Robert Percival on a lifetime in bloodstock
EVEN with a lifetime of experiences under your belt, surprises still happen, and breeder and horseman Robert Percival was unaware of what lay in store for him at the TBA lunch this month.
Awarded the Andrew Devonshire bronze (which unlike most of the organisation's annual awards is kept secret until the day) to recognise his numerous successes on the racecourse and in the sale ring during a career in the bloodstock industry which has spanned more than half a century, Percival was lost for words.
It is a measure of Percival’s modesty that the award was entirely unexpected. “It was a complete and utter surprise – I had no idea whatsoever that I would be receiving it,” he says.
“It was as big a shock as when, having been married for nearly nine years withno children, my wife suddenly told me that we were expecting twins!
Milk It Mick: Percival bred his sire, the Group 1 winner MillkomPICTURE: Martin Lynch
“I have been unbelievably lucky,” he reflects. “Thoroughbreds were an obsession for me as a boy – instead of paying attention in class I'd think about pedigrees – and thanks to the support of people like David Gibson and his late father George, and the late John Kent and his son Richard, I have spent my life doing what I love best.”
Luck alone could not possibly account for Percival’s many achievements, though. Richard Kent of Mickley Stud, who he mentored and with whom he now owns Mickley stallion Beat All in partnership, says: “Robert has a very sharp eye and is an amazing judge of stock."
Percival’s Glen Andred Stud near Northampton, which specialised in breeding hunters when he took over its running from his parents, topped the St. Leger sale 12 times.
He attributes the feat to the fact that the horses were fed and prepared by a top horsewoman – his wife Susan. “As a girl she had show ponies that had to be prepared to 110 per cent standard. That stood her in very good stead.”
He rates his greatest accomplishment as breeding Millkom, a winner at the highest level in France and in the US who sired Dewhurst Stakes winner Milk It Mick.
Petardia (noseband): "Had the look of eagles and behaved like one"PICTURE: Racing Post
However his favourite was Petardia, the Coventry Stakes and Champagne stakes winner who he bred in association with David Gibson. “Petardia always had the look of eagles, and he behaved like one too,” Percival says. “He was a perfect horse with perfect manners, trained by a perfect gentleman in Geoff Wragg.”
Percival had proved himself adept in the art of stallion management several decades earlier, when in 1970 he and George and David Gibson bought Norfolk Stakes winner Tribal Chief from the Epsom stables of Brian Swift, to stand at Gibson’s Barleythorpe Stud in Rutland.
“Tribal Chief was immediately successful as a two-year-old sire, bearing in mind a first-season stallion would have covered a total of around 30 mares back then,” he remembers.
“Another of our supporters, the late Lord Grimthorpe – Teddy Grimthorpe’s father – bred the 1,000 Guineas winner Mrs McArdy from Tribal Chief.”
Further Barleythorpe stallions who Percival helped acquire, and part-owned, were Mummy’s Pet, Dragonara Palace and Free State.
Reflecting on the changes that have occurred during his time in the bloodstock industry, he says: “When I started, the aim of most breeders was to produce sound horses that could win. When you did breed a winner you were compensated, as the person who bought the winner would keep coming back for your stock. But then there were many more different buyers back then.
“Nowadays, people are breeding for the market. If a horse doesn’t fit the fashion, it’s worthless. Horses are like ladies’ hats these days – in fashion one day and out the next! Stallions never used to be commercialised – stud owners didn’t drag people in off the street.”
In economically turbulent times like these, it is fascinating to ask such a voice of experience how the current slump in the bloodstock market compares to those of the past. The answer makes for uncomfortable reading.
“The current downturn is worse for two reasons,” Percival says. “First, we are feeling the effect of the greatest overproduction for many years. Second, the wider economic problems are worse than I have ever seen.
“The effect at this year’s sales could be very costly for breeders, as they will be selling young horses who were bred at very high stud fees in the past few years, in a market where prices are deflated.”
Despite the current black clouds hanging over the industry, Percival wouldn’t put anyone off becoming involved in breeding. “There will always be someone who’ll buy sound stock,” he says.
“A farmer who I was apprenticed to, the late Mr Kemp-Spokes, told me that even in the Great Depression of the 1920’s someone would always buy land. The same applies to thoroughbreds – someone will always want one.”