10/15/2014 11:06AM

U.S. owner-breeder Strawbridge relishes European success

Barbara D. Livingston
U.S. owner-breeder George Strawbridge has found great success overseas in European racing.

This is the season, Breeders’ Cup time, when European horses and their human connections begin traveling across the Atlantic to the United States. Through the summer and fall, even before the Breeders’ Cup, a west-flowing pipeline, funneling European runners to lucrative stakes in North America, stays open, but that pipeline tends to flow in just one direction. The number of Europeans racing in North America dwarfs that of North Americans venturing east across the Atlantic to race.

But there are exceptions. George Strawbridge is most notable among them, but another American, Jon Kelly, has followed Strawbridge’s path. Strawbridge, 77, has seen himself as the last in a line of American owner-breeders to relish participating in European racing, but Kelly, newer to the international scene, can envision a time when Americans are more heavily involved again.

“I know it’s picking up,” said Kelly, back in his San Diego-area home after attending the Tattersalls October sale in England last week. “Three years ago, you’d see one or two Americans at the sale, and now there are several. Alex Solis [Jr.] was there. Bobby Flay was there.”

Kelly, 76, bought a Galileo filly at the Tattersalls sale for more than $1 million. The filly will remain in England with Kelly’s trainer there, Luca Cumani.

As for Strawbridge, he is in action Saturday at Ascot on QIPCO Champions Day with Flying Officer, a 4-year-old Dynaformer homebred who starts in the two-mile QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup.

Strawbridge loves stayers’ races such as the Long Distance Cup, and they’re one reason he continues to patronize European racecourses and trainers. His overseas equine involvement has gone on for a while, dating to his student days at King’s College in London during the mid-1960s. Strawbridge, a Pennsylvanian, rode amateur steeplechase races and fox-hunted there, and in the 1980s, having branched into flat racing and breeding from the steeplechase side, he began sending his horses to France and England. The move felt natural, Strawbridge said, and traced to a line of American owner-breeders who raced in Europe.

“I was by no means a pioneer,” Strawbridge said. “I follow people like Raymond Guest, Paul Mellon, [Charles] Englehard. I don’t know why more people don’t try it any longer. Maybe it’s because they aren’t exposed to European racing as much. The purses over here are so good, and it’s not easy to win there.”

Strawbridge long has loved the beauty and history of European racecourses and training yards. Traveling to Chantilly in France, he said, “is like dying and going to horse heaven.” He is moved by the sight of hundreds of horses training over the fields at Warren Hill in Newmarket, England.

“It’s really a throwback to an ancient age,” he said.

There’s another, newer reason Strawbridge races abroad. Strawbridge has been an outspoken critic of American racing’s medication policies, a disenchantment that dovetails with the way Kelly views racing here.

“I’m very much anti-drugs,” Kelly said. “My 2-year-olds do not run on Lasix, and I prefer no medication at all. I feel like in America, they’re driving owners out of the business by over-medicating the horses.”

Strawbridge has for years expressed concern over what he terms “the culture of drugs in this country.”

“Overseas, you are competing on a level playing field. Over here, who knows? I’ve felt that way a long time, but things have gotten worse and worse from the middle ’90s on,” Strawbridge said. “The one thing you don’t see in Europe is veterinarians wandering all over the place.”

Strawbridge has found top-level success in Europe, starting in the 1980s with horses such as the champion sprinter Silver Fling and the top miler Selkirk and running right up to Oct. 5, when his homebred filly We Are won the Group 1 Prix de l’Opera on the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe card. Strawbridge, though, continues to cull his herd. His stable once numbered nearly 100 horses. Now he has about half that, split among several trainers in England and France and with Jonathan Sheppard and Graham Motion in the United States. His broodmare band, once 55 strong, is down to 30 and would be smaller, Strawbridge said, if he didn’t find it so emotionally difficult to part with some horses.

Kelly’s greatest racing successes have come on this side of the Atlantic. His first really good horse here was Borrego. About 10 years ago, Kelly first sent a couple of horses to trainer Nicolas Clement in France, and while that venture was short-lived and unproductive, Kelly is back with about 10 horses stabled in Cumani’s training yard in Newmarket.

In England for the sales last week, Kelly got to see one of his runners, Mizzou, finish third in the 1 3/4-mile Noel Murless Stakes at Ascot. That was one of the best European finishes of the year for Kelly, who said his goal is to find a champion overseas and bring the horse to the United States.

Strawbridge, though, operates on a different level – an American deeply rooted in European racing. His runner Saturday at Ascot, Flying Officer, is third-generation Strawbridge. Strawbridge bred and raced his dam, Vignette, and owned Vignette’s dam, the Irish-bred Be Exclusive. In 2004, Vignette produced a colt named Lucarno, who won the 2007 St. Leger, the oldest stakes race in the world. There is little doubt that the American-bred Flying Officer will stay the two miles of the QIPCO Champions Long Distance Cup. After all, his owner and breeder has stayed in European racing for more than 30 years.