Azertyuiop is not much of a name for a horse. It breaks the first rule of naming, having no connection with the horse’s breeding – Azertyuiop being by Baby Turk and a mare named Temara – and the second rule in not even being a meaningful word. However, there is some information to be gleaned, for Azertyuiop is named after the top row of letters on a French computer keyboard.
Azertyuiop, then, is French and at next week’s Cheltenham Festival is anti-post favourite, along with Moscow Flyer, for Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, the race predicted to be the highlight of the world’s most prestigious jump meet. Now trained by Paul Nicholls in Somerset, Azertyuiop will be the best French import on show at Cheltenham, but he will not be the only one, for French imports are all the rage in Britain at present. Indeed, there will be more than 100 are likely to come under starters orders during the four-day festival, a reflection of the fact that the French are supplanting the role that Irish breeders traditionally held in British jump racing.
The world of jump racing (hurdling and steeplechasing) is relatively small. There are renowned events such as the Pardubice steeplechase in the Czech Republic and the Nakayama Grand Jump in Japan (the world’s richest jump race, with prize money of $1.3m) but neither country supports a full programme of racing. In New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US jump racing exists, but only on a minor scale, very much an afterthought to flat racing.
Just Three countries dominate the jumping world; the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and France. Between them, the prize money on offer last year amounted to more than £90m. Great Britain, where the sport is still known by the anachronistic title of National Hunt racing, and France had almost equal prize monies of between £36m and £37m, while Ireland had approximately £17.5m.
The fact that the island of Ireland, with a population of just 5.5m, can sustain prize monies amounting to almost half that of France and Great Britain is a tribute to the island’s economic transformation, fuelled by significant tax breaks in the Republic of Ireland for the bloodstock industry. The new-found wealth has inevitably altered attitudes. “We used to buy our horses from Ireland because they needed the money. Not any more,” says Philip Hobbs, one of the leading trainers in the UK.
With the Irish increasingly reluctant to sell their better bloodstock, British buyers have turned more towards to France. Martin Pipe, the champion trainer in Britain, made a number of high-profile purchases in the early 1990s and claimed to have “set the bandwagon” rolling, but the French market had long been of interest to British buyers. Josh Gifford, champion jump jockey four times in the 1960s, recalls that his boss, the autocratic trainer Ryan Price, was very successful with his French imports. “They included Beaver II, who won the Triumph Hurdle at the festival,” says Gifford.
Pipe, though, through the purchases by wealthy owners such as David Johnson, did increased the profile of French bloodstock, while agents like Anthony Bromley at Highflyer agency helped to boost the interest.
French breeders, for their part, have been readily open to offers. Hubert Barbe, who is Pipe’s agent in the country, explained the reasons. “There is no owner in France in the same way as there is in the UK. We have only professionals, usually breeders and trainers, who invest in young stock and who want a return. And they are not wealthy enough to reinvest their profits in established horses. In 10 years of selling French horses, not once has the owner offered me half the money back to buy another horse,” said Barbe.
The French tax system also militates against British-style ownership, offering low taxes rates on breeders’ profits while heavily penalising those who buy and re-sell horses within two years.
Furthermore, French breeders also benefit from a domestic racing programme geared towards younger animals, with horses usually broken in as two-year-olds and racing for valuable prize money at three and four. With most of the leading races in Britain for five-year-old horses and older, the owners have the added advantage of being able to earn significant purses before their horses are sold abroad.
Azertyuiop had won just four races before he was bought by Bromley on behalf of John Hales, who made his fortune selling merchandise linked to the Teletubbies television series. But those races were enough to prove the horse’s worth and he did not come cheaply (in excess of £100,000, although the exact fee is undisclosed).
In fact, Azertyuiop is not even a thoroughbred. Like many French horses, the thoroughbred line has been mixed with Arab blood. In Azertyuiop’s case, his dam, Temara, is Anglo-Arab. In France, such horses are known as AQPS – autre que pur sang, or other than pure thoroughbred – and have their own races, as well as being able to compete against pure breds.
Though There have been notable French failures, such as Johnson’s purchase of Magnus, which cost £340,000 in 2001 and proved unsound, but French imports generally have impressed and Freddy Powell, of auctioneer Goffs France, estimates that its sale of National Hunt horses has doubled in four years.
Marcel was one of those, bought last summer by Pipe and Barbe, for £84,000. As the horse has already won eight races this winter, and starts second favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdles at Cheltenham, you could say it was money well spent. Crystal D’Ainay, bought by Bromley two years ago, was even better value. The horse, second favourite for Thursday’s World Hurdle with a first prize of £116,000, cost a mere £32,500 two years ago.
Naturally, though, the successes and the subsequent growth in demand has raised prices and the value is disappearing. Bromley estimates that the average price has risen to around £30,000 and Johnson has publicly advocated a return to Irish bloodstock. But not many have purses as deep as Johnson, and the Irish are not about to give their horses away. Irish trainers have, after all, the leading seven fancies in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle, the blue riband of hurdling races, and the only one not home-bred is Harchibald, a French import.
There are a further five French-bred horses in the same race, and just three that are British-bred. The reason for the absence of British-bred horses is simple. Breeders in the Republic of Ireland pay no tax on stud fees and have value added tax at 5 per cent; the French breeders pay low tax on profits and VAT runs at 5.5 per cent. In contrast, UK breeders pay VAT at 17.5 per cent and have no tax breaks.
As long as those circumstances last, the value for British buyers will continue to be found elsewhere. The French boom is not over yet.