From Ballet Dancer To Northern Dancer: Scrope's Life Less Ordinary

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Alex Scrope aboard the first jet flight for horses in Europe circa 1967

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This week started with International Women's Day and, while it could be argued that there's more to be done when it comes to equal opportunities, in many ways women today have it relatively easy when it comes to finding employment in racing.

This was not the case when Alex Scrope began her career in bloodstock. In fact, initial opposition to her working in the world in which she had been immersed since birth came from within her own family. Her father, Colonel Adrian Scrope, the revered manager of Lord Derby's studs, regularly took on students keen to learn the business but was reluctant for his own daughter to follow this path.

“There were no professional women on the studs when I started; my father wouldn't take me,” says Scrope. “Even Elisabeth Couturie, although she ran her own stud, never considered it was a role for a girl.”

Scrope's own pedigree is as impressive as those of the horses she has devoted her life to studying and, as with Thoroughbreds, the dam line played a significant role. Her mother's family owned Sledmere Stud in Yorkshire, which at that time was the leading commercial stud in the country. The important position of the Sykes family's stud in the history of Thoroughbred breeding is guaranteed, Sledmere being the birthplace of the incredibly influential foundation mare Mumtaz Mahal, and of 1873 Derby winner Doncaster, whose male line extends through Phalaris.

In 1927, at the age of 21, Scrope's father was appointed manager at Sledmere and a year later married Lady Sykes's daughter, Everilda, having set his heart on his future bride when first glimpsing her at his job interview. Within a decade the couple had moved to Newmarket when Colonel Scrope was appointed to run Lord Derby's Stanley House and associated studs not long after Hyperion took up stud duties.

“Pa went to Lord Derby in 1936 or '37 and he had Hyperion virtually all his life as a stallion,” recalls Scrope, who attended nursery school with the twins Henry and David Cecil.

Were it not for a back injury, however, her encyclopaedic knowledge of pedigrees might have been lost to the breeding world as, realising the lack of opportunities for women in bloodstock at that time, she initially steered a different course.

“I started life as a dancer, that was what I really wanted to do,” she says. “I trained with Rambert in London and then went to Paris, but I had a bone problem in my back. I absolutely adored it, but of course, I always rode and I always came home. And while I was in Paris, I was offered a job with Hipavia.

“I wasn't a huge success in the office,” admits Scrope, whose days with the equine transport company led to her accompanying mares on the first jet flight for horses in Europe. “In those days, rather like now, horses used to have a lot of paperwork, so I had an attache case with the paperwork for the day's flights and I would fly with the horses and look after the customs. I absolutely loved it and I continued to travel for years after that as they didn't have that many people who had experience of flying with the horses. I would work through the stud season getting yearlings ready for the sales, but then I had to have work to take me through to the next season.”

It was a role that transpired literally to be a flying start to one of the most diverse careers in the stud business. From assisting veterinary surgeon James Roberts, best known as the man who saved Mill Reef for a stud career, to working for a range of leading farms, Scrope's CV reads like a who's who of some of the most significant owner/breeders of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Stints in Normandy with Paola Ciechanowska and in Bolgheri at the Tuscan breeding wing of Tesio's partner Marchese Mario Incisa Della Rochetta expanded the international element of Scrope's thorough grounding in the business, which has been largely rooted in Newmarket with regular foreign forays.

“The person who really gave me a leg up was Peter Burrell, when he was still at the National Stud,” she says. “Marcos Lemos was looking for someone to manage Warren Hill Stud and Peter put me up for it. That was my first independent stud role, and then I went to Wyld Court, which then belonged to Peter de Savary and was managed by Dave Dick. I suspect that in the two years that I was there I got in very nearly a lifetime's laughter. I don't think I've ever come across anyone as funny as Dave.”

Over the years, she has worked the sales for various trainers, such as Harry Thomson 'Tom' Jones in the era in which Sheikh Hamdan was first introduced to British racing, Henry Cecil and Guy Harwood. On the stud side, Scrope's clients have included the 'big three' of Coolmore, Darley and Juddmonte, along with Car Colston Hall, Fittocks and Brookdale studs, as well as her long-term association with Gerald Leigh.

