Golden Age For Nielsen

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Bjorn Nielsen leads in Stradivarius at Ascot | Royal Ascot

By Emma Berry

As a Plan B goes, owning and breeding the winner of what was widely agreed to be the most thrilling clash of the week at Royal Ascot is none too shabby.

Bjorn Nielsen has now made welcome room for a Gold Cup within the steadily growing trophy collection of his prized stayer Stradivarius (Ire) (Sea The Stars {Ire}), who first rose to prominence at the same meeting 12 months earlier when winning the G2 Queen’s Vase. That victory, however, was 20 days later and two furlongs farther than his original target.

“I breed stayers by default really,” says Nielsen, whose 13 broodmares and their young stock graze alongside those of the Lloyd Webbers and their select clients at the British and Irish sister farms of Watership Down Stud and Kiltinan Castle Stud.

“I’ve had about five of them now—Assessor (Ire), Biographer (GB), Masked Marvel (GB), Michelangelo (GB) and Stradivarius—I didn’t breed them all, some of them were purchased, but all of those horses were really bought or bred with the Derby in mind.

“I obviously haven’t got the formula quite right because they’ve turned into really good stayers—not that I mind at all because I love the staying races more than anything apart from the Derby. I think the best race this year [at Ascot]—not the best performance but the best race—was the Gold Cup, no doubt. It’s the most exciting in my mind but the best performance was from Alpha Centauri (Ire).”

If Stradivarius provided the main course then no less a satisfying dessert was served 24 hours later by Agrotera (Ire), like the Niarchos family’s Alpha Centauri a daughter of Mastercraftsman (Ire), and another to bear the black jacket and yellow cap of the now familiar Nielsen silks. The sight of the lightly raced 3-year-old scything through the 23-runner field under a classic Jamie Spencer hold-up ride was an equally memorable display. The Sandringham H. may have lost its listed status this year but it surely won’t be long before Agrotera’s name is etched large in black type.

“It was a pretty good week, that’s for sure,” says her breeder. “Those kind of weeks aren’t going to happen too often—I’m not Coolmore or Sheikh Mohammed so I know it’s a rarity to breed two winners at Royal Ascot.”

Stradivarius hails from a Wildenstein family whose staying credentials have been further embellished in recent years by the G1 Melbourne Cup winner Protectionist (Ger) (Monsun {Ger}), and Agrotera’s origins are no less sturdy, despite her two victories at a mile. Her great grandam Sacarina (GB) (Old Vic {GB}) has been responsible for a trio of German Classic winners—all by Monsun—in Samum (Ger), Schiaparelli (Ger) and Salve Regina (Ger), and it is their full-sister Sahel (Ger), bought by the Wertheimers as a yearling, who provided Agrotera’s dam Lombatina (Fr) (King’s Best), bought by Jeremy Brummitt for Nielsen in 2014.

Bringing a mare by King’s Best into the fold has given Nielsen the opportunity for some inbreeding to his dam Allegretta (GB) (Lombard {Ger})—a pattern seen in this year’s Derby winner Masar (GB) (New Approach {Ire})—through the use of what must by now be his favourite stallion. Lombatina’s two foals to follow Agrotera, both fillies, are also both daughters of Sea The Stars.

He says, “Agrotera is pretty unusual in that she is very stout on her dam’s side and though her dam is by King’s Best, who was a miler, it’s not a family you expect to be really fast. However, I saw that her dam had been out early as a 2-year-old. I would have expected that she would be more one for September time but she won first time up over six furlongs by six lengths in about June, which was quite surprising. She was a very nice individual but she also has a pedigree which makes her easy to mate. There are a lot of options. King’s Best is a three-parts brother to Urban Sea and we’ve tried to double up on one of the best broodmares by using her Guineas-winning grandson. We’ll see what happens.”

Even without the replication of Allegretta, what has happened when Nielsen has used Sea The Stars in the past has been more than encouraging. Not only does he own the pre-eminent stayer of the moment in Stradivarius but also the talented Almodovar (GB). Thrice a winner at two and three, he made a comeback from a 589-day lay-off at the age of six to finish just two lengths off another subsequent Royal Ascot winner Crystal Ocean (GB) (Sea The Stars {Ire}) in the G3 Gordon Richards S. in April followed by a runner-up slot behind Recoletos (Fr) (Whipper) in the G1 Prix d’Ispahan. Frustratingly for his patient owner-breeder, Almodovar has now been temporarily sidelined again. Nielsen is understandably fond of him, not least for his obvious ability but for the fact that he is a grandson of his foundation mare, the dual listed winner and G1 Cheveley Park S. runner-up My Branch (GB) (Distant Relative {GB}).

“The My Branch family dominates the band a little bit and it really started with Tante Rose (GB), although I didn’t buy her first,” Nielsen explains.

“I remember watching her win her maiden when she was with Barry Hills and thinking to myself that she would be a group-winning filly. Then when the December catalogue came out I saw that her dam My Branch was in it. At that time she’d had three offspring and Tante Rose was the third. And then the following year Tante Rose came up from Wafic Said’s dispersal and obviously I’d followed her pretty closely having bought My Branch. I took a chance that I could keep her in training and sent her to Roger Charlton after a certain vet told me she’d never run again, but she ran three times and won all three culminating in the Haydock Sprint Cup.”

