Sex, rugs, hocks and foals – welcome to a multi-billion pound world where breeding is the game and producing the winner of the Derby is the aim.
From dating websites for horses to super studs who command fees topping £200,000 a time, this is the thoroughbred industry.
The hope is that by Saturday evening, your horse will have joined the Epsom Classic roll call that boasts champions like Shergar and Sea The Stars.
But amid the stallions and dams, the genes and pedigrees, there is one unpredictable factor.
“You need to start with an awful lot of luck,” says Lord Derby, who triumphed himself in 2014.
What’s in a name?
It took 234 years for a man named Derby to breed the winner of the race named after one of his antecedents. In 2014, Australia was the horse and the 19th Earl of Derby – Teddy to his friends – was the man.
“Having a Derby winner is something every owner-breeder dreams about. A lot of people have tried very hard but only 200-odd people have done it,” he says.
Previous Earls of Derby have included a Prime Minister and sponsor of Shakespeare. It was the 12th Earl who founded Epsom’s two Classic races – the Oaks and the Derby.
“To be at Epsom with such a long-running family history, there was a lot of nervous anticipation. That makes the clock tick rather slowly,” reflects the current incumbent.
“As they came around Tattenham Corner, I could see the horse going very nicely and I remember thinking about a furlong out – ‘I’m going to have bred a Derby winner’.
“I remember galloping down the fire escape to get to the course to see him being led in.
“My wife, brother, mother, some of the children, were there. There were tears, cheers, there was every type of emotion.”
The victory can be traced back to Australia’s grand-dam, or grandmother, Selection Board. Lord Derby’s brother Peter, who runs his Stanley House Stud operation, suggested sending Selection Board to Cape Cross, then a first-season sire costing 9,000 euros.
The offspring was Ouija Board, who won the Oaks and, after a glittering racing career, was destined for an arranged marriage – with the 2001 Derby winner Galileo.
It soon became clear the blue-blooded alliance had produced something special. The horse was sold to Coolmore Stud in Ireland for about £550,000 and his Epsom victory gave trainer Aidan O’Brien a historic third consecutive Derby triumph.
Seems simple, eh? Except that the year before Australia, Lord Derby bred a filly – Filia Regina – to the same illustrious parents.
Her only victory in five outings was a race at Great Yarmouth where the winner earned just under £2,000.
Matchmaking and a dose of luck
Deals are normally signed on a no-foal-no-fee basis; hygiene is paramount – there are checks to guard against sexually-transmitted disease – and lots of paperwork.
“Stallions have so much testosterone going through their veins that they are very territorial,” says Brian O’Rourke, managing director of the National Stud.
“You have to be very careful with them and respect them. These animals are so valuable, you don’t want them to get hurt.”
The National Stud’s stallions are subscribed to a matching tool – an equine dating system where the numbers are crunched to identify potential partners.
“The tool will go back through the pedigrees and find successful horses that have been bred on the same cross, the same lineage,” says Amy Taylor, the National Stud’s marketing and nominations executive.
“They will come up with the probability of producing a Group One winner, or what distance it might be best at. It will give you a 20-20 match, which is what you are looking for, but there will be lots of 20-20 matches that don’t work. Sometimes it’s just luck.”
O’Rourke is well bred himself – two brothers are high up in the industry – and savours the unpredictability.
“The beauty of this game is it’s not an exact science. They can come from anywhere,” he explains.
“If you’ve got an exceptional racemare, yes it’s beautiful to see her run, but you have to think of her offspring and could she produce a future stallion for the greater good of the thoroughbred breed?
“We never get to go to the winner’s enclosure, but behind the scenes we do an awful lot of the donkey work to get them to that point. It’s a passion, a vocation.”
The mating game
There is no wine and wooing for these love matches. The process is more rudimentary than romantic.
A mare is brought in to one side of the breeding shed – normally the size of a small village hall – where a ‘teaser’ will engage in a rough kind of flirting before the main attraction comes in.
“The teaser is probably the most valuable horse on the farm but has the worst job in the world,” chuckles O’Rourke.
