Home-made jumpers pass the blood test

RACING: British breeders look likely to cash in on an unprecedented run of success by their National Hunt stallions The search is on for successors to Oats & Co to keep the momentum going for Britain's breeders
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There's something stirring in the woodshed this jump season. Since time immemorial, Irish-bred horses have dominated in top-level races, but now the tables have turned. The home side are fighting back, and suddenly it's sexy to be British.

The favourites for the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle, Master Oats and Relkeel, are showing the way. Then there is Earth Summit, a leading Grand National fancy, the Grade One winners Hebridean, Brownhall and Absalom's Lady, and the talented four-year-olds Anzum and Brave Tornado, plus another Cheltenham contender, Mysilv.

In all, 21 British-bred horses have won 26 Pattern races this season, compared with 16 winners of 20 races from Ireland.

British breeders are beginning to reap the rewards of concerted efforts during the Seventies to upgrade the standard of stallion available for the specialist production of jumpers. The sires of Relkeel and Master Oats, Relkino and Oats, were both placed in the Derby - separated by a head in the 1976 running behind Empery - and Relkino went on to win a Benson and Hedges Gold Cup.

Celtic Cone, sire of Earth Summit, was a top-class stayer, the winner of a Yorkshire Cup and runner-up at Ascot. Almost inevitably, all are now dead. The production of jumpers, particularly steeplechasers, is a lengthy process and it is usually only an exceptional sire - like Deep Run - who reaches the top of the tree in his lifetime.

The search is now on for successors to Oats & Co to keep the momentum going in Britain. Ardross might have been one, but for fertility problems and a premature death. But there has seldom been a better selection of high-class performers at the disposal of jump breeders, including two Derby winners (Teenoso and Henbit), a King George winner (Petoski), two St Leger winners (Michelozzo and Minster Son), three Ascot Gold Cup winners (Gildoran, Le Moss and Little Wolf) an Irish Derby winner (Sir Harry Lewis) and a York International winner (Terimon).

The excellence of the Irish jumper, produced with the help of environmental, fiscal and numerical advantages not available in Britain, is actual as well as legendary, and jump racing over here would be the poorer without the stars from "across the water". Sires like My Prince, Cottage, Vulgan and, lately, 14-times champion Deep Run, are part of jump racing folklore.

There was a time when the champion jump sire of a given season was more or less automatically the sire of the winner of the Grand National, by far the most important and richest race in the calendar. And owing to the unpredictable elements involved in the production of a jumper, there are many horses on the list of champions who have no pretensions to being good, let alone great, sires.

The most extreme example of a "one-off" was when Kilmore was the sole winner by Zalophus during the 1961-62 season, but the Grand National prize was enough to take the unheard-of stallion well clear of a cluster of genuine jumping sires. Kilmore was one of only four foals he sired in his 1950 crop.

But in the 33 years since his Aintree victory, as the spread of prize money has become more even, it has been the exception rather than the rule for the champion sire to have the winner of the National, or the Cheltenham Gold Cup for that matter. The last British-based champion, Spartan General in 1979, had neither.

It would be too simplistic to say that large numbers of offspring are a guarantee of success, but to top the table nowadays a stallion needs loadsarunners. And although British breeders are now proving that they can come up with the quality and are starting to believe in themselves, there are simply not enough jumping broodmares in this country to compete with Ireland in terms of quantity.

It was Deep Run who changed the ground rules. He and Vulgan both stood for 17 seasons; Vulgan covered 775 mares during his career, and Deep Run 2,226. Today's young Irish pretenders, stallions such as Be My Native, Phardante and Supreme Leader, are covering upwards of 200 mares a year.

The current run of success by the British breeding industry could not have been better timed, for at the start of the year the Levy Board, after pressure from the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, has greatly increased breeders' prizes in steeplechases to try and encourage the production of chasers, the longest-term of all breeding projects. If a British-foaled horse wins the Gold Cup, his or her breeders will pick up 17.5 per cent of the added value of the race, a cool £32,375.