Hitch Your Wagon for the Stallion Trails

The chateau at Haras du Mesnil | Emma Berry


There is an undertone of negativity surrounding horseracing these days, almost all of which is generated by its participants and followers, and greatly exacerbated by the increasingly unpleasant arena that is social media. Where once Twitter was fun and we all gained excellent insight into trainers' yards and, for some, their sense of humour, now X marks the spot at which we should perhaps consciously uncouple from twits and trolls.

Let's get out more. And where better to start than by hitching a ride on the stallion trails? This Friday marks the tenth anniversary of the two-day ITM Irish Stallion Trail which was started in response to the rising popularity of Normandy's La Route des Etalons, which made its debut in 2011 and this year takes place on January 20 and 21.

A recent house move by my old Pacemaker boss Julian Muscat meant that I was gifted a huge pile of Stud & Stable magazines dating back to the 1960s. I've always held firmly to the belief that time spent reading is never time wasted, and only daily deadlines have dragged me away from this pile which has so far been a source of delight and education in equal measure. After all, the best way to avoid present unpleasantness is to bury oneself in the past. It's not only a great diversion, but also a reminder that the problems we face now are not that much different to those faced 50 or 100 years ago. Open up any edition of the Bloodstock Breeders' Review and you're likely to find someone bemoaning the fact that stallions are covering too many mares, though too many 50 years ago was 60 instead of 40. There may well be some grave-spinning at the current book sizes.

In the May 1968 edition of Stud & Stable, at the price of seven shillings and sixpence and with a rather nice cover painting of Lord Leverhulme on a hunter surrounded by mares and a lurcher, there can be found a report by Michael Ross on what was perhaps the first unofficial 'route des etalons'. Ross's tour of Normandy was a bit more of a beano than this correspondent's has been in recent years. He spent a whole week driving around with two pals, visiting 32 studs and inspecting 66 stallions. Impressive. 

Some of those mentioned are now no longer in operation as Thoroughbred studs but, comfortingly, a good number of them live on. We hear of Mme Couturié's Haras du Mesnil, where the French Guineas winner Blue Tom (Fr) had recently taken up duties alongside the farm's most famous resident and fellow Classic winner, Right Royal (Fr). These days, Couturié's grandson Henri Devin and his wife Antonia keep the Mesnil name in lights and they have recently taken charge of the G1 Champion S. winner Bay Bridge (GB) to stand alongside the popular Doctor Dino (Fr).

Ross also calls in at Haras de Mortrée, which he describes as “one of the principal vendors at Deauville each year”. He is shown around by the young stud manager Antoine Bozo. Sound familiar? Bozo, who later managed Haras du Mézeray and died in 2020 at the age of 83, was the father of Henri Bozo of Ecurie des Monceaux, which can also be described as one of the principal vendors at Deauville each year.

I can almost hear you thinking “get to the point”, so let's try. This Friday and Saturday 37 farms in Ireland will throw open their doors to visitors, with 156 stallions on show, from the properly established to the up-and-coming, and of course the latest intake, which includes Paddington (GB), Good Guess (GB), Pyledriver (GB) and Native Trail (GB). If you've missed Authorized (Ire), sire of the wonderful Tiger Roll (Ire), since he left Britain for France then Turkey, he has recently been repatriated to the land of his birth and you can call in to see him at Capital Stud, one of Ireland's newest stallion operations. 

It is certainly worth checking out the informative Irish Stallion Trail pages on the ITM website to plan your route. Registration is suggested, and is compulsory for visitors to Coolmore, and not all studs are open both days. You will find opening hours under the listing for each stud. 

They say that there is no point getting older if you don't get a little wiser. I don't have an abundance of wisdom to impart generally but as a veteran of stallion trails I would say that less is more (and by that I don't necessarily mean when it comes to the generous hospitality on offer).

When these initiatives first started I took the view that I had to try to see as many studs as possible all in one weekend. Big mistake. Approach this weekend as if it's merely part one: you can always return next year. Study the map and try to pick a few within reasonable proximity to each other so you can properly appreciate not just the stallions, but also the farms and their surrounding countryside, chatting with fellow visitors, and of course the aforementioned hospitality. 

In previous years I have toured with Nancy Sexton in Ireland and Alix Choppin in France, and far be it from me to question my dear friends' navigation skills but we spent an awful lot of time attempting to find Ballylinch Stud and Haras de Bonneval respectively. Let's just say we had them surrounded.

The time wasted negotiating three-point turns in country lanes in Co Kilkenny in particular happened to be in the year that the stallion trail coincided with the Bacchanalian gathering otherwise known as the ITBA Awards. The long hours on the road, culminating in a dram or two of Maurice Burns's whiskey during our last port of call at Rathasker Stud, meant a shamefully early departure from the dance floor, though in our defence the dancing at the ITBA Awards never really starts until the wee small hours at the earliest.

If you manage to see Workforce (GB), Waldgeist (GB) and Sottsass (Fr) in Ireland this weekend, in France a week later you can view the latest winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Ace Impact (Ire), who drew plenty of visitors during Arqana's Breeding Stock Sale in early December. He is the most expensive new stallion in the country and is bound to ensure that Haras de Beaumont remains busy during the route des etalons, which includes 20 studs and 97 stallions. 

The French TBA has compiled another excellent website with a full list of farms and stallions, as well as that all-important map. Depending on which studs you would like to visit there is often quite a bit of driving to be done, but even in gloomy January a tour through Calvados country and beyond does wonders to lift the spirits.

Back on that first official route des etalons in 2011, Elusive City topped France's list of stallions at a covering fee of €15,000. It is not simply this initiative which has helped to revive the French breeding industry, though it is easy to believe that it has helped. That was also the first year Siyouni (Fr) stood on the Aga Khan Studs roster, at an introductory fee of €7,000. Now he's top of the pops and commands the lofty nomination price of €200,000. They were shrewd breeders who backed him in the early days. 

Guessing who will follow in his wake is all part of the fun of being involved in the breeding industry. So let's leave the naysayers to their doom-scrolling and take to the great outdoors to see if we can narrow it down ourselves with some important research on the stallion trails.


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