No Racing Background To Top Breeder And Pinhooker – Q&A With Hanshen Tham 

Hanshen Tham: with T For Tango, one of the first horses he ever bought | Amy Lynam


Hanshen Tham has become one of the most recognisable faces on the bloodstock circuit in Britain and Ireland but that's not to say that many people know a lot about the owner-breeder and pinhooker. Instead, Tham prefers to go about his business quietly. 

This year was a big one for the 34-year-old. His family enjoyed its greatest success on a racecourse when homebred Thornbrook landed a listed contest in France for Joseph O'Brien.

Not long afterwards, the Tham family enjoyed its biggest day in the ring when a Night Of Thunder half-sister to Thornbook, out of their top producer Lillebonne, sold for a whopping 500,000gns at Book 1 at Tattersalls. 

Despite no racing background, Tham has cut his teeth from working with Irish Thoroughbred Marketing to developing a quality broodmare band. He has also embarked on pinhooking foals recently and added a €210,000 Night Of Thunder colt to the books at Goffs last week.

Good horses are what drives the native of Malaysia who, having studied Computer Science at University, adopts a mathematical approach to his racing and breeding endeavors without limiting himself to it.

In this week's Q&A, Tham sat down with Brian Sheerin at Park Paddocks where he explained how he became hooked on bloodstock, his approach to the December Foal Sale and much more. 

What's your background in the game?

I was just your regular student who loved to punt on horses. I got into the sport that way and have no background in horses. When I was at University, instead of studying for my final exams in Computer Science, I was punting on Cheltenham. I would have been a casual follower of the sport at that time but, the more racing I watched, the more fascinated I became. I thought, 'I really have to try and get into the industry somehow.' But, definitely, it was from punting on racing that the passion developed. 

Was there any particular horse responsible for developing that passion?

I am 34 now, so I wouldn't have been that young at the time, but Frankel (GB) was the first wow horse for me. I never really thought about pedigrees much until he came along. After Frankel, I became very interested in why certain horses are better than others. 

Were you a serious punter?

Yes, I started to get into it quite seriously. I approached races from a mathematical point of view and loved the puzzle of working out races. I have an analytical mind-as I said, I studied Computer Science and I also spent some time in real estate-and still like the punting side of things. But, the pinhooking and breeding has probably taken over. 

The breeding and pinhooking is another form of punting, isn't it?

It's all part of the problem solving aspect of racing that my mind has always been fascinated with. We have eight or nine broodmares in Ireland with some good friends of ours, Peter and Carol Henley, and we try to adopt a quality over quantity approach. Peter and Carol are based in Kildare and are very good breeders. They produce very good racehorses and we're delighted to have teamed up with them. 

How has your broodmare band and racing interests developed? You and your Dad have gone from owning fun handicappers like T For Tango, Our Manekineko and My Manekineko to winning listed races and breeding big-ticket lots at some of the premier sales.

My Dad [Terry] liked punting as well. He used to work in England in the seventies and eighties and would always tell me about Grundy and Bustino. We're originally from Malaysia but Dad got introduced to horses originally through punting and walking in and out of the bookies. Dad took me to a lot of race meetings when I was younger. So, our interest started out as a bit of fun and, even up until recently, it has been that way. Our family business is property. My Dad obviously wanted me to go into that but I was too contrary and wanted to have a career in horse racing. My older brother and older sister are helping him out with the property business and I'm helping him to waste money on horses! I've gone a different path and, while my family took some convincing initially, it's been going okay in the past number of years so hopefully that will continue. 

Doing okay might be an understatement. While people might not know a lot about you, they are probably aware of Thornbrook (Ire) (Saxon Warrior {Jpn}), who is the latest high-class performer that your mare, Lillebonne (Fr) (Danehill Dancer {Ire}), has produced. 

Thornbrook has won her listed race but we do think she is capable of winning Group races next year, which is why she will stay in training. The whole story with the mare is just incredible. We've had successes with pinhooks and things like that but nothing quite like Lillebonne. 

How did you get into the family?

I am very good friends with trainer James Nash in Ireland. He has introduced me to a lot of good people in the industry, including Peter Henley. A lot of people I have met at the sales and in racing, they have been through James's connections. Peter is a very nice guy and I always liked the stock he produced-they all had good bone and looked like proper racehorses. I can remember he wouldn't shut up about this big Mehmas (Ire) colt he had going to Goffs one year. He was telling me for weeks and weeks that I needed to buy this horse. He turned out to be Magnanimous (Ire), who we bought for €50,000, and put into training with Joseph O'Brien. We got him sold for over €500,000 to Hong Kong where he has turned out to be a brilliant horse. After that, I bought into Lillebonne, and she has done it every year since, which is pretty incredible.

She has an excellent track record.

It's not normal. She has produced Seisai (Ire) (Gleneagles {Ire}), Thornbrook, Magnanimous and, funnily enough, Micro Manage (Ire) (Rip Van Winkle {Ire}), who was probably the most talented of them all.  He had Group level talent but was very hard to keep sound. Seisai was sold to Lane's End last year and I understand she is going to visit Flightline, which is exciting. Then there was the Night Of Thunder (Ire) filly, who we sold for 500,000gns through Baroda Stud here at Book 1. That was another brilliant result with the mare. 

Where does that rank in terms of achievements in the sport?

