French AQPS system offers an easier route to jumping top tier; FRIDAY VIEWPOINT Tom Pennington on the impact of non-thoroughbreds to National Hunt racing and breeders.
During an absorbing debate, RTE presenter and breeder Robert Hall hit on a key issue, France's system of offering opportunities for AQPS mares, saying: "They [the French] are teaching us a lesson - the majority of France's good jumpers are out of mares who have run in and won APQS bumpers."
AQPS stands for 'autre que pursang', which translates as 'other than thoroughbred' and until recently it was considered undesirable. How things have changed.
Bloodstock agent Anthony Bromley, a name synonymous with numerous French recruits, has encountered great success buying from the provinces and believes the AQPS system can be highly beneficial for the development of jumpers.
"The AQPS programme in France definitely helps," he says. "They can compete against their own breed and it means they're not forced to race too early over jumps. It helps trainers - as it allows them to be more patient with their horse and they can reap the benefits when the horses mature."
The system involves Flat races for three-year-olds, but they can't race over hurdles until they turn four on January 1. There are both hurdles and chases for these horses. Such races offer healthy levels of prize-money on a par with those for thoroughbreds.
The AQPS breed emerged towards the end of the 19th century, when French breeders began to cross cart horse mares with thoroughbred stallions to produce a fast hardy horse - unlikely as it sounds, their descendants are excelling on the racecourse.
Perhaps that is the key to AQPS success: mares with those tough bloodlines are bred with select stallions chosen for their soundness and racing ability - usually stakes performers over 1m and beyond on the Flat or who have excelled over jumps.
The first prominent AQPS-bred horse was Isopani, trained by future Flat champion trainer Andre Fabre and the first of 11 AQPS horses to win the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris. Others include The Fellow, winner of the Chelenham Gold Cup in 1994, and the King George-winning duo First Gold and Edredon Bleu.
Since 2009, the BHA has allowed horses that had competed in AQPS races to run in British novices' hurdles and bumpers. This has led to an explosion of AQPS runners in Britain, one of which is the highly touted Sprinter Sacre, purchased by Bromley and a strong favourite for the Racing Post Arkle.
However, Bromley does not believe that a combination of thoroughbred blood and that descending from cart horses is a guarantee of success, arguing that after so many generations of breeding "ultimately most of these AQPS horses are virtually thoroughbred and there isn't much difference between the two types." The key is not necessarily their breeding, but the exclusive opportunities they are offered on French racecourses. It is a proven way of bringing young French jumps along.
The increased success of AQPS horses has dovetailed with the fine-tuning of the breed. To qualify for inclusion in its stud book - introduced in 2005 - an AQPS must possess a minimum of 87.5 per cent thoroughbred blood.
The influx of AQPS horses from France is no doubt a concern for British and Irish breeders who produce traditional National Hunt stores, and it is also a potential problem for Flat owners and trainers, to whom the jumps market is a valuable way of covering their expenses by moving on horses who might show better form over obstacles.
Who knows? British and Irish breeders may be forced to re-evaluate their approach to matings? As Hall also said at the Expo: "The French have a fabulous system for the mares, with more of an emphasis on speed. Speed is desirable and in turn would make fillies more desirable."
Sprinter Sacre: the Racing Post Arkle favourite is from the AQPS sphere