The Grey Panel

SIR PERCY: Classic pimpernel

Breeding, like so many other things is life, is often made to seem more complicated than it needs to be. From the start of racing’s history, though, one thing has held true: the racecourse is the best testing ground for the breeding barn. On that basis, it is both easy to understand and pleasing to see that, following the win of his daughter in the Height Of Fashion Stakes at Goodwood, the 2006 Derby winner set himself up to have a runner in both the Derby and the Oaks from his relatively small first crop of three-year-olds, writes John Berry.

Sir Percy’s emergence as a very promising young stallion is pleasing to all who hold dear the basic tenets which have underpinned the sport of racing. Since its inception in 1780, the Derby has occupied a very special place in the racing man’s heart – and rightly so. The racehorse was for racing, the Derby was his greatest target, and winning the Derby was the greatest credential a colt could gain for himself in advance of his second and secondary career, that of a stallion at stud. Sadly, modern trends sometimes seem to have led to a situation whereby it can appear as if the racehorse’s primary purpose is to retire to stud, rather than to race; and they have also seen all too many breeders fall for the idea that it is no longer important (or even desirable) for a prospective stallion to have proved himself thoroughly in a rigorous and lengthy racing career before retiring to stud. Sir Percy’s career has been a ray of sunshine to those who believe in the old-school theories: he was the champion two-year-old, he won the Derby and he raced as a four-year-old – and now, it is a pleasure to relate, he is proving himself the good stallion that one might have expected him to be.

The background to Sir Percy’s stud career contains a further pleasingly traditional element: he hails from a family which has been throwing up Classic horses for decades. This family was developed by the brothers Eric and Ralph (‘Budgie’) Moller, two of the greatest stalwarts of British racing through the second half of the 20th century. They raced generation after generation of good horses which they had bred at White Lodge Stud near Newmarket, trained by Harry Wragg (and then his son Geoff) in Abington Place Stables in Newmarket’s Bury Road and mostly descending from their foundation mare .

A daughter of the 1938 Coventry Stakes winner , Horama had been bought on the brothers’ behalf by Banstead Manor Stud proprietor Nicky Morriss at Tattersalls’ St Leger Yearling Sale in September 1944 (which sale Budgie was unable to attend as he was enjoying the hospitality of the Japanese government in a POW camp at the time). Horama proved a very good sprinting filly and then a considerably greater broodmare, spawning a family of stars. The Mollers’ greatest triumph came in 1983 when Horama’s great-great-grandson won the Derby, three years after Budgie’s death and six months after Harry Wragg had handed over the helm of the stable to Geoff. By the time that Horama’s great-great-great-grandson Sir Percy won the Derby in 2006, both brothers were dead, White Lodge Stud was owned by Sheikh Mohammed and Horama’s descendants had been subject to a worldwide diaspora – but one would like to think that the ghosts of Eric and Budgie Moller, Harry Wragg and Nicky Morriss were all looking down smiling as the brave little colt won further reflected glory for the equine empire which they had founded.

Horama became the dam of some very good broodmares, including . Several of Close Up’s offspring did very well for the Mollers and Harry Wragg, including (winner in 1973 of the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup at York, a race now known as the Juddmonte International), (who finished third to in the 1973 Derby) and (who finished second to in the 1975 Irish 1,000 Guineas). In time, Silky too became an excellent broodmare, responsible for the likes of (who was second to in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup in 1981) and (who did well at stud in New Zealand, where he sired the champion ). However, Horama’s most influential daughter was .

A good filly on the track when she won the Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood and finished second in the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot, Urshalim, like her mother had done previously, achieved even more at stud. The majority of the good horses to descend from her came via her Cambridgeshire Handicap-winning daughter , but the latter was not the only influential mare whom she bred. Urshalim’s daughter won the Irish 1,000 Guineas for the Mollers in 1967 before breeding the high-class Jeremy Tree-trained full-brothers and ; while another very good daughter of Urshalim, , won the Queen Mary Stakes at Royal Ascot as a two-year-old in 1967 and the Coronation Stakes at the same meeting as a three-year-old before breeding , narrow runner-up to in the Irish Derby in 1977. At a considerably lesser level, another notable Moller-owned winner to descend from Urshalim was , whose dam was another daughter of Urshalim. Woodditton’s place in the history books was secured in 1974 when he won the world’s oldest race, the Newmarket Town Plate, ridden by Harry Wragg’s grand-daughter Carolyn Mercer.

