The Bloodstock Notebook interviews James Delahooke
Bloodstock Notebook / Issue No. 1 / Winter 2017

About this whole fabled ‘eye for a yearling’ business… He laughs, and bits it away. Even after being asked the question a hundred times, he says, he still cannot find the words to tell you what it means, let alone what makes it or where it comes from. After a pause, he offers an olive branch: “I know a good horse when I see one, though.”

“Do you mean that you can see what makes a good horse when you see a good horse?” I counter, desperately trying to prise the metaphorical lid from the mental jar.

“There are some things you can see which might suggest the horse in front of you will make a good horse.”

So we might not be getting somewhere. “Go on, then. What things can you see to differentiate Nijinsky from a selling plater?”

“It’s not as easy as that,” he counters. “Besides the total being greater than the sum of the parts. Here’s the thing. I once went to the Prado Museum in Madrid with a renowned expert on Old Masters. And he was just talking about these pictures and seeing things that I just couldn’t see. And I should thing that if I take that man to Tattersalls, I’ll start seeing things that he can’t see. And a horse is a three-dimensional thing: you can see these people going about taking videos and things but I don’t actually believe that you can see in two dimensions something that is actually in three-dimensions. Maybe it’s actually in four dimensions, because you’ve got to think of time, in terms of motion and action now as well as in mentally picturing growth in the future. And you can’t see attitude, either, can you?”

Ah but you can only identify attitude if you first see the indications of it. I wonder if we should approach the issue from the other direction, to look at what indicates a bad horse rather than what shows a good one.

“But it doesn’t work like that,” he replies. “Never has done. You can’t have a horse in front of you and go through a check-list and look for the absence of bad things, and say that because none of the bad signs are there then by default that means that the horse is a good horse, can you? Just because a car passes the MOT, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good car.”

He elaborates: “I think there are an awful lot of what we might disparagingly call tyre-kickers in this business, people who go around looking for a fault and then at the moment that they find one, or something that isn’t copybook conformation, they put a line through that horse and move on to the next one. A lot of us have people to help us at the sales, since it’s a physical impossibility to look at all of the lots and you need someone else to thin them out a bit. With any helper I have, I have always begged and pleaded and insisted that the main feeling has to be, ‘is it a nice horse?’ I don’t mind if it toes in a bit, I don’t mind if it toes out a bit, I don’t care if it is back at the knee; I just want to know if it’s a nice horse: does it please you, does it move, does it want to be a race horse? If it does, whatever you do, please don’t be too quick to judge, to cross a horse off the list, just because of one minor deviation of conformation because that will often prove to be insignificant. Winning horses come in all shapes and sizes – and for proof of that, just go and look in the Winners’ Enclosure at Ascot, Newmarket or Epsom.”

There it is: Epsom. The clue which by association will bring us to the Derby. Which in term brings us – inevitably – to Dancing Brave. Sooner or later, any discussion about or involving James Delahooke invariably comes around to Dancing Brave, both the magnum opus and the one that got away.

Yet a central plank of the Dancing Brave story is what we’ve just mentioned, the tenet of not knocking a yearling. “He certainly wasn’t perfectly formed,” Delahooke explains. “He had a wall eye and a parrot mouth, and was a bit wonky in front. He was an athlete, though, and had very much of what I look for. He was by Lyphard, who as a sire was under a bit of a cloud at the time, and it has always stood me in good stead to ignore it when a proven stallion goes out of fashion. In those days, I had a budget from the Prince (Khalid Abdullah) of $10 million a year for yearlings, and there was no way that this fellow wasn’t going to be part of that year’s package.

At Fasig-Tipton in July 1984, in the middle of the era of the boom and the million-dollar yearling, Dancing Brave cost $200,000, one fiftieth of the owner’s annual yearling budget.

It may all be more than thirty years ago yet, as his buyer quickly reminds me, the story is not yet ancient history. “Do you know,” he asks, leaning forward in his chair, “Brough Scott was on the television the other day and chose Dancing Brave’s as the best Arc performance ever?”

Maybe he was also the best yearling purchase ever. Certainly he turned out to be not just one in fifty, but one in a lifetime. Well he would have been for any other owner than the one who;d later have Frankel, Arrogate and Enable. And that brings us almost full circle.