“When James Delahooke went to Juddmonte, I got the job buying yearlings for Guy Harwood,” says Scrope, who also worked for Prince Khalid Abdullah for five years. “When I worked for Guy, I would go over to Kentucky every March because I used to do the selection in Europe for Keeneland for the July Sale, and so I used to do 10 days with their selection team there so I could see what the crop was like. While I was there I used to go to look at the yearlings at Juddmonte as well. Jeremy Tree always got the first 30 yearlings, Guy got the second 30, and any leftovers were handed around.”

One of Prince Khalid's most significant purchases in the early years of Juddmonte was Dancing Brave who was bought for him at Fasig-Tipton by Delahooke. Though the son of Lyphard ended his career with the highest rating ever awarded to a horse at that time, his recruitment to the Harwood stable was less auspicious, as Scrope recalls vividly.

She says, “He wasn't a magnificent horse to look at because he had that ugly head and terrible parrot mouth. Jeremy had taken his 30 yearlings and Guy had picked 29 and needed one more. The horses that came over from America were with Anthony Webber at Newbury, so Guy and I went down to look, and we'd narrowed it down to three that we were interested in. There was a Best Turn, an Alleged, and a Lyphard. I always used to work out the odds for these horses on how many foals they'd had–I'd assume that 50% were fillies and 50% were colts and would work out the odds of a horse getting a group-class colt and the odds of getting a group-class filly. We decided that we would go 10/1 or better on colts and 12/1 or better on fillies, so I would work out all the stallions to the percentages.”

She continues, “And so when we looked at these three horses, probably the best looking was the Best Turn. I told Guy that he wouldn't be my pick because they are very American, so I'd let him choose between the Alleged and the Lyphard. So he said, 'Okay, what are the odds?' I told him that Lyphard was 9/1 and Alleged 10/1. He replied, 'Well I've had nine Lyphards and they were all useless so this must be the one.' Whereupon the horse stood on his hind legs, spun round, got his rein over his neck and disappeared towards the A34. And I didn't see him again until he arrived at Pulborough.”

The arrival at Harwood's stable of Brocade (Habitat {GB})–subsequently the dam of Group 1 winners Barathea (Ire) and Gossamer (GB), both by Sadler's Wells–coincided with the start of Scrope's work for the trainer and it was here that she was first introduced to their owner/breeder Gerald Leigh.

“It was just when he sold Cayton Park and moved to Eydon [Hall Farm],” she says. “He was a great friend and a wonderful person to work for, and he was quite happy to have endless conversations about matings and the mares.”

Among her closest allies in the business, it is the late Leslie Harrison for whom Scrope perhaps reserves the greatest affection.

“Well, he was such a lovely person, a complete one-off with a superbly dry wit,” she says of Harrison, who managed Plantation Stud after its sale from Lord Derby to Lord Howard de Walden, having started off as one of Colonel Scrope's many pupils.

“We were students together and we used to drive Pa mad because we would be in different yards but Leslie would shout 'King Of The Tudors' and all sorts of names, and I had to shout back with the pedigree.”

Henry Cecil also remained a lifelong friend. From nursery school to a shared internship at the Equine Research Centre, and later as a sales advisor and regular rider in the Cecil string, Scrope has had greater insight than most to the mind of the late champion trainer.

She says, “My Pa said that of all the students he ever had, Henry was the most talented. Henry was a walking stud book. I remember a filly coming in and I said, 'when I saw that filly, I thought she looked just like…' and straight away he said the name of one of Hollingsworth's. In those days the pedigree really mattered so much.

“I can remember standing on the side of the gallop at Chantilly with Francois Boutin one day and he had a filly who was out of the Relance family. She came up the canter and he said, 'Did you know Relance?' When I said I didn't, he said, 'Well you're looking at her', and it was a grand-daughter. But he and Henry, they just knew those horses. They'd worked for so long with those owner/breeders, and my father and mother were the same.”

