The breeder in Grégory Wathelet; ‘Let me tell you what’s so great about breeding. It’s the unpredictability.’

Life can have some surprises up its sleeve. Until a few years ago Grégory Wathelet (39) wasn’t concerned with breeding. ‘Being a rider I looked at the horse, not at its papers’, Grégory tells us. He is reigning European Team Champion, became Vice European Champion, won the GP of Aachen and so much more. Now all the pieces fall into place. Wathelet bought his father’s farm including the breeding stud, which carries the suffix ‘de la Marchette’. Last year his 7-year-old Argentina de la Marchette even made it to Belgian Champion. At the same time Grégory had top-class stallions in the sport and top-sport mares that were all due to be retired. He became intrigued, so much so that his interest for breeding started to grow. His breeding stud is now a fact but above all, Wathelet is a realist: ‘I dream, hope and have expectations, but I may just as well wake up feeling disillusioned in a few years’ time.’ One thing’s for sure, the genes he’s breeding with have proven themselves in the sport.

You have clearly given a boost to the ‘Marchette’ stud?

This year I’m expecting fifteen foals! And the majority will be born at home.  That used to be different. I bought foals and embryos and shared breeding with a couple of friends. It’s all a combination of circumstances. My father already owned a stud farm. Last year I became Belgian Champion in Gesves with my 7-year-old Argentina de la Marchette (Acajou de la Marchette – Del Piero P&B). Five years ago I took over the family farm and transformed it to a sport stable and breeding farm. And taking over means everything. My father, who has reached his retirement age, was a farmer and breeding cattle of the Limousin breed came first. So I don’t just breed horses, but cows too (laughs). He used to have about 130 every year, I have reduced that to about 30. I like it, it’s pleasant, but let me put it this way, I’m more interested in horses.’  

Has Argentina de la Marchette’s success convinced you to start breeding?

My father still has that line and it has produced a number of very good horses. Let’s say that I’m planning to carry on the work my father started with his breeding. My father was a professional breeder of cattle and horses were a hobby. I intend to give the breeding of horses a boost because meanwhile I own a few mares that have performed in top sports.

Were they the decisive factor?

Frankly, until a few years ago I wasn’t at all interested in breeding, I couldn’t be bothered. When I bought horses or was offered horses by owners I looked at the horse itself, not at the papers. I didn’t know the horse’s origin, in a manner of speaking. Everyone his own, there are riders and there are breeders. Those are two different professions and specialisations.

Brume de la Marchette Z

It’s a fact however, that everything I do in my life I want to do well and give it more than one hundred percent. That’s who I am. When I commit myself to something it is with total abandon and even more dedication. No matter if it’s riding, training or like now, breeding, I always want to reap the full benefits. I either do it well or not at all. Which doesn’t mean everything always works out well, but I’ll never have to blame myself for not having given it my all. When I was eighteen I wanted to become a professional rider, that was my ambition and I fully committed myself to my goal. In spite of the fact that I was just a farmer’s son and my parents didn’t have the means to invest in their son’s sport career. I’ve always worked hard to achieve my goal and I wouldn’t and couldn’t want it any different. That’s what I’m like. Now I want to do the same with breeding. I bought the parental home with 70 hectares of surrounding meadows and a modest breeding programme. The basis was there. Extra factor was that I had a few retired GP mares at my disposal and that gave me some food for thought. The oldest horses from my breeding are now 4-year-olds, out of Lilly Lordanos, who went into breeding because of a sports injury. Cavaluna Z (Crown Z) is also used for breeding, she has a 4-year-old Comme Il Faut. The 18-year-old Oh D’Eole (Kannan) gave three foals this year. I have a foal from Banda de Hus (Argentinus) and one from Coree (Cornet Obolensky) who won the GP of Aachen. Each and everyone mares that have competed in the big sport. I was fortunate because I have been in a position to ride many good-quality mares for several owners. Owners who all have a passion for the sport and now also share my passion for breeding. Or maybe that was a logical next step? I got a mare, built a sport career with her and subsequently followed up the idea to start breeding from her. Or occasionally we bought a foal from those specific lines in joint ownership. Together with a couple of owners I bought for example the brother of MJT Nevados, who became World Champion in Zangersheide as a 7-year-old and last year won Team Gold at the EC in Rotterdam. We also purchased a brother and sister of Conrad de Hus, who I rode to the Vice European Title in Aachen. The foals we’re now investing in and the mares I use for breeding all have a link to my sport career and that’s the basis of my breeding programme. There are breeders who have far more knowledge of bloodlines than I do. I basically rely on the sires and dams I have ridden myself or their direct relatives, because they are the ones I know best.

Is it about sentiment?