“I can’t claim any credit whatsoever for Arrogate,” Delahooke explains. “He was that rare thing in the modern age, a Juddmonte auction purchase. But all the rest of them come from maybe the third and fourth generation of horses I originally bought when I managed the Prince’s bloodstock. Virtually 100 per cent of the homebreds descend from mares and families I assembled – they have just gone on and on”.

Amazingly, he name is almost a footnote in today’s racing, yet it is one forever associated with the early Juddmonte success: into the story enter Guy Harwood. Like his bloodstock agent, he was never afraid to see things his own way, to do his own thing or to take the opposite view to everyone else. “Working with Guy was a big part of my life,” says Delahooke. “He was the first person to ask me to evaluate horses, and happily for both of us there was a long period in which the horses I bought and he trained did remarkably well.

“I cannot remember where we first met, but we started working together years ago through a company called Stud and Racing Services. At the time, I was running Adstock Manor Stud near Buckingham, and had mad myself very unpopular in the industry by suggesting in public that anyone who that that running a 200-acre stud farm was a full-time job didn’t get out of bed early enough – and yet there were lots of chinless wonders about the place doing just that! Anyway, I was looking for something extra to do and a fellow called Martin Burdett-Coutts approached me. He wanted to set up an agency which had two breeders, two trainers and one agent. – himself – involved. Along with Toby Balding, Guy was one of those trainers. The company spluttered along for a bit, but the timing was awful and the 70’s recession was beginning to bite and it never really flew. But that venture led me on to working with both Guy and as an agent with other people’s money.”

And what was the key to the success of a man who was always pulling in a different direction to that of the old-fashioned establishment? “The thing about Guy was the way his brain worked,” explains Delahooke. “He was just such a tremendous sponge of information and always looking to do things better. For example, very early in his career he went to Vincent O’Brien#s to have a look. Vincent had invented the all-weather gallop. Once guy had seen it, Guy followed suit. That was Guy through and through: if he saw something that he thought was a good idea, he’d copy it. He was always seeking to do thins better. He built the most amazing training establishment – one that was way ahead of its time – at Coombelands and became a great friend, something that still endures today. We had some brilliant horses, like Ela-Mana-Mou, Tou-Agori-Mou and Recitation, and we always had winners at Ascot and Goodwood and Newmarket, and in those days we’d go racing not just hoping but expecting to win Group races. It was enormously exciting and great fun, and a lot of the owners made great profit. On the back of all that, I was asked one day to go and meet Khalid Abdullah.”

And how did that all happen? “I was headhunted basically. I was very happy doing my own thing, a lot of which revolved around Coombelands, but I was asked to go and meet him. I think it was his first racing manager, Humphrey Cottrill, who set the meeting up. Anyway, the Prince asked me to oversee what was at the time his only thoroughbred stud, at Wargrave-on-Thames, and I did that for a year or two. Humphrey was buying the yearlings and you didn’t need to be a genius to see that he was making a seriously bad job of it. I ran into the Prince late at night in the hotel in Lexington. Probably emboldened by one two many to drink, I told him that I should be buying yearlings, because I do a much better job. ‘I know,’ he replied, and that was that.”

Which brings us back to that revolving door that is the Dancing Brave story. Oddly enough, it wasn’t Delahooke himself who bid or signed for the parrot-mouthed colt from the Taylor Made sales agency. In those days, the Fasig-Tipton July Sale ran from the Friday to the Saturday and was followed on the Monday and Tuesday by the Keeneland July Sale. “Same old story!” he smiles. “People hadn’t got properly warmed up and kidded themselves that there’d be better horses down the road in a couple of days time! So I’d looked at all the Fasig-Tipton yearlings, this one included, and already gone up to inspect yearlings at Keenland, leaving Grant Pritchard-Gordon to bid for him on the day.”

It may seem extraordinary, but it wasn’t predetermined that the then-unnamed colt from Fasig-Tipton would make his way to Coombelands. Jeremy Tree was the Prince’s main trainer at the time and had first pick. The Lyphard yearling didn’t make the Beckhampton draft, with Tree unimpressed by a previous son of the same sire in his care. Tree’s loss would become not just Harwood’s gain, but the defining horse of his training career.