It's by far the best result we've had. We got a touch out of Magnanimous but it was special to share the success with the Henleys at Book 1. Full credit has to go to them because Carol sourced the mare for 40,000gns here in 2013. Carol is an excellent judge of a mare and I have learned a lot from her. 

And how did the link with Joseph come about? 

We got a horse for my Dad, Uncle Henry, who was a pretty average jumper but we got to know Joseph through that and we got on very well with him. Joseph is young but is very intelligent, driven and is an incredible horseman. I wouldn't describe myself as a horseman but I can ask Joseph anything and he will help me. I rely on the best horsemen I know and surround myself with the best people who know what they are doing. 

You might not label yourself as a horseman but plenty of people have described you as a good judge. How have you gone from having no background in the game to breeding and pinhooking to a high level?

One of the first agents I followed was a guy called Justin Bahen. I got to know him through James Nash and he mainly works the horses-in-training sales for the Hong Kong market. I can remember being green as grass with Justin. I know I was not a good student but I still follow a lot of the stuff he did and adopt similar processes to how he shortlists horses, what to look for and what not to look for. He was quite particular and I'd say I am quite particular as well. But the key was just getting out there and looking at as many horses as I could. I'd go to every sale and look at every horse I could. Over time, you pick it up. It's only recently that I became confident in my own abilities to judge a horse.

That's handy because you spent €210,000 on a Night Of Thunder colt last week at Goffs!

The main focus is breeding but I want to supplement that with pinhooking and will aim to buy a couple of foals each year. It's funny, the first sale I ever went to was at Goffs and I went around with Bobby O'Ryan. I can remember it was the time of No Nay Never's first foal crop and I liked a filly by him. I bought her with Bobby and that was my first pinhook. 

And did you turn a profit?

No, but she was a Group 2 winner. Her name was Nay Lady Nay (Ire) and she won four times for Chad Brown. Her full-brother Arizona (Ire) came out the following year and she ended up selling for $1.7 million. It's a mad game. 

Will you try and buy another foal here at Tattersalls?

I'll be trying but it won't be easy. I tried on a few on Wednesday but got outbid. I'll try again on Friday and have plenty on the list. The market is very sire dominated. You need to be by the right sire-Havana Grey (GB), Blue Point (Ire), Pinatubo (Ire), Night Of Thunder, that kind of thing. It's very sire focussed and I need to factor that into my pinhooking. Everything by the big sires will make a little more than it should. The yearling market was tricky enough this year and, apart from the Night Of Thunder filly, we had a pretty average year. 

With all of that in mind, how will you approach the next few months in terms of doing up mating plans for your mares?

Lillebonne needs a good cover but we don't go too high on the sires. She is in foal to Saxon Warrior, so we'll have a sibling to Thornbrook, but we don't like to stretch ourselves. We've a few nice mares coming through who, hopefully, will be the next Lillebonne. We'll see. There's a lovely mare there called Statuesque (GB) (Sea The Stars {Ire}), who we bought off Cheveley Park here in 2019 for 52,000gns. She has been producing really good stock. We bought her in foal to Le Havre (Ire), who turned out to be Beechwood (Ire). She won her maiden for John O'Donoghue and looks a promising filly. Statuesque has a really nice Space Blues (Ire) filly who is probably the best foal on our farm. We'd give her a good shot. 

You say you approach everything with an analytical mindset but how do you apply mathematics to breeding horses?

It's all probability, isn't it? You have a good sire and a good dam, you've got a good chance. But, anyone who works solely on stats, the proper horsemen will just run rings around them. You need to understand where you are looking. It's good to have things in the background about certain sires and statistics can be good at times but nothing is more important than looking at the physical attributes of a horse.

Given numbers are your forte, how have you viewed the market in recent times?

The domestic market is a bit of an issue. The health of the industry over here is a big worry. Take for example the Night Of Thunder filly we sold at Book 1, almost all of the vets were on behalf of American buyers. Very few trainers in Britain and Ireland had orders and that can't be healthy because the racing product is going to suffer. There are some very good trainers in Britain and they don't seem to have orders. Obviously, I am a racing fan, and I think racing in Britain and Ireland is the most entertaining. I live in London and never miss Royal Ascot and go to Sandown quite regularly as well. Prize-money is a big problem and, if the talent drain continues for another 10 years, we're going to weaken the product quite significantly. It's turning into an exporting business. Book 1 is the best of the best over here in England but the majority of the big horses were being sold abroad. That has to be a big worry. We still have amazing stallions and brilliant owner-breeders over here so that's the positives. 

And what are your own aims going forward?

To be involved in good horses. Like everyone, I'd love to be involved in a Group 1 horse. It might take a long time but that's the aim. I just want to be involved in good horses, be that buying them or selling them. My Dad supports me and, as I said, it took a long time to convince him about the idea. We buy nice fillies and race them with Joseph. If they're good enough, they feed into the broodmare band, and the hope is that we keep on breeding nice horses. There are some very good breeders around, the likes of Lodge Park Stud, Ballyphilip Stud, those kinds of guys are people to look up to. I just try to emulate those guys. We've a lot of good people helping us out so hopefully one day it happens. This is a great game, full of interesting people and some fascinating characters. I don't know how I got down this road but I am hooked. It's one big puzzle and I love it. 


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