Bjorn again

Bjorn Nielsen's current star is Stradivarius; the owner-breeder, however, has always dreamed of producing a Derby winner

Bjorn Nielsen says Stradivarius will be hard to better as his horse of a lifetime – Photo: George Selwyn

Bjorn Nielsen is redolent of the new social order that has swept through the ranks of owner-breeders over the last 50 years. He is a man forged entirely in the modern era who espouses old values of the Turf.

The difference between him and prominent owner-breeders of yore is that his wealth is self-made. He dived into the treacherous waters of trading exchanges and climbed out not just intact, which is a feat in itself, but with the means to keep 14 broodmares in the courts of Europe’s pre-eminent stallions.

He pursues his breeding interests ardently, mostly through his own ideas. They, in turn, have evolved from decades of researching breeding theory and the practical lessons he has absorbed along the way.

One of the first horses he owned was Assessor, a leading stayer in the early 1990s when trained by Richard Hannon. The son of Niniski won the Prix Royal-Oak and the Yorkshire and Doncaster Cups before he landed the Prix du Cadran in 1993. At which point Nielsen sold him to Prince Sultan Al Kabeer.

That latter detail is revealing. Even then, when taking those formative steps, Nielsen deployed the fundamentals of good business practice. Assessor was a back-end four-year-old with limited stallion appeal. He had gone almost as far as he could, but with the promise of a big day still to come. The Saudi prince wanted action; Nielsen duly obliged and cashed his profit.

“What more does a horse have to do to show he could be a great stallion?”

Twenty five years on and Nielsen has another acclaimed stayer on his hands. Stradivarius needs no introduction, having landed the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million bonus last season. His owner-breeder is even more enchanted by the horse than he was with Assessor, but he already knows how the story will end.

The purist in Nielsen laments that Stradivarius will not be given the opportunities he deserves at stud. He is a thoroughbred of great virtue: sound of physique and temperament, he has a strong will to win and his acceleration is a potent weapon. But Nielsen is not going to try and single-handedly change the tide’s course by supporting him blindly at stud.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “What more does a horse have to do to show he could be a great stallion? He’s got a turn of foot, all these things people look for, but he’s never really going to get a proper chance.

“It was the same with Yeats,” he continues. “He was a superb racehorse, very well bred, but he was just not supported by [Flat] breeders. I sometimes wonder how many great stallions there are out there that nobody will ever find out about.”

The flip-side is that he can enjoy Stradivarius properly “With him, there isn’t the pressure you’d feel if you kept a Derby winner in training at four. He could have two more full seasons [of racing].”

Assessor was one of the first horses that Bjorn Nielsen owned – Photo: George Selwyn

Assessor and Stradivarius share more than superior staying talent. Both entered Nielsen’s orbit in the hope they would develop into Derby horses. There are few greater advocates of the Derby than the man born 61 years ago to a Danish father and South African mother.

Nielsen’s fascination with the sport developed when he was growing up in South Africa. Aged eight or nine, he became captivated by the exploits of Sea Cottage, an iconic horse who won 20 of his 24 starts.

In the results section of his local newspaper he noticed that each winner seemed to have three names. This intrigued him until he learnt that the sire and dam were also listed alongside the winner. His curiosity was aroused.

Nielsen’s father was unhappy with the prospect of his children growing up in apartheid South Africa so he relocated his family to Britain. Fortuitously they moved to Epsom, where the teenage Nielsen went to watch the early-morning reconnaissance gallops organised by trainers in the days ahead of the Derby.

“It was a magical time,” he says. “I’d go and watch Lester [Piggott] exercise Vincent O’Brien’s horses around the outside of Tattenham Corner and down the home straight. I remember Noel Murless sending Imperial Prince for a spin around Epsom before he finished second in the 1974 Derby. I’d be on my own there at 6.30am; there was no such thing as Breakfast With The Stars.”

“I spent years and years studying the pedigrees of stakes winners”

As the years unfurled Nielsen’s fascination with the Derby evolved in tandem with his working life. He’d traded gold on his own account in 1979 before he applied for a job on the London Metal Exchange.

“That’s when I got my taste for the markets,” he reflects. “I’d made a few bucks; not big money, but I was naive. I didn’t really know what I was talking about but the chairman of an American firm in London gave me a job and 18 months later I was transferred to the States.

“That was my opportunity,” he continues. “In London you’d get a pat on the back if you made your firm £10 million but there they would give you some of the profit as reward.

“From there I went onto the floor of the commodity exchange in New York, became a trader and picked it up very quickly. I soon realised it was a game of psychology. You’ve got to understand what everybody else is doing, whether they’re too long or too short, and when the market is going to move.”

In 1988 Nielsen joined Connecticut-based Tudor Investment Corporation, where he rose to become Managing Director at one of America’s nascent hedge fund operators. What started out as a smallish firm mushroomed in size as Nielsen left the trading floor to trade in anything that could be traded. He left Tudor 18 months ago to do his own thing.

Stradivarius and Frankie Dettori lift the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot last year – Photo: George Selwyn

Nielsen’s professional experience is serving him well in his efforts to get the best from his broodmare band. “The research and reading you need to do to breed horses is the same as trading,” he says.