In retrospect, it was fortunate indeed that he went to Harwood. It turned out to be one of those little forks int he road in life which later turn out to be really important, further evidence that most big decisions are made on little more than chance. “That’s not to criticise Jeremy though,” corrects Delahooke. “Jeremy had first pick and it just happened to be that Jeremy didn’t choose him. I sometimes thought that Jeremy could be too pre-occupied with pedigree though, at the expense of what the horse himself was like. Another really good horse we had in the same era was Rainbow Quest. Jeremy did pick him as a yearling, and I have always thought that if Guy had tried him, he would have won the Derby. Jeremy tried to make him into a miler.”

He shows me a framed photograph, a source of obvious pride: two Delahooke yearling purchases at the finish of Newmarket’s Craven Stakes – then as now, the most important 2,000 Guineas trial. “Lear Fan is giving Rainbow Quest 7lbs here. Who in their right mind would think that if Rainbow Queest can’t beat Lear Fan in receipt of 7lbs in the Craven, he can somehow beat him at level weights two weeks later?” Yet it was to be the Guineas that Rainbow Quest headed, still a source of regret, where he and Lear Fan ran pound-to-pound to their Craven form in defeat behind El Gran Senor. “If he had been trained for the Derby, I am sure he would have won the Derby. To my mind, he was always a mile-and-a-half horse. He ended his career winning an Arc, and had also been placed behind Sadler’s Wells and Darshaan in that great stallion-making running of the French Derby.”

Talking of Stallions and mile and a half horses takes us back to the beginning, to Adstock Manor. “William Barnett kindly asked us to stand High Line when he retired from racing – and that was a bloody great struggle to start with as he was an unfashionably-bred stayer, and if you think there isn’t much demand for a horse like that these days then it was no easier then! Mr Barnett bred some of his good mares to him and did remarkably well, culminating in the day in which he had four winners in a day, including two Group 1 winners at York’s Ebor Festival.

“Do you know, that’s the only time at which I’ve ever heard bloodstock breeding on the BBC radio news, but that happened as we were driving home that night, as the newsreader said that the stallion High Line had had four winners on the card. People sat up and began to take notice at that point, and he started to get a few mares. I think he covered just 14 mares in his first year; but he made it on those 14 mares. These days, people seem to think that you need 200 mares to give a stallion a chance, but talent will come through on a very small number. I think that in his first crop Sadler’s Wells had 56 foals, a figure which would be considered the commercial kiss of death; and yet that was one of his best crops ever. We now live in the big-book era though, and the genie isn’t going to go back in that bottle.

“I sold Adstock Manor in 1992, and moved to North Yorkshire. The market has changed and I’d slightly lost interest in the place: I hadn’t been able to give it my full attention and it wasn’t going forward. Actually, in one aspect, selling it was a huge mistake: I’d mentored the career of Ted Voute from a young age , and he was running the farm after coming back from Australia and America with an American wife. Ted had been in Kentucky working for Lee Eaton, who was one of the first sales agents over there, and it had always been his ambition to do something similar here. Foolishly, I didn’t think that it would work here: how wrong I was, because he has been so very successful and I could doubtless have been involved in some way.” Indeed Voute may be its most famous alumnus, but there are many more graduates of the Delahooke academy for young people wanting to work in the bloodstock business.

Ted was definitely one of the best of them, but we’ve had some brilliant people who worked for us at Adstock Manor or Juddmonte or helping at the sales,” he recalls. “I met Amanda Skiffington when she was living in America: whenever I went to buy a horse, there she was. I thought that she must know what she was doing, as she was always bidding on the right ones. I’d end up buying them of course, since my clients were richer than her clients. So I told her that she’d better start working for me. So she did, and for some years – and it was great fun! Among the nicest people who came to us was Angie Sykes, now Angie Loder – and she went on to buy a Derby winner, so we must have taught her well! Sara Thorman always worked incredibly hard; and as for Simon Mockridge – well I employed him straight out of college and he’s still there now. David Redvers came to us at Adstock, as a very young man out of school, and without a doubt he was very good, even then.

