they could turn to for advice. Gunner B, who earned fame on the track as winner of the Eclipse Stakes and in his second career as sire of last year's Grand National hero Red Marauder, has embarked on his 24th season in the breeding shed at the age of 29, making him the oldest active thoroughbred sire in Europe.

When the venerable chestnut first stepped on to a racecourse as a two-year-old, Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister, the Bay City Rollers were top of the pop charts and Gianfranco Dettori was showing the trophy he had won on Bolkonski in the 2,000 Guineas five days earlier to his four-year-old son Lanfranco.

Since that day Gunner B went there, did that, and if he did not reach the starriest heights, he conducted himself with honest endeavour and determination, qualities visible in his most famous son at Aintree last April.

In four seasons – three with Geoff Toft at Beverley, one with Henry Cecil in Newmarket – he raced 33 times, winning 15 races from six furlongs to a mile and a half and retiring as sound as the day he was foaled. His finest moment came in the Eclipse Stakes as a five-year-old, when he caught the trailblazing Radetzky and repelled the Arc runner-up Balmerino in the final 100 yards of a gruelling battle up the Sandown hill.

Like most horses, he was not as good as a stallion as he had been as a runner and after five seasons he was banished to Germany. But among those foals he left behind was Royal Gait, whose exploits as Europe's best stayer in 1988 led to his sire's retrieval.

Gunner B has been based ever since at Shade Oak Stud in rural Shropshire and although not involved in the glamour end of the Flat business he has, prompted by Royal Gait's Champion Hurdle victory 10 years ago, carved out a niche late in life as Britain's leading jump sire.

By any equine standards, let alone those of a working stallion, his age, 100-plus in human terms, is noteworthy. And although he suffered a near-fatal bout of colic six months ago, he again began covering mares when the mating season officially opened on 15 February.

"He has been just extraordinary", said Peter Hockenhull, manager of his family's stud. "He just defies everything and marches on. We have had none of the physical problems which can be associated with an old horse. His legs are incredible, no sign of arthritis or weakening, and he didn't even have any grey hairs until his mid-20s, just round his eyes.

"The colic did set him back – in fact we thought we might lose him – but he is putting weight back on and giving every indication that he will be able to cover again. He has the most wonderful laid-back attitude to life, never worries about anything and thinks mostly about getting his head in his manger."

The oldest thoroughbred stallion is reckoned to have been the French-bred Mystic, who in 1985 successfully impregnated a mare at the age of 31 at Windfields Farm in Maryland. Diomed, in 1780 the first Derby winner, covered as a 30-year-old in Virginia and Britain's six-time champion Hyperion had four mares, of whom two produced foals, at the age of 29.

Stallions inevitably face reduced opportunity as the years advance as breeders turn to younger horses. But although physical problems can hinder the old stagers their genetic legacy remains the same and a horse can sire a superior performer at any age.

Mr Prospector got the 2000 Kentucky Derby hero, Fusaichi Pegasus, when he was 26 and Northern Dancer sired Unfuwain at 24. Hyperion sired his last champion, 1960's top juvenile filly Opaline, when he was 27 and shining through the mists of history comes the example of the 1780 Oaks heroine Tetotum, conceived when her sire, Matchem, was 28.

Gunner B got 45 of his 50 mares in foal last year but will not be required to perform so strenuously this time round. "It will be entirely up to him and whether he fancies it," said Hockenhull. "If his libido is still intact and his sperm count is OK, then we'll have a go.

"It would be nice to match Hyperion's record but he owes us nothing and his interests, bless him, will be paramount. And if the worst should happen, It's not a bad way to go."

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