Ed Harper, stud director for Whitsbury Manor Stud in southwest England, prides himself on being what Americans call “hungry.”
Harper is the third in his family to manage the farm, which stands out on England's breeding landscape. Most stallions are held by large conglomerates like Shadwell, Coolmore, and Godolphin. Although Whitsbury Manor is a large operation, it has to be self-sustaining.
“It's our only business,” Harper said from the grounds of the Tattersalls October sale in Newmarket. “We don't have oil wells. We don't have a massive income outside the stud to back us up. Therefore, we're not some big flashy name where if someone puts a mare's name up to us, we can sort of mull it around and tell them we'll get back to them in 10 days.
“I'm not one for trying to pretend to be too snooty if people want to come to us and do good business.”
From where Harper sits, the trend of larger book sizes for sires in his lifetime has throttled smaller and medium-sized breeding operations. He estimates the number of British operations standing stallions has decreased by 50 to 75 percent in two decades. British stallions registered with the European Breeders' Fund saw a dip from 2004, when they numbered 185, to 2013, when the number fell to 112.
“That's because it's tough to compete,” he said. “We need fewer stallions; the average book of a popular stallion is 150 mares per year. It might look easy sometimes, standing and buying stallions but it really isn't. You've got to throw everything at it.”
And Harper is; during the sales he spends more time in Newmarket, north of London, than he will at home. Once the breeding season starts, he'll stay on the farm to the point of cabin fever.
He could have had a normal office job instead of one with few evenings or weekends truly off-duty – and he almost did. Harper studied surveying at Reading University and took a job with a firm.
“About a year in I realized I was finding it so boring,” he recalled. “I was spending more time reading the Racing Post under the desk than I was listening to my boss. I don't think he was too upset when I said I was leaving.”
Harper wanted to return to the farm, but he knew his skills were rusty (as he says, “Pony Club was many years previous”), so he spent a year working at The Oaks Stud in New Zealand.
“I learned more out there than I reckon I would have in three years in England because it's very much, 'Roll up your sleeves, do it yourself,'” he said. “It's not, 'We'll wait for the vet' or 'We've got somebody else to do that job.' Everybody does everything and there's no whining.
“It was a bit of a baptism by fire. I foaled six mares on the first night I was there, fully jetlagged, in the rain with a torch [flashlight], having only ever foaled four mares previously in my life.”
Although Harper's parents, Chris and Nicky, are still involved in the farm, they have handed much of the decision-making to Harper, who expects to maintain two of the principles he believes have kept Whitsbury afloat over the previous decades.
“We specialize in a certain type of horse,” he said. Maybe that, more than anything else, is why we've survived. We haven't been trying to do a bit of everything. We've focused on 2-year-olds and precocious speed with our mares and our stallions.”
Cadeaux Genereux, owned by Maktoum al Maktoum, was the first horse to steer Whitsbury toward sprinters. Winner of the prestigious sprinting contest the July Cup, the son of Young Generation went on to produce eight Group 1 winners at stud. Oasis Dream son Showcasing is the current star of the breeding shed, having started his career at £5,000 ($6,591) and now commanding £35,000 ($46,140) and at the top of the British sire list for Group winning sprinters.
Whitsbury Manor's other three stallions are fresh faces, with the oldest just getting his first runners this year. One of them, Due Diligence, is the only son of War Front available in England, and Harper said the response to one of America's top stallions has been positive.
“I find it's very interesting, standing a son of War Front, because it highlights which of my clients do their homework and which, perhaps, don't. The ones that do their homework want to use him – the ones that look at the percentages/stats/median ratings, really know what they're talking about and make their own minds up, they want to use him,” said Harper. “People forget War Front was standing at £10,000 in his third season and his percentage stakes winners was still brilliant. I have an awful lot of faith in him.”
The other secret to Whitsbury's success, Harper believes, is limiting its stallions to books of 125 in a market where 150 or more is common for popular horses. It's a tough business decision, especially when starting young sires, but Harper believes it's more rewarding for breeders and in the long run that is more beneficial.
“It's old fashioned, but I think it puts us in a position where people can trust that they're not going to be flooded at the sales,” he said. “They don't have to have the best five [offspring] of a stallion to get noticed because there's probably going to be 25 weanlings or 30 yearlings by the stallion [at the sale.]”
Whitsbury Manor is a young operation, with 33-year-old Harper at the helm and managers on the farm are in their mid-twenties and early thirties. Even the stallions are young – Showcasing is just ten. Harper believes they'll all need that youthful exuberance to continue adapting in a tough market.
“We are 100 percent committed,” he said. “A lot of people think they're 100 percent committed, but from the outside you can see that they don't really obsess about things as much as we do. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all we're talking about is horses. We follow every horse off the farm and that includes those that have been sired by our sires.
“It's about surviving in our game against the big boys. If we're still in business with stallions in another 20 years, I'll be happy.”
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