Not just dedicated followers of fashion

In the first of a two part interview with John Flood of Boardsmill, Daragh Ó Conchúir discovers how creative thinking plays a significant role in the stud’s search for suitable sires in a competitive market

William and John Flood of Boardsmill Stud, which was founded by William’s father, Jack, back in 1935

William and John Flood of Boardsmill Stud, which was founded by William’s father, Jack, back in 1935

When Liverpool talisman Virgil van Dijk went crashing to the turf in agony under a challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford last October and was subsequently ruled out for the rest of the Premier League season with a damaged ACL, his manager Jürgen Klopp banked on his reserves.

As they fell one by one, the German eventually had to hit the transfer market. In a world where not being stellar immediately is to be damned a failure, Ozan Kabak is already under pressure, externally at least. While options are thinner on the ground mid-season, it is certain that Kabak would have been scouted. There is no way, once Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Fabinho joined the list of walking wounded that Klopp just turned on his laptop and typed, ‘centre-backs’ into his search engine.

Unfortunately for John Flood, Califet’s demise is of a permanent nature, the sire of Carriacou, Clarcam, Cilaos Emery, Adrien du Pont and Blue Dragon having died suddenly at the age of 23 in January. This was 14 months after the death of Mount Nelson, the sire of Penhill, Librisa Breeze and Berkshire, whose first Irish-conceived crop are three this year.

So it is clearly a bit of a transitional period for Boardsmill Stud, after a lengthy run of success with the venerable trio of Court Cave, Kalanisi and Califet in particular.

Flood had struck gold when adding dual Group 1 victor Poet’s Word to the roster of the Newtownmoynagh farm the August before Mount Nelson submitted to his lengthy battle with lymphangitis, but when Califet died, the covering season was almost upon us. There was little wriggle room.

Flood had already had his eye on Sumbal, so while the pressure was on to make a deal rapidly for the nine-year-old, soft-ground Group 2 Prix Greffulhe winner, it was never a case of bringing in a stop-gap. The grey son of Danehill Dancer ticked all the boxes.

“Califet was 23, which is a good age. He was reasonably fresh but he went suddenly on us in the end. We were delighted and lucky to be able to get another horse in his place in time for the breeding season, albeit at a very different stage of his career. It was in the pipeline anyway given Califet’s age and, with Kalanisi older, we needed something coming through alongside Poet’s Word. 

Sumbal was a horse who was on our radar from when he went to stud two years ago. We thought he would fit this job nicely. He’d done his racing in France so it was understandable that the guys who bought him after his racing career tried him there. But where he was standing was Flat-orientated and he wasn’t a horse with two-year-old form. It’s very difficult now for those horses to get off the ground with a good number.

“So he was moved last year (to Annshoon Stud) with the same owners and was covering pretty much all National Hunt mares. Again, we were following that to see how he was going to do.”

Sumbal was a horse who was on our radar from when he went to stud two years ago

Sumbal was a horse who was on our radar from when he went to stud two years ago

“There’s been a lot of interest since we announced it. He sold for good money as a yearling so even without seeing him, you’d be hoping he looked the part. He’s an attractive sort, with a nice walk and he’s the type plenty of people will have interest in, even if when they walk through the gates they’re thinking of the more established sires. Everyone who’s seen him has liked him. Poet’s Word is the same.”

It would surprise nobody to hear that the latter, a now eight-year-old Group 1 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes hero, was “choc-a-bloc” in 2020. “He got a lot of nice mares which is very important for a young horse starting out. The quality of mares a sire gets hugely influences how well they’re going to do in the long run.

“But you’d expect that, as he was rated around 130. Of Group 1 winners to retire to stud even in the last five years, he’s pretty much top of the pops, along with the likes of Ghaiyyath, Cracksman, Crystal Ocean. So you’d be hoping a horse like that would be well supported.”

The second highest-rated sire from the Dubawi line, Poet’s Word’s first crop are yearlings and Flood has been paying a keen interest.

Poet’s Word was rated the Champion Older Horse in Europe (L) in 2018 after victories in the Group 1 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes (above, beating Cracksman)

Poet’s Word was rated the Champion Older Horse in Europe (L) in 2018 after victories in the Group 1 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes (above, beating Cracksman)

“As a bunch, we’re very happy with what’s on the ground. We bought a couple of mares carrying to him from his first season and we’re pleased with the foals they produced. We then bought a couple more to bring on.

“He’s putting plenty of size into them. To date – that’s always the caveat – they’re all bays and browns. It looks like he’s stamping them well; nice movers with plenty of bone. He’s a horse with good bone himself. His first Boardsmill-conceived foals are now hitting the ground and breeders like them. A number of those mares foaled already are returning this year which is the ultimate endorsement.”

Kalanisi is at the opposite end of the spectrum at 25 and will be on a reduced book in deference to Father Time. The Group 1 Champion Stakes and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf scorer has been a consistent producer of quality, including the former Champion Hurdle winner Katchit, while Barizan, Barters Hill, Brain Power, Fayonagh and the recently ill-fated The Conditional have carried his DNA to good effect. Meanwhile, Imperial Aura, Darver Star and Kalashnikov will all harbour Cheltenham aspirations next week.

