By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)
Stuart Matheson is the owner of Abacus Bloodstock, a small stud based in Staffordshire. At the stud, they breed their own horses and provide boarding, sales prep, rest and recuperation, backing and retraining. They also give pedigree advice and do some transport work.
Stuart has had an interest in horse racing since he was a child, “I think as a kid it was always a family event to watch the Grand National, like it is today, and we used to put 10p each way on our chosen horses, which my Dad would go and place at the bookies. Something I did when my kids were younger too. Mum always loved the occasion of racing and I remember going up to the Ebor Festival at York when I was 9 or 10. We went down to the old saddling area and outside the jockey room you could get all the autographs. I remember Willie Carson stopping for a chat and then he called over Joe Mercer and Greville Starkey to make a real fuss of me – we were going through a rough time and I realised that these people were so kind and wanted to share their sport – and I was hooked. I blamed Willie for that last time I saw him at the sales – he is still a hero.”
Also, Stuart grew up around horses as his mum’s family were involved with them and they bred some sport horses, which gave him an interest in breeding, “When my first racehorse retired my wife and I decided to breed from her and that was it. We have grown the breeding from her and the mare, Fangfoss Girls produced winners from day one. She is still with us, 11 years later. Sarah, my wife, had horses from an early age so we both found it an easy decision.”
Stuart and Sarah have bred quite a few winners and Stuart told me “there’s no feeling like it” when they win. “Particularly when they win over the distance you bred them for, and all that hard work and decision making is vindicated.” he continued, “We find it perhaps even better when the horse is owned by other people as we have given them the thrill we feel, and hopefully added owners to the sport. We keep in touch with all our horses where we can, and sometimes the trainers or owners will contact us about an issue or problem and, as we bred them, we can help with some of their behaviours or family traits. We have solved issues in a few minutes which may have taken months to solve otherwise – all because we have known them since birth.”
Fangfoss Girl has proved herself to be their best broodmare with her two sons by Mullionmileanhour, Pancake Day and Roll On Rory, winning multiple races. Pancake Day won five races from forty-two starts and placed a further seven times. Roll On Rory won seven races from thirty-six outings and placed five times. Deservedly, Stuart is very proud of them, “We are proud of all our horses but these two were our first real successes. Amazingly, though full brothers, they preferred different surfaces and raced over different distances. Pancake Day was in the money 24 times, and for such a little horse, he fought like a tiger over sprint distances. Rory was a different horse; he won the same amount of races as his brother but at a higher level – first foal versus second foal I suppose. He took us to Royal Ascot and won at both Newmarket tracks. I think they were so tough that they were perhaps over-raced in their careers but they also loved the work and of course when a horse is on form then you race it – their owners did the right thing and knew when to retire them. Both boys, like their mum, have an ability to tell you when enough is enough. They both won at least once in every year they raced. Pancake now lives with us having been retired by his owner, and Rory is loving life in Yorkshire where he is eventing. They are both testaments to how well racehorses can be retrained to do other jobs.”
Stuart contributed to my ‘A Life After Racing’ article, which celebrates ex-racehorses, talking about Pancake Day and I was keen to ask him about why he thinks thoroughbreds are such good horses to retrain, “As far as the suitability for retraining, the thoroughbred is probably the most compliant breed of horse you will find. They are the collie dog of the horse world – sometimes a little flighty or prone to excitement, but loyal and eager to please – and to learn. When they leave racing they can be quite institutionalised and of course are fed high energy feeds – this gives them a certain reputation, but this only lasts a few weeks or months. They do not just switch off, and breeding teaches you the importance of time when dealing with horses. Gradually changing their diets, keeping them interested by doing new things and leading them in new directions – above all reassuring them – all of this will deliver a good all-rounder, and of course they are retiring when many other breeds are perhaps only just starting, so you have all that expertise and maturity already there. They are very competitive also, and therefore if their new owner wants to compete at any level, at any equine sport, then they will have a head start. Horses we have bred have gone on to being high class eventers; as with Roll On Rory, showjumpers, team-chasers or just riding and companion horses. These rehoming charities, and increasingly trainers who spend time on the issue, are a must if we are to win the welfare argument.”
To make sure the horses they breed get the best retirement possible after their careers on the racetrack, Abacus Bloodstock always ask the owners of any horses they breed to contact them to help with rehoming when the time comes, “We have a good network to help them – and as we breed good mannered horses, they are always easier to rehome.” I also wanted to know whether Stuart considers owners to have a responsibility to find homes for their horses when they retire them, “Whoever owns the horse, and therefore benefits from it as a racehorse through its career, should be responsible for the care of it when it retires. As breeders that is easier of course as we may have the space to accommodate them, and indeed they may be used for breeding – for owners that is more difficult, particularly as we see an increase in syndicates. Nonetheless, there should be a requirement for owners and their trainers to set up a form of pension fund, maybe regulated through the BHA or another organisation, to ensure horses have a good life after racing. If you own a horse, you own a responsibility to them.”
