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The Big Interview: with James Bester

8 min read
TDNAusNZ's Kelsey Riley sat down with James Bester to find out his opinions on shuttling stallions from America to Australia, the focus on breeding for speed, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Australian industry. Bester kicks off Kelsey's regular Big Interview series in TDN AusNZ.

KR: A constant debate in Australia is whether it's best to use shuttlers or colonially-raced horses. In a recent interview you said you thought some shuttlers could be accessed at “bargain” fees Down Under because they have more to prove in that market. What qualities--physical, pedigree and racing style--do you think a shuttler needs to succeed in Australia?

JB: I think we over-emphasise the supposed gulf between turf and dirt horses. As MV Magnier pointed out recently [speaking after buying a yearling by American Pharoah at Arqana], his grandfather Vincent O’Brien and father John Magnier, along with Robert Sangster, “built Ballydoyle and Coolmore on the back of the American ‘dirt’ horse.” Northern Dancer--as well as son Sadler’s Wells and grandsons Galileo and Danehill, and lately, War Front, as well as fifth-generation descendent Scat Daddy--have been the mainstay of those legendary operations since Nijinsky himself.

Danehill

Australia’s best sire ever, Danehill, was by the epitome of a dirt horse in Northern Dancer’s son Danzig.

Australia’s best racehorse--ever?--is Winx, by American dirt sire Street Cry, son of Mr Prospector and sire in Australia also of top-class 2-year-old Pride Of Dubai, Group 1 Guineas winners Whobegotyou, Long John and Stay With Me and even Melbourne Cup winner Shocking.

Golden Slipper-winning 2-year-old Vancouver and Golden Rose hero Astern are by American dirt horse Medaglia d’Oro, while American dirt horse More Than Ready has been a leading sire in both Australia and the U.S., with any number of champions and sire-sons in both hemispheres.

All of those sires differed so markedly in physique, pedigree, racing style and distance aptitude that I wouldn’t venture to prescribe specific qualities required for success in Australia. That said, the Australian commercial market would certainly favour qualities like successful 2-year-old form, speed, class, soundness and what might be termed a turf action--all of which qualities American Pharoah boasts in abundance.

The legendary Winx is a daughter of American dirt sire, Street Cry

KR: The pendulum for sire success in Australia seems to have swung back towards horses that raced locally, after favouring shuttlers for a number of years. Why do you think this is, and could it ever swing back?

JB: Scorpions sting; pendula swing--it’s in their nature.

Danehill swung the pendulum from Star Kingdom to shuttle sires and then his sons Danzero, Flying Spur and Redoute’s Choice--followed by his sons Snitzel, Stratum and Not A Single Doubt-- swung it back in favour of locally-raced colonial sires.

Reason is simple: Danehill and descendents nicked wonderfully well with broodmares by Star Kingdom-line sires like Biscay, Bletchingly, Marscay and with mares by Sir Tristam and his son Zabeel. Einstein not required to figure out that the next waves of sire-success will come from outcross sirelines who nick best with the Danehill-line broodmares that proliferate in Australia.

So, whilst there is plenty of life yet in the Danehill sireline, the answer is yes, the pendulum will swing back. To Storm Cat? To Galileo? To complete outliers like American Pharoah? Time will tell, but anyone not expecting a swing is going to get a nasty bump on the head when that pendulum changes direction.

"Time will tell, but anyone not expecting a swing is going to get a nasty bump on the head when that pendulum changes direction." - James Bester

KR: There is much discussion about the fact that the Australian breed has become so focused on speed. What is your take on this? Is this a good thing, a bad thing?

JB: In my view the Australian breed is far too focused on speed and precocity. This all started with the importation of Star Kingdom and the creation of what many see as a ridiculously rich race for 2-year-olds, the Golden Slipper. This is no longer even balanced by the Melbourne Cup, which is now a ridiculously rich race for imported and visiting stayers.

There is very little incentive to breed ‘Classic’ horses as those battle in the yearling sale ring, despite still good prize money out there for Oaks and Derby events. Even winners of the Cox Plate, our weight-for-age championship of Australia, battle to find support at stud and buyers of their progeny at sales.