“I spent years and years studying the pedigrees of stakes winners, trying to understand combinations [of blood] that worked.

“We all know the largest component of all is luck but you have a better chance of getting what you are looking for if you do your research. When you trade you have to adapt and change to the times. It’s the same in the horse business, which is constantly changing.

“I don’t rely on anybody when I trade the markets, and while I get help with issues like conformation, I know the basics about my female families and do the pedigree side myself.”

All his efforts are geared towards breeding that elusive Derby horse. Stradivarius wasn’t too far off the mark by his ability, although he wasn’t forward enough as a three-year-old to warrant a Derby preparation.

Nielsen is hugely supportive of the enhanced programme for young stayers, which is what breeders often end up with in their endeavours to produce middle-distance horses. He believes Stradivarius stays so well because of his equable temperament and demeanour, which he ascribes in large part to Stradivarius’ sire, Sea The Stars.

“I thought Sea The Stars was an out-and-out mile and a quarter horse with the brilliance to stay the Derby trip, like Nijinsky,” he says. “But it turns out he breeds horses that stay a bit further. I was also looking for a bit of size.”

Devotees of sectional timing keep telling him Stradivarius would hold his own against the best over a mile and a half, but Nielsen feels the die is cast. “I am really lucky to have a horse that could become one of the outstanding stayers and I’m nervous to tinker with that in any way,” he says.

“Everything I breed is for the racecourse, rather than commercially orientated”

“Even if the bonus wasn’t there this season I’d probably go the same way towards the ‘Cup’ races and perhaps skip the Lonsdale [the last in the ‘million’ sequence] to go for the Arc. But you can’t walk away from the Lonsdale when you have won three of the four legs in the series.”

In different circumstances Nielsen might have seen Stradivarius’ career unfold from one step removed. The colt failed to make his reserve when he passed through Tattersalls’ auction ring as a yearling in October 2015, when Nielsen bought him in at 330,000 guineas. The colt was consigned from the draft of Watership Down Stud, where Nielsen keeps his broodmares and their progeny.

“I hate selling young horses because I always worry they might end up winning the Derby,” he says. “But it is necessary; I need to take money out now and again. At the end of the day nobody really knows whether a young horse is going to be any good – except possibly Coolmore. Too many great horses have cost nothing.

“Having said that, everything I breed is for the racecourse, rather than commercially orientated. So if I wind up getting them back, like Stradivarius, I’m very happy to put them into training because I bred them for a purpose.”

To people like Nielsen, the antithesis of what breeding horses should be is to end up with precocious but commercially attractive two-year-oldtypes. He feels their mass production is undermining bloodlines lovingly developed in Britain and the US down the centuries.

“With these horses, you know your fate by the time you get to Royal Ascot,” he says. “If you haven’t done it by then, it’s game over. Britain is the furthest away of any country to be purely about speed but too many people have been heading in that direction for a while now.

“A couple of years ago I said to [American-based French trainer] Patrick Biancone that one day there will be a proper ten-furlong horse in the US, and that it would win everything. But Patrick said that was most unlikely. He said the horse would not have the speed to get to that first bend fast enough. It wouldn’t even get in to the Kentucky Derby as it wouldn’t win enough points [in the qualifying races].”

None of that is uppermost in Nielsen’s mind at this point in time, however. Stradivarius, after making a successful return in the Yorkshire Cup, will now try to win him a second Gold Cup at Ascot en route to another tilt at the £1 million stayers’ bonus. Yet even if the dream dissipates, Nielsen has already derived so much pleasure that the future is almost academic.

“Stradivarius has got to be my horse of a lifetime,” he says. “Even if I was incredibly lucky and had a Derby winner, it’s hard to see how that horse could be as consistent as Stradivarius has been, never mind do what he has done.”

Royal Ascot is a global phenomenon

Royal Ascot’s imminence always puts a spring into Bjorn Nielsen’s step – and not just because the prospect of a second Gold Cup triumph with Stradivarius is a realistic outcome.

Nielsen has always followed racing from a global perspective. He grew up in South Africa, spent 18 months in Australia in his teens and worked in the US for three decades. Having absorbed much from each of these racing domains, the Royal meeting affords him an opportunity to further engage with their horsemen.

“Royal Ascot has become a world-wide thing,” he says. “They have promoted it so well and you now have [coast-to-coast broadcaster] NBC showing it live in America. It has become a lifestyle thing as well; people from outside Britain love seeing all the pageantry, the people. That’s what media outlets have done for the meeting in the last 20 years.”

He continues: “Lifestyle is a big thing these days. So many more Americans and Australians want to bring their horses over to be part of the whole thing. There’s a whole different side to the business that wasn’t there 20 years ago.

“And it really needs to be there, because that’s the part that can really work [for British racing]. When these people come over they soon realise there’s more to the game than Royal Ascot – as wonderful as Ascot is.

“That can only be good for British racing and those involved with it. The whole experience has moved up another level or two. It’s a really big deal now.”

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