Totally! Coree won the GP of Aachen, Conrad de Hus won Silver at the EC in Aachen. How could anyone not want a foal from this combination? And yes, there’s an enormous sentimental value attached to such a foal. In combination too with the owners who share the same sentiment. That is so great about our breeding and implies there is no pressure involved. Breeding is a shared passion that makes us hope and dream. We have a realistic approach though, maybe in three to four years’ time we’ll wake up to disappointment because we have to acknowledge it didn’t turn out so well? Or that the dream failed to materialise. But in the meantime hope and expectations bring good vibes (smiles). I’m fortunate that I’m surrounded by experts with far more knowledge and knowhow about it than I have. I often seek advice from my good friend Gilles Botton of Haras de Hus, for example.

Gregory and Coree won the GP of Aachen

Even then I do realise that breeding will always be something of a lottery. This is the rider speaking in me, not the breeder. Being a rider I want horses for five-star competitions. So for how many, or more realistically, how few foals is that achievable? It’s a probability calculation one shouldn’t make. Breeding has become a passion and that’s the main thing. What also encouraged me is that I’ve had many 6- and 7-year-olds under saddle throughout my career and managed to take them to the highest level. At the age of six, seven you get a fair idea of their capability and I’ve often wondered how these horses jumped when they were three and four. But I didn’t know that because when they were that age I didn’t know them. When you have a top-class horse under saddle people frequently comment they had recognised their talent at a very young age. That intrigued me, and even more so the question: is that possible?

You tell me, is that possible?

I’m working on it. I have resolved to keep the horses from my breeding long enough to find out. The good ones as well as the doubtful cases, because I intend to experience that evolution: how does a 2-year-old perform in free-jumping? And how as a 3-year-old? Or as a 4- and 5-year-old? I’m keen to discover if that shows up a linear development. Everything is recorded on video and each foal has its own video file. My initial conclusion is that the first free jumps are an important indication of how they jump under saddle later in life. I’ve watched the 2-year-olds a few times in free-jumping under calm and relaxed conditions. Twice when they had just turned two and twice at the end of that year. Very straightforward and natural, because I want to find out what their intrinsic aptitude is. That generally remains the same. You can recognise their style in free-jumping later on under saddle too. To make things clear, that says nothing about character, canter, mouth etc. It’s a cliché, but being a rider I’m very much aware: it’s a long journey. I'm familiar with most of the stallions and mares I breed with and that's my starting point, although I (still) don’t know how certain lines breed across multiple generations. It takes an experienced breeder to know that (smiles). I do believe in genetics and how specific aspects and characteristics show up in a lineage. But I still haven’t got that knowhow. All I can do is base my breeding on the sire and dam. And even then, let me tell you what’s so great about breeding? The unpredictability. Even the best genes and knowledge don’t give you certainty. That’s the same for breeders and riders alike. As a breeder you’re convinced that you’ve crossed the best genes, but you get neither certainty nor guarantee. It works the same way for us riders. Last year I purchased a 4-year-old. I’m completely smitten with him and rode him myself at the Sunshine Tour early this year. But what can you infer from a 5-year-old ? What’s he going to be like five years from now? It's all about hope and expectations but you don’t really know. You don’t know from a breeder’s perspective but neither from a rider’s perspective. Otherwise it would be too easy.

Quel Homme de Hus (Quidam de Revel), with whom Jérôme Guery was part of our Golden EC Team last year, I tried as a 7-year-old but let him go. In my view it wasn’t a true sport horse, a bit slow too. Not much later he triumphs in the GCT GP of Mexico. That horse proved me wrong. At that same time I had Conrad de Hus, a world-class horse, and perhaps I subconsciously used him as a benchmark? So now Quel Homme de Hus turns out to be a world-class horse too.

Charmeur de la Marchette Z

Do coincidence and luck play a major part?

Always. Although it all begins with intrinsic quality. The foal needs to have the talent and then lots of other factors play a role too. And those real top horses you see on TV every week, perhaps I should say saw, are the exceptions. From my stables I’m thinking of Coree, Conrad, Forlap, Cortez. Those are exceptional in all respects. They are natural geniuses and as with mankind, those are far and few between. Breeders should not be too fixated on that. That definitely applies to me. Sure, I want to breed horses for winning in Aachen, but this is me dreaming out loud. Succeeding in breeding a two-star GP horse is already quite an achievement, those are good-quality horses as well. There are loads of good football players, but just one Ronaldo, one Messi. Trying to emulate that as a football player leads to nothing but frustration.

Can you read something into a newborn foal?

No, nothing at all. My knowledge is not up to par yet. I say what everybody says: oh, what a lovely foal (smiles). I own a fair few foals together with Gilles Botton and he is quite adept at making an anatomical analysis of a foal. Not my forte at all. What I have learned by now is that there are two kinds: those who have the knowledge and those who proclaim to have it. Just to make it clear, I don't. I won’t judge them until I have seen them in free-jumping. And even then I won’t assess their model but their technique. Well, like I said, I have committed myself to breeding and share that with passionate and professional people. It’s fun as well as an experiment. And so far it costs a lot of money. Presently, my breeding is costing money. From an economical point of view you’re better advised to buy a 3-year-old.