Tante Rose’s half-sister Melodramatic (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells) was later also sent by Nielsen to Charlton’s Beckhampton stable.

“Roger ran Melodramatic first time out in the Washington Singer, which was a good indication of what he thought of her because he wouldn’t often run a filly first time out against the colts in a listed race,” says Nielsen.

“She didn’t turn out as good as we hoped but she was a nice filly. She’s been unlucky as she’s had three foals who have died in various ways but Almodovar is out of her and he’s a seriously good horse. He had some bone bruising but ran very well off a long lay-off and then we went to Paris but Recoletos was just too good for him that day. Unfortunately he has had another small injury but the prognosis is good.”

While the wait continues for a further comeback, the bar is being set almost impossibly high by the John Gosden-trained Stradivarius, who will hopefully be seen next attempting to retain his G1 Goodwood Cup crown.

“He lost a shoe and was quite lame after the [Gold Cup],” says Nielsen. “There’s a good six weeks between races so I’m pretty hopeful that he’ll show up. John knows how to get him ready for the big occasion.”

Having broken his maiden at two in November, just three weeks before his illustrious stablemate Enable (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}) over the same mile of Newcastle’s Tapeta course, Stradivarius made a low-key start to his sophomore season by winning a Beverley handicap. It wasn’t long before he posted the first of his Royal Ascot victories before lowering the colours of no less a rival than last year’s Gold Cup winner Big Orange (GB) (Duke Of Marmalade {Ire}) at Goodwood and running third to Capri (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) and Crystal Ocean in an epic battle for the St Leger. Nielsen did, however, come close to losing him when he narrowly missed his reserve price at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale.

“He was a really nice looking yearling, and funnily enough he was a big yearling, which he’s not now.” He recalls. “I had a price on him which wasn’t that far away from where he went in the ring, and I was also made an offer afterwards and I just didn’t sell him. I can’t afford to keep all my colts. I don’t pick and choose and I’ll put what people think are my best colts through the ring and I will sell. I’m lucky that I still have him. There have been others that I’ve bought back before that haven’t turned out so well but I’m unbelievably lucky just to own a horse like him and I’m also very lucky that he came back. Stradivarius and Almodovar are both by Sea The Stars and they both have fantastic temperaments. When they go out on the course they are like police horses, they don’t turn a hair.”

With earnings just shy of £1 million at present, Stradivarius’s Gold Cup win puts him in the unique position of having the opportunity to become the first horse to challenge for the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million, which was launched in the spring. He needs ‘only’ to add a couple of Cups—Goodwood and Lonsdale—to this season’s haul which already includes the Gold and Yorkshire varieties. Despite the lucrative incentive on offer, Nielsen is sensibly taking a race-by-race approach to the summer targets.

“As far as the bonus goes I’ve always really been of the mind that horses aren’t like motorbikes that you can take out and off you go,” he says. “Anything can happen at any time, so I’m not focused on it at all. I’d like to see him get to the Goodwood Cup in one piece and if he won and came out of that then obviously, unless he wasn’t in top order, you’d be pretty much forced to go after the bonus. You don’t turn down £1 million but it’s not something I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about Goodwood only at this stage.”

As far as Nielsen’s breeding empire goes, he clearly has another track uppermost in his mind: Epsom. The training centre surrounding the home of the world’s premier Classic may now be diminished in the path of the greater London sprawl but for Nielsen, who moved there as a child in the 1970s, it remains the place which, though not responsible for igniting the racing spark, certainly fanned the flames of an interest which would become a passion.

“I was born in South Africa and grew up there for the first 11 years but even before I lived in Epsom, the blue riband of the Turf was very interesting to me,” says Nielsen, who has dual South African and American citizenship but spends much of each summer in Britain, indulging his twin loves of racing and tennis.

“When I was a kid they didn’t have TV in South Africa in those days because of censorship but I used to listen on the radio to the commentary of Sea Cottage’s races—he was a great horse in South Africa who won 20 out of 24 starts and was actually shot by a bookmaker who wanted to prevent him winning the Durban July, so his story was fascinating to me.

“Then being in Epsom I saw the horses most days walking around town, it was a much bigger training centre back then. I used to go to the Downs the day before the Derby and see Vincent O’Brien and Lester Piggott—they’d take the horses for a spin around Tattenham Corner in those days.”

He continues, “There’s more history and more talk about the Derby than any other race so that’s why I’ve always been focused on it. The whole Pattern system is really built around the Epsom Derby. There are plenty of other great races to win but that is the race to win, that’s my focus. For me it’s still the greatest race. It used to be that you won the Derby and then as a 4-year-old you’d try to win the Gold Cup. Obviously times have changed but it would be great to see that again.”

In Masked Marvel, purchased as a yearling from breeder Newsells Park Stud, Nielsen has come closest to achieving his Epsom dream. The son of Montjeu (Ire) was eighth in the Derby and went on to win the St Leger in 2011.

Now 60, the breeder will continue in his aim, but whether or not he falls short in that particular quest he can take pride in having bred a colt who has been one of the stars of the last two seasons. Whatever the outcome of the new stayers’ challenge, Stradivarius is already one in a million.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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