A Wonderment of German Bloodlines the Draw for Thayer

Stella Thayer and Tina Rau at Baden-Baden | Emma Berry

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Torquator Tasso, Danedream, Novellist, Star Appeal, Protectionist, Manduro, Shirocco, Lando, Almandin. All winners of some of the world's best races and with one thing in common: they were made in Germany. 

The strength and depth of German breeding will not have escaped the attention of those who pay close attention to the subject, and in fact, such is the regard in which German families are held that the country, with a diminishing pool of mares which is now well below 1,000, could be deemed to be at risk losing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Hopefully, however, a younger wave of German breeders will be encouraged to continue this brand of excellence for which their forebears have become renowned, and ample encouragement for that can be drawn from the support which has been afforded the BBAG's main yearling sale in recent years.

A little less than a fortnight ago, the most recent edition was topped by a Gestut Fahrhof-bred son of Kingman (GB), bought by American agent Jason Litt for LNJ Foxwoods, the racing name of the Roth family who employ a transatlantic approach to their racing and breeding interests. Also among the list of buyers that day was Stella Thayer, president and owner of Tampa Bay Downs racecourse in Florida, who has enjoyed some notable success as an owner and breeder in France. 

“I'd lived in France as a student, so I always thought in the back of my mind that I'd come back and spend some time,” says Thayer during her visit to Baden-Baden, having spent some of the summer in Chantilly and Deauville. “And then I thought, well, having racehorses would be quite special, since Chantilly is, to me, the most extraordinary garden for horses and people to exist. And so I bought horses.”

With the help of German-born, French-based and multilingual bloodstock agent Tina Rau, Thayer set about assembling a small but select string in training with Nicolas Clement in Chantilly, and the project was rewarded with almost instantaneous success. 

“It was extraordinary really, because Tina found me my first Grade I winner,” says the 81-year-old. “It was kind of late in life, but better late than never.”

The filly in question, Wonderment (Ire) (Camelot {GB}), won the 2018 G1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud, and though she was bought in France, she owns a decidedly German pedigree. Her dam Wiwilia (GB) (Konigstiger {Ger}) is a half-sister to the dual German Group 3 winner Wake Forest (Ger) (Sir Percy {GB}), who later won the GI Man o' War S. for Chad Brown, and they hail from the same black-type-laden family as Waldgeist (GB) (Galileo {Ire}).

Thayer continues, “So when you have that kind of success, it tends to whet your appetite. It's certainly been a very wonderful friendship with Tina and Nicolas, and a great experience to be involved with that. To have a 2-year-old win over a mile and a quarter was pretty amazing. She came from dead last, so it was quite exciting.”

With Wonderment now ensconced at Claiborne Farm, where she has a War Front filly and is back in foal to the stallion, Thayer currently has the homebred Group 3 and Listed winner Control Tower (Fr) (Youmzain {Ire}) in training with Clement, among others. The winner of the Prix Belle de Nuit over 1m6f last October and subsequently fourth behind Alpinista (GB) in the G1 Grosser Preis von Bayern, Control Tower is out of the Monsun (Ger) mare La Tour Rouge (GB), another of Rau's shrewd purchases for Thayer, from Darley back in 2013 for just 5,000gns.

“I've really been interested in trying to secure that good, strong-bred stock,” Thayer says. “It seems to be appreciated in the European process. I just hope enough of the German breeders keep their own lines as well, because I think it's very important for horses everywhere, that you have that sturdiness.

“I'm interested in the fact that the stamina lines and the hardiness is still here, especially in German bloodlines, and I think we shouldn't forget about that. I'm certainly no expert in breeding, but from a personal perspective I think that we could all, at least in the US, try to move a percentage of our races more towards the middle or long-distance again, which they once were, but they've become speed-dominated. And not to take away from speed, I mean, it's exciting, and you don't want to race a slow horse, but I just think from a balance perspective, and for the horse, its safety and development, as well as from a spectator's or bettor's perspective, it's good to have that variety.”

Germany's celebrated late stallion Monsun has been of great appeal to Thayer as a broodmare sire influence, and with Arc winner Waldgeist (GB), Breeders' Cup winner Yibir (GB), and this season's star 3-year-old colt Vadeni (Fr) just some of the recent big names out of mares by Monsun, who could argue with this approach? The devotion to Monsun's line continued in the purchase of Wildwood (Fr), by his son Maxios (GB) and a winner at Chantilly earlier this year. Maxios pops up again as the broodmare sire of the latest BBAG yearling recruit, a daughter of Holy Roman Emperor (Ire), also selected by Rau.

As the offspring of Wonderment mature in the paddocks at Claiborne, their blend of dirt and turf bloodlines should afford them the potential to race on either side of the Atlantic: the perfect situation for a Francophile breeder with an American racecourse among her portfolio, as well as horses in training in her native country with Arnaud Delacour.

Tampa Bay Downs has been owned by Thayer in partnership with her brother Howell Ferguson since 1986. A lawyer by profession, her love of horses, and later racing, was kindled from a young age.

“I rode as a child, and as minors we weren't allowed to go to racetracks in Florida at the time,” she recalls. “A friend of my father owned a local racetrack and so at the age of nine or ten, we would go and get on the top of a car, and watch the races. Later my husband and I lived on a breeding farm in New Jersey when we were first married. I think that planted the seed of gravitating my equestrian interest into racing.”

Of her involvement with Tampa Bay Downs, she adds, “Just perchance, we had been investors, and then through a number of transactions, my brother and I ended up owning it from 1986 forward, so I was dedicating a big portion of my business life and my personal life to hearing about that track.”

Much has changed in racing in the intervening years, not least the intense focus on welfare issues surrounding the worldwide thoroughbred population. And in a move that should suit Thayer's avowed love of European bloodlines, the American turf racing programme has expanded notably.

“I think there are always the challenges,” she says of running a racecourse. “But the fortunate thing for us is that we're small, and we have a very dedicated staff that really loves racing. Because we're in Florida, we have the weather, and we put in a wonderful turf course, and we care for that. 

“I think that people who love racing really do appreciate turf racing when they see it. And the handicapping, I mean, just from a business perspective, the racetracks do about 30% more on a similar number, so if you have 10 horses in a similar race, you'll bet about 30% more on the turf race. And I do notice that there are more people trying to buy turf horses.”

Thayer continues, “Most tracks have a turf course, it's just a matter of having a balanced programme. And since we race frequently, it makes it more difficult, whereas in Europe, they move around from course to course.

“So that's the challenge of expanding; we have a kind of limitation from nature. You can't tear over [the turf] too many times. We're very careful about that; we pride ourselves in trying to maintain the course, and not overuse it, so that's it's a safe surface, as safe as one can make it for horses. I've always felt the first dollars should be spent on making your track surfaces as good as you can.”

With a summer European tour now under her belt, the indefatigable owner-breeder, whose various roles in American racing include being a vice president of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, as well as a previous stint as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America (TRA), has her sights set on returning before too long.

“I hope to maybe come back for Arc weekend,” says Thayer, who has Control Tower entered for the G1 Prix de Royallieu. “I think the international quality of racing is a wonderful attribute to those who love the sport. I'd like to go to almost every racetrack, but I never made that. I've been to quite a few, but I've missed a lot of them. It's a really shared passion, and I think you're immediately drawn positively to people who care about it in the same way.”

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