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Curlin - Bullville Belle, by Holy Bull - Lane's End
Lane's End - Versailles, KY | 2013 | Entered Stud 2018 | 2019 Fee $20,000

Close Putting Bucklands On The Map


Bucklands Farm & Stud stalwart Hellvelyn | Bucklands photo

By Chris McGrath

Despite the devoted posse of Staffordshire bull terriers swirling constantly about her, Roisin Close makes no bones about it. Her real pet is out there in his paddock.

Of the thousands of horses she dealt with during a 12-year apprenticeship down the road at Tweenhills Stud, Close could never have suspected that the little foal by Ishiguru (Danzig) who accompanied his dam for her next mating, back in 2005, would come to mean so much.

Hellvelyn (GB) (Ishiguru) went on to win the G2 Coventry S. but his brilliance as a juvenile had rather been forgotten by the time he came back to this corner of Gloucestershire. There had been a stint in the U.S., and a fallow final season back in Yorkshire with Bryan Smart. So here he was, already seven years old and his sire dead before he could properly make his name. If he merited a roll of the dice, nobody could expect a six. So Close’s old boss at Tweenhills, David Redvers, got together with Hellvelyn’s breeder Paul Thorman and offered her the chance to try and start a stallion on what she had only ever intended to be a boarding farm.

Though still only standing for £2,000, Hellvelyn has been handled so impressively that he has now been joined by two other stallions. Coach House (Ire) (Oasis Dream {GB}) is set to have his first runners in 2018, from a book that remarkably comprised 110 mares; while Pearl Secret (GB) (Compton Place {GB}) now has his first foals on the ground. Between them, they are putting Bucklands Farm on the map as a yeoman commercial stud with the drive and expertise to find a viable niche in a British market dominated by a handful of behemoths. But while the younger guns might best match that profile, Close insists that it is Hellvelyn who sets them an exacting standard in punching above his weight.

“He has had an uphill struggle,” Close sighs. “It’s infuriating because his stats have always been pretty impressive, given the type and quantities of mare he’s been covering. Every year he produces black-type horses. But because he doesn’t have the numbers, he’s not throwing out winners every day, every week.”

Maddeningly, it sometimes only takes a single, breakout horse to provoke the market from its stupor. Hellvelyn’s fortunes had slumped so precipitously–he only has eight yearlings coming through–that his owners were reluctantly toying with the idea of moving him on when he pulled Mrs Danvers (GB) out of his hat: unsold at a grand, unbeaten in five juvenile starts in 2016, taking in the lucrative Weatherbys Super Sprint and rounding off with the G3 Cornwallis S. Suddenly, Hellvelyn had over 60 mares queueing for his services last year.

“Mrs Danvers did give him a bit of a flurry, and he has some really nice shareholders now, which will really bolster him,” Close says. “But his stats were always good. Part of me thinks if we doubled his fee more people would send him mares.”

Unfortunately, Mrs Danvers disappeared after meeting her first defeat on her sole start last year, but she is back in training with Jonathan Portman. If she can bounce back, that would help her sire ride out the next two, very small crops until that bigger, better book comes through. However, delighted that Hellvelyn is back from the brink, again likely to cover over 50 mares this spring, Close confesses that she still feels aggrieved on his behalf even when the farm’s two younger sires are credited with greater glamour.

“We’ve probably more affection for him than a business should have,” she admits. “Paul Thorman probably has even more affinity for the horse, having bred him. But we do believe in him, and just want him to do well. Yes, he’s my pet too: he’s part of the family, so to speak, me having met him as a foal. And of course I knew his sire as well. Ishiguru was a beautiful horse, and David [Redvers] was adamant he’d succeed. But then he got injured in the paddock. We thought we’d fixed him, too, when it all went south: it was so unfortunate.”

“Hellvelyn has the most amazing temperament, and a lovely personality,” she adds. “Still a stallion, but a kind horse, you just click with him; he’s easy, knows his job, just a lovely chap to work with. You should see him puffing up his chest when he sees all the others at a stallion parade. And that temperament I think is the key to what he passes on. All his fillies want to do is work and eat, they’re so laidback.”

The Mrs Danvers spike enabled his owners to sell 10 shares in Hellvelyn, adapting a model introduced to Bucklands by Ed Harper of Whitsbury Manor Stud when he partnered with Thorman and Close in Coach House. The idea was that an upfront payment–securing two covers per share, for the first four years–not only helped fund marketing, insurance and so on, but also increased the spread of breeders with a stake in the rookie’s success.

“And these days that’s what it seems to boil down to: bums on seats,” Close reasons. “It’s become very clear it’s all about numbers. Which in many ways is a shame. Because you can’t compete with stallions covering 150, 200 mares. That’s nuts, in a way. But it does mean Coach House has a much better chance because we managed to get him so many mares in his first book, and just shy of 100 in his second. So he has plenty of ammunition. We all know about overproduction–but you can’t afford to turn a mare down, because you just don’t know where that winner’s going to come from.”

Coming to a working farm like this usefully informs the perspective of those of us dismayed by the headlong rush for unproven sprint sires. In each individual case, after all, you’ll often be dealing with someone like Close: this down-to-earth, hard-working horsewoman, trying to make ends meet across 70 acres in a madly competitive environment. (In this particular case, moreover, you’re dealing with someone doing so even as she copes with bereavement; Close lost her partner last September.)

As such, she has little choice but to make the most of her chances in a sector that prohibits access to anything other than what she candidly acknowledges as “cheap speed.” For the time being, at any rate. Bucklands is soon likely to go on the market, having expanded to the point that Close is renting two other sites. And the dream is some day to stand a stallion who breaks through that commercially restrictive ceiling; who dismantles the absurd paradox that the yearlings who sell best are not necessarily the ones most likely to prove good racehorses.

