Race for perfection: Hertfordshire stud farms

Hertfordshire stud farms have bred some winning horses

Hertfordshire stud farms have bred some winning horses - Credit: Getty Images

Flat racing is an obsession that has gripped the nation for centuries. It’s not widely known, but in Herts thoroughbred breeding has an esteemed history and continues to produce winners. With the ‘covering season’ underway, Sandra Deeble visited leading stud farms in the county

Scupture in horseshoes by Tom Hill at Laundry Cottage

Scupture in horseshoes by Tom Hill at Laundry Cottage - Credit: Archant

‘We call them Ladies in Waiting,’ Melba Bryce tells me, as we watch two mares ready to foal. I’m at Laundry Cottage Stud Farm, an impressive and immaculate 90-acre site in Codicote and home to Colin and Melba Bryce, who have run the stud since 2004, and are breeders of Wootton Basset, winner of the prestigious Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp Racecourse in France.

‘No matter how many times you see a foaling, it’s magical,’ says Melba, as her husband peers under one of the mares called Jeanie Johnston. ‘She’s ready,’ he says.

He grew up playing rugby in Scotland but was ‘keen on racing and having a few bets’, which led to a career in breeding racehorses, at which he and his wife have excelled. He is especially proud of their grey filly Pinch of Posh who is a Newmarket winner.

‘We just kind of fell into it,’ he says, explaining that they started with two broodmares and were lucky enough to buy some land from their farmer neighbour. Their daughters caught the bug too and had ponies from a young age. It is a passion that stuck; one of their daughters is Gina Harding, broadcaster on Channel 4 Racing and Sky’s At The Races.

Max Weston with yard manager Shelley Brinkworth. Max is holding a yearling filly sired by Sea The St

Max Weston with yard manager Shelley Brinkworth. Max is holding a yearling filly sired by Sea The Stars, Shelley has a yearling filly sired by Bated Breath - Credit: Archant

‘It’s addictive,’ Colin says, when I ask him about breeding racehorses. ‘But financially it’s a constant struggle, no matter what people tell you.’

The sentiment is echoed over at Cherry Park Stud in Ardeley, run by fourth-generation breeder Luke Neale and his mother Virginia. ‘There’s an old saying: Fools breed horses for wise men to buy them,’ Luke says. ‘The ultimate goal is that we all want to breed Group 1 winners.’

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Group 1 races include The Derby at Epsom, the Gold Cup at Ascot, Doncaster’s St Leger, and The Guineas and July Cup at Newmarket.

Luke has bred his own Group 1 winner in Australia, Spillway, who won the Australian Cup last year. He says the challenge to breed winners is largely down to funding and volume, something that comes more easily to investors from the Middle East.

Childwickbury Stud Farm

Childwickbury Stud Farm - Credit: Archant

‘The Arabs spend millions and millions trying to do it. We’re trying to do the best we can with our resources – with good horse husbandry and common sense - and sometimes I think we have to pat ourselves on the back.’

Making a virtue of necessity, Luke’s philosophy is small can be beautiful. ‘We’re trying to be a boutique stud. We run on about 70 acres and we’re breeding quality not quantity.’

Luke applauds the Bryces for their success with Wootton Bassett, and the work at Newsells Park, the 1200-acre stud farm near Royston, which has bred several winners, including Legatissimo, winner of the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket.

Newsells is a public, commercial stud, with three resident stallions and 130 mares, and is owned by German company Jacobs Holdings and managed by Julian Dollar who learned his trade at Newmarket and in Kentucky.

Laundry Cottage

Laundry Cottage - Credit: Archant

With nearly ten years’ at the stud, he admits, ‘We’re still the new kids on the block.’ He says the goal is simple: ‘We are here purely and simply to make money. If we were an owner-breeder outfit, we could quietly go about our business.’

He says all the breeders ‘took a hit’ in 2008 when the global economy floundered, but for Newsells, things have rebounded since 2011 and the stud enjoyed ‘record sales’ in 2013. If you are selling to the super rich, you are relatively protected, Julian explains. Their main market is Qatar and Dubai.

‘Sheikh Mohammed is one of the most passionate horsemen you’ll ever meet. He has a house up in Newmarket and he and his brother have changed the nature of racing and breeding through the money they’ve invested.’

He adds that home grown royal enthusiasm has also done much to help the industry. ‘We have to thank our Queen for attracting so much investment in UK racing and breeding. It’s the Queen being at Royal Ascot and other racing events that has brought the royal families from the Middle East to the UK.

‘In Hertfordshire, we fight our corner and we punch above our weight. It’s about winners and it’s about sales.’ One big sale day came in 2013 when Newsells sold a yearling colt for £3.6m. ‘That was a pretty big moment,’ says Julian.

Newsells’ stallions are Equiano, Nathaniel and Mount Nelson and February to July is their busiest time of year with the breeding or ‘covering’ season starting the day after Valentine’s Day.

‘There’s not a lot of romance,’ admits Julian. ‘It’s just hormones. Although the mares are hopefully well in season.’

Herts helps foals to thrive

‘We’ve got good topography here,’ says Julian of North Herts. ‘The gently undulating hills are very good for bringing up good horses.’

Colin Bryce is equally proud of the ‘light loam underlain by chalk’ in Codicote and Luke Neale calls the spring grass in Ardeley, ‘Doctor Green’.

As for Max Weston, who recently took on the role of stud manager at Childwickbury Stud near St Albans, he is effusive about the land. ‘The grass has been down since the start of the 19th century. It’s like a Persian rug when you walk on it. It’s really thick and great for the foals’ joints.’

Max has worked at studs in New Zealand and Ireland and he also ran the stud at Highclere, aka Downton Abbey. Together with his partner, yard manager Shelley Brinkworth, he is proud to be a custodian of one of the oldest UK studs.

A boarding stud, Weston looks after mares owned by people all over the country. In the past, both the Queen Mother and Queen had broodmares at Childwickbury.

‘Our dream would be to produce another classic winner. Twelve Group 1 winners have come from this stud, including three Derby winners.’

Sir John Blundell Maple (who owned furniture makers Maple & Co) founded the stud in 1888 and sold it to Jack Joel in 1906. Jack’s son, Jim, bred Royal Palace, winner of the Derby in 1967 and Fairy Footsteps, the 1981 winner of the 1000 Guineas. More recently, the stud was owned by the Marquesa de Moratella, whose Tin Horse won the French 2000 Guineas in 2011.

All of the breeders I met are happy to be close to Newmarket ‘for sales and emergencies’ but also far enough away to be outside of the gossip goldfish bowl. And as Max Weston points out, should a contagious disease break out in Newmarket, clients are happy to be further away.

‘We’re also close to London and international airports,’ says Max, something that appeals to overseas owners.

At the time of meeting them all the breeders were still waiting for foals. Luke Neale is looking forward to a foal from his adored grey filly Amulet, and at Newsells, Julian Dollar is waiting for a staggering 100 foals.

‘They’re keeping their legs crossed because the weather is cold,’ says Max Weston.

Then the day after my visit to Laundry Cottage, Colin Bryce sends me an email: ‘Jeanie Johnston had a nice filly foal at 11pm last night.’ Let’s hope she will be a Group 1 winner.

Bluffers guide to breeding

(With thanks to Max Weston)

Bloodstock: thoroughbred horses

Sire: father

Dam: mother

Broodmare: retired mare for breeding

Maiden mare: first time mother

Teaser: warms up the mares

Stallion: over four years old

Yearling: more than a year old

Covering: mating a stallion with a mare