JUST a matter of hours after Altior scooted to a comfortable triumph in the Arkle Chase on March 14th of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, his dam Monte Solaro gave birth to a filly foal by Walk In The Park.
This week’s visit to breeder Paddy Behan’s farm at Tierhogar, outside Portarlington, three days after Altior won the Tingle Creek Chase, and Walk In The Park’s Walk In The Mill bagged the Becher Chase, reveals the foal to be a stunner, who despite only approaching the end of her yearling days is a similar size to her five-year-old half-sister Melior, who is sharing the paddock with her, with their mother looking on from next door.
At around 16.2hh, she already looks a strapping chaser in the making but so much has to happen yet for that to be the case. “If you find a fault in her, I’ll shoot you” laughs Behan before we go out to feast our eyes. The dream is alive.
This field one of two Paddy used to cross to go to school in Killenard, before throwing his hat at the books in 1966 and focussing on the family farm.
Horses are ingrained in the Behan family, as much as cattle were once upon a time. Paddy’s father Johnny (“a gentleman of gentlemen”) began breeding and training in the 1950s. His mother Maggie bred Bolands Cross, who won numerous chases in England for Nick Gaselee in the 1980s.
Paddy concentrated on the farm, while older brothers Jack and Noel rode out the horses and in time, Jack took over the trainer’s licence. He lives down the road and though no longer training, is still breeding. They do their own thing but are forever plotting and planning between them.
Indeed it was through his brother that Behan made his first foray into horses, having just turned 50. He liked the look of Monte Solaro from the start.
“I had money, and I saw this two-year-old filly down at Jack’s. I said ‘Are you selling her?’ He said he was bringing her to the sales in a few weeks’ time. I said ‘What do you want?’ He said €15,000. I said I’d give him the €15,000 but he went to the sales. When he didn’t sell her, I gave him the €15,000 and it started from there.
“I put her in training with Francis Flood. She won two races, including the Brandon Hotel Handicap Hurdle at Tralee that was worth €25,000 at the time, but she broke down in Naas after and so we brought her home. I covered her with Westerner and she produced Key To The West, who got his fifth win in Market Rasen last June and has been second eight times as well.”
Princess Leya (Old Vic) won three times and was placed in a Grade 3 hurdle. Silverhow (Yeats) is currently housed with Colin Tizzard and won on four occasions. Cestus (High Chaparral) was a ‘what might have been’, finishing second in a Ludlow bumper in April 2013 before being bought by Charlie Swan for £62,000 at Cheltenham six days later. The reports were very positive but unfortunately the five-year-old broke his leg.
Altior was the result of a second visit to High Chaparral and a work-in-progress of a page for Monte’s offspring is now showing real depth as a result.
Paddy’s sister Mary emulated her mother in showing that the females of the family knew their onions too, breeding top-class hurdler The Illiad.
And as he watches Altior adding to his illustrious CV, he keeps thinking of the news Mary would give him a little while after The Illiad had won.
“Every now and then when it won a race, she would get a few quid as breeder. Altior is after winning three quarters of a million and not one penny do you get. Whether it was for certain races, a percentage or a present, she got it and I don’t understand why that doesn’t happen. For the likes of me, that would be huge.
“I went down to Coolmore this year and it will cost me €25,000 to cover the mare, who is in foal to Camelot. And it will surely cost me another five with the vet, ‘cos she’s 18 years old. I put a lot of effort into her but no-one ever thinks of that. They think because you’ve bred Altior you’re flying but sure you’re not.
“And more power to him. I’m obviously not giving out about him; sure we’d be jumping up and down on the chair there every Saturday when he’s running, but I’m getting nothing out of it. The mare cost €12,000 to cover her that year and I got €17,000 for Altior as a foal. All you’re doing is covering yourself.
“It would mean so much to the small breeder like myself. It’s a big crib of mine and I’m going to say it to (HRI chief executive) Brian Kavanagh again because there should be more for the ordinary people producing the horses.”
The pride in what Altior has achieved is evident. Although Paddy has an inner sanctum in front of a roaring fire where he watches racing normally and puffs away on his pipe in peace and comfort, when his former protégé is running, he and Rose view it on another television and sit in the same seats every time. A habit formed has to be maintained when it’s a winning one.
He wonders if Altior’s run of 15 straight wins over obstacles might be a record – if it isn’t, it must definitely be rare and is assuredly remarkable. (Big Buck’s holds it at 18).
But the portrayal of the gelding’s 66-year-old breeder as having struck gold with his very first broodmare is a misnomer, as the financial rewards don’t necessarily trickle down.
