Laffon Working To Build On ‘Head’ Start

It has been a poignant year for his mother’s family, who last summer grieved not only their own venerable patriarch but the founder of many parallel equine dynasties. Within months of Alec Head’s death, their Haras du Quesnay was being dismantled and, as a reflective young man, Fernando Laffon could not fail to sense the end of a cycle as his grandmother Criquette Head-Maarek was joined in retirement by her brother Freddy. But just as Freddy’s children Christopher and Victoria meanwhile continue in training careers of their own, so Laffon is assisting the next turn of the wheel.

Though only 23, he is already a familiar sight on the bloodstock circuit either side of the ocean. He was born to the game, as son of trainer Carlos Laffon-Parias and Criquette’s daughter Patricia. And his nascent agency, Fernando’s Horses, already features Real Madrid full-back Alvaro Odriozola among its clients. Lately, moreover, he has been shadowing a paragon of his chosen profession, David Ingordo, round the American sales in completing his education with a stint at Lane’s End.

Except, of course, with such a background Laffon understands perfectly well that one’s education with Thoroughbreds is never “complete”. Though he will always stand out from a crowd, elevated by those long limbs, Laffon scrupulously renounces any entitlement through pedigree or upbringing. If anything, in fact, that’s where he does have a “Head” start: in grasping that horses are ever here to keep us humble.

“I really have no expectations whatsoever,” he insists. “Because I’ve been taught not to have any; that any good surprise is a good surprise. I’m the last of my siblings, so have always been among older people. But in no way, shape or form am I any wiser than anyone else my age. I just try to keep quiet, be observant, and be respectful to everyone I work with. And, if I can, to make my way through the industry qualitatively and maturely.”

That said, the industry in question is entirely predicated on the principle that breeding and upbringing will show in performance-and sometimes that can apply on two legs, no less than on four. Laffon was only 12 when his father saddled Solemia (Ire) (Poliglote {GB}) to win the G1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, compounding the extraordinary race record of his maternal family. Criquette won the next two runnings with Treve (Fr) (Motivator {GB}); and had earlier won with Three Troikas (Fr) (Lyphard), one of four Arc winners ridden by her brother. Freddy duly matched the quartet saddled by their father, whose own father William had in turn trained two.

“I feel very lucky to have been raised in the centre of racing: Chantilly,” Laffon acknowledges. “Growing up, I never really grasped the importance of my great-grandfather’s name. His daughter became my mentor, but first and foremost she was my grandmother. But by the time I got out of college, and knew what area of the industry I wanted to be involved in, I started to realize how critical he had been, and who he was, and the love for the animal that he had. And as the years goes by, I’m sure I’ll also find myself looking back on things that my dad has said or done, things I heard or saw as a kid falling into place with my own experiences. I’m going to have to make my name for myself, as obvious as that is. But those memories are always going to be there, in the back of your mind, giving you an edge.”

That kind of heritage, admittedly, can sometimes prove a double-edged sword. In this business you often see successor generations losing their way because they never sampled different ways of doing things elsewhere. So it feels very wholesome that Laffon has broadened his horizons, not just at Reading University/Henley Business School (plus a desk job in Geneva), but in taking the Irish National Stud course and learning the agency ropes under Tom Goff. He feels a huge debt to both; and now here he is in Kentucky.

“It’s definitely something you have to do: experience different schools, understand the different ways that horses are managed, land is managed,” Laffon says. “From the very early morning training routines I once knew, growing up, it’s so different over here. And I really acknowledge the privileged situation I’m in here, with the Farish family, it’s an absolutely fantastic organisation.”

And the timing could not have been better, allowing such a young man already to have been on neck-slapping terms not with just Treve but now also with Flightline (Tapit).

“Oh, everything that’s happened since I got here is a blessing, really,” Laffon enthuses. “Joining at such an important time in the farm’s history, in any horseman’s career really, was really something special. Being able to witness greatness, and the upcoming path for him, is so exciting.”

Given Alec Head’s example, it would be fitting if Laffon could build on this transatlantic foundation to renew the kind of genetic transfusion so culpably neglected in recent times.

“Yes, my great-grandfather brought a lot of pedigrees over here and, most importantly, brought them back to Europe as well,” he agrees. “When he was surrounded with stallions such as Riverman and Lyphard and Anabaa and Mr. Sidney, it was all about exposing them to different markets, different methods of racing. And that’s kind of been lost. People now want certainty, whereas before it was a gamble that either paid off or didn’t.

