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From the TDN Weekend: Montaigu, the Sweet Smell of Success

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Sybille Gibson | Scoop Dyga

By Chris McGrath

No less than the perfumes that funded its foundation, and just like every other stud farm, Haras de Montaigu is sustained by subtle but constant adjustment to a formula. Each year of production, a little bit more of this, a little bit less of that; seeing what works, what doesn’t work, without compromising on the hallmarks of your brand. Because with Thoroughbreds and perfume alike, there is no such thing as the perfect balance. And while tastes will always be changing, you can’t merely respond to some fleeting commercial vogue. Your metier demands time, and patience.

Listening to Sybille Gibson, then, you recognise an equivalence with her ancestors not just in process but in mindset. “With mares you try one stallion, you try another, until you find the right blood cross,” she says. “I can’t say we just try a bit of everything. The way we handle the horses, for instance, does not change. Nor does the place where we raise them, which is the heart of everything. But with the crosses, you are always trying something different.”

Elegant and thoughtful, she is sitting in the stall at Arqana that once housed Montaigu’s most famous graduate. It is early one sales morning, there is hardly anyone around-some prospective buyers have probably only just reeled out of Le Drakkar–and Gibson is in her element: the air is saturated with the scent of fresh straw, and the silence punctuated only by a drowsy snicker, or a thud against wood echoing down the row.

“And it’s all a mystery,” she says. “My parents bought Martaline to be a Flat stallion but he became the best National Hunt sire in France. You try things that don’t work, but you keep going because you believe in what you do. And one day it works: this comes through, or this. Each time a nice filly is born we say: ‘She will win the Diane!’ But the things that work, it’s a mystery.”

Not that anyone should be able to explain, in advance, why an experiment might work, when it can be hard enough to do so even after it has proved effective. Gibson’s great-grandfather, Jacques Guerlain, was ever taciturn when pressed to explain his genius for finding the right balance–the right “cross,” as it were-in a new fragrance. After all, it was a hereditary genius: the family had established one of the world’s most venerable perfume and cosmetics brands as early as 1828. And you can’t really articulate instinct; it’s something you are born with.

It is the same with the other passion handed down from one generation to the next. So that when Gibson’s mother saw Pour Moi (Ire) (Montjeu {Ire}) win the 2011 Derby, she immediately announced that this was an optimal mate for one of the Montaigu mares, the Classic-placed Ysoldina (Fr) (Kendor {Fr}). By the time the result of that pairing was himself lining up for the 2017 running, Pour Moi had been removed to a National Hunt stud. But then Wings of Eagles reprised his father’s remarkable burst of acceleration in the Epsom straight, and now he is back where he was born with a first crop of foals due in the spring–the first Derby winner in over half a century to retire across the Channel. (After publication of this article, it was announced that Wings Of Eagles would stand at The Beeches Stud in Ireland next term.)

If this represents the crowning moment in the Montaigu story, so far, then his is not the only important homecoming. For only a couple of years previously Gibson, having for decades led a life away from the 360-acre homestead, had returned to promote an expanded commercial operation–and, in the process, to prepare herself for the day when she takes the family’s stewardship of Montaigu into a fifth generation.

The farm was founded in 1903 by her great-great-grandfather Gabriel, son of the perfume house’s founder. He had started his Turf career on land near Paris but knew Normandy was the place to raise horses and eventually found a 200-hectare site for sale. On his death, 30 years later, Montaigu passed into the hands of his son Jacques, as celebrated a parfumeur as any in the pedigree; but Jacques, despairing after the loss of his youngest son in the war, handed the stud over to another, Claude. And it was Claude, Gibson’s grandfather, who became the first to devote himself to Thoroughbreds full-time.

“He was a man of the land,” Gibson explains. “And while the family would go to and fro–my mother was brought up in Paris–this was his true base. He had no interest in city living. His grandfather had won the Grand Steeplechase [de Paris, in 1912] with Hopper, and Jacques bought five or six mares in Newmarket, but it was still just a hobby until Claude took over. He had cousins who could keep the [perfume] business going. But since that time, everything has been about the place he loved: it has been at the heart of the family, and for us now at the heart of our business.”

Gibson remembers the old man from her girlhood. “He was a very discreet man,” she says. “Very straightforward, very respected. Not very talkative, maybe even a little cold: he hid his emotions. Certainly compared to my grandmother, who was from the south and more voluble. A good mixture.”

Even the humans manage a good cross here, it would seem. One way or another, anyhow, the passion within passed down–along with the farm–to Gibson’s mother Aliette, a renowned horsewoman who found a husband of similar stamp in the bloodstock agent Gilles Forien.

“My grandfather didn’t have that many mares, but bred Rescousse to win the Prix de Diane and finish second in the Arc,” Gibson recalls. “But by 1984 he felt the time had come to let his daughter transform the farm into something more commercial. She had become passionate about horses through show jumping–and from this, I think, she developed what I think remains our marque de fabrique of Montaigu.”

Gibson condenses that trademark in a single word: respect.

“Respect for the horse,” she says. “We have never pushed the yearlings too hard during their preparation, we don’t over-lunge, we don’t overdo anything. And, whatever happens, they get turned out in the paddock every morning. I know other people also take great care of their horses. All I know is that my mum’s been doing it the same way for 30 years, and been in the top five [vendors at Arqana every summer] for ages.

“I don’t know if it’s because of her show jumping background, and the fact that she’s a horsewoman. But we do try to hire people who love their horses. It’s not just taking them on the lead. Day by day we adapt the work of each horse, according to how each one takes what we ask them to do. It’s about that attention to detail.”

Stallions, of course, give an extra commercial dimension to the operation, and Wings of Eagles has joined a roster of six trying to follow in the footsteps of Kendor, one of the most resonant names in modern French pedigrees. The grey, champion French juvenile of 1988 and winner of the G1 Poule d’Essai des Poulains the following spring, presided here for 17 years and sired three Group 1 winners-one of whom, Literato (Fr), arrived as his heir in 2009.

Though Kendargent has kept the line fashionable, Gibson concedes that stallions like Literato are at the mercy of a market notoriously addicted to commercial reputation. Literato mustered a Group 1 winner from a debut crop of just 37, but is still having to graft away at €3,000.

“If you actually want a runner, then buy a Literato,” Gibson says. “For his quality, his fee is nothing. The market works a la mode, and I think stallions are killed in the market far too quickly. Literato has always been difficult, commercially, because of his size. Nobody understood that, in size, he always produces foals that are literally like the dam. We invested in him, we used him with our own mares, but it was difficult to convince people.”

(For the full TDN Weekend feature on Haras de Montaigu, click here.)

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