Violetta’s three best daughters were (winner of the Irish 1,000 Guineas in 1971), (who finished second to in the Oaks in 1974) and (who finished fourth to in the Oaks in 1976). These three very good fillies became excellent broodmares at White Lodge Stud, while from other daughters of Violetta have descended the Group One winners , , , , , and . Descending from Favoletta have been St Leger winner , 1,000 Guineas runner-up , and the brilliant two-year-old and her Royal Hunt Cup-winning son ; while from Furioso have come the aforementioned Derby winner Teenoso and his high-class half-sister (who won two races, the Sun Chariot Stakes and the Prix D’Astarte – now Prix Rothschild – which are now Group One races) as well as Topsy’s excellent son (who finished second in the Derby, the Champion Stakes, the Sussex Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Mile). Another of Furioso’s descendants was the dual Italian Group One place-getter , who achieved his greatest fame by siring the five-time Group One winner .

Laughing Girl bred two very good fillies. The first was , a Group winner at Kempton of the September Stakes over 11 furlongs. Many of the Moller horses were named after villages near Newmarket, but Percy’s Lass’ name came from her Derby-winning sire , who himself was named after an East Anglian village but whose name, of course, is shared by that hero of early 20th century literature, Baroness Orczy’s creation ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, aka Sir Percy Blakeney. (Interestingly, the Mollers bred a colt by Blakeney out of Violetta's daughter in 1983 and named him - but he, of course, although good enough to win a maiden race at Newbury, did not do enough to secure permanent rights to the name, which was then re-used two decades later by his Derby-winning relative). Laughing Girl’s second good daughter was , who was born while Eric Moller was still alive but who was still in training with Geoff Wragg when her owner passed away. While her elder sister was thus a broodmare when Sheikh Mohammed bought the stud from Eric Moller's executors, Braiswick was still racing – and her first start in Sheikh Mohammed’s colours saw her land the Grade One E. P. Taylor Stakes in Canada.

Although Sheikh Mohammed had bought the entire Moller stock, he did not retain most of the horses for long. Percy’s Lass, therefore, had passed into other hands by the time that her Derby winning son Sir Percy was born. Sir Percy was bred by Old Suffolk Stud proprietor Harry Ormesher, who a few years previously had been delighted to be able to buy her. He had complete faith in the family – and he also had complete faith in the mare’s compatibility with Sheikh Mohammed’s stallion , a son of who had won the 2,000 Guineas in 1996. Ormesher consequently sent Percy’s Lass to Mark Of Esteem on several occasions, breeding the minor winners (who was born in 1999) and (who was born in 2001 and who now ranks as the dam of the dual Group Three winner ) before Sir Percy was born in 2003, by which time his mother was aged 19. Sadly, Harry Ormersher was unable to repeat the mating again as Percy’s Lass died shortly after the birth of Sir Percy, who was consequently raised by a foster-mare. Percy’s Lass had bred a Group Three-placed winner (her first foal ) during her time in Sheikh Mohammed’s ownership, but time would show that she had saved the best until last.

Unfortunately, Ormesher was only able to make a small profit for breeding Sir Percy: he sold the future Derby winner as a foal for 20,000 gns at Tattersalls in November 2003. That price, though, was more than the horse fetched as a yearling: Marcus Tregoning picked him up for 16,000 gns at Tattersalls October Yearling Sale 11 months later, impressed no doubt by the fact that the youngster was by the same sire as , whom he had trained to win three Group races over 12 furlongs during the past two seasons and to finish second in the St Leger.

Sir Percy was not a big horse and it soon became apparent that he had a natural aptitude for galloping, so it was easy for Tregoning to decide to push him on early as a two-year-old. Racing in the colours of Anthony and Victoria Pakenham, he made his debut at Goodwood in a 6-furlong maiden race in May 2005. He won it fairly easily, and won again at Salisbury the following month. He went back to Goodwood in July for the Glorious Meeting, at which he landed one of the meeting’s principal juvenile races, the Group Two Vintage Stakes over 7 furlongs, beating by a neck with, coincidentally, the subsequent Poule d’Essai des Poulains winner (who now stands alongside Sir Percy at Lanwades Stud) back in fourth. After that race, Tregoning gave his tough colt a let-up before preparing him for Britain’s premier two-year-old race, the Group One Dewhurst Stakes over seven furlongs at Newmarket in October. This he won too, beating the colts who 13 days previously had filled the quinella in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere ( and ) with the Gimcrack and Middle Park Stakes runner-up fourth and (who went on to win the Racing Post Trophy seven days later) fifth. This victory over such a high-class field set the seal on a magnificent first season for Sir Percy, who could clearly be hailed an unbeaten champion two-year-old.

