'He's Absolutely Going To Cover Flat Mares Only': Bjorn Nielsen on Stradivarius's Future Stud Career

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Bjorn Nielsen, right, with Stradivarius at Goodwood, where he was won the Cup four times | Racingfotos.com

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We have heard much about Frankie Dettori since his ride in the Gold Cup at Ascot, but less so about his luckless mount, Stradivarius (Ire) (Sea The Stars {Ire}).

By his owner and breeder Bjorn Nielsen he is referred to as 'The Strad', talked of as one would a favourite son or best friend. The 8-year-old stallion has earned his place in Nielsen's heart, just as he has earned the wider affection of the racing public. He remains equine box office, with this season regarded by many as a prolonged farewell tour. 

The fact that the longed-for fourth victory in the Gold Cup did not go to plan is of course a source of frustration for those directly involved with Stradivarius, particularly as Nielsen believes that the Gosdens had him note-perfect for his return to Ascot.

“John never really gets carried away beforehand saying anything's going to win but just reading between the lines, I know John felt like he had the horse absolutely spot on for that race,” he says. 

“I think it's been a remarkable job actually, by John and his staff, of keeping this horse on the go all these years and getting him to every race. It's the one great thing about John, if you have a top horse, he'll be there on the day. You don't have to worry about him being overdone or underdone. He's surely done that with The Strad's career throughout.”

And what a career it has been: 34 races to date, seven Group 1s among his 20 wins, nine more top-three finishes, and then there's the not insignificant matter of two Stayers' Million bonuses. Unfortunate timing for the enterprising folk at Weatherbys Hamilton who launched the initiative which sounded fiendishly difficult to win, but for it starting in the year in which Stradivarius really came into his own as a 4-year-old and sailed through a magnificent 2018 season unbeaten.

“He's happy in himself and he's eating well,” reports Nielsen of his star in the aftermath of Royal Ascot. “It would seem fairly obvious that if he's sound and well he's going to go to Goodwood.”

In a sense, Goodwood was where it all began for Stradivarius in 2017. He arrived for his first attempt in Group 1 company on the back of victory in the G2 Queen's Vase, and in some respects he was the villain of the piece in the Goodwood Cup when beating another popular member of the staying ranks, Big Orange (GB) (Duke Of Marmalade {Ire}), who at that stage was looking for his third win in the race. Stradivarius effectively then took ownership of the Goodwood Cup, with four straight wins until he was withdrawn on the morning of last year's race following heavy rain.

“Even though it's an incredibly long career, it seems like almost yesterday when he won that first Goodwood Cup but it's five years ago,” Nielsen says. 

“He has so many qualities, but soundness is one of the most amazing qualities he has, in that he's never missed an engagement in his entire career, except when we pulled him out of Goodwood, because they had 60 millilitres of rain last year, the night before. Otherwise, he's never missed, never missed at all. It's hard to say that about any horse.”

He's never missed, which is one of the reasons Stradivarius will be so missed when he eventually retires. There are few top-class Flat horses who remain in training for seven seasons, fewer still entire males. Which brings us to what happens next. 

A sensible observer would agree that Stradivarius has all the attributes required to have a chance to make it as a stallion if, that is, that person prizes soundness, durability, toughness, and a killer turn of foot. And what breeder wouldn't look for those qualities for their future foals? The problem is that a section of breeders have become fixated on trying to satisfy a fickle market rather than breeding what they believe will make a racehorse. It is a situation that means we now often find the winners of the best races in the programme book – you know, those that you'd give your right arm to win: the Derby, the Gold Cup – overlooked when the time comes for a stallion career.

Nielsen, naturally, is convinced of his horse's potential for a second career as a stallion, and it is hard to argue with his reasoning.

“With racehorses, half the battle is training them and getting them to the racetrack,” he says. “[Stradivarius] has soundness and longevity and consistency in spades. If he passes that on, he's a long way to being a good stallion. Apart from his tremendous will to win, another hallmark of his is his turn of foot.

“In his case, in a hell of a lot of races going way back now, it's always been a game of, 'okay, we're going to have to keep him boxed in for as long as possible and not let him out, because once he gets out his acceleration is why he wins'. It's happened in the last three races, which is really where Frankie's got into trouble with him.”

