The questionable future of France's "public stallions"

Normandy's historic Haras du Pin, once a breeding station for Haras Nationaux, is now run by a breeding association. Photo via Haras du Pin.

When the French National Stud, a once proud institution with a glorious past, finally ceased to exist in 2010, the wonder was not that it had gone, but that it had been kept going for so long.

The operation, Haras Nationaux, which ran 24 regional stud farms all over the country, had played an active role in France’s success on the racecourses, both Thoroughbred and harness, since the World War I. Yet in recent times, it had become redundant in almost every economic aspect of modern racing and breeding, so, few tears were shed when it was absorbed in a new organization, Institut Français du Cheval et de l’Equitation - French Institute of the Horse and Riding (IFCE).

That, however, is not the end of the story. As we move into the autumn 2014, a huge question mark hangs over the future of what remains of the Haras Nationaux – the stallions now under the care and management of the IFCE.

The operation was created in 1665 to organize the breeding of French war horses. Despite the ups and downs of almost every royal jurisdiction between the so-called “Sun King” (Louis XIV, 1638 – 1715) and the demise of Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852-1870), and the redundancy of horses in the motorized army after the World War I, it maintained an important role in breeding and racing in France by registering every horse born in the country and investing in sires that individual breeders could barely afford.

As racing and bloodstock operations became more business-minded, flat breeders began to ignore the subsidized Étalons publics (public stallions) of the Haras Nationaux stud farms, keen instead to buy, import, and manage the best sires themselves.

Harness racing, however, was different. The national breed of trotters, the Cheval Français, was all but created by Haras Nationaux officers. They had a hugely significant role to buy the best prospects and to manage their careers at stud, so that even small-time breeders could afford the stud fees of good sires and imported American Standardbred sires, who had previously been banned from the National Cheval Français stud book in the mid-’30s. This major influence vanished gradually, but was still quite prevalent until the late 1990s.

The Haras Nationaux still had another string to its bow – breeding jumpers, especially using autre que pur-sang - AQPS crossbreds (translating to "horses other than Thoroughbreds," the breed today is about 80 percent Thoroughbred and developed over the last century largely as the result of crossing other mares with Thoroughbred stallions). Anglo-Arab horses (a mix of pure Arabians and Thoroughbreds) are also used.

Moving bloodstock all over the country was difficult and the Haras Nationaux made sure breeders from all parts of France had access to its reasonably priced public stallions. Up until the mid-’80s, there was hardly any business to be had trading such horses, which were bred by passionate farmers or horsemen who were just trying to produce a decent horse for carriage, hunting, and occasional amateur race-riding.

The Haras Nationaux -- with its 24 regional regional studs, many breeding stations, and subsidized stud fees -- allowed these breeders to cover their local mares with proper Thoroughbreds without spending more than they could afford.

But then AQPS-bred jumpers, successful in France, started to attract the attention of the big British and Irish jumps trainers, with Britain’s multi-champion Martin Pipe and Ireland’s renowned Arthur Moore among the early pioneers. Heralded by the success of the François Doumen-trained Nupsala in the 1987 King George Chase at Kempton Park and The Fellow’s 1994 Cheltenham Gold Cup, these French-bred horses quickly began to achieve more and more across the Channel. By the end of the 1990s, the balance of power had swung the way of the breeders, for whom low-cost foals were now selling like high-end Thoroughbreds as big-spending British owners clamoured for these exciting new recruits.

French bureaucracy generally has never been a wise seller, nor a good buyer. And the Haras Nationaux was no different. The Haras officers, even though they could be fine horsemen, were rarely able to judge prices sensibly and were consistently out-manoeuvred by shrewd middlemen.

AQPS breeders, however, were even shrewder. Instead of simply taking advantage, they had long-term vision. They would rather unite to choose the sires they needed, fix the price, and then ask the Haras Nationaux to sign the cheque. It was only possible if they were not too greedy, and they were just as efficient as they would have been with their own money. This was how the AQPS became such a well-established jumping breed. Besides, the so-called public stallions were never sold, while a successful private jumping sire could be exported and deprive the country’s breeders of their genetic capital.

Eventually, the French government became concerned about the cost of the Haras Nationaux, which was now little more than an administrative body taking care of paperwork, rather than providing an incentive for breeding. Private studs were complaining that the Haras was keeping the market artificially low with its subsidized sires and, therefore, did not comply with competition rules. If providing a lifeline to rarer breeds, for example draft breeds such as the Boulonnais or the Percheron, was still perceived as a national concern, the Haras Nationaux was no longer needed in racing.

Slowly but surely, breeding stations were closed, officers dismissed, and the organization’s role diminished, and eventually, the Haras Nationaux was merged into the IFCE with the very costly Ecole Nationale d’Equitation (mostly famed for its Cadre Noir national riding school at Saumur, about 300 kilometers south-west of Paris).

Some breeders’ groups have now taken over from the Haras Nationaux in managing local breeding stations, such as the Nièvre station of Cercy-la-Tour (in central France), one of the most active in the country, or Lion d’Angers (in the Loire Valley west of Paris), or the gorgeous, historic Haras du Pin (Normandy), now run by an association.

The future of the remaining 11 Thoroughbred sires now under IFCE control, however, is still uncertain even though their fees were raised to comply with European competition rules and to prevent prices that would undermine the market.

In 2013, the IFCE administrators (or rather the representatives of the government) decided to sell the stallions by public auction. The AQPS breeders argued that the best sires would be exported to Ireland, while they could only afford the lesser ones. They addressed the Ministry of Agriculture.

The Minister, Stéphane Le Foll, at first argued that EU competition law (the usual scapegoat when Gallic politicians figure people won’t like something they are about to say) made a public auction mandatory. The breeders then asked for an individual leasing of the horses, as is the case so far, with the lease based on the revenues generated by the management of each horse. 

But the state proposed a lease at a set, tri-annual price for the whole lot, regardless of the revenues they generated.

And that is as far as it is gone. Like most things in France, summertime arrived and the process simply halted. One can only hope that a decision will be taken before the beginning of the 2015 breeding season. Isn’t breeding all about hope anyway?

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