The breeder getting some sort of return, be it a percentage of prize money or a set dividend per victory depending on its grade, would seem fair to him, particularly as he has always been happy to “push the boat out”, as Rose puts it, for the best stallions. He has been producing winners but that means little in terms of bottom line. So far at least.
“I sold one for €50,000, one for 40 and the rest were all for pocket money. I sold a half-brother of Altior’s (by Milan) at the foal sale in November for €40,000. He made €365,000 at the Derby Sale (bought by Aiden Murphy for MV Magnier). He’s now at Nicky Henderson’s and Nicky spoke very highly of him on television on Sunday.” It was a record price for a store and it set the Behans thinking about whether or not they might be better off holding onto the stock a little longer.
Altior and Nico de Boinville jumping the ditch on his way to winning the bet365 Celebration Chase in 2017 (Photo HEALY RACING)
“I think we definitely would consider maybe holding on to them a bit longer in the future. But you’ve a fella like me at 66, leading in and out a two-year-old or yearling is no easy thing. And you’re hoping nothing goes wrong for three years but with nothing in it for the breeder only what you get at the sale, you have to think about it with the money that’s being made.
“But you never know. John Fallon had a filly foal at the sales in 2016 by Leading Light out of Princess Leya - a blacktype half-sister to Altior remember - that got no bid. I know Altior wasn’t after becoming the best chaser around at the time but he’d won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and other races.
The reserve was €14,000 and you’d have thought he’d get that at least. Mind you, he’s delighted now. He’s going to race her and breed from her because she’s worth a lot more now.”
Despite being from Kildare town, Rose had no knowledge of horses but being a teacher, study holds no fears. Though she is anxious to emphasise her lack of authority on the subject, as she reels off form and pedigrees, it is clear that she is learning. Of their six sons, Paddy Jnr has shown the most interest in the operation and is a key part of the brains’ trust now.
Monte Solaro is in foal to Camelot and if she were to produce a colt, the chances are they might sell that and keep the Walk In The Park filly that makes Paddy swoon every time he mentions her. She looks the part and if she could add form to her pedigree, would be a very valuable broodmare. But then if a blank cheque book was put in front of him, that arm might be twisted!
Injury hastened Melior’s advancement towards her second career and potential partners are being discussed right now. As a half-sister to Altior and full-sister to the aforementioned expensive Henderson recruit, she has good prospects too.
But the truth is nobody knows. What is evident is that once the decisions are made, they won’t dwell too much on them afterwards. You do what you think is right at the time.
They have other interests. Paddy loves rugby – he won a 2nds Towns Cup with Curragh RC many moons ago. O’Dempseys and Laois are followed fervently in football and one of his sons, Johnny captained Laois to Leinster minor glory in 1998, only losing the All-Ireland final to a Tyrone team packed with future legends.
Then there’s the boxing, a passion that is reflected in the names of the Newfoundland dogs Ali and Laila (Muhammad Ali’s daughter). Tyson and Bruno were previous residents.
This is a place where two hours pass in the blink of an eye and the demands of the next place you have to be or next job that must be done are blissfully forgotten. It’s your typical traditional, small Irish breeder. Country style, country living.
But when people talk horses to them, they want to talk Altior and that’s fine by them. Paddy maintains that the Tingle Creek might just have been his best performance, given the testing conditions and opposition.
“I’d say he has some gears. The fella who bought him off me, Michael McCarthy always said about Altior that he was the only horse he sold that he didn’t want to sell. He reckoned the Melbourne Cup would be the race for him. And Nicky said on Sunday of course he’d run on the flat, that he’d have run over mile and a quarter.
“When he jumped the second-last fence, he just pulled away from there. One little back-hander and it was all over. It was funny after the race on Sunday, Ruby said Min would be probably be going anywhere Altior wasn’t!”
Hopefully, the rewards will eventually make it down to them, now that they look to ensure the maintenance of the line.
“I suppose it takes time to make the name and you can’t rely on just Altior to make the name. So do you take the gamble of running them yourself to build that or sell them early and let someone else have the headache? But if you hold them and run them, you might have a better chance with form but the gamble is there.
“But you have Princess Leya, Silverhow and Key To The West there so it isn’t just Altior. And if the one that’s at Seven Barrows now came through, that would be great because we have the full-sister here, which is important as Monte is 18. And in the meantime Melior is starting off. It’s hard to know but sure we’ll give it a go.” And a good go it has been so far.