Bonne Chance Team Making Their Own Luck

Alberto Figueiredo | courtesy of Bonne Chance Farm

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Playing chess with nature. That's what Jean-Luc Lagardère called it, and the analogy has always resonated with Alberto Figueiredo.

How, for instance, do we account for the sheer size of King Of Steel (Wootton Bassett {GB}), who sealed his place among the elite sophomores of Europe with his Group 1 success at Ascot last Saturday? You don't particularly see that bulk in the sire; and, tragically, it wasn't in the dam either. In her case, the disparity proved fatal.

“She was a good, medium-sized mare but he was so big it caused her to hemorrhage when foaling,” explains Figueiredo, CEO of Bonne Chance Farm. “That's how we lost her. We understand, that's part of the game. We deal with live animals and, unfortunately, something like will happen from time to time. He was well raised by a foster mare. But when you look at him, and then look at his parents–well, the gene is not obvious, it's not right there. You might have to go back to the fourth, fifth generation. And that's the chess.”

Figueiredo is duly impatient with any attempt to reduce breeding to a simple formula, as though everything comes down to slapping this bloodline over that one. He remembers how one of the best judges of horseflesh he ever saw, in his native Brazil, never even brought a catalogue to the sales. Long experience in different hemispheres tells Figueiredo that such horsemanship transcends cultures, languages, racing environments. We should all be able to learn something, then, from an astounding year for this small but most cosmopolitan of farms.

King of Steel | Megan Ridgwell

Figueiredo modestly protests that there's nothing so extraordinary about the program he operates for Brazilian entrepreneur Gilberto Sayão Da Silva.

“I don't think we have a very unusual program,” he says amiably. “I would not put that way. I think we do the same kind of thing that you normally have to do with horses.”

But nor can we merely say that it's all in the name: French for “good luck”. Something, surely, merits attention when a crop of just 14 Bonne Chance graduates, in the sophomore class of 2023, should include not just King Of Steel but also GI Woody Stephens S. winner Arabian Lion (Justify). On the one hand, a colt that briefly burst clear in the ultimate test of the Classic Thoroughbred, over 12 furlongs at Epsom, until collared late on his first run of the season, and just the third of his life; and, on the other, a top-class dirt sprinter.

The fact is that Bonne Chance, for a boutique operation, has quite exceptional geographical reach: both in blood and schools of horsemanship. King Of Steel himself–conceived in France, foaled in Kentucky, trained in Newmarket–is an apt symbol of internationalism. For Bonne Chance has evolved as an offshoot of the leading South American program Stud RDI, which was launched in 2008 by Sayão in partnership with Paulo Fernando de Oliveira. In 2013, after a tentative experiment at Tattersalls the previous year, Figueiredo (along with colleagues Philippe Jousset and Fernando Garcia) picked out three yearling fillies at Arqana and sent them to Mikel Delzangles. Each has since become a black-type producer.

At €95,000, the least expensive was Eldacar (GB) (Verglas {Ire}), who proved a modest but sound staying handicapper. “She had a good pedigree,” Figueiredo recalls. “Not a fashionable one, perhaps, but she was a beautiful mare and at that time our program was all breed-to-race.”

Eldacar started her breeding career in Normandy, but was soon transferred to the 300-odd acres previously known as Regis Farms on the Pisgah Pike, acquired in 2015. “There was no reason to have 10 mares here, and five over there,” Figueiredo explains. “Having bought this land, we said we'd concentrate them all in one place.”

Bonne Chance had started out with yearling fillies, rather than broodmare prospects, so that the team could get to know them inside out. That way, a complementary influence might be sought from matings.

“People can choose nicks because that's what they think the market wants,” Figueiredo says. “I'm not opposing them, that's okay as a way to conduct their business. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to believe in those scientific equations. But I'm more like, 'Okay, this is a nice filly. She has talent but Mikel has brought us the information that she's more of a galloper, so she needs a little more speed.' And we were lucky enough, at that time, to be part of the Wootton Bassett syndicate. So we could bring in some speed that way.

