It has been a funny old time in the world of bloodstock, writes Rachel Pagones. An escalating commercial battle between the two biggest breeders of thoroughbred racehorses has held horseflesh connoisseurs in thrall for much of the season. But now it looks like an end to hostilities has been achieved thanks to a wonder horse and the intervention of an official from the world’s most blue-blooded racing stable. The tale reveals much about the behind-the-scenes dealings of this arcane world.
The wonder horse is Motivator, winner of the Epsom Derby in June and now a hot stallion prospect following his retirement two weeks ago. The rival factions were Coolmore Stud, headed by John Magnier in Ireland, and Darley, the breeding operation of Dubai’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed. The theatre of operations was the round of elite international auctions of thoroughbred yearlings.
Darley and Coolmore are the world’s biggest marketers of stallions, with breeding bases spread throughout Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. Their stallions are worth serious money. Giant’s Causeway, a stallion at Coolmore’s Kentucky satellite, drew a fee of $200,000 per service this year – and he was bred to 215 mares. He is one of 18 Coolmore stallions in America and there are an additional 21 in Ireland and 17 in Australia.
The southern hemisphere has become a particularly torrid battleground for the rivals, descending occasionally into the marketing equivalent of slanging matches. Last year the Darley Australia boys took to passing out caps with the slogans like “Roll The Rock” and “Grandera clipped the Hawk’s Wings” in reference to Coolmore stallions Rock Of Gibraltar and Hawk Wing and Darley’s sire Grandera, who beat Hawk Wing in the Irish Champion Stakes.
But the caps and other gimmicks didn’t seem to be enough for Sheikh Mohammed, a man with a famous determination to be the best at everything. Rumours first began to surface in France that Sheikh Mohammed had decided to use an unconventional tactic. Word was that the sheikh had instructed his men – including his brothers, Sheikh Maktoum and Sheikh Hamdan, both of whom spend considerable sums buying young horses each year – to boycott yearlings sired by Coolmore stallions. The ostensible aim was to hit Coolmore in the pocket via a strong message to breeders: if you breed your mare to a Coolmore stallion, three of the world’s most important buyers will not help you offload your yearling come sales time. Considering the market share that the two outfits enjoy – at an auction in Newmarket last month, 63 per cent of the horses offered were sired by either a Darley or a Coolmore stallion – it was a potentially devastating tactic.
The rumour gained strength at the world’s biggest sale of yearlings in Lexington, Kentucky, in September. The sheikhs arrived there in style in two magnificent Jumbo jets. It seemed a statement of intent and so it was, as Sheikh Mohammed bid with singular intent. Most notably, he beat Magnier in a heated bidding match for the most expensive horse sold this year, a $9.7m colt by America’s premier sire, Storm Cat.
Though Sheikh Mohammed never publicly confirmed a boycott, the numbers at the end of October told their own story. Of the 150 yearlings that the Maktoum brothers bought in Kentucky, Ireland and Newmarket for a total of more than $88m, not one was sired by a Coolmore stallion.
Commercial breeders were dismayed by the situation, feeling it put their business in a bad light and their breeding plans in disarray (should they breed to
Coolmore stallions, Darley stallions or someone else’s stallions?)
Enter the Queen of England’s racing manager, John Warren. He was putting together a syndicate of breeders to own shares in Motivator, who happens to be a son of Coolmore’s most successful young Irish stallion, Montjeu. Syndication details are normally kept in the dark, but not in this case. Warren rang me up the week before Motivator’s retirement, eager to spread the news that not only Coolmore and Darley, but the other Maktoum brothers, were part of the syndicate.
Could it be that the hard-nosed titans are ready to reconcile? Warren thinks so. “They really are great sportsmen, and they’re there just to push on with it,” he told me. “Winning, losing and being competitive – that’s what it’s about.”
Competition would certainly have been a prime motive for the two sides to come together. Successful bloodlines are hard to come by, and both have reasons to covet this one – Magnier because he owns Motivator’s sire, and the sheikhs because they don’t. Image would be another reason. No one in Sheikh Mohammed’s camp seemed to have anticipated the publicity the boycott would engender, generally regarded by both as embarrassing. Moreover, the boycott did not seem to work, as Coolmore-sired horses continued to sell for big prices. What next? It is likely the teams will go back to the drawing board. Perhaps they can collaborate on promotional slogans for a Motivator cap.
Rachel Pagones is bloodstock editor of Racing Post