Hard to believe now but there is a time in living memory when a book of 70 mares was widely considered preposterous – what on earth would have been made of 300 plus?
The Annual General Meeting of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association routinely touches on matters that concern its members and the industry in general, but it rarely produces fireworks.
Of all those I attended in a reporting capacity, the only one which caused me to dash off in search of a phone and hastily dictate a story came in that period when the meeting was held in the King Edward VII Memorial Hall in Newmarket at the end of an all-day session at the December Sales.
I can’t be definite about the year, but it was certainly in the late 1960s, and I do remember that it was past 10pm, at which time the late staff in the racing department at the Press Association left the building. I was tired, hungry, longing for the proceedings to end, and thought I could soon escape when the President enquired for ‘any other business’.
That’s when my hopes were dashed, as Bernard van Cutsem stood up and made an impassioned speech urging those present to pass a resolution that the Association declare its support for a Tote monopoly. When the vote was called for, nearly everyone raised a hand. (Mine was among them, incidentally.)
I then had to spread the word by way of a call to the PA news room, where a copy-taker with no knowledge of racing, breeding or Tote dutifully tapped out my hastily garbled yarn. It didn’t attract much attention in the following day’s papers, but raising the issue at that time of night was not the way to achieve a splash in the Fleet Street dailies of the time. You have probably noticed that nor did a Tote monopoly come to pass.
Brassey gets brassy
Still, it was unusually exciting, albeit briefly, for an event which generally failed to rise above the mundane. It may well have been the liveliest episode at any AGM since that of 1930, at which I would love to have been present.
That was the year when normally staid members got fearfully uptight about the number of mares that a stallion should be allowed to cover in a season
That was the year when normally staid members – of the Establishment as well as the Association – got fearfully uptight about the number of mares that a stallion should be allowed to cover in a season. The man who raised the issue was Eton-educated hunting, shooting and fishing devotee Robert Brassey, and what roused him to indignation was the fact that in the previous year one stallion in Ireland had served no fewer than 73 mares and another 71. These numbers, he opined, were excessive, and he felt there ought to be a certain limit.
After all the ‘hear, hears’, Somerville Tattersall supported the previous speaker. He thought the number of mares to be covered should be stated when the horse was advertised, and that it should be no higher than 40. He was adamant 70 was preposterous. Hear, hear all round again.
Sir Bruce Hamilton then chipped in with an observation that one seventieth of a horse was very different from one fortieth, and he moved that the TBA should issue a statement, urging stallion owners to inform breeders how many mares their horse would be permitted to cover before the season began.
James Bell Robertson, renowned bloodstock authority and ‘Mankato’ of The Sporting Chronicle, said that the size of the book should be mentioned on the contract signed by both stallion owner and breeder, and that the contract should be declared void if the stated number were exceeded.
Gerald Deane, a partner in Tattersalls, pointed out that when there was an over-supply of stock by a fashionable horse, a breeder would find that instead of competing with a dozen or 15 by that stallion, their yearling would be competing with perhaps 25, and that prices were lowered by 50 per cent. He felt that stallion owners were well advised to limit nominations in order to keep up the value of their stock.
No dissenting voices were heard. The resolution put to the meeting, and passed unanimously, read: ‘That it is detrimental to the breed of the thoroughbred, and unfair to breeders, for stallions to be given an unlimited number of mares, and this Association are of the opinion that the number should be limited to 45 mares, this limitation to be stated on the contract. This resolution to be conveyed to all owners of stallions with a view to obtaining their consent.’
Insularity bred contempt
It was interesting, and perhaps not altogether surprising, that all that indignation should be expressed in England by Englishmen in connection with the supposed excessive activity of two stallions based in Ireland. The horse who had covered a book of 73 was Cottage, based at Michael Magnier’s Grange Stud in County Cork at a fee of 19gns, and the one who served 71 mares was Stratford, who stood at the Harris family’s Ballykisteen Stud in County Tipperary and whose fee was £99.
Was it possible that English TBA members had failed to notice that in 1922 the 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner Sunstar, one of the highest-priced stallions in England or Ireland at 400gns (only The Tetrarch at 500gns cost more), had covered a book of 70 mares in Hertfordshire? It was doubtless easier to take pot-shots at owners of Irish stallions, one of which was covering jumping mares (and was to become the outstanding sire of jumpers in his era), than to take issue with Jack Joel, one of England’s most prominent owner/breeders.
It was certainly a fact that there had been a norm of 40 mares in a season for many years, and that was for an experienced stallion; he would have an easier time in his first season. It is hard to believe in our day and age, but the 1918 Triple Crown winner Gainsborough, taken out of training at the end of that year, was given 1919 off completely in the belief he would be better for starting his stud career as a more mature five-year-old. His book then numbered 23.
(The story went that the plan with Gainsborough was supposedly in emulation of St Simon, whose last race was at three and who did not cover until he was five. What everyone had forgotten was St Simon had been in training at four and had broken down in the summer before his intended return.)
Still, St Simon was the best sire – nine times champion – in the living memory of most at that time, so the delayed start for Gainsborough might prove to be in his favour. He never did reach St Simon’s heights, but he was champion twice, and he did give us Hyperion.
As mentioned above, that norm of 40 mares had long been the rule, but it had not always been the case. I once totted up the number of foals listed in the General Stud Book sired by Highflyer, who was himself a foal of 1774. We may be sure that some were missing, but I made the tally 523, the products of 15 seasons, making an average of almost 35 per crop. One crop was over 50 and five were in excess of 40. There were also 14 Highflyer foals with no specified birth year.
Highflyer, whose record of 13 sires’ championships was finally overtaken by Sadler’s Wells, was doubtless a fertile horse. But he clearly covered big books, and may even have had a season when he reached the sort of tally that outraged TBA members in 1930.
The latest issue of Weatherbys Return of Mares shows that things have moved on more than somewhat, with no fewer than ten stallions – all in Ireland – covering books in excess of 200. Topping the lot was Monsun’s son Arcadio with a tally of 303, including 11 non-thoroughbred mares.
What chance another TBA resolution calling for a limit on numbers at the next AGM? I’m joking, of course.