Chris McGrath hears James Delahooke on lessons learned founding an empire
Originally printed in THE RACING POST
He picks out the catalogue from the crammed shelves of his study, each sale sequenced to register another year like the rings across a tree trunk. Another year, another crop of yearlings sieved by the thousand in the perennial quest for a champion.
Saratoga 1982, Hip 154. James Delahooke had scrawled one minor caveat: “Toes out slightly.” Otherwise, however, he couldn’t see how any breeder could fail to shortlist her: a filly by His Majesty out of a Buckpasser half-sister to Northern Dancer himself. Alongside other notes – “great goer” – he has written two numbers on the page: 1.6, and 350.
“I said to the Prince that somebody will probably have a million for her,” Delahooke recalls. “And somebody will probably have a million and a half. But at $1.6 million we might have a chance. And that” – he stabs a finger at the 350 – “that’s what we paid for her.”
Only $350,000, then, for the filly who became the dam of Danehill. “I bought very few yearling fillies, almost always bought colts,” Delahooke says. “I’m not really a pedigree man. But this was unmissable. They must have been asleep, mustn’t they? How can you not buy that page?”
An unknown benefactor
The Prince, of course, was Khalid Abdullah. Three or four years previously Delahooke had been dining with Guy Harwood in Deauville; when they asked for the bill, the maitre d’hote informed them that it had already been taken care of. He gestured across to an elegant Arabian gentleman dining with a compatriot. Around 40, maybe: a few years older than Delahooke himself at the time, still a young thruster among bloodstock agents. When they went to thank their benefactor, he turned out to be the Saudi prince for whom Humphrey Cottrill was acting when they had been underbidders for a yearling earlier that day.
Soon afterwards Delahooke was summoned to meet the Prince in London, and invited to supervise the seeding that has become one of the great bloodstock empires of the modern Turf: Juddmonte, breeder of over 100 individual Group 1 winners.
“How much should I spend?” the Prince asked. Delahooke didn’t have a clue. Plucking a nice round number out of the air, he suggested yearling and broodmare budgets of $10 million apiece. “I was making it up as I went along, if I’m honest,” he says. “Guy and I had established a certain reputation, we’d bought a lot of good winners relatively inexpensively. But it was a long time since anyone had had an opportunity like this: to start a top-of-the-range stud farm from scratch.”
Of one bedrock he was certain, however, and the most literal kind: the soil itself. He cites underachieving farms laid down on old public studs “where there had been hundreds of mares chomping around” in the days before they could be shipped in for a swift tryst as today. Most of the land acquired by Juddmonte at Stonechurch in Kentucky, in contrast, had previously been given over to tobacco.
In stocking the stud, likewise, he had one very basic principle. “There are obviously three important factors: ability, conformation and pedigree,” Delahooke reflects. “If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to afford all three, then you do so. But if I had to compromise on one, it would never be ability. Because there is a clear correlation between the ability of a mare, and the ability of her progeny. Group 1 mares get more Group 1 winners than Group 3 winners do, and that’s fact. It is the ultimate criterion of excellence in the thoroughbred: how fast it can run. Ultimately, it’s the only thing that matters.”
Sowing the seeds
One example, bought privately from Robert Sangster, was Sookera – subsequently granddam of the blue hen Hasili. “Fortunately at that time Robert was having a divorce and needing funds,” Delahooke recalls wryly. One way or another, anyhow, within a five-year period he had bought both the sire and dam of two subsequent Derby winners in Commander In Chief and Quest For Fame; and seeded many of the Juddmonte lines that continue to bloom today.
But luck played a part as well as judgement, several significant producers having arrived as part of a package. On the death of Jock Whitney, for instance, Jeremy Tree urged the Prince to invest in a group of fillies and mares – among which one by Stage Door Johnny barely made the cut. Mated with Rainbow Quest (a Delahooke yearling purchase), she produced Rainbow Lake; who was in time paired with Danehill (son, as we have seen, of another Delahooke yearling) to produce the dam of Frankel himself.
Commander In Chief led in by the youthful Prince Khalid Abdullah: Delahooke bought both the sire and dam
Then there were the mares that came with the acquisition of Dr Schnapka’s Belair Stud. Just one is still found in the Juddmonte stud book, but that is Fleet Girl, fourth dam of none other than Enable. “I had a lot of soul-searching, a lot of penetrating questions, from Prince Khalid as to whether these mares were good enough,” Delahooke admits. “And I said: ‘Yes they are – if you hit them with sire power.’ That ability, to use sire power, is probably something else that’s underestimated. You zap them with Northern Dancer, you zap them with Mr Prospector, and if you do that through three generations of a family you cannot help but lift its aspirations.”
The Prince’s own engagement with the breeding programme is axiomatic at Juddmonte; but Delahooke also talks with fervour of his broader assets. “The most charming, well-mannered, sophisticated, totally delightful human being,” he enthuses. “With great qualities of diplomacy and tact.”
Yet every syllable, palpably heartfelt, is laced with regret. These heady times – they were all so long ago. And as he sits here, in this elegant North Yorkshire rectory, any credit he claims for the foundations of Juddmonte is matched by nearly three decades of remorse. Too long ago now, perhaps, to rake over the embers: suffice to say that an undisclosed commission, on a private mare purchase, brought Delahooke crashing down at the height of his success.