On the theme of this year's Gold Cup, he continues, “What people don't know is what the riding instructions were. With what happened last year, twice where Frankie sat so far back and down on the rail, he was told, 'Whatever you do, don't sit on the rail and get far back on the horse this year.'

“For some reason, he went and did what he did. By the time we had a chance to get out again, it was an impossible task to make up the ground. If you look at how he was travelling when they turned in and how the winner was travelling, the winner was being ridden strongly and so were some others. The Strad was sitting there on the bridle turning in and through no fault of his own he didn't get a run. It was not a case of the others having younger legs than him. It was a case of he got no run and he was put in a position where he had no chance, unfortunately.

“But he and Frankie have had a great partnership, and Frankie has ridden more group wins on him than any other horse he has partnered. Of course I am truly grateful for the partnership they have had and I don't want recent events to overshadow that.”

Nielsen is taking a race-by-race view towards the remainder of Stradivarius's racing career. A shot at a fifth Goodwood Cup on July 26 seems likely to be his next public outing.

“There's just no other way to do it. We'll see how he goes,” he says. “Hopefully he stays sound and he turns up there. I'm sure he will, with John training him, he's going to be 100 per cent when he turns up a Goodwood.”

The decision at this stage that Nielsen can have greater control over is where, eventually, his horse will stand. Offers have already been forthcoming from studs in France and Germany.

“I feel if I ever sold him out of this country, I'd probably get hung,” he says. “He deserves his chance in England and the one thing he's not going to do is cover jumping mares. He's absolutely going to cover Flat mares only. I'm going to give him a chance to prove that he can do it with Flat mares. I really want to keep him in England. With the history and traditions of English breeding I'd like to give him the chance in England, where there's the best racing in the world, and where he's been a bit of an icon really for the last five years.”

Nielsen continues, “There are two particular studs in England who have shown a lot of interest. I'm going to wind up almost certainly owning the horse entirely myself, without anybody taking any equity in him. I'll offer incentives and I've got six, seven, eight mares that I have in mind at this stage that I'd breed to him, that I think would suit him well.”

Though stud plans, or even retirement plans, are still a way down the road, the advertising campaign has already begun, highlighting how Stradivarius's speed compares favourably to other horses in shorter races run on the same course on the same day. For example, when winning the Goodwood Cup in 2020, the stayer's last four furlongs of the two-mile contest were run in 46.50s compared to 46.80s for Space Blues (Ire) over the final four of his seven-furlong spin in the G2 Lennox S. Similarly, in good to soft ground on Champions Day in 2018, Stradivarius recorded 36.82s over the final three furlongs of two miles, while Cracksman (GB) over the same stretch during ten furlongs of the Champion S. stopped the clock at 36.58s (finishing six lengths ahead of Crystal Ocean).

“I know commercially how things have gone, and people have got into thinking that they have to breed a six-furlong mare to a six-furlong stallion to wind up with a racehorse, but it's absolutely wrong,” says Nielsen.

“Obviously it's a combination of the stallion and the mare but some of the greatest horses that have ever been bred have been by so-called stayers. The Tetrarch was the best 2-year-old who ever lived. He was seven from seven as a 2-year-old, over five and six furlongs, and was a great influence on the breed. He was by a Doncaster Cup horse out of a mare that won over 11 furlongs. Ribot was the same. He was the champion 2-year-old in Italy, won the Arc twice, the King George, and was undefeated in 16 races. He was by Tenerani who won the Goodwood Cup when it was over two miles and five furlongs.”

Nielsen also points to the influential Deep Impact (Jpn), whose 12 wins came between ten furlongs and two miles, while ruing the demise of stamina influences in Australia and America.

“We've still got our stamina in Europe. I think it's really important that we hold on to whatever stamina we have, because the rest of the world, unless they just wind up running over six furlongs, they're going to need to breed to our stallions, our mares,” he says.  

