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Horse Racing: 'I'd never even owned a dog or a cat before, never mind a horse' BLOODSTOCK DESK GRASS ROOTS Amy Bennett talks to Martin Francis of Ballydrehid House Stud, home to just four mares but which posted more excellent results at the St Leger yearling sales.

Byline: Amy Bennett

IN AN increasingly competitive bloodstock market, small breeders can often struggle to make a profit during the rollercoaster ride of the yearling sales. Not so Martin and Linda Francis of Ballydrehid House Stud, County Tipperary who last week sold their only two yearlings for an aggregate of 205,000gns at DBS's St Leger yearling sales.

Making the feat all the more impressive is the fact that the stud has a broodmare band of just four.

The sale of an Exceed And Excel filly out of homebred mare Ikan for 110,000gns, and a Refuse To Bend filly from Ikan's dam, Iktidar, for 95,000gns, was just the latest instalment in the success story involving Iktidar and the DBS St Leger sales.

Progeny of the Green Desert mare are a standing dish at Doncaster, with six of her yearlings sold for an aggregate of 655,000gns, including Qadar, who broke a 20-year-old record when topping the sale in 2003.

Ten years ago, the idea of owning a racehorse, let alone breeding one, did not feature in Martin Francis's plans. Francis, a Welshman and racing enthusiast, and his Cheshire-born wife were living in California, where Francis ran an electronics company near San Jose.

"The grandchildren were in Europe, so we decided to come back for a change of lifestyle," Francis explains. "The plan was to take a year off and travel.

"We came to Ireland and I think the third place we stayed was the bed and breakfast run by Con Marnane's mother, Mary, at Bansha House. We got to know Con and his mother, and then one day we came across this place Ballydrehid House, and we never left Ireland."

The link with Marnane's Bansha House Stables is still maintained, as Marnane's head man, Mike O'Brien, preps the Ballydrehid yearlings, all of whom are foaled by Milltown Stud before returning to be reared by Francis, who has, he says, "left it too late in life to learn to foal or prep".

With the 20-acre Ballydrehid property and some spare time on his hands, Francis accompanied Marnane to the Goffs February sale in 1998. Perhaps inevitably, he left the sale that day the owner of a ten-year-old Doulab mare named Adjacent, "bought much against Con's judgement".

"I'd never even owned a dog or a cat before, never mind a horse," Francis says. "Adjacent was in foal to Persian Bold, and I took her home and put her out in the field, but I wasn't sure what to do with her.

"I used to go out at night with a torch to check her, but I wasn't really sure what I was looking for! We ended up racing her foal, Trouble Next Door, and he won a couple over hurdles."

After that start, the bug bit deep. Francis's next purchase was Iktidar, a then six-year-old daughter of Green Desert, who had been placed once over 7f in a five-race career when trained by Kevin Prendergast for her owner/breeder Sheikh Hamdan.

While the mare was no great shakes herself, her winning dam was a half-sister to the Breeders' Cup Sprint hero Sheikh Albadou, himself a son of Green Desert.

"I've always liked Green Desert - I remember when he was second to Dancing Brave in the 2,000 Guineas," Francis says. "I also remembered Sheikh Albadou winning at the Breeders' Cup, and Iktidar was a three-parts sister to him. I bought her from Joe Foley for Irpounds 8,000 when she was in foal to Woodborough, and she produced To The Woods, who had two good wins."

IKTIDAR'S next foal also raced in the colours of Linda Francis. A Sri Pekan filly named Ikan, she was trained, like To The Woods, by Nick Littmoden, landing three of her 27 starts. Having earned the all-important black type when placed in the Listed Doncaster Stakes at two, she was retired back to Ballydrehid House to join her dam in the paddocks.

"Ikan was probably the fastest horse we've bred from Iktidar and I couldn't wait to breed from her," Francis says.

It was Iktidar's next foal, a Bluebird filly, who forged the link between DBS and the yearly draft from Ballydrehid House.

