By John Berry
The Haras du Quesnay dispersal at the forthcoming Arqana December Breeding Stock Sale will be one of the most notable bloodstock events of recent years, Quesnay having been synonymous with excellence for longer than most people can remember. Its history is that of the Head family, a family which is revered the world over not only for its horsemanship and understanding of the bloodstock game, but also for its integrity. The Quesnay story is the Head story, and within it lie the stories of many of the greatest horses of the modern era.
The fortunes of the Head family thrived in the years after the second World War. William Head's stable in Chantilly had done well in the inter-war years but in 1947 he found that he had a real star on his hands. In the spring he sent Le Paillon (Fr) over to England to run in the Champion Hurdle at the National Hunt Meeting at Cheltenham and, with the trainer's 22-year-old son Alec in the saddle, he ran a mighty race to finish second to the local champion National Spirit (GB). In the autumn Le Paillon scaled even greater heights, winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Alec Head took out his own training licence that year and it was soon clear that he was a chip off the old block. Before long he was training for two of Europe's most established and successful owner/breeders, the Aga Khan III and Pierre Wertheimer, the co-founder (with Coco Chanel) of the Chanel cosmetics empire. A large batch of the Aga Khan's horses arrived in his stable from England in the autumn of 1951 and there was also a recruit from Italy. The Aga Khan and his son Prince Aly Khan had bought Nuccio (Ity) and this proved to be an inspired purchase. In 1952 Nuccio won the Coronation Cup at Epsom early in the summer before taking the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in the autumn, thus allowing Alec Head to emulate his father as a winning trainer of France's greatest race only five years after Le Paillon's victory.
Alec Head was soon providing similar success for M. Wertheimer. Most notably, in 1955 Vimy (Fr) became the first overseas-trained horse to win England's recently established weight-for-age feature, the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth S. at Ascot. The following year Lavandin (Fr) won the biggest race of all, the Derby at Epsom.
With the Head family fortunes so buoyant, William Head decided to lay foundations which could take the family's involvement to the next level, by buying a stud. The property chosen was Haras du Quesnay, which had a rich history as one of the premier Thoroughbred farms in France. Its heyday had been early in the 20th century when it was owned by the American millionaire William K. Vanderbilt, who was living in France at the time. During his ownership, two Quesnay stallions became champion sire in France: Prestige (Fr) in 1914 and Maintenon (Fr) in 1917. However, its glory days seemed to be in the past by the time that William Head bought the property in 1958. With the help of his sons Alec and Peter, though, he set about restoring it to its former glory and then taking it to unprecedented heights.
Before long, Haras du Quesnay once again boasted one of the strongest sires' rosters in Europe. Its stalwarts in the 1960s included Prince Taj (Fr), Snob (Fr) and Le Fabuleux (Fr), the last-named being a son of Vimy who had been trained by William Head to win the Prix du Jockey-Club in 1964. Prince Taj and Snob both became champion sire of France, the former in 1967 and '68, the latter in 1969.
Neither of these two champions, though, remained at Quesnay indefinitely. Traditionally, the major studs are owned by extremely wealthy people who can subsidise the operations with money from other sources. The Heads, though, were horsemen through and through. Operating at this level required–and still requires–massive capital and ongoing investment. Hence the business has always had to be run on business-like lines, which sometimes means selling assets when their value is highest. An extremely good offer from America for Prince Taj, who had retired to stud in 1960, had already been accepted by the time that that horse became champion sire; while Snob's success meant that he, too, was the subject of an offer too good to refuse and he thus headed to Japan in 1972.
Alec Head had been the beneficiary of an Aga Khan reorganisation in 1951 but in 1964 a rationalisation by the young HH Aga Khan IV saw Francois Mathet appointed as the principal trainer for the Aga Khan Studs. Head had done very well for the operation, including with the British Classic winners Rose Royale II (Fr) and Taboun (Fr) in the late '50s and with Charlottesville (Fr) in the Prix du Jockey-Club in 1960, only days after HH Aga Khan IV had taken the helm of the family's studs on the death of his father Prince Aly Khan. However, Head's stable was going so well that the loss of the Aga Khan's horses did little to diminish his success. Neither did the death of Pierre Wertheimer in 1965. The great sportsman's racing and breeding operations were taken over by his widow Germaine (who was to outlive her husband by nine years) and their son Jacques, and the success of Wertheimer-owned, Head-trained horses became ever more notable a feature of top-class European racing.
In the early '70s, two outstanding colts helped to take this alliance to greater heights still. In 1972 the brilliant 3-year-old colts Riverman and Lyphard won five top-level races between them, Riverman taking the Poule d'Essai des Poulains, Prix d'Ispahan and Prix Jean Prat, and Lyphard landing the Prix Jacques le Marois and Prix de la Foret. Both horses retired to Quesnay and both became champion sire of France; and both were sold to America, Lyphard going to Gainesway Farm in 1978 and Riverman following two years later. Each continued to churn out top-class horses, most notably when European racing was lit up in the mid '80s by the outstanding Lyphard colt Dancing Brave and the tough-as-teak Riverman mare Triptych.
