Hands up who remembers Sir Harry Lewis? Big American-bred, won an Irish Derby 20 years ago for Barry Hills, went back to the States to race? Well, to him has fallen a singular honour, and not a welcome one in some quarters. The ageing son of Alleged is the only stallion based in Britain to have sired the winner of one of the 22 Grade One jump races run in Britain and Ireland so far this season. That was Mighty Man, who took the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
Names like Desert Orchid, Burrough Hill Lad, Master Oats, Martha's Son, Teeton Mill, Rooster Booster and Royal Gait are not exactly a list of no-hopers and all were bred in Britain. But the domestic production line is, at the moment, in embarrassing disarray. The fact that there are no representatives of the British industry among the contenders for the Champion Hurdle is just the tip of the iceberg.
In the betting for each of the 11 Grade One races due to be contested at the Cheltenham Festival there is just one horse bearing the GB suffix in the first half-dozen. That is Inglis Drever, second favourite for the World Hurdle, and he, by In The Wings, is a Flat recruit. To turn the knife further in the home side's breast, Mighty Man, being out of a French mare, is counted as French-bred.
The situation is described in blunt terms by one of the country's leading specialist bloodstock agents, David Minton. "It's dispiriting and depressing," he said. "They say things go in circles, but it is difficult to know where a solution is to come from."
Traditionally, at elite levels - which is where a country's sporting prowess is judged - the British jump breeding industry has always played second fiddle to its counterpart in Ireland, but over the past decade the gap has not only widened but been filled by an influx of now-ubiquitous, wholly effective, French-breds.
In the bloodstock world, the Irish have long had advantages - numerical, genetic, climatic, geographical, fiscal, traditional - which have been amplified by the roar of the Celtic tiger. And here are some figures to consider. Far more horses are produced in Ireland than Britain, but of last year's crop, the number destined to race over jumps, 6,233, surpassed the number of Flat-breds for the first time.
In Britain, the births of just 1,584 prospective jumpers were recorded, a fifth of the total. All right, these are the Gold Cup candidates of 2014, but the figures are indicative of a trend and it is difficult to fight both quantity and quality. The pre-eminent jump stallions are all Irish-based; the leader is Old Vic, with Presenting chasing him and a host of promising younger horses, among them Oscar, coming through the pipeline.
Irish stallions, proven and unproven, regularly cover books of 200-plus, some even 300-plus (as did Oscar and Flemensfirth last year). In Britain, only one horse, Alflora, has ever notched a double century.
"The Irish economy is so much stronger than ours," said Minton, "and there is so much investment in bloodstock, on the Flat and filtering down to jumping. They have bought all the best mares, and they have all the best stallions and at the moment can afford to keep all the best runners in Ireland, too.
"We can't match their strength. And although there are men and women here who do have decent mares, for every five they have there are 25 in Ireland. And from both a commercial and private point of view, the percentage call is not to send them to a British stallion."
Irish breeders have their government on side. "Support of their industry has been hugely important," added Minton. "Regrettably, from that aspect we are banging our heads against a brick wall."
Of the leading Cheltenham fancies, Kauto Star, Voy Por Ustedes, My Way De Solzen, Exotic Dancer and Lounaos are French-bred; Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace, Denman, Katchit, In Compliance, Newmill and Aran Concerto Irish-bred and Well Chief, Foreman and Fair Along German-bred. Detroit City is something of an odd one out, being bred in the States for a Flat career.
Minton's agency, Highflyer Bloodstock, was one of the first to recognise the potential of French horses. "Once the young Irish horses got so expensive," he said, "we recognised the value there. Like the Irish, the French have a proud tradition of breeding jumpers. They also have a comprehensive programme of races for fillies, to encourage people to keep them and race them, which is something we'd like to see expanded here. And they, too, are recognised by their government."
* Yesterday's race meetings were cancelled due to high winds and tomorrow's cards at Ascot and Haydock are subject to inspections today
Nap: Desert Hawk
NB: King Daniel
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