“I have made more mistakes than I care to mention, in fact more than I could possibly remember. But if I could offer any advice to someone starting out, it would be that you have to stick to your opinion and ignore the chattering classes: You can hear people repeating like parrots, ‘they say so-and-so’s yearlings are no good’ – well who is ‘they’? You have to ignore the nay-sayers – and there are plenty of them about! Something that has really stood me in good stead has been to remember that a good stallion doesn’t suddenly stop being a good stallion, even if he falls from fashion. It happened with Roberto, so Guy and I were able to buy quite a few of them at effectively half-price. It’s nonsense to say that a horse is a good stallion one year and then suddenly a bad stallion the next. A classic example at the moment is Oasis Dream: he’s still a top-class stallion and yet, commercially, he’s in the freezer, and undeservedly so. So that’s an opportunity for someone; if you like the horse, stick by him.”

Stage left, enter Bobby Flay, restaurateur and celebrity Chef: an introduction which came from Delahooke’s old friend Barry Weisbord, publisher of the Thoroughbred Daily News. “Bobby’s a delightful man, a highly intelligent man and an excellent businessman – an all-round good client who became a good friend,” he says. “We’ve set about building a really high-class band of broodmares for him. To a certain extent we have succeeded, even though we have been doing it at a time where you’re frequently bidding against people who seem to have got a sum to spend that’s similar to their countries defence budget, so it’s not easy. You have to see the wood for the trees and you cannot take your rivals head on as you know they have more money so you are going to lose.”

From the wilderness, it is ironicalyl a chef who has given Delahooke another glimpse at the market’s top table. Both the characters within it, and that market itself, may have changed since the agent’s heydey; but the old principles remain the same.

“He has done some good trading you know!” smiles Delahooke. “As an exampkle, we bought a Fastnet Rock filly called Cover Song at Fasig-Tipton last year, a three-year old who had won at Grade 3 level in America. She cost $1.6 million so a lot; but she is the first foal of a mare called Misty For Me. Since we bought the filly last year, Misty For Me has been responsible for not only Roly Poly but also U S Navy Flag, who has just won the Middle Park and the Dewhurst: five Group Ones between the two of them since we bought Cover Song. So she’s now a very valuable item, worth a huge amount more than we paid for her, and she has come to the UK to be covered by Dubawi. And a couple of years ago we bought a mare from Ballymacoll and this October we sold her first foal, a filly by War Front, at Tattersalls. She made 550,000 guineas and paid Bobby back for what he spent on the mare in one hit.”

There is a pause when I ask the question, a silence which says as much about the answer as the words themselves do. “Are you happy with where you are professionally?” “No i’m not… I think it happens to almost everyone that you become yesterday’s man whether you like it or not. A great friend, older than me, who was in the film business once told me not to underestimate how quickly it happens.

“I would like to be playing at the very top level, like I used to, and I am not; and it may never happen again. Of course, I think that I am capable of doing the job as well as, if not better than, anyone else; but if you lose momentum then it’ is really hard to re-establish it. It’s frustrating that there are a lot of people out there doing more business than me.

Young money comes in and they want a young agent, a contemporary. Whether those people know what they are doing or not is another matter entirely. There are people out there wielding enormous amounts of other people’s money but not actually having the vaguest idea what they are doing – even if they think they have!”

The changing of the guard is one thing. Indeed, change itself may well be as inevitable as the changing of the seasons and part of the anvil on which a career is forged. But what about the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, the knowledge that only comes from experience, the recognition of the difference between the eternal verities of the bloodstock market and the passing fad? If you cannot stop change happening, can you at least fight against it, slow it’s onset?

It would be too easy to say that facing that change is, as it was for Dylan Thomas, to rage against the dying of the light. Instead, in this case it is a testamant to the tenacity of the human spirit. And of course, it comes back to Dancing Brave.

“Without doubt I want to win the Derby. I’ve come close several times, with several placed horses along the way, through all three of Adstock Manor, Guy Harwood and Khalid Abdullah. I suppose Dancing Brave was my derby winner that never happened.

If you keep doing what you know works, as I intend to, then the Derby winner will come. I haven’t remotely given up. All I’ve got to do is live long enough!

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