Just as William Head had been helped in the development of Quesnay by his sons, so was Alec Head helped by his own children. Freddy, Criquette and Martine all followed their father into the game. Freddy became a jockey for his grandfather and his father at a young age, riding the first of his four Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winners, the William Head-trained Bon Mot (Fr), in 1966 when aged only 19. His third win in the great race came 10 years later when winning for his father on the Jacques Wertheimer homebred Ivanjica. Freddy, of course, subsequently became a very successful trainer, his finest hours in that role provided by the great Wertheimer homebred Goldikova (Ire). It didn't take Criquette long to become a top-class trainer, and she saddled the first of her three Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winners in 1979 when the Lyphard filly Three Troikas (Fr) won the great race, owned by her mother Ghislaine and ridden by her brother.
As well as building up one of the strongest sires' rosters in Europe, the Heads also developed Quesnay as one of the most successful nurseries, producing a stream of high-class homebreds for themselves and also rearing many champions for their clients. A classic example of a horse in the latter category was Robert Sangster's 1980 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe heroine Detroit (Fr), a daughter of Riverman who was bred by Societe Aland and was bought by Sangster as a foal for a sum reportedly in the region of a million francs. She ended up with the rare distinction of being an Arc winner who bred an Arc winner, her son Carnegie (Ire) taking the great race in 1994. Sangster had previously raced Detroit's older half-sister Durtal (Ire), a Quesnay-raised daughter of Lyphard who had won the G1 Cheveley Park S. in 1976. She too went on to breed a champion: Gildoran (Ire), winner of the Ascot Gold Cup in 1984 and '85.
A subsequent champion who was raised at Quesnay for Ecurie Aland was Ravinella, who won the 1,000 Guineas in 1988 in the Ecurie Aland livery to become the second of the four 1,000 Guineas winners trained by Criquette. In a pleasing echo of the importance which family has played in the Quesnay success story, Ravinella was ridden by the Australian jockey Gary Moore, whose father George had been an outstandingly good stable jockey for Alec Head in the '60s. Five years previously Criquette had won the 1,000 Guineas for the first time when Ma Biche (whose granddam was a half-sister to Vimy) won under Freddy. Ma Biche started her racing career in Ghislaine Head's colours and ended it racing for Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum.
The best horses to carry Ghislaine Head's colours at that time, though, were the chestnut homebred Bering (GB) and the champion sprinter Anabaa. The former was France's outstanding 3-year-old of 1986 when he was an easy winner of the Prix du Jockey-Club under Gary Moore, thus helping his sire, the Quesnay resident Arctic Tern (GB), to secure that season's sires' premiership. Many horses inferior to Bering have won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, but he was unfortunate in that the 1986 edition was one of the best ever and he could only finish second, splitting the two aforementioned champions Dancing Brave and Triptych. The Anabaa story is a lovely one, not least for the fact that it reflects great credit both on the Heads and on the late Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum. The latter bred Anabaa and put him into training with Criquette. When the horse was diagnosed as a wobbler with a very pessimistic prognosis, his breeder gave him to the Heads. Miraculously, the colt recovered from this usually incurable condition. When he did so, the Heads, showing typical decency, offered to give him back; but the Sheikh, as ever a true gentleman, replied that a gift was a gift, and the horse was theirs to keep.
Thus Anabaa, owned by Ghislaine Head, trained by Criquette Head and ridden by Freddy Head, became Europe's champion sprinter as a 4-year-old in 1996. In time, like Bering, he became a stalwart of the Quesnay sires' roster (most famously producing the aforementioned Goldikova) at a time when Highest Honor (Fr) was also a long-standing fixture at the stud. The last-named was one of three Quesnay residents to win France's sires' championship during the 1990s, along with Saint Cyrien (Fr) and Green Dancer (who had moved to America by the time that he bred his best son, the 1991 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Suave Dancer).
It would be a big statement to say that Quesnay saved the best until last, bearing in mind how many champions had gone before Treve (Fr). However, one of the most recent Quesnay stars has also been one of the best, and certainly the only one able to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe twice. The mighty Treve, a filly by Motivator (who was standing in England when she was conceived but who subsequently moved to Quesnay) from the Anabaa mare Trevise, didn't attract much attention when sent to the Arqana October Yearling Sale in 2010 so she was bought back for €22,000. She went into training with Criquette and, wearing the red Haras du Quesnay silks, she galloped to Classic glory when taking the Prix de Diane in 2013, beating the subsequent impressive Irish Oaks winner Chicquita (Ire) by four lengths. She was then sold privately to Sheikh Joaan al Thani and won a further five Group 1 races including, famously, the Arc twice. Ultimately she came close to becoming the only treble winner of the great race, Criquette's skilful training enabling her to hold her form long enough so that she was able to run agonisingly well in her bid for that unprecedented third triumph, finishing just over two lengths behind Golden Horn (GB) when fourth in 2015.
One of life's saddest truisms is that all good things must come to an end, and now, five months after the death at Alec Head, arguably the most respected racing man in Europe, Haras du Quesnay is being dismantled. This is the end of a very special era, but the one certainty is that the influence of the Head family and the Quesnay bloodlines will live forever.