“He’s in good health. He was always a horse who had excellent fertility right through his career. If there was a problem mare or a mare that another stallion was struggling with, if all else failed, you’d send her to Kalanisi. He’d get them in foal.

“He was 24 last year and it was the first sign of a decline in his fertility, but as he’s in such good health and likes his covering, we’re carrying on this year. If there happened to be any further deterioration, we wouldn’t delay in calling it a day but as we speak, we have some mares here that will be shortly ready for him, so we’ll be hoping there’s still life in the old dog yet.”

Court Cave is the Boardsmill legend, almost a pet to John, his father William and the staff, as incongruous as that sounds as a description of a stallion. His Willoughby Court and City Island have landed Grade 1 pots at Cheltenham in recent years, with Mister Whitaker also scoring at the Festival. Court Maid and Shady Operator are among those striving to add to this CV, while Grade 2 winners Court Minstrel, Champion Court and Call Me Lyreen – all bred or raised at Boardsmill – are others which have prevailed on a regular basis.

Yet, like one of the farm’s signature stallions, Brave Invader, Court Cave never made it to the race track at all. “He’s 20 now and you wouldn’t think it looking at him. He’s as fresh almost as the day we got him. It was Christmas-time as a two-year-old rising three that we went to see him at Juddmonte’s Ferrans Stud in Kilcock.

“He’d had an injury to a hind fetlock during the year so didn’t go into training with the rest of the two-year-olds. The vets just couldn’t guarantee that he would stand up to training but he had that pedigree. It was a crazy time to get proven horses, but with his breeding – by Sadler’s Wells out of Irish Oaks winner Wemyss Bight – we took a chance. It was a random injury, nothing you’d worry about in terms of general soundness, and we’d already stood an unraced horse successfully in Brave Invader.

“Court Cave is a real character. A very personable horse. He’d nearly talk to you. His trademark when people come looking at him is that he sticks his tongue out and lets you play with it. You wouldn’t be encouraging playing with stallions’ tongues too often, but he loves it!”

Court Cave was an example of the Floods having to be creative. So too Califet. And the environment is only getting more difficult, the market a harsher judge. That means there are opportunities though for the nuanced observer. Even after his death, Flood suspects that Califet will advertise the possibilities.

Court Cave is a real character who sticks his tongue out and lets you play with it

Court Cave is a real character who sticks his tongue out and lets you play with it

“You’d hope so. In the modern world, everything needs to happen yesterday. They don’t give horses much of a chance and he perhaps had a slower start than some people were expecting with his Irish-breds. We were probably crossing him with a different type of mare and I’m very optimistic that he’ll have plenty of success like he had with his French-breds in time. He’s got good numbers on stream.”

Given that rush for precocity on and off the track, and the unavailability of the majority of high-class colts as they are retained by the global breeding operations, you need to be creative but there are certain non-negotiables too. 

“You’re constrained in certain ways as to what you can go looking for or what’s available to buy. There are obviously certain things you wouldn’t compromise on. You don’t want to start with a horse that’s potentially going to breed unsoundness, wind or otherwise.

“Other than that, you’re looking at a very broad spectrum of what could work for you as regards the numerous different bloodlines, physical attributes and so on.”

In many respects, the breeding industry has become very much like the character created by Kinks songwriter Ray Davies – a dedicated follower of fashion. There’s a balancing act required between having a commodity that prompts demand at the sales and the long-term ultimate requirement of producing racehorses.

“It’s a movable feast. You try not be governed by that because what’s unfashionable now could be fashionable next year. So you need to look outside those confines within reason, based on different things: his racing record; his progression as a racehorse; the distance he ran over; the ground he handled and his bloodline – there’s a number of factors.

“Ultimately, we need to be thinking in the long term about getting racehorses, so you shouldn’t be blinded by what’s currently fashionable. If you see an opportunity where you think a sire will get racehorses, that’s what everyone wants.”

In the long game, racing progeny will cement a sire’s reputation one way or the other, but the short term can impact his potential for having a extended career at stud. The problem with that short-term view is that it leads to stallions being pigeon-holed quickly, becoming Flat cast-offs. That trend has been beneficial to the jumping scene.

“We would be branded a National Hunt stud so the majority of our client-base are National Hunt breeders, albeit we still have some Flat clients. The likes of Mount Nelson and Poet’s Word covered some Flat mares last year.

“But the standard of horse available to National Hunt breeders now is unbelievable, and being able to get our hands on Poet’s Word two years ago was a bit of a coup in itself. It’s a reflection of the Flat market that these horses aren’t being supported like they used to be in their early seasons, which commercially makes them less attractive to hold onto for their Flat connections.

About the author

Daragh Ó Conchúir

Daragh Ó Conchúir is an award-winning freelance writer, author and broadcaster, who has been contributing to mainstream and trade media for more than 30 years, while also serving in editorial roles in that time, including at present, as editor of the Irish Racing Yearbook. 

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