“Maybe doing something like that won't work immediately. Maybe you need another generation. You can never say we will definitely get this, or that. But that's the same as when we mix blood from South America in the United States or Europe. You might not be able to say why a combination has worked. But when it does, you know that you have only achieved those results from having an open mind.”

Arabian Lion at Spendthrift | Sara Gordon

A perfect example is Ivar (Brz) (Agnes Gold {Jpn}, the program's breakout success in the United States. A domestic Group 1 winner in Argentina as a juvenile, he was sent to Paulo Lobo and won the GI Shadwell Turf Mile before being involved in three consecutive finishes of the GI Breeders' Cup Mile.

“His second dam came to United States from Chile,” says Figueiredo. “She had a Smart Strike filly we sent to Brazil, where she was very smart, a Group 2 winner. And then we brought her to a Japanese stallion, Agnes Gold by Sunday Silence. And then came Ivar. So, you could see how it can work.”

King Of Steel did not have such an exotic background. Nonetheless the market remained too insular to prevent agent Alex Elliott having to pay more than $200,000 on behalf of Amo Racing at the Keeneland September Sale of 2021. A Wootton Basset was challenging enough. One that size, however, was a bridge too far for most.

“We had high expectations,” Figueiredo recalls. “Don't get me wrong, he brought good money. But people kept saying he was too big. What's the problem in being big? If big means slow, well, he's never been that. He was always a straightforward horse, never had any problems. But his size did scare a lot of people.”

Because of his build, and also because his dam improved with maturity, Figueiredo is confident that King Of Steel will keep thriving if kept in training. But first he is set to return to his native soil for the Breeders' Cup.

Happily, despite the loss of his dam, Bonne Chance now finds itself with a valuable breeding prospect in King Of Steel's full sister Macadamia (Fr). Though not to be confused with her GI Gamely S.-winning namesake (as it happens, a Brazilian-bred), the 4-year-old has won a maiden and allowance race at Horseshoe Indianapolis from 13 starts.

“She's likely to be bred in Europe,” Figueiredo says. “She's much smaller than her brother. If you put them together, she'll look like a weanling. They're both gray, so if you stood her behind him you will lose her. That's the chess again!”

There are, of course, ways of securing your queen on the genetic chessboard. One is to borrow the depth offered by Unbound (Distorted Humor) when acquired for $310,000 at the Keeneland November Sale of 2015, her granddam being none other than Personal Ensign.

“I strongly believe in the foundation of family,” Figueiredo says. “Being a 20-mare operation, we don't have the numbers, money or time to try a different way. I have to reduce the probability of mistakes. So I like to go to a farm, a family that you know produces. Of course, you still have to take your chance, even then, but you know that the substance is there.”

Ivar | Coady Photography

Unbound was one that paid off, and quickly: her 2017 foal, a Giant's Causeway colt, made $450,000.

“And a couple of years later we sent Unbound to Justify for a little bit of size, because she is a compact, Distorted Humor type,” Figueiredo explains. “Again, chess! It did not work as we expected. She had a small, late foal. So I said, 'Okay, let's not put him in the yearling sales, he's not ready.' So we gave him time and sent him to the 2-year-old sales. And that worked perfectly.”

Prepared and sold by Hidden Brook, where Figueiredo's cousin Sergio de Sousa is a managing partner, the colt made $600,000 from Zedan Racing Stables at OBS April. As Arabian Lion, he briefly threatened to give Bonne Chance prospects of a double Derby bid, at both Churchill and Epsom, but ultimately confirmed a single turn to be his métier.

Arabian Lion has now retired to Spendthrift as Justify's first Grade I winner. Of course, his sire has also made an immediate and spectacular impact in Europe. And, if weathervane is finally turning back towards genetic transfusion between hemispheres, then no farm of its size can have trimmed its sails better than Bonne Chance.

