Few horse people can say they’ve done it all, but Alec Head was a leading jockey of his era, a multiple champion trainer and a champion breeder, and while he’s not been immune from the “tall poppy” barbs that are a natural consequence of success in any game where winning is the objective, he is universally respected as one of the greatest of all European horsemen, and remains the only foreigner honoured by the Thoroughbred Club of America.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill CEO
Mick Goss

Last month, Cheryl and I headed off on a pilgrimage, not of the Mecca-variety, but to the home of the “high priest” of French racing and breeding. Our purpose was to pay homage to a relationship that stretches back almost 30 years, to a time when the fledgling Summerhill was embarking on its first major international ventures. With dung on our feet from the time we first sat on a potty, we knew the local racing environment pretty intimately, but our first sorties abroad were a bit like Columbus’ maiden voyage to the New World. Besides the unforgettable characters at the British Bloodstock Agency, Hastings, Phillipson, Payne-Galway, Collins, Gold, Goff and Lascelles, one man in particular, shared his encyclopedic wisdom on the game, as much because we got on from the time we first shook hands, as it was a matter of his once being in our place before himself. Few horse people can say they’ve done it all, but Alec Head was a leading jockey of his era, a multiple champion trainer and a champion breeder, and while he’s not been immune from the “tall poppy” barbs that are a natural consequence of success in any game where winning is the objective, he is universally respected as one of the greatest of all European horsemen, and remains the only foreigner honoured by the Thoroughbred Club of America.

Twenty-five years ago, I promised him I would one day journey to his storied property in the Pays d’ Auge region of the French province of Normandy, just fifteen minutes from Deauville’s fabulous Norman-styled racecourse and the Arqana sales organisation’s atmospheric complex. As life’s dictates so often determine, it seemed that whenever I was going to France, the international horseman was globe-trotting. Some time in early July, my diary told me he was on the brink of turning 90, and Cheryl and I realised our pledge called for fulfilment sooner rather than later. We needn’t have worried: as we entered the gracious grounds of the most palatial stud farm imaginable, the great door to one of France’s most beautiful chateaus framed a man of considerably fewer years, in showroom condition less than a month after hip surgery in Kentucky. Like some of the famous stallions that have sustained the excellence of the breed at Quesnay, Monsieur Head has been a prolific sire himself, and in a reception room adorned with the artistic memories of former greats, here we were in the company of sons, daughters and grandchildren who had either chalked up “champion” status in their own right, or were well on their way to it. “Legend” is an overused term in sport these days, but in this great room on this memorable day, it couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Son Freddy has made the unlikely transition from champion jockey to leading trainer in seamless style, from straddling Miesque to conditioning Goldikova and Moonlight Cloud, with all the panache his pedigree promised. Only last season, daughter Criquette’s handling of the “Arc” heroine, Treve, reminded us that her earlier exploits with Anabaa, Green Tune and Egyptband were not about inherited opportunity, but a reinforcement of her own unique talents. When Treve bolted home by “five” in record time, she signalled to the world that the Quesnay legacy was alive and well and living just up the road from where it all started, when the Head family first arrived from England some centuries ago.

Within a week of one another, Alec turned 90 and his lifelong soulmate, Ghislaine made 87, their union just a year short of 70. The birthday parties were graced by four children, eleven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren: you get the drift about the fertile sire. While history is everywhere around you at Quesnay, you’ll never quite appreciate it unless you’ve been there; nonetheless, in the very week in which Treve attempts the first post-war double in Sunday’s Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe since the giants Ribot (1955 & 1956) and Alleged (1977 & 1978), it’s worth recalling the story. Since the early 1950s, Alec served as the primary trainer to the “old” Aga Khan and Pierre Wertheimer, of the House of Chanel. By his 32nd birthday, he had already chalked up the Anglo-European “Grand Slam”, an Arc as well as an English Derby, with the Wertheimer's Lavandin, which fuelled his aspirations: he went looking for a stud farm. 

We’re told by the TDN that at the turn of the 20th century, the American railroad tycoon William Kissam Vanderbilt, Jockey Club member and major stockholder in the Sheepshead Bay racetrack in New York, bought the Quesnay chateau and more than 600 acres of land surrounding it. The same grandeur of the mansions he had built in America was applied in France, with the building of 25 houses on the property, one at every gate, and an astonishing 114-stall stable complex in the traditional Norman style of crisscrossing timber. The stable had two entrances and living quarters above the stalls, a relic from the past which bears no repetition in the modern age. Vanderbilt wanted a first-rate racing and breeding operation, and he got one. His undefeated Prestige won eight major races in the early 1900s, and became France’s champion stallion in 1914. Vanderbilt took the laurels in the Prix de Jockey Club (the French Derby) four times between 1906 and 1919, and imported the legendary Maskette from James Keene’s Castleton Lyons farm in Kentucky.