As any unbeaten Dewhurst winner would do, Sir Percy began his three-year-old career aimed at the 2,000 Guineas. He tackled the season’s first Classic without a prep race, but Tregoning had him very fit and he duly ran a terrific race, beating all his opponents bar the massively talented , who had won both Ireland’s colts’ Group One juvenile races (the Phoenix Stakes and the National Stakes) the previous year. Sir Percy thus lost his unbeaten record without losing any honour, and the Derby was the obvious next target. Even though he had never run beyond a mile, the 12 furlongs at Epsom seemed likely to suit him: his dam had stayed middle distances well, many of his close relatives had excelled in the Derby or the Oaks in previous years, and his sire, although a miler, was a son of the 1984 Prix du Jockey-Club winner Darshaan, whose descendants generally stay at least a mile and a half. Furthermore, Darshaan’s sire and grandsire ( and ) had each won the Derby.

Sir Percy duly won the Derby – but that bald statement grossly underplays the drama of his victory. Horatio Nelson was the most fancied of Aidan O’Brien’s runners that year, but he didn’t seem himself in the preliminaries, with Kieren Fallon seemingly raising concerns to the vet at the start over his mount’s soundness. Unfortunately the vet ruled that the colt should run, and tragically the brave colt broke down fatally 300m from home when still in contention. This shocking incident left the way clear, seemingly, for Horatio Nelson’s lesser-fancied stablemate (who went on to win an Irish Derby, a King George & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, two Irish Champion Stakes and a Prix Ganay) to lead all the way – except that he was swallowed up in the dying strides and finished only third, beaten about a head. The once-raced maiden winner Hala Bek seemed to be the horse set to deny Dylan Thomas victory – but he swerved in the final 50m when Philip Robinson picked up his whip, thus snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This seemingly left the way clear for the maiden (trained, coincidentally, by Geoff Wragg) to win, and he seemed to be in front as the several principals flashed past the post together. The photograph, though, revealed that Sir Percy, who had found himself towards the rear of the 18 runners early on and whose chance had looked forlorn at Tattenham Corner, had stormed home well enough to snatch the lead a few inches before the line and win one of the most hard-fought Derbys in history.

Sir Percy thus won the Derby on his sixth start, 53 weeks after making a winning debut in a sprint at Goodwood. He had packed a lifetime of achievement into those 53 weeks and was a tired horse afterwards, his fatigue exacerbated by the after-effects of the very firm track on which he had raced at Newmarket in the 2,000 Guineas, a race which, his trainer had reported, had left him very sore. As he was raced by sportsmen, Sir Percy stayed in training until the end of the following year, but he was never able to recapture his best form. He was unable to race in 2006 after the Derby until finishing unplaced behind the champion mare , beaten just over seven lengths, in the Champion Stakes four and a half months later, while 2007 saw him race only three times, his best run coming first up when he was a creditable fourth of 14 behind , and in the Dubai Sheema Classic on Dubai World Cup Night.

Sir Percy had proved that he was tough and brave, and that he had speed, stamina and tons of class, so he should have been top of anyone’s list of potential stallions. However, breeders nowadays seem to have very short memories: he appeared already to be regarded as ‘yesterday’s man’ by the time that he took up stud duties in February 2008 at Lanwades Stud, whence he has been shuttling to Rich Hill Stud in New Zealand. Despite being priced extremely competitively at 8,000 GBP (a fee which has subsequently been reduced by 25%) he was only fairly patronized, as is shown by the fact that his first crop numbered only 50 foals. Considerably less worthy young stallions often find themselves standing at considerably more and still attracting more than twice the number of mares, which is ludicrous.

Happily for Sir Percy’s owners and for Lanwades proprietor Kirsten Rausing, Sir Percy is now demonstrating to the doubters what should have been apparent from the outset: that he is a good stallion. He got several promising winners among his first juveniles last year with his first black-type result coming last July when his first winner was placed in a Listed race. He sired his first stakes winner when (named after a Northumbrian river which flows through the country of the Percy Hunt) won a Listed race at Newmarket last October. became his third stakes performer when Listed-placed in Ireland the following month and now, with Coquet and having both shown solid stakes form this spring to establish themselves as legitimate Classic contenders, Sir Percy looks set to continue to consolidate his status as one of the up-and-coming Classic sires in Britain. Which is exactly what his pedigree and racing record had marked him out to be from the start.

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