Though he could point to domestic distractions at the time, he knows that he has nobody to blame but himself. “I made a life-changing error of judgement and it cost me the best job in racing,” he says. “It was just so stupid. If I’d gone to the Prince and told him [the arrangement] I know he’d have said that’s fine. What my thought processes were, I can’t say, but I was sacked and I deserved to be sacked. It took all the stuffing out of me. I suppose I went into my shell. When I was out in the cold world and had to paddle my own canoe, I wasn’t very good at it really.”
He did go back to work for his old ally Harwood, and there have been various loyal patrons since the latter’s retirement. But while he has now turned 70, he cannot quell his vexation as smooth-talking rivals go blundering round the sales with wealthy clients. Though he deplores his own stupidity, in one fateful respect, in others he retains absolute self-belief.
He mentions a prominent spender. “He’s been buying meatballs, and very expensive meatballs,” Delahooke says with a helpless shrug. “But you have to go out there and promote yourself and that’s always been my weak point. It’s frustrating, but it’s the way of the world.”
However hard the lesson Delahooke himself had to learn, he could still teach others plenty. He names a couple of training legends of the past. “Neither had the faintest idea of what a horse should look like,” he grins. “Not for one second. They survived on owner-breeders who sent them enough to keep them ticking along. One of them told me once that he went to Tattersalls with a 20 grand order, a 50 grand order, and a 100 grand order. He went in to bid for his 20 grand man, went way past that and eventually bought the horse for his 100 grand man. That, to me, is absolutely unprofessional. If it’s a 20 grand horse and someone else pays 100, then someone else has made a mistake. Equally if it’s 100 grand horse and you got it for 20, then the 100 grand man should get the benefit. ‘I bought you a very nice horse, sir, but it was cheaper than I expected.’
Backing your own judgement
“You must have a value in mind, otherwise you can make a fool of yourself. If you pay double, you’re a fool. If you’re a professional you’re never wrong by 100 percent. If someone pays twice what I think a horse is worth, I’m not wrong; he is. He’s lacking knowledge or experience or discipline or probably all three.”
Not that either he or Harwood had started out with much idea of what they were doing at the sales. “I would say that looks a nice horse,” Delahooke says. “To my amazement, he started listening; and to my still greater amazement, some of them did go on and win big races. There must have been something that saved me, something instinctive.
“It is a lot of work. You can’t cherry-pick a catalogue. The only way to work a catalogue is to start with Lot 1 and keep going to Lot 500, or Lot 5000 in America. If you start cherry-picking pedigrees, you’re going to miss nice horses. So it’s just slog, slog, slog.
Prince Khalid’s crowning achievement: Frankel, seen here with jockey Tom Queally and trainer Sir Henry Cecil. Delahooke bought the second dam’s sire as well as the mother of Frankel’s damsire
“I’m convinced you have to look at a horse twice and preferably three times. Some people look at a horse once and know that’s what they want. I have to think that sometimes, when get them home and look at them in the cold light of day, they must get a nasty shock. First time round, you’re comparing apples and pears. So you discard the pears and that might leave you 20 per cent to look at again. But when you go round comparing the apples with apples, it’s a very different world. What you thought an apple yesterday turns out to be a pear today. It’s all a process of comparison and refinement.”
Keeping the faith
Those who have kept the faith include the American chef Bobby Flay, for whom Delahooke bought Misty For Me‘s first foal, Cover Song, for $1.6 million at Fasig-Tipton last November. Two younger siblings, Roly Poly and US Navy Flag, have meanwhile added five Group 1s to her page.
There is a poignant resonance to the sum: $1.6 million. Exactly his valuation of the filly who became Danehill’s dam. But whatever his own contrition, over his exit, he professes nothing but pleasure in the success of the Juddmonte operation in the decades since. “It’s all to the Prince’s credit,” he says. “Because he’s been the puppeteer, he made it all happen. He’s run a very tight ship and taken very good advice. Juddmonte has been extremely well managed. And it does give me enormous pride, their every success.”
He gestures towards one of many family photos: a clan gathering, extending to eight grandchildren. “Yes, you find people treating you as yesterday’s man, and they don’t keep ringing up from Beverly Hills asking you to buy horses,” he says. “But there are compensations. One of our leading trainers once accused me of underachieving. In some ways, he was right. But I have had a very rewarding family life. If that had not been so happy, that would destroy me. At the time of the Juddmonte fiasco, I was flying, I was making a lot of money. But it didn’t make me a very nice person, I didn’t handle it very well. Getting whacked back down to earth brought things into focus, so it wasn’t all bad.”
Even in his professional capacity, moreover, he may yet have a few chapters to write. “It’s a wonderful business,” he says. “It’s been very good to me. I’ve had a wonderful life, haven’t lacked for much, so I’m very grateful to the horses and the people around them. And to have laid the foundations of the world’s most successful breeding operation gives me enormous pride.” He pauses, and gives a wistful nod. “But I feel I still have a lot to offer – and there are a lot of people out there who could do with a bit of help.”
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