Russian genes and Suffolk grass are not a common alliance. Martha Terry visits the family-run stud to discover innovative ideas based on intense research
Marcus Craggs is something of a maverick. He may be new to sport horse breeding but he’s channelling the same approach that stood him in good stead in the city to bloodlines and super-sires.
“I spent my life in business not accepting the status quo,” says Marcus, over coffee and flapjacks in his Suffolk farmhouse. “I was always trying to do things people said couldn’t be done. I like to go off-piste.”
This is why, just three years into Lancer Stud’s breeding programme, he’s introduced the unusual Akhal-Teke (AT) breed, with the first foals landing this spring.
Back in 2015, Marcus and his wife Emma were on the hunt for an event horse for their daughter Martha, then 15, and found what they thought was the perfect one, by Canturo. It failed the vet, but sparked a family obsession with Canturo just as Marcus was winding up his business and had time to pursue what was rapidly becoming a passion.
“I set off with a vengeance to find something by Canturo; I’d jump on a plane to the Netherlands, Ireland, France or Germany, wherever I could find them, but no one would sell,” he says. “The closest I got was buying a foal whose dam was by Canturo.”
Meanwhile, he bought a novice eventer, Corbett, for Martha who is now combining eventing up to three-star with university, but the Pony Club lifestyle the Craggs had enjoyed thus far with their two daughters was about to burst into a more ambitious adventure.
“I hadn’t even got a broodmare at this stage, but as I started digging and meeting so many interesting breeders across Europe, one thing led to another and I began buying eventers for professionals to ride. I found it all fascinating.”
A purchase from Germany, First Lancer – who won back-to-back two-stars with Piggy March (née French) last year – was the catalyst for a cross-Channel relationship that has proved pivotal in the stud’s germination.
The vendor, Julia Schmid, comes from five generations of horsemen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, and is a mine of information for Marcus.
“They’d tell me exactly what I could and couldn’t breed from, and it made me wonder why we all talk about the stallions when surely it’s all about the damlines – that’s what the top breeders have built up – yet you can’t track that like the sires.”
Marcus became obsessed with his research – Horsetelex, Hippomundo, and ringing up “strangers” to ask their opinions. He made spreadsheets on stallions’ progeny performance – “I love the statistics” – and he delved into embryo transfer (ET) and ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection; a technique similar to IVF), and visited far-flung studs in an effort to become an expert.
“I decided on a fun mission to see what I could breed,” he says. “The idea became to breed a CSI5* winner and a five-star eventer. That’s the dream. Sometimes it feels like a mission to Mars!”
‘Built like greyhounds’
Equipped with all this knowledge, Marcus bought two broodmares from Haras de Hus in France: Et Non (Tsunami De Hus x Galoubet A) and Evian (Conrad De Hus x Diamant De Semilly), the latter with the De Kreisker damline he’d been seeking.
“I don’t see these lines in the UK, but in 10 years’ time for jumping or eventing at top level, they’ll need to be built like greyhounds. I don’t think we’ll be wanting the Ramiro Bs and Jumbos, they’ll be too heavy.”
There are now 15 in the broodmare fleet, with illustrious lines such as Van’T Roosakker, De Chalusse, Du Chateau and De Kreisker, as well as two new ATs; plus three young competition stallions, Nice And Easy SR Z (by Nabab De Reve), Freelancer (by Fragonard XX) and Amadei Geli, an AT. Last year there were 13 Lancer foals, with 10 due this year.
Marcus’ method of choosing the mares is partly thanks to his rigorous research, but also a touch of instinct.
“It might sound a bit iffy, but we had pigs on our farm growing up and as a boy I got quite good at working out which were going to be good sows and which ones weren’t going to have many piglets,” says Marcus who, like Emma, grew up around horses but never competed. “Then you look at the horses like you would sportsmen – you want to breed a Jonny Wilkinson or Roger Federer, not a second-row forward. And I look back to the sixth and seventh generations.”
“To me, it’s still a lottery – breeders say you use a certain stallion to add height, length or scope, but I don’t think you necessarily get what you planned.”
The Craggs, however, are certain about the impact of upbringing on a horse’s career prospects. They moved to their 180-acre farm three years ago specifically to provide their stock with year-round turnout.
“Our USP is that our youngstock are out all the time,” says Emma, as we head round the fields to meet the Lancer babies, cavorting in the mud on a cold March morning. “It’s got to be better for them, playing around with the other foals, braving the elements, breathing fresh air. Our three-year-olds haven’t been stabled since they were born.”