“That is ridiculous, in some ways,” Close concedes. “But it’s difficult at this end of the market. For a long time Darley were champions of the smaller studs, because they would use them for their lesser sires. And they still do, in a few cases. But they have realised there’s money to be made from their ‘Club’ horses. That was probably a bit of a kick in the teeth, for some people, because in some ways you just can’t compete.”

“But it is cheaper to send a mare here–you don’t have to pay Newmarket prices–and it’s not quite, but almost, more important to get the mares than the money. Because what we’re trying to do is establish stallions. We’re not trying to make a shedload of money. If it’s a choice between selling nominations and getting the mares, and having to give a few away, then that’s what you do. Of course the stud has to make money, otherwise it’s not a viable concern; but I guess you hope that if you can establish a sire, you can start moving up his fee.”

Coach House, certainly, could hardly have a more eligible commercial profile: a very early, very fast Ballydoyle 2-year-old, thwarted only by the freakish No Nay Never (Scat Daddy) in the Norfolk. Though Coach House suffered the compulsory third-season dip last year, down to 55 mares, the reception of his first foals at the sales means that he is busiest of the trio this spring.

“You’d think this could be a year you can do very well out of him, if he does have some good runners, as you’d hope,” Close says. “He was unlucky to run into No Nay Never but still broke the track record that day. People say: ‘Oh, he only ran at two and then injured himself.’ And I say: ‘Damned right he did, because otherwise he wouldn’t be three grand-and he wouldn’t be here!’ He’s huge value. And he has the pedigree behind him, too, by Oasis Dream out of a lovely group-winning mare.”

“Potentially he could be the next Showcasing (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB}), he really could. Having such a good son of Oasis Dream already, Whitsbury wasn’t really an option for Coach House. But Ed [Harper] is so on the ball, he’s made a real niche for those stallions down there. And he’s really helped me realise what needs to be done.”

Close is no less grateful to Thorman and especially Redvers, who broke with tradition by appointing a young woman to supervise stallions at Tweenhills. “That was a real opportunity and I ended up managing the day-to-day operation of the stud,” she says. “I learned so much there, again working with commercial stallions. We’d have nearly 400 mares going through every year, and David’s so good at what he does. Of course, it’s always difficult if you’re working for someone else–you’re fulfilling someone else’s dreams, really, but the work is just as hard. So when this place came on the market, just the other side of the village, my parents helped me buy it.”

“I thought I’d just be boarding and running walk-ins to Tweenhills and Overbury. But after a while I was doing horses before work, at lunchtime, and after work, so I had to make a decision. And then David and Paul came to me with the opportunity of having Hellvelyn. With Ed now, as well, I feel very lucky to have the input of three people so well established in the industry.”

But then Close, from tenuous beginnings in girlhood riding lessons funded by a paper round in Cambridge, had managed to surround herself with the very best even during her inception into the bloodstock world. A former colleague of her father–himself an animal nutritionist, specialising in pigs, at a research institute–had gone to the Gluck Equine Research Center in Lexington and secured her an internship at Taylor Made.

Close remembers sitting miserably at Gatwick, full of fear and resentment–and, needless to say, loved every minute. “It was amazing, the best two years of my life,” she says. “Everything was on a scale you don’t see anywhere other than Kentucky. Daddy Joe [Taylor] was a proper inspiration, and I had some of the best young mares there in an old converted tobacco barn. User Friendly (GB) (Slip Anchor {GB}) came to me as a maiden; I took Mariah’s Storm (Rahy) to Storm Cat as a maiden [to produce Giant’s Causeway]; phenomenal mares, worth millions, you just took for granted in this little old barn.”

After returning to complete a stud management course at Hartpury College, and a couple of stints elsewhere, Close would find her big break next door at Tweenhills. And if Bucklands is hardly Taylor Made as yet, then it is already an achievement of which she can be proud.

The arrival of Pearl Secret testifies to the reputation she is forging here. Unlike the other two stallions, she serves chiefly as landlady rather than co-proprietor, but Salcey Forest Stud, John Dance and the other shareholders have recognised how she is helping this neighbourhood expand its footprint in British commercial breeding.

Pearl Secret is a remarkable project, standing at £4,000 after being salvaged for just 42,000gns at the Tattersalls Horses-in-Training Sale in 2016. As a Group 2 winner, twice beaten no more than 1 1/2 lengths in the G1 King’s Stand S., the striking chestnut had demonstrably gone to market with one or two issues. But those were successfully resolved and, combining a highly commercial track record with an intriguing outcross pedigree, he secured 60 mares in his first season.

“He’s similar to Hellvelyn in that he’s come to stud later in life,” Close says. “But they took a punt on him and it’s worked out really well. The lads at Salcey Forest have done a great job–

contacting everyone who bred a winner by Compton Place, that kind of thing–and I think this horse represents proper English sprint breeding. He might not be on everyone’s list, as the fashionable horse, but the shareholders have brought him some really good mares. So his first crop has every chance of being very decent, and they will continue to support him.”

Close says three stallions is probably enough, for now: it is her hands-on approach that is making things work, so she does not want to outgrow its reach. Even as it is, between matings, walkouts and her own band of 10, she accommodated over 200 mares last year. And, if anything, her personal travails in the meantime have only confirmed her sense of good fortune; her determination to keep making the most of every chance that falls her way.

“The best way to deal with stuff like that is to be busy,” she shrugs. “And I’m so lucky to do what I love. Even on a bad day, when the horses are only giving problems and it’s pissing with rain, you go back in and think you could be in a lot worse places than this. Having people who believe in you, that’s what it’s about. And if you get opportunities, you bloody well take them, because you’re not going to get them twice.”

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