Picking the right stallion for each mare is also crucial as Stuart explained, “We use a mixture of stallions based upon the best fit for our mares. We gave up trying to breed what we thought would be commercially attractive horses simply because fashion changes and a stallion can go from hero to zero in the time between covering and selling the foal. We have used Telescope for his exploits on the flat – he is a beautiful looking horse although a slow burner of course, but if he was in a stallion parade you would pick him out every time. We also used Poet’s Word and the 2020 foal by him (a half-sister to Pancake and Rory) is a gorgeous creature – another one we will try to race ourselves, and an example of how a group 1 winning flat stallion can be written off even before his first foals are on the ground. We have used Pearl Secret as he is a stunning looking horse and is from a rare stallion line – something I think as breeders we should try to preserve. With the new Great British Bonus that the Thoroughbred Breeder’s Association have just launched, using UK based stallions has to be a must as it gives owners and breeders real rewards at a time when the industry is short on profit and returns. Mayson is looking like a very sound bet with his recent offspring so will be on the list for next year and we will wait and see what the market looks like following the coronavirus. There will be value for sure – there will have to be if the industry is to survive.”
The coronavirus has had a huge impact on all businesses but, for Stuart, it hasn’t been as big as it could’ve been, “We had decided to take a year out of covering our mares this year anyway, so we had decided that before the virus broke. Owners have been so patient and we have been lucky enough to sell two of our yearlings privately – albeit for little if any profit, but certainly without the expense of sales entries etc. Whilst we could not furlough as, of course, we have to keep running the farm and tending the horses, we have had to cut back on unnecessary expense, and some of our suppliers have been very understanding. On a positive side we live in a gorgeous place and can walk around without leaving the stud – which makes us so much more fortunate than many. I think the virus could prove positive if we all use it as a chance to reset and learn from the positives. I fear we will just revert to the old ways but I do hope we can all learn and improve for the future.”
Breeding horses is never straight forward, ““The disappointments in breeding are rarely to do with the horses, and almost always about the money. It is a lifestyle choice, and dependant for many, including us, upon having a second income stream outside the industry. Breeders are a great community and there is no other part of the racing industry where this shared experience leads to the levels of empathy and understanding you will find with breeders. I hate the sales as they invariably lead to disappointment, although I love the event itself and the chance to meet fellow breeders. For me, meeting owners and making them part of the journey of their horse from when we bred them, and into racing is a real positive too – and as I said, when they win it is a great feeling.”
“Breeding is a real lottery- not as you might think because you never know what you are going to breed because if you have a good eye for a pedigree then you should be OK.” Stuart told me, “The risk is in the ups and downs of the industry where stallions are written off so readily, and their progeny suffer as a result. Small breeders appreciate we cannot breed horses to sell for many thousands, but when the industry keeps demanding more horses to populate the growing fixture list, we would like to see some return.”
Prize money has been a huge talking point of late and something that not just the trainer and owners feel the effect of – the breeders do too, “Owners and breeders are the foundations of the sport and without them all the other stakeholders cannot exist or earn a living. Sadly however, 70% or more of breeders operate at a loss and owners race for prizemoney which, even if they won a race a month would barely cover their costs. The funding model in UK and Irish racing means that amateurs fund an industry whilst professionals take the proceeds – and that cannot be right. The racecourses and bookmakers must learnt that without racing due to the virus, they have lost so much money. Imagine then if the supply of horses and of owners dried up. That would kill their businesses and therefore they have to share more of their profits, and the racing authorities must ensure prize money is better distributed across all levels of racing, in order to ensure these large profit hungry organisations can be fed.
“We do not resent them making profit – but not at the expense of owners and breeders. During the lockdown, owners have continued to pay their bills and now they are being left out in the cold – unable to attend races in any worthwhile way, unable to visit their horses or discuss tactics with the jockey at the races and left in empty grandstands with no refreshments, unable even to touch or stroke their expensive investment. We are already seeing owners and breeders leaving, and this is just adding to it. People will be reducing their expenditure as we enter a likely recession and the combination of the way owners are being treated, and represented, as well as the age-old funding problem, will see a major challenge in the coming months and years. As a breeder that has to be a concern.”
As Rein It In Racing is a site for young people, I always like asking my interviewees about how we can get more young people interested in our great sport, “From an industry viewpoint, we need to ensure that employment opportunities are there which offer an element of education – not just labour. For a young person coming into the industry, they see posh training establishments or studs with land and facilities and think they could never afford that – so perhaps they stick around for a few years, or, if they are happy, they will stay on but with few if any chances of promotion or becoming the boss of such places. However, the lifestyle and security of having a wage and perhaps accommodation, which is sometimes better than the owner of the business, should not be dismissed. From a breeding viewpoint, the work hours can be relatively sociable – unless we are foaling – and the surroundings very nice to live in. I have always worked in industries where the passing of the baton to the next generation is important and we have to capture that in the racing industry.”
I would like to thank Stuart for his time and for answering my questions. I hope you all found this insight into the life of a small breeder really interesting! Make sure to check out Stuart’s website abacus-bloodstock.co.uk, follow him on social media @stumat and email with any enquiries on firstname.lastname@example.org