They are turned out in huge fields, grouped according to age and gender, with smaller paddocks for the competition horses, plus sand pens for those whose turnout needs to be restricted.
During Marcus’s intense research period, he found there was mixed logic in event horse breeding. Continental breeding seemed to hold sway over Irish lines due to their dressage prowess, yet he noticed too many going lame as youngsters. On his European travels, he saw many young horses living in stables, “hopping up and down like peas in a pod”.
“They were let out every three days into an indoor school and you’re thinking, ‘How are those going to be sound when they’re sold into jumping or eventing?’ We need those dressage marks, but we’ve seemingly lost the strength they had in their bones coming out of Ireland, wandering in the fields, going through mud.”
The Craggs are adherents of vet Ingvar Fredricson’s (showjumper Peder’s father) project in Sweden proving the long-term benefits of young horses growing up in 70 hectares of hilly ground.
“The trouble is you can’t have an objective conversation about this because so many people have a vested interest in that they cannot physically turn their horses out as they don’t have the acreage, so they have to fight their corner by saying it’s all right for horses to stay in,” says Marcus.
Emma shows me a photo of the 2017 yearlings roughing it out in a blizzard during the 2018 “Beast from the East”.
“You see them out in the snow and you do feel for them! But do humans look at horses according to their feelings or the horses’?” Marcus asks. “Why would you want to keep a horse like Nelson Mandela on Robben Island? So for me, I like the Continental breeding, but they have to be raised outside.”
The stud’s most high-profile horse, last year’s world champion six-year-old Cooley Lancer, is a case in point. Bred in Switzerland with Coeur De Nobless lines, he was found in Ireland by Cooley Farm’s Richard Sheane and bought by the Craggs for Piggy.
“The passion would be to have bred him,” says Marcus. “That’s the dream. And if I look out in the fields of last year’s progeny I really like a couple of them.”
Four bold yearling colts bound up to us as the Craggs’ dogs, Pumpkin and Margot, skitter away. In the field nearest the house are two heavily pregnant mares; a bay AT, Peerli-Shael, delivered her Clarksville foal two days after H&H’s visit. A recipient is carrying the foal of the second AT, Ashiya Shael, who is playing in an immaculate sand pen with two other mares, the Anglo-Arab Flamboyante Vimaje (Quatar De Plape x Veloci De Fave) and Lanusha Lancer (Berlin x Elvis Ter Putte). Ashiya is a graceful, golden buckskin, with the characteristic long ears of the breed; majestically elegant as she floats around.
“The Akhal-Teke venture was not a Marcus and Emma idea, it came from Julia [see box],” explains Marcus. “Julia had sourced a champion Akhal-Teke stallion, Amadei Geli, from Russia and I said, ‘What the hell’s that?’ They’re basically thoroughbred; a blood horse with endurance, bred for warriors in the Persian cavalry and then for competition.”
An AT, Absent, won dressage gold at the 1960 Olympics, so they evidently move. But there are only around 2,000 purebred mares of this ancient breed in existence.
“I can see myself getting more and more enthusiastic about them, but it’s a long journey – 10 years before we really know if it works,” adds Marcus, who has a joint venture with Julia over the six year-old Amadei Geli and will start using his semen this year.
Breeding is indeed a long game, but Marcus seems to have crammed a lifetime’s knowledge into just five years. Who knows what his innovative spirit may bring to sport horse breeding over the coming decade?
‘Toughness and quick-legged jumping’
Breeder and eventer Julia Schmid’s interest in ATs was piqued riding them in Russia.
“I was surprised by their comfort and amazingly quick legs jumping,” she says. “In eventing, safety is paramount – you need jumpers that can sort out a bad stride themselves, and watching ATs loose-jumping you’ll see there is no breed that can sort their legs out quicker at a fence.”
This trait is coupled with her view that the performance of Continental breeds is being compromised by a “neglect of their durability”. She sees the “toughness and quick-legged jumping” of the AT as an ideal match for a warmblood’s movement, scope and jumping technique. “Russians have always used ATs for top-level sport,” she says. “It is the only breed that’s always been strongly selected for toughness and rideability.”
Julia has several foals by Amadei Geli due this year, including one out of Rocana II, a full-sister to Michael Jung’s treble Kentucky winner FischerRocana FST.
Ref Horse & Hound; 2 April 2020