I haven’t enjoyed a horse chat so much in a long time. Meabh Bolger has a way of discussing horses that combines a depth of hands-on knowledge with bravery and eloquence, which is incredibly refreshing.
In addition, she has her own opinions about what constitutes a good horse, and those opinions are not led by fashion or fear.
Success is fast becoming a word synonymous with Meabh and her husband Brian Flynn’s business, MBF Sporthorses.
Their thoughtful approach and exceptional ability in producing young horses are reflected in MBF’s ongoing accomplishments. Meabh has evented for Ireland at Nations Cup level, and MBF is already an industry leader despite the business being only a few years old.
Regularly commanding the top sales prices, 2021 was no exception and saw MBF achieve the highest price for a three-year-old at the Goresbridge Go For Gold event horse sale. The well-documented hammer-fall was for MBF Starburst by Sligo Candy Boy out of their thoroughbred mare Monalease, achieving €82,000 and selling to US buyers. MBF also achieved the second top lot with MBF Major Lazer by Emir R sold to the UK for €79,000.
Although Meabh and Brian buy most of their stock as foals, they have a small breeding operation at home. Heading up the band of three broodmares is MBF Starburst’s dam, Monalease, bred in Britain and the dam of successful CCI3*-L Chincalese Cowboy. Monalease has produced some exceptional offspring, and it is this female thoroughbred influence that fires up my conversation with Meabh as I try to get to the heart of what makes the dam’s side thoroughbred influence so impactful.
Meabh and Brian bought Monalease as a 17-year-old (now 23), and they have had four foals from her. Monalease is the daughter of Group 1 winner Terimon out of a Strong Gale mare. She has two point-to-point winning siblings, and without doubt, brings the family jump within her DNA.
“A thoroughbred dam brings blood to paper,” Meabh explains. For MBF, this means not just percentage blood in the book but a blood model. “To be honest, I don’t care what’s on paper, though people do look for it in print. I prefer to look at the horse standing in front of me. You can sit on something 100% blood, and it can be awful or sit on one with only 20% blood on its page that has the real heart for it. It’s about the blood in the brain.”
Damn fine dam lines
When I press Meabh on why she prefers the thoroughbred on the dam’s side, she is honest.
“I can only say what we have seen, but when the thoroughbred has been on the sire’s side, there is often not enough jump, and the temperament tends to be not as good. When the thoroughbred is on the dam’s side, the traits come down completely differently and much more positively.”
Studies have shown that the quality of the dam as a race mare has a significant impact on the progeny. As the industry as a whole selects harder on stallions, the variance in foals’ performance increasingly comes down to the effect of the dam.
Monalease ran point-to-point 11 times, placing five times and winning her final race. Still, when I ask if a thoroughbred dam performance record is essential, Meabh admits to being more focused on the physical attributes of the mare.
“Thoroughbred mares need to have a big walk. They have to be nice big, long-legged mares; I call them ‘big manly mares’, they can’t be a squib or a reindeer.”
I recently wrote about Snow Leopardess, a National Hut mare at the top of her game. She is not only the first mare to win the Becher Chase at Aintree (Dec 2021), but perhaps even more rarely, is being bred to produce both racehorses and event horses. In a very unusual move, Snow Leopardess has been bred to a Derby-winning thoroughbred stallion Sir Percy and has also had two embryos flushed to world number one show jumper Chacco Blue.
Her breeder and owner (alongside son Andrew), Marietta Fox-Pitt (mother of British Olympic eventer William Fox-Pitt), has been courageous in her passion and vision to breed event horses from this top-performing jump mare.
In many eyes, 10-year-old Snow Leopardess could be a real contender for this year’s Grand National, but I very much doubt we will see her there – she is perhaps too precious a dam for the Fox-Pitts to risk in the famously gruelling battle.
Growing in popularity
I am keen to know if Meabh thinks this breeding combination of thoroughbred mare and sports horse sire is rising.
“I’d like to hope so,” she says. “As long as people don’t lose sight and breed any old thoroughbred mare. Like any breeding, you have to use the very best animal. It needs to have a walk first and foremost. Breeding, in general, is improving. The day of the badly bred horse in Ireland is pretty much gone.”
As well as giving last year’s top-priced filly and also five-year-old MBF Gambler (now eventing successfully in America), Monalease has several other exciting offspring, including a colt yearling by Castlefield Kingston and a foal on the way by Livello. Also from her is a three-year-old filly by Ganesh Hero Z called MBF Roll The Dice, who Meabh admits feels exceptional.
Alongside Monalease, MBF has two sports horse mares, one by Dignified van’t Zorgvliet and one by Untouchable 27. In terms of selling stock from sports horse dams, MBF famously has form. Bought as a yearling MBF Celtic Claddagh is by Celtic Hero BZ, out of Radolin mare Janis B and was bred by Andrea Etter of Belmont House Stud, as was the sire Celtic Hero BZ himself. MBF Celtic Claddagh was sold last year for €49,000 at the Go For Gold sale after winning the Four-Year-Old National Championship at the Dublin Horse Show with Meabh on board.
It may be surprising to some to discover that MBF also produces some National Hunt foals each year, but according to Meabh, the transition from sports horses to jump horses isn’t too much of a stretch.
“Brian has an interest in National Hunt. There was no real reason we moved into a few jumps foals; it’s all to make money really, that’s our job.
“For me, it’s that thrill of the sales ring with any of the youngsters. Getting the best from them on the day, getting them walking well and looking well. Foal prep is nearly like a competition; the aim is to give a good show and try to have the animal at its best. We only had two national hunt foals in 2020 and four last year. We don’t want loads; we don’t want it to become stressful.”
Whether breeding their own or buying them in, it is bringing these foals on to become top horses that keeps Meabh passionate about what she does.
“Production takes a lot of time, but it is our bread and butter. Whether an event-bred or National Hunt-bred foal, what I search for is the same. At the initial first look, you either like the animal or you don’t. Good model, good presence, good attitude and for me, it’s all about the walk.”