Head Rock Steady as Classic Dream Builds

Christopher Head, centre, with Big Rock | Scoop Dyga 

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It has been a good spell for Christopher Head. On Sunday, his colt Big Rock (Fr) (Rock Of Gibraltar {Ire}) became the latest group winner for owner-breeder Yeguada Centurion, followed two days later by a TDN Rising Star award for the trainer's first juvenile runner of the season, Ramatuelle (Justify), who demolished her opposition in the Prix du Premier Pas at Chantilly.

This prominent start to the season picks up where Head left off last year: his first Group 1 success came in October's Prix Marcel Boussac with Blue Rose Cen (Ire) (Churchill {Ire}), another Yeguada Centurion homebred.

It would be easy to imagine that the 36-year-old has merely waltzed in to pick up the reins upon the retirement of his father Freddy last year, but in fact he started out four years ago with a handful of horses trained from boxes rented from Pascal Bary, saying at the time, “I wanted to be seen as a trainer in my own right.”

That he very much is now. His appearance in the training ranks coincided with the expansion of the breeding operation of Spaniard Leopoldo Fernandez Pujals, whose Yeguada Centurion banner is now represented on the racecourse by the offspring of the mares recruited in France, Ireland, Britain and America at some considerable expense. These included Hardiyna (Ire) (Sea The Stars {Ire}), a close relative of dual Derby winner Harzand (Ire), who was bought unraced from the Aga Khan Studs carrying her first foal, who would go on to be named Big Rock and become one of the leading French Classic prospects of the season.

“Many factors affect me when it comes to Big Rock,” says Head, who has nurtured the colt through six starts to date, winning for the first time in a handicap at Chantilly in February before going on to an easy victory in the Listed Prix Maurice Caillault, then Sunday's G3 Prix La Force. What was most taking about his recent win is the manner in which he dominated the race from the off before finding more when asked to go on in the final furlong. 

“Starting with the colt himself: he is beautiful, willing in his work and talented. He is also from a renowned Aga Khan maternal family and I have a great respect and admiration for Prince Aga Khan. Being French and a lover of horse racing, how could it be otherwise?

“Big Rock is one of the last offspring of Rock of Gibraltar, who was a fabulous Classic racehorse. During his stallion career, Rock of Gibraltar has produced both Group 1 winners and horses capable of winning more than 10 races in their career. I admire this type of career and it is also the type of pathway that I hope to have with horses that will perform as well on the track as at breeding.”

Head adds, “And last but not least, he is a representative of the Yeguada Centurion colours and their young breeding operation. The Yeguada is the owner that brought me my first group winner, and that is a special attachment in a trainer's career.

“I owe him everything and of course we are nothing as trainers without the right horses.”

That first group winner was Sibila Spain (Ire), who took last season's G2 Prix du Muguet, and she had also been Head's first Classic runner a year earlier when fourth in the G1 Prix de Diane. As well as the success of Blue Rose Cen last year, the stable was also represented by Tigrais (Fr) (Outstrip {GB}), owned by OTI Racing and Gerard Augustin Normand. The winner of the G3 Prix La Rochette, she is another potential Classic contender this year.

In regard to Big Rock's immediate future, Head outlines, “Plan A is to go the Prix de Guiche [on May 9] to prepare for the Prix du Jockey Club. I still want to see how he is after Sunday's race but he seems to have come out of it brilliantly.”

Blue Rose Cen, meanwhile, is set to shed her winter wraps and step back into the limelight at Longchamp on Sunday for the G3 Prix de la Grotte, which could also feature Tigrais, depending on the weather in the interim.

“We are on schedule for everything,” Head says. “Blue Rose Cen is ready for her first race of the season, and of course the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches is going to be the main target.

“She's a fast learner and always wanted to work, and she hasn't changed a bit in that respect. She has strengthened up over the winter. She has a great mental attitude and I think that's what really makes the difference.”

He continues, “We will see after the Pouliches if she can go up to 2,100m for the Prix de Diane, but it's too early to say yet.”

Of her stable-mate, Head adds, “We know that Tigrais doesn't cope with heavy ground, so we will see. At the moment the plan is for her also to go to the Prix de la Grotte, but if it rains all week we won't go there. The only thing that counts is doing what's right for her.”

From that initial team of six horses back in 2019, the inhabitants of his Chantilly stable, which he bought from his father, have grown in number to around 50. Their owners include Eric Puerari, Haras d'Etreham, Guy Pariente, Nurlan Bizakov, Haras de la Gousserie, Qatar Racing, and of course his family's Haras du Quesnay, which has two homebreds by Recoletos (Fr) in the yard.

“We are trying to grow in a way that we are able to keep the quality of work that we are doing right now,” he says. “I am very happy with the team that I've built up and I'm very happy with the owners we have with us who are helping us to grow and to go into those races. 

“We bought the stable this year so now we are able to stay in one place. It's good to be able to tell people that we are here to stay for a long time. We are at around 50 horses this year. I think we will stay at this number for now, and we already have what we need for this season, but of course we are open for next season for new owners.”

Last year represented a significant time of change for the Head family and for French racing itself, with the death of patriarch Alec Head at the age of 97 in June, and the retirement of Freddy Head in September. Moreover, the family's revered Haras du Quesnay is also in the process of changing hands. But the name that has become synonymous with Chantilly is still represented among the training ranks by Christopher and his sister Victoria, who has trained her first two winners this year.

“I really want to be able to continue what my grandfather and my father have built,” Head says. “It's hard for me to say that I will be as good as them because they have done so many things that are impressive, but I will try to continue in this way.”

Quizzed by TDN on Tuesday morning as to how his juvenile team for 2023 was shaping up, he had replied, “It's a bit early but will be able to assess the others from what happens today. It's about the first runner, and then everything else sorts itself out after that.”

So, after watching Ramatuelle put clear daylight between herself and her 14 rivals at Chantilly, how's he feeling now?

“I am very happy. I've never had a filly that had that much speed and precocity at the same time. This race was really important and I'm really happy that the stable is capable of having that kind of programme for her,” Head says.

“It's too soon to make firm plans. For now, the plan is to stay in France for her next race, whatever happens. But of course we will have a discussion, and it could be an option to go to Royal Ascot for the Queen Mary, but we will see.”

 

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