"It's very difficult when you start out as it's not just a matter of breeding the horse; you have to get it into a sale as well," Francis says. "The first time I tried was in 2002 with a Bluebird filly out of Iktidar, and the only person who would take her was Harry Beeby of DBS."

Beeby's decision paid off when the filly was bought by Littmoden for 30,000gns. Named Valjarv, she went on to win over 6f and finish third in the Listed Empress Stakes as a juvenile.

If Valjarv was the first step on the consigning road for Francis, the bond between his yearlings and the St Leger sale was cemented the following year when he offered Iktidar's next foal, a colt by Xaar.

Some breeders wait a lifetime for a big result at auction. Not so Francis, who watched as Iktidar's colt became the subject of a fierce bidding war between Howard Johnson and Angus Gold, with the hammer finally falling at 250,000gns in favour of Shadwell. The final price shattered the record high for a St Leger sale yearling that had lasted for two decades, far surpassing the 140,000gns paid in 1983 for Kublai.

"Qadar was a stunning horse," Francis says now. "We had all the sales companies here to look at him, and they all wanted him, but we sent him to Doncaster.

"I said to Harry, tongue in cheek, that he would smash their record, and he did. Henry Beeby said afterwards that it proved that if they're given the horses, DBS could do as well as any sales company. Angus Gold flew in to buy Qadar, but he also bought another lot for over 100,000gns, and after that, prices started going up at DBS and people started sending better horses there."

Howard Johnson may have missed out on Qadar, who won five times and was Listed-placed, but he snapped up the colt's Night Shift half-sister the following year at the same venue for 110,000gns, while Littmoden furthered his own connection with the family by purchasing Iktidar's Traditionally colt for 75,000gns in 2005. At last year's sale, a brother to Qadar brought 95,000gns from Stuart Kittow.

FRANCIS is unsurprised that progeny of his star mare have remained in hot demand. "Iktidar's foals just keep getting better. They're almost identical as foals - you can look at one and know it's an Iktidar," he says. "She was a very cheap purchase and every year she gets very correct, good-looking foals."

Iktidar currently has a King's Best colt foal at foot and is back in foal to the high-class 7f performer Iffraaj. "I'm staying with speed for Iktidar," Francis says. "Her Refuse To Bend filly was my first attempt at dragging her to a mile and I'll wait and see how the filly does before I try it again. My aim would have to be to breed a Guineas winner, a really good miler.

"Iktidar's so straightforward. It doesn't matter who I breed her to, she seems to work with anything, which is perfect for someone like me who is starting out in breeding. I don't get too technical, but I have to like a stallion as a racehorse as well as him having a good pedigree."

As well as Iktidar, Francis also has her daughter, Ikan, who produced a filly by Xaar this year and is back in foal to Exceed And Excel, and another daughter of Green Desert in Green Green Grass. The latter has the distinction of having bred the first winner sired by Golan, and has since foaled to Statue Of Liberty and Traditionally.

The other member of the Ballydrehid quartet is the Night Shift mare Floosie, bred by Francis, who has a filly foal to Antonius Pius, and is in foal to Bachelor Duke.

In spite of having just four mares, Francis runs his Ballydrehid House Stud as a commercial business. "It puts a huge discipline on me," he says. "When we got good money for Qadar, a lot of people would have wanted to send the mare to the likes of Sadler's Wells, but the business wouldn't allow me.

"I basically spend what the business can afford on stallion fees. Three years ago I couldn't have imagined spending EUR35,000 on a stallion as he did for King's Best, but I'm prepared to spend good money now to send the mares to good stallions."

While Ballydrehid House has hit the headlines due to Iktidar's progeny at the sales, the stud has also churned out a healthy procession of winners.

As Francis says: "We've bred 11 winners of 24 races. To breed the winners of 25 races was the milestone we set out to achieve, so we're nearly there."


BRIAN GAVIN/PRESS 22 Martin and Linda Francis at their Ballydrehid House Stud with star mare Iktidar and her King's Best foal
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Article Type:Financial report
Date:Sep 7, 2007
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