The stallion arrives and with the help of some human handlers, the deed is over within minutes.
What qualities does a Derby winner need?
Galileo is one of five Derby winners for O’Brien, who trains the pick of Coolmore’s horses and readies runners for the rollercoaster Epsom track where cambers can unbalance runners in the mile-and-a-half contest, with a crowd of more than 100,000 cheering on.
“Epsom is the complete test of a horse. They need balance, speed and stamina. It’s uphill, downhill, sideways. It’s a very intense atmosphere,” says the trainer.
Last year’s winner Golden Horn was reared at breeder Anthony Oppenheimer’s Hascombe and Valiant Studs and is now retired to nearby Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket, Suffolk.
“Of course he was brilliantly trained by John Gosden,” says Dalham Hall director of stallions Sam Bullard.
“You can’t mess that up or you won’t win the Derby and maybe the fella on top had a bit to do with it as well, but I think Golden Horn was so good that even he would admit he was fortunate to be on top.”
The reigning champion
Golden Horn has put on seven stone since he was retired for a breeding career last autumn.
He’s not exactly let himself go. His dark coat gleams, he is content, lapping up the attention at his new home.
The weight gain – from 511kg (80 stone) to 557kg (87 stone) – is all part of switching from racehorse to sire.
In 2015, he was burning up the racetrack at 40 miles an hour, adding the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to the Derby. He raced nine times, won seven and was second twice.
In 2016, he has a different schedule – mating with mares, maybe four times a day, at 0800, 1300, 1800 and midnight. He’s well fed, well groomed, and will be taken for a walk of an hour or more every day.
“He doesn’t want for a lot,” smiles Bullard.
Who’s the Daddy?
With a 93% strike rate from 145 mares in his first season, Golden Horn is in the early stages of becoming a breeding heavyweight – like his neighbour Dubawi, and Galileo, based with Coolmore in Tipperary.
A date with Dubawi, who was third in the 2005 Derby and is a son of the sheikh’s beloved late stallion Dubai Millennium, will set you back £225,000, and Galileo is thought to be even more expensive.
Among the breeding experts, their names are ushered in almost reverential terms – ‘the big D’ and’ the big G’.
“These are absolutely the best in the world of the thoroughbreds, for breeding racehorses,” says Bullard.
“No stallion has ever had 23 individual Group One winners at this stage of their career, like Dubawi has. He is the best of the best and his yearlings when they go to the sales, they realise astronomical sums of money.”
Dubawi is 14 and Galileo four years older. So how long do stallions go on for, at their peak?
“To use a golfing term, par would be about 20. Anything beyond that is a bit of a bonus,” reckons Bullard.
“Sadly this year Cape Cross (sire of Golden Horn and Sea The Stars) has been retired aged 22 because he didn’t get anything in foal at the beginning of the year. He probably had his time.”
And what of the future?
The Derby, like all five British Classic races from the Guineas to the St Leger, is restricted to horses aged three.
US Army Ranger and Wings Of Desire are among the favourites for Saturday’s renewal in which 11 of the 18 remaining entries have been sired by previous Derby winners – seven of them by Galileo, who has provided the victor three times before.
But the 2000 Guineas victor Galileo Gold sidesteps the contest after genetic tests suggested the distance might not be ideal. Could this be another key to identifying a winner?
“You can’t take science away from everything – we know so much more about nutrition, for example. Genetic analysis is a very new area. I don’t believe there’s any one thing that is the answer to it all,” says Derby.
Bullard agrees the “jury is out” on genetics.
“There’s a lot of new theories flying around but no-one has yet found the key to how you put two horses together and guarantee a Group One winner,” he adds.
Just a year ago, Golden Horn was storming home by three-and-a-quarter lengths in the third fastest ever Derby. So, how about this Saturday?
“He might have one or two mares coming back who didn’t get in foal the first time perhaps but there aren’t many of them because he’s done so well,” says Bullard.
“I think he’ll probably be quite happy standing here, resting up, having done it all.”
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