In the 1980s I had a couple of years trying to help Robert Sangster with his mating plans. It wasn’t an easy job, because he had mares in both hemispheres, and he had an awful lot of mares who, quite clearly, weren’t very good.
Well, maybe it wasn’t clear to him that he had a lot of not very good mares, and that perhaps some of them were in the wrong part of the world, but it struck me that things had got a bit out of hand. He had become involved with a lot of stallions and naturally liked to patronise them, so he had been buying up fillies and mares as their potential mates, without - it seemed to me - too much thought as to their suitability.
Maybe the numbers weren’t so far wrong. After all, the Aga Khan used to say that his successes were the result of large numbers, and while he never knew which of his substantial broodmare band was going to produce the next champion, he could almost expect something of real quality from every crop. Robert probably thought that what worked for the Aga could also work for him, but there were marked differences between their respective operations.
The Aga had many mares from exceptional backgrounds, derived from what he had inherited from his father and grandfather, what he had acquired in the Dupre and Boussac dispersals, and what he had developed from those prime sources. Sangster had acquired fillies and mares from numerous sources, often at a whim. And whereas the Aga, unconcerned with the commercial market, experimented constantly by using just about every stallion of note in Europe who was not a sprinter, Sangster was particularly keen to promote the stallions in whom he had an interest, and he was always going to send a sizeable proportion of his young stock to the sales.
Of course, the decisions on which of his home-breds would be retained for racing and which would go to market lay at some point in the future. When one devises a mating, it helps to know whether the product is destined for sale, as either foal or yearling. Of course, the market’s perception of any given stallion may change between conception and sale-time, but anyone with a bit of nous could have a fair stab at guessing what was likely to be commercial.
Left in the dark as to future intentions, how was one to set about the task? I thought that the only sensible policy was to recommend matings that promised to deliver racehorses rather than commercial commodities. Naturally, there was no harm in their being both. Sangster was always prepared to sell a good horse - and welcome the buyer’s success. His ethos was always to trade, and selling something that turned out to be a high-class runner was good for business. Anyone who chooses to race and sell needs to sell some good horses; the market will soon shy away from what are readily recognisable as rejects.
My spell as a Sangster adviser was not crowned with exceptional results. But I did not lose too much sleep over that. There were constraints over how I could operate, not least in never knowing the budget for nominations. I might spend a lot of time researching and deciding on something that seemed appropriate, only to learn that there was no intention to spend money on that particular mare, who was required to fill a nomination to one of the stallions in whom Sangster was a major shareholder.
After my fourth trip to the Isle of Man, armed with - as I thought - some well-argued recommendations Southern Hemisphere mares, it became clear that I had been wasting my time. I arrived to learn, rather late in the day, that the boss wanted all the Stakes-winning mares and Stakes-producing mares down under to go to Danzatore, then scheduled for his first season in New Zealand.
Of course, Danzatore was a Sangster horse, and it was understandable that he would want to support him. But he was also a horse in whom I had no faith, and it was depressing to learn that my recommendations that the best mares in the Southern Hemisphere should visit such well-credentialed horses as Sir Tristram and Vain were even going to be considered. There seemed to be no point in trying to continue after that.
I never kept records of what happened with the outcome of recommended matings that did actually take place, and only a handful found a place in my memory bank. There was a Caerleon colt who went to America and won over $1million there, but his name does not come to mind now. More memorable - at least to me - were a couple who turned out to be ‘nearly’ horses, ones who had brief moments in the limelight, but whose names will register with few people now.
One was Observation Post. I was rather chuffed that Shirley Heights should be accepted as the appropriate 1985 mate for Godzilla, whose only previous Pattern winner had been a daughter of Lyphard. As the stallion’s fee had just taken a huge hike from £15,000 to £60,000, that might have been considered an unjustifiable risk, although she was recognisably a good mare, and it’s possible that a reduction was obtained.
Observation Post won both of his races as a two-year-old, allowing me to believe that he would excel at three, when most sons of his sire tended to be better. In fact, he was to finish second in all three of his races in his second season, one of them as a hot favourite for the Gr.2 Dante Stakes at York, and later as Old Vic’s runner-up in the Gr.1 Irish Derby. Close, but no cigar. Second in a Classic, but without even a Gr.3 success to his name.
A particular favourite in the Sangster broodmare band of 1986 was Snow Day, a daughter of Reliance - he of the strange forelegs - who had won twice in Gr.3 company as a three-year-old. Sangster had bought her immediately after her victory in the Gr.3 Prix de Royaumont and less than a fortnight later she had carried his colours to a triumph in the Gr.3 Prix Fille de l’Air.
To my mind she was the best mare Sangster owned, although she had yet to prove her worth as a broodmare. Her dam was a half-sister to the Gr.3 winner A Thousand Stars (Hoist The Flag), and they were out of Heavenly Body (Dark Star), a winner of the Gr.1 Matron Stakes herself and full-sister to the Gr.1 Kentucky Oaks heroine Hidden Talent, who was the grandam of the great Exceller (Vaguely Noble). This family was as exciting as any at the time, promising to gain further distinction, as it duly did. Outstanding runners to follow shortly included Broad Brush (Ack Ack), Celestial Storm (Roberto), Capote (Seattle Slew), River Memories (Riverman) and Raise A Memory (Raise A Native).
I don’t suppose there were any quibbles over my choice of a mate for Snow Day that year. For me she had to go to Sadler’s Wells, a stud novice, but one whose potential was impossible to ignore, and that was a nomination that would cost the guv’nor not a bean. We duly got a Sadler’s Wells colt out of Snow Day, he went through the ring as a yearling, and was retrieved when the bidding stopped at 49,000gns. Sent into training with Barry Hills, who had also handled Observation Post, Blue Stag won over ten furlongs at Nottingham as a two-year-old, hinting at sterling deeds over middle distances at three.
His ‘nearly’ moment came at Epsom, where he finished second in Quest For Fame’sGr.1 Derby. I hastened to congratulate/commiserate with his owner-breeder afterwards, and of course, he had quite forgotten that I had made any contribution toward the achievement. Perhaps I hadn’t anyway; maybe Snow Day was always going to Sadler’s Wells, whatever I had recommended.
Blue Stag just emulated Observation Post - a Derby second who never even won a Gr.3. They know his name in South America, where I believe he had some success as a sire, but he’s remembered here only by me and by Barry Hills, who never had the Derby winner he deserved.
As for Snow Day, perhaps Robert Sangster never had such a high opinion of her as I had. Blue Stag was just a foal when he let her go to George Strawbridge. She bred a Listed winner for him in Ionian Sea (Slip Anchor) and later went back to Sadler’s Wells to produce Oscar, another who was second in a Derby (at Chantilly) without ever achieving a Gr.3 score.
A quarter of a century has passed, and suddenly I encounter Snow Day again - as the grandam of Saturday’s Classic Trial Stakes hero Imperial Monarch. He is by Galileo, the best sire-son of Sadler’s Wells. It wasn’t such a bad idea, that mating of 1986. Could he be another Derby runner-up? Maybe he can go one better; he at least has his Gr.3 score.
Extract from European Bloodstock News