That's a gratifying state of affairs for a man whose international Turf education began virtually in boyhood. “I started to work in a sales company when I was 14, researching for catalogues,” Figueiredo says. “So, yes, it's been a lifetime's work. One of the partners in the company was a very successful farm vet, Dr. Jose Luiz Pinto Moreira. And he was the best horseman I've ever been with. Just from the way he talked, the way he looks. I've had so many positive as influences on my life but, strictly on horses, this guy was amazing.”

Figueiredo was also fortunate to work with Moreira during around 20 years working for Linneo de Paula Machado at Haras São José & Expedictus from the early 1990s. That post opened up many new horizons, not least through the export of horses like Siphon (Brz) to California.

“That was best life experience ever,” he says gratefully. “To work with such nice people who gave me such good opportunities in life. Because we can all learn from each other. Richard Mandella was able to go to South America and look at how things work there, and the same for me the other way. When we bought the farm in Kentucky, each year I took one of our team there to Brazil. That meant I could say, 'Look, if I ever I say something that seems stupid in Kentucky, please forgive me–because this is how we do things over here, here's how I learned.' So the same thing that we do with the blood, we also do with people.”

But while the whole premise is that horse skills are transferable, there's no denying that a harder road in South America–for horse and horseman alike–fortifies those who travel it far enough to compete on the global stage.

“How can I explain to you?” muses Figueiredo. “I love my country, and I love living there. But you learn a little bit differently. Say you want to buy a mare. In the United States, you go to the bank, you present your business plan, and you get a very good rate. In South America, you would find that impossible. To buy a horse, you have to sell your house. But I think that when you have those challenges, it makes you more aware. If one way doesn't work, you're going to find another way. Because you need to do this. If things happen a little more easily, more predictably, maybe you get into a comfort zone.”

Auguste Rodin | HRI

One way or another, between the horsemanship and the bloodlines, here is a farm exuding the dynamism urgently required in what has become a rather stagnant gene pool either side of the Atlantic. But you can think big and still stay humble. Because it's about resisting complacency, about being receptive to other cultures and methods.

“I guess that all of us, in this way of life, end up meeting and working with many different people, in many different places,” Figueiredo reflects. “And every time someone will say, 'Hey, the other day, I was wondering about this…' And this exchange of experience, added together, can become very important.

“What works in Kentucky isn't necessarily going to work in Europe or South America, and equally the other way round. But you're getting information every day, and it adds up to a wider perspective.”

He returns to the trainer he used to watch going round the sales in Brazil, with no catalogue. “His success was amazing, and it was just his instinct, just feeling,” he says. “He was unbelievable, the way he and horses could 'speak' together. And that, to me, is the fascination. That feeling he had. Because I'm fascinated by people who succeed. What he had, you can't put into words, but it also showed why Michael Jordan is like this, or Roger Federer, or Pele, Maradona, so on–even the good politicos!”

Figueiredo remembers the cycles of regeneration achieved by breeders of the past: the Classic sires imported to South America from Britain at the turn of the last century; similar traffic from Britain to America in mid-century; then the revolution achieved by sons of Northern Dancer in Europe. And let's not forget that the only horse to run down King Of Steel at Epsom, Auguste Rodin (Ire) (Deep Impact {Jpn}), was out of Galileo (Ire) mare outcrossed to the principal heir of Sunday Silence's speed-carrying dirt genes.

Maybe we can't leap to definitive conclusions, even when a farm like Bonne Chance produces two of the best sophomores in the global crop. But it would surely be foolish not to emulate something of the sense of adventure that animates its program.

“It's been a remarkable year,” Figueiredo acknowledges. “And first of all that's about a very good job by our team on the farm. That's for sure. But I really believe that this mix of blood helps a lot. Japan has been showing the world how to conduct things. There are a lot of good things in every country. Go to Argentina, you're going to see nice horses. Brazil, the same. Their best horses can compete around the world. Just look at Book 1 at Keeneland, and see how many trace to good Argentinian mares. So we always start with an open mind, we're always willing to try things. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. But even then it's a good experience. Because you're not just focused on one thing, and you forget that the world is so big.”

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