Can you give us an idea of costs involved?

I am my own manager and do my own bookkeeping, but it soon runs up to an average € 10,000 per foal (including embryo transfer).

So that’s quite a lot?

I reckon that breeders, luckily, do not include all the expenses. For stud services I charge between € 1,000 and € 3,000. Then there is the write-off on the mare. Flushing embryos comes at €3,000. Assume that one out of two transfers is a success. You also have the surrogate mare who costs around € 1,500 a year. Don’t forget all the transport, the assistants that have to be paid. Losing a foal or a 2-year-old because of bad X-rays. If you really tot up all the costs you’re effectively looking at an average cost price of € 10,000. So what’s the better option? Buying the very best 4-year-old for € 100,000 or breed ten foals for € 10,000? No, you’re not into breeding for the money. Anyway, I don’t want to scare anyone off. Because now I can also appreciate the passion breeders feel. I admit, when I became Belgian Champion last year with Argentina from my father’s stud, that was indeed something special. That feeling cannot be compared with the cost price. It’s a feeling of pride money cannot buy. It's like a rider winning Aachen, there is no measure to that indescribable feeling. Also featuring in my breeder’s story is the fact that I’ll be 40 in September. It’s not that I feel old, but wouldn’t it be great if, say in about ten years’ time, I could end my career with a home-bred horse? That’s a dream, but principally I’m a realist. It would make me happy if at some point I’ll manage to breed one horse that jumps such levels.

Many breeders are grateful for the Z-Quality Auction, Z-Online Auctions and Z-Breeders’ Auction. Is there something in it for you to recover the costs?

Up till now we have done more buying than selling at the Z auction. We have entered two for the auction, although I usually keep them until they are at least three. Economically speaking it would be better to sell more foals, but for that I’m not enough of a salesman. For me selling a foal is not about wanting to cash in on € 10,000 tomorrow. It’s that dream, remember (smiles). And perhaps that is a bit odd and I might see it differently a few years from now. Like the sport, you’re not in it for the money. We need income, but I don’t do sport and breeding for financial reasons. We have already received very attractive offers for Argentina de la Marchette but she’s not going anywhere, ever. She’s in our hearts.

Another reason for not selling is that there is still so much I want to learn. If I sell all my foals I’ll never find out how they progress and it’s precisely that what appeals to me in breeding. I want to get a better understanding of how horses develop from a young age. That is so fascinating. With Coree for instance I had my doubts when I tried her. Believe me, she was complicated. When I get to know a horse like that at the age of four and five I’m probably better equipped to evaluate them. Silvana too was a horse I had never expected to turn out so well.

Nevados became World Champion at the age of seven and last year won Team Gold at the EC. Initially I wasn’t sure if he would progress to jumping 1.45m. Because he is so sensitive. He had the capacity but circumstances had to be just right. Would he do well in the arena? I handled him with great care. Until the moment when a few top horses were out of action due to injuries and Nevados had to pull his weight. The penny dropped and he jumped like he does at home. I still remember our competition in Sankt Gallen where he really convinced me. So it just goes to show that so many unknown factors play a part in a horse’s success.

What kind of education do they get?

When they’re 2-year-olds we bring them in for ten days and introduce them to free-jumping about four times or so. Without assessing them. We repeat that at the end of the year and then carry out a first selection. Who gets to stay on over winter and who is going to leave? They are introduced to the saddle as 3-year-olds and then it’s off to the field in the spring. Their proper education starts when they’re 4-year-olds. Either here at home or I outsource them to third parties. As a rule I don’t have the time for it myself, although I have slightly more time for it right now. I’m going to spend more time on the horses from my own breeding programme. I really want to get a good feel of them over a longer period. I’m beginning to like that and who knows, it might turn into a second career?

What would the rider Wathelet tell the breeder Wathelet when discussing a dream combination?

That he should opt for Coree x Conrad de Hus because I had them both under saddle. And Coree x Sandro Boy because both horses are owned by the same person. We are now expecting a foal by Casall out of Coree and we have flushed an embryo from Nevados.

From our Belgian Champion Argentina we are expecting an embryo foal by Comme Il Faut. We have also paired Coree to Dominator 2000 Z. Taloubet Z has also been on my wish list for a long time, we have tried that but so far we haven’t succeeded. Usually I make a list of stallions I know from the sport. Dominator Z and Taloubet Z always stand out from the others. I follow my heart. I also have stallions of my own in the sport and sometimes breeders ask me for advice: my mare is like this and that, which stallion would you use? How should I know? I honestly couldn’t give a sensible answer. Aren’t those combinations always based on emotions?

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