In 1920, another American, Arthur Macomber, purchased the farm from Vanderbilt’s estate lock-stock-and-barrel, whereupon Path won the fourth running of the “Arc” in 1923 under his colours. In his time, the stallion Rose Prince, sire of the Belgian Triple Crown winner Prince Rose, resided at Quesnay. Prince Rose threw a number of notable sons, and for America, he kept his best for last. In 1939 he was mated with the mare Cosquilla, who was rustled to safety at the outbreak of World War 2, carrying a colt destined for greatness. Princequillo by name, he was shipped to the United States to avoid the German bombers, though his father was not so fortunate, and was killed up the road from Deauville in the 1944 bombings.

During the war, the German commander for Normandy made the chateau his private residence. “When they arrived at farms and saw a good stallion, they tacked him up and walked him away” says Alec. The troops built bombproof bunkers on the farm, assembled anti-aircraft guns and camouflaged the houses and stable blocks. When the Allies advanced, the Germans fled, leaving everything in place, even the furniture in the chateau. These bunkers are a reminder of the brutality and the ravages of war, and with events as they are today  in Iraq, Syria and The Crimea, it seems humanity’s lessons are hard learnt.

Suspecting it might be buyable, in the winter of 1957, Alec visited the estate and found it rusted, abandoned and in a terrible state, weeds covered all the alleys, doors and fences had gone missing, coils of barbed wire packed the stores. He looked past it all, noting that Vanderbilt’s original structure was built for the ages. Sight unseen, his dad Willie agreed to join him in the deal, and Alec signed up unhesitatingly. When he finally got to see the property, his father was astonished: “You’re crazy, we’re going to ruin ourselves in this place”. That it turned out otherwise, is a testament to the many things that’ve defined Alec Head’s destiny over the decades.

Within a year, his dream was up and running, and for him, breeding and training merged in his mind. Soon enough, he travelled to America to test his ideas. Michel Henochsburg, breeder of Urban Sea, herself an Arc heroine who gained immortality as the mother of Galileo and Sea The Stars, says “Alec and Vincent O’Brien built a huge bridge between breeding and racing in Europe and the breeders of Kentucky”. Though our old friend Maurice Zilber, an Egyptian refugee who’d fled the madness of Nasser to top the French trainer’s log, had pioneered the buying of American yearlings, O’Brien for Robert Sangster and Alec Head for the Wertheimers, had even bigger budgets.

The plunder of Europe’s biggest prizes by the likes of Roberto, Mill Reef and Sir Ivor prefaced an avalanche of European investment on the other side of the Atlantic, principally for the sons of Northern Dancer. Despite unlimited budgets, Alec chose young horses with the same acuity he’d displayed in buying his run-down farm. Two purchases for the Wertheimers announced his acumen to the world: he bought Lyphard and Riverman (by Northern Dancer and Never Bend,) in the latter case, for $41 000 as a foal, and in the former for £15 000 in Newmarket, following his acquisition as a weanling by Airlie Stud’s Captain Tim Rogers, for a loss-making $35 000. With these acquisitions, Alec completed the circle of two classic French stories. He had trained Lyphard’s grand-dam Barra, while Riverman descended from the mare River Lady, whose grandsire was the now-famous Princequillo, one of the best long-distance runners in American history. Both colts were outstanding milers, and would become international celebrities at stud.

Meanwhile, Alec’s astuteness was again in evidence at the dispersal of the Widener stock, when he put a bridle on an unraced foal out of the dual Group One victress Sly Pola, (by leading sire Val De Loir) for the Wertheimers. She gave them a trio of Group winners, the best of whom was the French Guineas ace, Green Dancer, though Green Valley’s legacy did not end there. Her lesser-performed daughters formed their own dynasties in Europe, including another Arc winner in Solemia, the German millionaire Quijano (for Maine Chance’s owners, the Jacobs family) and Silasol, the beaten favourite in Treve’s Prix de Diane. An unraced daughter Irish Valley, left the European Champion Two Year Old, Alhaarth, while Europe’s top rated miler of 2010, Makfi, is a grandson. 

By any standards, Lyphard, Riverman and Green Dancer were world class stallions, and with the American dollar in rampant form, it wasn’t long before John Gaines, founder of the Beck-owned Gainesway Farm of the modern day, plunged for the trio and took them to the States. While the French breeding community still laments the sale of these horses to the States, Alec consoles himself with the memory that France was lucky to get them from America in the first place. The shareholders made a mint, and the stallions left behind a bank of their own genes before their repatriation. Riverman and Green Dancer both became champion stallions in France, and all three sired Arc victors: Riverman, the fillies Detroit and Gold River, the latter trained by Alec for the Wertheimers; Lyphard had Three Troikas for the South African-based tycoon, Arthur Pfaff of Daytona Stud fame, and Dancing Brave, one of the greatest of all Arc aces; while Green Dancer left Sauve Dancer, who surged to victory under Cash Asmussen in 1991.