“The authorities start to cater for a slightly faster horse and start to bring down the racing distance. If you're breeding for a mile-and-a-half race, people are trying to breed the mile-and-a-quarter horse who just about stays. Then you bring it down to a mile and a quarter, everybody starts to try and breed milers to just about last out the mile and a quarter to have that necessary speed. Once the racing authorities start to bring down racing distances, we're on a slippery path.”

Stradivarius's dam, the Wildenstein-bred Private Life (Fr) (Bering {GB}) was herself a winner at a mile and ten furlongs. His third dam Pawneese (Ire) (Carvin {Fr}) won the Oaks, Prix de Diane and King George. The record of his sire Sea The Stars is familiar to most, but it is worth repeating that he was the pre-eminent colt of his generation, from a mile to a mile and a half. His trainer John Oxx recently told TDN that he has no doubt that Sea The Stars could have won the St Leger. He is also the sire of the top-rated horse currently in training, the outstanding miler Baaeed (GB). It is easy to see whence Stradivarius derives his talent, with forebears of the highest calibre over a range of middle distances. 

“I'm going to send him mile or mile-and-a-quarter mares, and I see no reason why he's not going to come up with the goods,” says his breeder. “If you do that, with the soundness, his will to win and his temperament, he only has to pass on some of those traits and he'll be a good stallion.”

Nielsen also has confidence that he will be backed by his fellow breeders.

“I think he will get a decent book, but of course he's going to have to prove it himself,” he says. “The reason I put some of those ads out is to underline his speed. You can ask him to quicken in his races and then join the leaders and then you can actually stop with them again, which is very rare. Then he'll just sit again and relax, and then you can ask him again when it's time to go. Yes, I'm trying to influence people who think you've got to have speed into seeing that he really does have speed, because he does. He's very fast over two or three furlongs and horses like Earthlight and Space Blues, who were terrifically fast horses, he's run faster closing times than them comfortably.”

Nielsen has consistently set out his stall when it comes to what he wants as a breeder, and that is to breed a Derby winner. Stradivarius was not that, but in a way he became so much more, especially to the many people who have become his fans over the last five or six seasons.

“It is great to hear from people when they come up to me and say, 'Thanks for keeping him in training.' Either people who run race tracks, or even members of the public will say it sometimes when you walk between the pre-parade and the paddock. It catches you by surprise, when you hear it,” says Nielsen.

“Obviously, it's great that the public love the horse and that he's had the career that he's had, and I'd like to keep him in training for another 10 years if I could. I must admit, this season now, I start feeling the heat a little bit, because I feel like he actually hasn't lost his ability. It's been more down to what's happened in his races. He didn't lose a race last year that I felt was really because he wasn't good enough.

“I do feel the pressure a little bit now, especially because if he'd run the other day and he'd been beaten ten lengths, then it would've been easy to say, 'He's older now and he's done enough and he's clearly not the force he was', and I think everybody would understand it very easily. That's the way it is, but if he runs again at Goodwood like he ran the other day, I think the people might be saying, 'Why would you stop with him?'”

Certainly, the knowledge that the number of opportunities left to see Stradivarius at the racecourse are now few will add numbers to the gate at Goodwood, whoever else turns up to oppose him on the day. And for Nielsen, his appeal is as much about his character as his innate ability. 

“Everybody loves watching him walk around the paddock. He's got that great walk, like John Wayne, and they always tell me he screams and shouts down at the stables before he comes up to the parade ring. But when he gets up there, he just puts his head down. He's all business. He knows he can't be messing around now. It's time to concentrate.

“He goes down the start and he looks around him. He doesn't seem to be bothered at all that he's got a race coming up. He just stands there and looks across the Downs at Goodwood as if to say 'I've been here before, I remember'. He's got that air about him.”

Nielsen's Derby dream may remain unrealised but he knows that in Stradivarius he has been given the rarest of gifts. 

“Even if I managed to somehow get lucky enough to breed the Derby winner, which was the goal even with him really, it's impossible that I could have as much fun as he's given me, because it's just been so enduring,” he admits. “Normally, if you had a Derby winner, he might run twice as a 2-year-old and five times as a 3-year-old and then you'd be looking at retirement, unless you kept him in training at four. With him, it's 34 races already. He's just going to be impossible to match.”

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