"It is what it is and it's not going to change, which is a pity," - James Bester on the Australian preference of 2yo's over Classic horses

It is what it is and it’s not going to change, which is a pity, I think, as Australia has shot itself in the foot with this obsessive mania for Magic Millions [2-year-old Classic], Blue Diamond and Golden Slipper 2-year-olds, the vast majority of which fail to train on as 3-year-olds but still command big prices for stud and over-the-top service fees.

Estijaab winning the 2018 Golden Slipper

KR: Could the success of young horses like Pierro and So You Think perhaps prompt a swing back to Australians breeding more stayers?

JB: Before Pierro and So You Think, who are both the future of Guineas, Oaks and Derby horses in Australia, there was Zabeel, High Chaparral, and there still is, Savabeel, etc. They were super sires of Classic horses but made little difference to the speed-oriented character of Australian racing and breeding.

So no, I doubt they’ll prompt a swing but they certainly are immensely popular amongst breeders and buyers focused on that Classic horse.

Coolmore stallion So You Think

KR: The Australian sales marketplace is one of the healthier ones worldwide at the moment. With prices rising across the board in recent years, how do you find value and stick to a budget?

JB: As with any sales, anywhere, there is always value to be found. Rising prices are not necessarily driven by expertise; they tend often to be driven by sire-mania, especially, and by black type.

But it’s racehorses I’m after, not paper tigers with fancy labels and pages. So as long as I keep focusing on type-- physique and athleticism--I can still find the right animals under budget. I’ve bought enough--and been burned enough by-- over-priced must-have and mug's horses in my time!

KR: You've been involved with the purchase of a number of high-class mares from America for Australia over the years. Of course they're all individuals, but as a group why do you think these mares work? Are European mares also effective Down Under?

JB: I think those mares I’ve bought from America, whose progeny have both sold and raced well here, have worked because they were athletes, bought off the track on type and high-class performance, with very little emphasis on catalogue page. The selection criteria were performance and physique, though any and all black type is always still welcomed.

Multiple Group 1 winner Russian Revolution is out of the imported mare Ballet D'Amour (USA)

European mares are also effective Down Under, though the same client for whom I bought those American mares had no luck with his European venture, primarily because his advisers at the time were focusing not on physique and performance but on the weak and useless close relatives to good performers.

KR: So you’d rather focus on the good mares themselves rather than going for their sisters or other relatives?

JB: Black cats have black kittens and I don’t want to breed a sales yearling that looks like an ugly, weak, useless mother--odds are it’ll more likely perform like her than like her close relatives, however much black-type they’ve splashed across the page.

It’s not always the case, as genes work in mysterious ways, but I’ve found it holds true more often than not. An exception I do make, however, is for a well-conformed, athletic ‘princess’ that looks like she should have performed but may have been compromised by factors outside of physical type.

We long ago, worldwide, gave up breeding for soundness--ability is everything--and I can’t see our ever changing that. We work them, run them and hope they last long enough to win a big race. And even if they don’t, we send them to stud anyway.

"It's not always the case, as genes work in mysterious ways, but I've found it holds true more often than not."

KR: What do you think are the main strengths of the Australian industry, and subsequently, the challenges?

JB: Prize money, possible through our TAB-funded system rather than bookmakers, and a very wide base of ownership, possible through our fabulous syndication system, are key elements of the Australian racing industry’s success.

Anyone can own a piece of a horse and nearly everyone knows someone who does, so there is great exposure via all forms of media and social interaction. There is very little ‘elitism’ in Australian racing; betting outlets are generally clean, well-run outfits and nearly every pub has a TAB facility.

Challenges in this day and age include competition from general sports betting and keeping on the right side of the animal welfare issue but we currently have, especially in New South Wales, outstanding administrators who are generating unprecedented interest in the sport via concepts like The Everest and The Kosciusco and providing great prize money incentives across the spectrum, from major races down to grass-roots country level.