It’s a sad reality of the racehorse breeding profession, that money, loads of it, performs such a significant role in the fortunes of its players. Unlike other forms of stock-farming, the capitalizing of a thoroughbred venture is as much the act of banking as it is the art of horsemanship. The commercial necessity of replenishing debt is never far from the mind of a stud farmer, unless he has a massive commercial organisation in his back pocket. As much as this was the golden epoch of French breeding, it would also be remembered as the era of tragedy: the simple reality of a market unable to afford the stud fees such horses could command abroad and the lure of the mighty dollar, meant that even men of the enormous wealth of the Aga Khan and Stavros Niarchos, were tempted to dispose of the bulk of their interests in the colossi Blushing Groom and Nureyev at that time. What else was a self-made man like Alec Head to do in the same situation? As rhetorical as the enquiry is, you cannot help wondering what French breeding might have looked like today, had it been otherwise. For that matter, what would have become of Italian breeding had Senor Tesio, in a former generation, not been compelled to part with Nearco, Ribot or Donatello?

Quesnay’s noble story has found its full expression this week, as Treve prepares for her date with destiny on Sunday. While most men of 90 would take to an armchair wondering what tomorrow would bring, as our lunch drew to its festive ending, Alec insisted we join him on his John Deere “gator”, for a tour of the farm and a chat with Treve’s mum, Trevise, and her dad, the English Derby winner Motivator. Here was another full circle, culminating in what Alec describes as a “gift from God”. At Nelson Bunker Hunt’s 1988 dispersal at Keeneland, where in bankruptcy, he famously coined the phrase “a billion dollars sure ain’t what it used to be”, Alec reclaimed the rights to the Arc heroine’s second dam Trevillari, a Riverman daughter out of a mare by Lyphard, from the French-campaigned champion, Trillion.

Treve’s heritage is an illustration of the thin line that separates ours from most other endeavours, and sustains the hope in the hearts of those whose assets lie in their instincts rather than their pockets. Her grandmother was a bust at the races, placing just once in 13 starts, yet in as bold an expression of the adage that “pedigree will always out”, her  Anabaa daughter Trevise, a winner of a single race in a modest four-contest career, is now the dam of one of the world’s best racehorses. Admittedly, Trevise’s victory included a defeat of the subsequent champion filly Six Perfections, but there was nothing else about it to recommend her.

There are two lessons in the Treve story: one is that family counts, even when it’s a bit remote. The other is that you’re never too old to breed a champion.

There are racing stories insiders love to tell. They’re the tales of being there when a great horse displays its gifts for the first time, and you think you’ve seen the galloping version of the Holy Grail. Criquette Head witnessed this early in Treve’s two year old season, as she flew past a bunch of decent lead horses in a matter of two strides. The trainer says it was like watching Wiley Coyote’s famous line in Loony Tunes: “Did you see that?”. For her, Treve is a validation of the family traditions at work. “It’s the way I was brought up”, she says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t invent anything. I learnt from my grandfather and my dad, and it still works”.

The filly still has a mountain to climb in recovering the form that took her to record-breaking glory on the same Sunday a year ago. Somehow though, if history has anything to do with it, you can’t resist the thought she will be right there when they come to the business end of the Longchamp straight. Alec Head, like his ancestors before him and his offspring behind, has made it against the odds, without the money that defined the histories of the great operations of Lord Derby, the Aga Khan, the Maktoums, the Wrights of Calumet Farm, the Niarchos family, the Woodwards, the Whitneys and the Wideners. We’re dealing with greatness here, with a man and his family who don’t know the meaning of lying down, who’ve sustained a succession in horses that defies the rule that three generations is as long as it lasts. Always the philosopher, when Alec was recognised by the Thoroughbred Club of America in 1989 for his contribution to the game, he showcased the trademark wit that typified his life. “The difference between the Americans and the French, is that in America you have Reagan, Bob Hope and Johnny Cash; in France, we have Mitterrand, no hope, and no cash”.

It was already 6:30 in the evening when he returned us to the chateau’s car park with a suggestion that we accompany him to Freddy’s yard in town. He’s 90 remember, and just a month out of invasive surgery: the only sign of his aging was the lack of trust he displayed in my driving on the wrong (French) side of the road. Our goodbyes to the spritely patriarch took place a couple of hours on, after casting our eyes over a runner or two that would be Group One heroes in a week or two. As we grow older, our eyes tend to moisten up a little more than most, but as we made our last embraces to the inevitable “when will I see you again?” most ninety year olds are likely to ask, it was clear that friends mean a lot to a man like Alec Head.

Editor’s note: At the same Bunker Hunt dispersal, Summerhill acquired a Head-bred daughter of the French Classic stallion Luthier, sold to Bunker Hunt and returned to Summerhill under the name Laughing Music. She left two relatively undistinguished runners by our own champion, Northern Guest, one of whom would produce the Group One winners, Icy Air and Ice Axe, as well as one of the early favourites for November’s R3.85million Emperors Palace Ready To Run Cup, Kosava: the other gave us the champion stayer, Amphitheatre, while yet another mare from that dispersal, coincidentally by Lyphard, would become the granddam of the Group One sprint hero, Disappear.