19 May 2020

The great thrill of breeding and racing is the unknown, the ‘what’s next?’. Who will be the next great household name, the next blue-blooded superstar and the next rags-to-riches hero.

Across Britain and Ireland right now, the early stages of those high hopes and wildest dreams are taking shape as preparation for the forthcoming yearling sale season begins and among those hard at work is the WH Bloodstock team of Violet Hesketh and Mimi Wadham.

Based at Hollington Stud in Highclere, the 27-year-old Godolphin Flying Start graduates have set up shop on their own, not only offering preparation and consigning services but also breaking in, pre-training and spelling.

It is the former occupying their minds at the moment though and with as many as 20 yearlings set to pass through during the coming weeks, there is little time for much else.

“We have got two horses in at the moment in prep,” says Wadham. “The first couple of weeks is more about the handling, getting them used to everything like the walker, the brushing, the human contact.

“You want them to come in with a good level of condition so there’s something to work with. You don’t want them to be too gross but the first two weeks can be spent getting that condition on them to then start pushing them with the feed and the work.”

Detailing the remainder of the process, she continues: “Stage two, I guess weeks three to six, is really pushing the work. You don’t want them looking too soft. We’ll get them hand walking as soon as we can and doing practise shows every day.

“When you get to the final stages, it’s the finishing touches. You should have them where you want them, so you just have to hold them there. That’s when you start shutting off the windows so they can’t see their mates, you get scopes done, x-rays done and so on.”

Hesketh interjects: “Rugging is an important part of it too to keep their coats.”

“We haven’t actually rugged our ones in prep yet, because it’s too hot but as soon as it cools down, we will,” Wadham adds.

‘Hugely satisfying’

The weather throughout 2018 has posed plenty a challenge, with the recent intense heat coming not far off the back of a biting cold spell, two periods mixed in with no short amount of rain too.

“It’s been challenging,” says Hesketh. “Some of the horses that have come in now have had quite a hard winter, with the snow and everything else, so we’re going to give those ones a longer prep to allow them to catch up.”

Wadham adds: “Now with the heat, the grass is all a bit scorched, so we’re having to feed them a bit more than we would. I suppose the benefit of that is that once we bring them in to prep, they’re not going to be fussy about hard feed. It has certainly been a challenging year with the winter and then this heatwave.”

The weather may have had an impact on the process but the sale dates are not changing, and so the hard work must go on. Among the young horses getting readied for the ring by Hesketh and Wadham are four they have pinhooked themselves, something they have enjoyed some early success with already.

During Book 2 at Tattersalls last year, a Bated Breath colt out of the Diktat mare Three Ducks (consigned by Oakshott Bloodstock) was sold for 65,000gns having been bought by Hesketh and Wadham at the previous December Foal sale in the sale ring for only 25,000gns.

“Compared to big pinhookers, that doesn’t seem a huge turn around but for us starting out, it was hugely satisfying to know that we were doing something right,” Hesketh says.

Of this year’s prospects, if one is giving them faith they are doing it right again, it is a son of Darley shuttler Brazen Beau, whose page includes the excellent Sky Lantern among a host of stakes performers.

“We think our nicest is the Brazen Beau we bought from Tinnakill House for 65,000gns,” Hesketh says. “He’s a very scopey individual with a great walk and he’s heading to Book 2. He has a great pedigree and he’s out of a Group-placed mare from a Tally-Ho family.”

The colt was one of three bought from the December Foal Sale last year, with a colt by Alhebayeb costing 6,000gns and another by Tamayuz signed for at 35,000gns.

There was an exciting update for the latter earlier this week as Berkshire Blue, his Andrew Balding-trained half-brother by Champs Elysees won a Wolverhampton novice median auction stakes by a commanding 11 lengths, becoming the second winner for the dam, Lemon Rock.

Hesketh and Wadham also bought a filly by Lawman from Goffs, who will be offered at Book 3 at Tattersalls.

‘The walk is something you want to see’

It is not easy for either to pinpoint a single element that could determine the success of the four yearlings, or any other, by the time the sales roll around but there are factors that the two clearly have front and centre of their thinking.

“Mentally, you’re hoping that they take it all well and eat well,” Hesketh says. “Eating is a huge part of it; you want them to be able to enjoy their feed and exercise and settle down.”

Wadham adds: “It’s about them settling into the routine. You don’t want a horse restless in its box, you want them to be relaxed and enjoying it. Physically, it’s about their health and condition. We make sure they’re appropriately wormed before they start the prep because that’s crucial. If you haven’t wormed them properly the condition just won’t come. You don’t want them to be overweight, because that can represent soundness issues for the prep but you want them to have a good cover over their ribs so you’ve got something there you can work with. If you don’t have that, you can build them up over the first few weeks and push on later in the prep with the work.

“The walk is something you want to see from the beginning too. It can improve for hand walking but if they can’t walk, it’s very hard to get that.”

For all the hard work, as anybody who deals with horses knows, the animals can make fools of us all, and the pair are alive to the fact that at any point in the process, things can go wrong.

Hesketh says: “There are lots of challenging aspects but the most challenging is keeping them sound and in one piece. Somebody said to me, and it’s so true, that thoroughbreds are hell bent on two things: homicide and suicide.”

“It’s particularly tough when you start upping their feed because that’s when they start to get fresh and hand walking can be quite hairy, especially if we do it outside on the hill sometimes,” adds Wadham.

‘It’s a confidence thing’

Despite the risks, there is a calm assuredness about the WH Bloodstock team that belies their inexperience in terms of running a business of their own. Both part of the 2014-16 Flying Start, they are effusive in their praise of the scheme, while each has spent considerable time learning from some of the best in the industry.

“It’s a massive thing to have clients willing to send us horses, we’re so happy and lucky to be where we are,” says Wadham.

“It’s a confidence thing, trusting your ability and knowing you can do it. I prepped yearlings for Highclere for two seasons after the Flying Start, so I’d say Lady Carolyn Warren has been a big influence on me. She gave me the confidence to know that I can do it on my own. The stud manager at Highclere, Rachel Spindlow, taught me a lot too. Those two people really helped me.”

In the end, as with so many aspects of the industry, the dedication comes down to one moment, in this case in the sales ring, and it is the thrill and reward of a yearling selling well that drives the pair to do what they do.

“Seeing their day-to-day improvement, in their physical looks and behaviour is rewarding because it shows your hard work is paying off,” says Wadham.

“With the Brazen Beau, we’re getting excited because we really like what we see. With others, you can be a bit worried but so much can change during the prep and it’s such an exciting time because they are changing throughout.”

Hesketh adds: “It’s amazing documenting how much they change in the eight to ten weeks and when you take a horse to the sales, you pinhooked it, looked after it as a foal and have been looking at it throughout the year, when it goes well, there’s nothing better than that.”

Breeze-up woes a cause for concern

While there is plenty of optimism among the WH Bloodstock team about the quality of yearlings they are preparing for this year’s sales, there is also concern following what was a turbulent breeze-up season.

Hesketh was on hand to witness it all and admits she is worried about the knock-on effect that could result from breeze-up consignors having endured a tough spring.

“I just spent the last six months working for Roger Marley, so I was at every breeze-up sale and I am particularly worried because the market was very sticky this year,” she says.

“There were buyers for the top end but there were not many people, not only at the lower end but for the middle market. So as a consignor, it’s hard not to be worried that this will have a knock-on effect on the yearling market.

“A good proportion of these yearlings purchased are by the breeze-up guys and they just don’t have the ammo. I’m hopeful but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned.”