The culmination of Scrope's own involvement in seeking equine excellence on behalf of different owner/breeders was the founding of her own pedigree database known as Horse Power. For years the programme featuring qualifying group horses in Europe and America was available on subscription to fellow pedigree analysts and enthusiasts and was maintained by Scrope's cousin Manou Koch de Gooreynd, who is well known to many on the sales circuit in her part-time role as 'front of house' for the Castlebridge Consignment. Latterly, Horse Power has been sold to Coolmore, for whom Scrope worked on “an ad hoc basis” for more than three decades. It is now used regularly by the Coolmore team to help customers when booking their mares, and it is also in the process of being updated with Australasian group horses.

She says, “My year in Italy in 1977 was incredibly lonely and tedious because I used to be in an attic and I worked there on all these pedigrees day in and day out. But when I left, Mario Incisa said, 'Take what you've done and see if you can build a business for yourself out of it.' He gave me all the work that I'd done.”

Scrope continues, “I don't have a computer brain at all but I knew the information I wanted to get and I have been fortunate to have Paul Muldoon as my programmer for over 30 years. Mario Incisa said that Tesio had been a great believer in nicks, and just when Northern Dancer was becoming the be-all and end-all and we were getting all the Lyphards and Nijinskys coming into the equation, he said that he wanted to see if there was anything that we were missing, that goes with Northern Dancer. So I had copies of the Stud and Stable, and they used to print all the pedigrees of the group winners. So we took the group horses as being the bullseye on the target of what he was trying to breed. That was how it all started. I had two copies of each pedigree on a 6×4-inch card, one by sire and one by broodmare sire. And then gradually as it became clearer which were the chefs de race, I colour-coded them so I could follow the different sirelines and see where we were. I found that we had all these horses–Nijinsky was out of a Teddy-line mare and Storm Bird was out of a Teddy on Teddy on Teddy-line mare-and it was a really strong indication that that was where the stallions came from, on a cross with Teddy. Of course that's all gone now. But it looked to me like all this sorting was made for a computer.”

She adds, “I'm lucky because I've always had such great support and that all comes back to the people. When Mags [O'Toole] was about 25 she came to work with me. We worked together until I stopped doing the sales and she made an enormous contribution to the business. Then Manou, when she stopped riding out for Henry [Cecil], came to work with me full-time and she took over all the inputting for the database and took to it like a duck to water.”

Scrope's own mental equine database, as much instinctive as learned, would be worthy of collation itself. Certainly, for those eager to expand their own knowledge of breeding, with some spicy anecdotes along the way, no minute in her time is wasted. Her work has been as much guided by data as it has been through hands-on experience with horses from her early childhood. And, as most people who have observed some of the greats of the racing game might come to conclude, she knows that there is no one method which offers a guaranteed path to success.

“There definitely isn't a right and wrong,” she says. “But I do firmly believe that the whole thing is guided genetically and when you get these families that consistently come to Group 1 level of course your chances are better. Partly because they have the genetic capability to achieve that, but also partly because if you have a family that is loaded with group winners–and for me buying a horse I would always look down the family–and when you go through those and you see the family trees on the computer, they will show you immediately how many group-class colts there are and how many Group 1 winners. So if you see that under the first three generations you've got, say, between six and ten fillies that have won group races or placed in Group 1 races, you know they are all going to be in the best hands and they are all going to be going to the best stallions. So success repeats itself because it's given the opportunity to repeat itself.”

She adds, “I've been very lucky with the mares that I've bought for people because when I'm given my head I would much rather buy what I call 'Cinderella mares'–a poor relation out of a good family, and you can do it because you know the good horses are going to come up in the family. In five to 10 years, if the mare is no good, she has still retained her value because all around her, she's got these little satellites of where her sisters and half-sisters have produced at group level and the family is working for you still.

“So I think that, in a sense, you can make your own luck.”

There's that old saying, referred to often in racing, about the harder you work, the luckier you get. Alex Scrope was perhaps born lucky, but during the course of a career in the bloodstock world which dates back to the time when the owner/breeder still held sway, she has put in an awful lot of work into becoming the pre-eminent pedigree expert of a generation.

 

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