The long game is proving fruitful for the breeders of Epsom Derby favourite Desert Crown, Strawberry Fields Stud.
On 2 March 2019, Desert Crown took his first steps (see video, above) – the result of 20 years of “getting it wrong and getting it right” in the puzzle that is breeding by stud owner Gary Robinson.
Gary’s approach is to focus on genealogy, creating families of top-class broodmares and offspring. Put simply, using quality and the right genetics over quantity to build a sustainable legacy of successful, healthy horses.
“I knew before he was even born [that he was special] as I do with all the horses I breed, because of the 20 years of trying to breed good horses,” Gary told H&H.
“He was a straightforward foal, the mother’s a good mother. She doesn’t like a lot of fuss and she’s the perfect mare. He was a standout foal, standout yearling, and so is all [of the dam’s] family.
“Now we’ve got lots of other bloodlines going on as well. But it just takes so long, you just need 20 years of getting it wrong and getting it right. And now, I think, we’ve got it right.”
Desert Crown, out of the Green Desert mare Desert Berry and by Nathaniel, whose progeny include the great Enable, will bid to become Sir Michael Stoute’s fifth winner of the Cazoo Derby at Epsom Downs racecourse, as he celebrates his 50th year as a trainer.
The colt has a 100% strike rate, winning on his debut at Nottingham in November, his sole start as a two-year-old, and impressing in a stylish Dante victory at York in May.
Gary added that although he is excited to watch Desert Crown run on Saturday (4 June), the most important thing to him is the horse.
“It’s more important that he is a beautiful horse – a beautiful actioned horse – and of course he’s created the family,” said Gary, referring to the gilded association Desert Crown’s relations now have because of his achievements.
“My job’s done. I am excited. I’m excited for all the other people who have been involved with him. I know it sounds a bit like the Oscars, ‘I’d like to thank the mother, the dog, the cat, the fish’, but it is really about everybody because that’s what they go to work for every day, to be part of an end product that has got all those abilities.
“Even if he doesn’t win on Saturday, or he comes last, it doesn’t matter. We know, and I know, that he’s a wonderful horse. He will go on to be special.”
He credited Sir Michael (“a great trainer – the type of man who looks for soundness and balance”) and all those involved with the horse.
“I just love the animal,” he said, reflecting on what he loves about breeding horses. “The animal is an athlete, and if you see a true athlete in any sport, it’s beautiful, it stands out. That’s the buzz – to see something you’ve created that’s beautiful. I haven’t created it, nature has created it, but I’ve helped and it’s nice to see that you’re doing it properly.
“To breed a classic horse is real skill. I’m not saying it’s my skill, it’s everybody’s skill. Everybody has to be working towards that. And luckily I’ve got people who’ve got knowledge around me, because I still have to go to work to pay the bills!”
Gary previously owned Desert Berry’s dam Foreign Language, who he sold, and he bought Desert Berry as a foal.
“Everything she [Desert Berry] has produced have been really good horses,” he said.
“What I try to do is to keep the fillies – I did try to sell [her daughter] Rose Berry at one point because obviously, we’ve still got to sell horses, but the best thing that ever happened is that I kept her.”
The family legacy continues, and among the exciting relations is full-brother to Desert Crown, “Derby Dave”, who was born six weeks ago and is already showing character.
“He bit me this morning,” said Gary, with a laugh. “He’s beautiful, he’s like his brother – very, very similar. In fact, he looks a little bit stronger than his brother at this stage.”
Mental attitude is among the traits passed down the generations.
“They all walk well, but that’s not everything,” said Gary. “When you see a load of weanlings running around the field, you’ll see one who looks really slow at the back and then all of a sudden flies to the front when he or she wants to take charge. And that’s that sort of trait they have, they don’t look as though they are going to do anything and then all of a sudden they fly. They will also nonchalantly walk off and forget everybody, to tell you that ‘I can when I want’. They have a good mental attitude.”
He added that they tend to have longer backs, in proportion, giving them that long, smooth stride.
“Walking on eggshells, as my old partner would say,” he said.
He cites the unrelated With Love (by Territories, out of Thraya Star), fourth in a strong maiden at the Curragh on Irish 1,000 Guineas day, as another he hopes will help establish a “family” through her success on course.
“The idea is to have less mares, but mares that are producing something so that their genetics and their make-up are being transferred,” he said.
Strawberry Fields Stud’s business development manager Nick Moore added that welfare of the horse is the first priority, in both breeding decisions and care on a day-to-day basis.
“What Gary has done is to actually do it properly, by looking for genealogy rather than just going down the commercial route,” said Nick.
“It’s a really important message and something which I think we need to get across more and more because the commerciality, well that’s great, that gives you the end result. But it’s the welfare of the horse which is number one.”
He added that the care and expertise from Stuart Millar, Jodie Allen and Gabor Nadas at the stud (“they are proper horse people”) is a vital part of the picture.
“The horses are looked after properly. They’re doted upon, I think is the best way of putting it, and it does make a difference,” he said.
“Derby Dave is a right little character. He’s a bit nippy and he is quite a strong little lad, considering he’s only six weeks old. He’s quite an alert little chap. All the foals are particularly nice, but he really is a stand-out. On top of that Desert Berry is a beautiful mare, it’s extremely exciting.”
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Credit: Bill Selwyn
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