Grand National Breeding Trends: Rise of the French Bred

Last updated February 12th, 2020

Nicky HendersonLooking at a horse’s breeding can definitely improve your chances of picking a winner, but that doesn’t mean targeting the progeny of specific sires. There have been stronger, location-based trends in the past and a new one appears to be developing.

British-bred horses dominated the list of National winners until 1999 when the Irish-bred Bobbyjo’s victory for Tommy Carberry heralded a new era. Eight of the next nine winners were bred in Ireland. But that is history. There is a new trend that is already loosening the grip of the Irish on the Grand National.

Keep an eye on the French

The victory of Venetia Williams’ 100/1 outsider in 2009, Mon Mome, delighted the bookmakers and much was made of the ‘second success for a female trainer’ angle. There was relatively little mention of his being the first French-bred winner for a century.

Other French-bred horses that year included the 8/1 second favourite, Paul Nicholls’ My Will who finished third, Paul Murphy’s Cerium, another 100/1 outsider, who finished fifth and the 7/1 favourite, Jonjo O’Neill’s Butlers Cabin who came seventh.  It was quite a coup, but we don’t like to praise the French.

Many people remember the 2012 Grand National as the year that the champion jumps trainer, Paul Nicholls, finally broke his duck in the race with the victory of Neptune Collonges. The popular grey owned by John Hales shouldered 11st 6lb to beat Jonjo O’Neill’s Sunnyhillboy by a nose, earning his immediate retirement.

He was the second French-bred horse to win in a period of just four years.  But was this merely some kind of fluke?  There were two New Zealand-bred winners in the 1990s. David Barons’ Seagram won in 1991 and Steve Brookshaw’s Lord Gyllene triumphed in 1997. End of story for New Zealand.

The Gallic challenge looks much more likely to be sustained.

What has fuelled the rise of the French-bred?

The UK’s top bloodstock agents are increasingly crossing the channel rather than the Irish Sea in search of potentially top class national hunt talent. Their forays into France for their deeper-pocketed clients have been expensive but extremely successful.

Why are deep pockets required? Because horses are potentially more profitable and consequently more expensive to buy in France. In France they offer decent prize money across the board, down to fifth place. Bent- legged specimens and box walkers that would barely attract the minimum bid elsewhere are sold for tens of thousands at their yearling sales.

One of the less expensive French imports was the top two mile chaser, Nicky Henderson’s stable star, Sprinter Sacre. He was bought as part of a job lot of around 20 unbroken youngsters by a bloodstock agent from a field in France. Had he raced there and shown anything like the ability he is now proven to possess his cost would have been astronomical.

Henderson’s yard is also the home of the Waley-Cohen family’s Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Long Run. He was not only bred in France but started his racing career there. His achievements caught the eye of one of the UK’s top talent spotters, Highflyer Bloodstock’s Anthony Bromley. Bromley managed to secure his purchase but he would certainly not have come cheap.

Much of the top talent at Nicholls’ yard in recent years has also come from across the channel. Kauto Star, Big Buck’s and Master Minded were all bred in France and raced there as three-year-olds.  It is no coincidence that their owners, Clive Smith and the Stewart family, are known for having extremely generous budgets at their disposal.

Not one of these horses was sold through anything as plebeian as a bloodstock sale. A substantial private offer was made through a well-connected bloodstock agent.

The increasing domination of French breds was showcased in the 2011 King George VI Chase (even though they failed to feature in the Grand National that year). Four of the seven King George runners were from France. They included the winner, Kauto Star, and the runner up, Long Run.

The two Irish-breds, Phillip Hobbs’ Captain Chris and Henrietta Knight’s Somersby came third and fourth respectively. The only locally bred horse, Sheena West’s Golan Way, was the 66/1 outsider of the field. He was presumably entered to give connections a day out.

That race provides a pretty accurate summary of the emerging patterns in the breeding of national hunt horses. The French breeders seem to have comprehensively overcome their counterparts elsewhere in conventional staying chases. They look set to do so over greater distances too.

French-breds are succeeding further afield too

In Czechoslovakia, the French-bred mare, Orphee Des Blins has won their equivalent of the Grand National twice, in 2012 and 2013. The notorious Pardubicka is a particularly demanding cross-country chase (including ploughed fields). It has some daunting, original Aintree style obstacles as well as timber fences scattered over a distance of four miles and two furlongs.

Orphee Des Blins also started her career racing as a three-year-old in France. Her owners must have been doing particularly well for themselves.

Is there a specific sire worth following?

Not yet in terms of French-breds although Dom Alco’s progeny look interesting. He sired Neptune Collonges and has talented types still developing such as Silviniaco Conti, Al Ferof and Unioniste.

The British-bred sire Old Vic, the winner of both the French and Irish derbies in 1989 has done far better than most in the Grand National and deserves a mention here.

In 2010 he not only produced the winner, Jonjo O’Neill’s Don’t Push It but Dessie Hughes’ runner up, Black Apalachi.  He also sired the 2008 victor, David Pipe’s Comply Or Die who took the runner up’s spot in 2009.

In 2012 he again produced the second placed horse, Jonjo O’Neill’s Sunnyhill Boy. It is very possible that there are a more of his progeny out there who are capable of winning but, as he died in 2011, numbers will be limited. Dom Alco died in 2010.

Grand National Breeding Trends Conclusion

Following Old Vic’s progeny may have merits for a while but the location-based trend is obviously more significant as the 2011 King George VI Chase demonstrates. After all individual sires have a finite shelf life while locations do not.

Yes, there are some ‘experts’ who believe that the French threat may be compromised by their tendency to put horses over obstacles too early as three-years-olds, reducing their longevity. That will certainly be true for some but, as the 2009 National results proved, not for all.

Young horses such as Sprinter Sacre are also being bought, unraced from France, totally negating that argument.  No, he’s never going to be a National contender but he illustrates a point.

French-breds are increasingly dominating our staying chases and hurdle races and some of them must be set to go further. An additional benefit of following them if they have unappealing French names is that they can provide better value in the Grand National odds too. They will not attract the illogical money that burdened My Will. Bookies dread the victory of horse that includes a popular person’s name.

Whatever you think of the French, ignore the French-breds in the Grand National at your peril.