“But now that we’re seeing such improvement in the way Americans look at turf racing, I think there are definitely opportunities for working both continents at once; in fact, I intend to do so. And also for reconciling the racing, acknowledging that horses here are definitely different, they’re bigger, and speed out of the gate is crucial. And the nutrition program is completely different. However I was shocked by the amount of European pedigree I have found, both on the farms and at the sales. So these horses can be super versatile, and exposing myself to both is a necessity.”

But you certainly learn fast in the Bluegrass. Laffon equates trying to keep up with Ingordo, round a single September Sale, with three full years on the European circuit. Again, it’s about keeping humble–and keeping eyes and ears open.

“I’ve been raised in a very traditional manner,” Laffon emphasizes. “I just want to do right by me, and my clients, and the people I work with. Because in the end it’s a game of honesty and trust. My end goal has always been to breed, which is something I’ve undertaken already back in Europe, with fillies in training and newly purchased mares.”

The commercial yearling represents a valuable new dimension for Laffon, the clienteles of father and grandmother alike having largely been owner-breeders.

“It’s helped to evolve the way I see things,” he says. “You’re not looking at the perfect horse, only at a certain stage of maturity, and asking yourself what improvement you can get from them. And I think that comes down to just understanding that every individual in your barn has different qualities. Spotting those is what sets apart trainers like my father and grandmother from others.”

With that old school background, it feels positive that Laffon should have joined forces with another young man from a very different world. For Odriozola, equally, it must have been refreshing to encounter someone who knew so much about racing, and plenty about rugby, but very little about soccer. They met when Odriozola, attending the Arc, was invited (as a fellow Spaniard) to visit his father’s yard.

“Alvaro has sure made an impression, since the beginning,” Laffon says. “He’s so eager towards the game we all love, passionate and knowledgeable. He and I are just on the same wavelength, we’re friends before anything else, and both happen to share this unconditional love of the horse in its entirety. Spain is a small country, racing-wise, but any horseman or racing fan must experience Madrid La Zarzuela racetrack, architecturally it’s one of the most beautiful in Europe. The quality of racing is without a doubt picking up. And that’s one of the beautiful things I admire about Alvaro, that he’s willing just to give back to the industry he so loves, in his country. He wants to breed, so has bought a few young fillies for racing: with Ramon Avial in San Sebastian, in Chantilly with Dad, but also at Joseph O’Brien’s in Co. Kilkenny.”

Since establishing that link with Odriozola, a couple of years ago, Laffon has also assisted his grandmother in matings and stud management, and meanwhile built a few partnerships among friends and clients.

“I want a very close relationship with anyone I work with,” he stresses. “To me, it’s not about putting yourself out there and buying the most horses you can, but about building trust with those you want to buy for.”

We’re plainly talking to a pretty cosmopolitan young man here. Laffon went to school in England, his genes are French and Spanish, and he has embraced a career where his surname resonates internationally at Hall of Fame level. Yet he knows that he has barely scratched the surface; that even in our narrow walk of life, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be discovered.

“I think the world is both a big place and a small place,” he suggests. “I want to go to many different places, discover many different cultures. It’s such a short time that we have to experience everything. And that’s what this industry gives us. One day you’re in Keeneland, the next you’re at the Magic Millions. It’s a beautiful thing. We’re so lucky to do what we love. There’s no words to describe it: how this job that takes every single day of every week, every single hour of every day, but makes us proud just to be waking up and working hard.”

And perhaps it is that precocious insight–as much as any connections, any inherited lore–that represents Laffon’s most precious family legacy.

“Yes, of course, having an ‘in’ is a positive,” he accepts. “In terms of the way I can look at and understand the animal, it’s been great to have been brought up with a ‘second nature’ type of outlook. But one of the things I love about this industry is that it’s really open to any hardworking person. If you have the drive, you can go anywhere: people will never overlook you. And that’s why I wanted to come here. In America people are very outgoing: starting out in business, they get themselves heard. Obviously my great-grandfather did a lot here, and his name is very well regarded. But I really wanted to make my own way, a fresh start.

“In breeding, there’s always progression. Change will always occur: not only in the way I do things, but in the way everyone does. So it’s about adapting. A breeder has to be a seller, has to understand how the market works and how it may change. That’s why coming here, and being exposed to all this, it’s really the best thing I could do.”

The post Laffon Working To Build On ‘Head’ Start appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.