Setting out briskly along the road leading from her exquisite colonnaded house to the complex of barns, stallion paddocks and enormous rolling broodmare pastures, she hardly looked 74. Se√±ora Victorica Roca, one of the world's leading—and positive-thinking—breeders of Thoroughbred racehorses, moved with the alert spryness that marks the middle-aged lady keeping a tight hold on what is left of energetic youth.
The tall se√±ora, dressed in slacks and a sport shirt and missing absolutely nothing as she peered through a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses, led the way carefully into a shady glade and up a cliff to the edge of a small natural pool. She peered into its depths and then, turning to one of the few foreign visitors ever invited as a houseguest at the great Argentine haras (stud farm) known as Ojo de Agua, she said slowly, "This old natural spring that produces 1,800,000 liters of irrigation water a day is the basis for the name of this perfect place. Ojo de Agua really means 'the eye of the water,' and this water has exactly the right proportion of calcium, magnesium and, I am positive, even some radioactive properties, to insure the breeding of sound horses." A wisp of a smile stole across the face of the mistress of Ojo de Agua as she added, "Argentina right now is producing the best racehorses in the world, and the best of all of them are produced here under my direction."
If the se√±ora's audience had included Great Britain's Lord Derby, France's Marcel Boussac and such dominant U.S. breeders as Arthur (Bull) Hancock, Leslie Combs, Rex Ellsworth, Hirsch Jacobs and Joe O'Farrell, none of them would have snickered very loudly. And one of them, Claiborne Farm's Bull Hancock, would have come close to taking her at her word. Last fall Bull paid $920,000 for the undefeated Argentine champion, Forli. A son of the English-bred Aristophanes (himself a son of Hyperion), Forli was bred at Ojo de Agua and sold for about $20,000 as a 2-year-old to Buenos Aires Steel Executive George Acevedo. He has won seven races, each time leading every step of the way, at distances up to a mile and seven-eighths and is now, as a 4-year-old, at Hollywood Park in the care of Trainer Charlie Whittingham. He will make his first U.S. start in May. Hancock says this handsome chestnut is the best horse to come out of Argentina in 20 years. Whittingham says he is the most perfect horse he has seen in his 40 years around the racetrack, and nearly every horseman in Argentina believes that Forli is the most wonderful horse that ever lived.
Judgment on Forli's place in history will have to wait until his racing career is over—he may, for example, meet another 4-year-old named Buckpasser this fall—and until his success as a stud can be fairly evaluated. What is already established, however, is that Argentine breeding, in the more than 70 years since it began with a few boatloads of English stock, has risen to near the top of the world market. In a country where the horse is both a way and a symbol of life and where man and his animals have acquired the stamina necessary to survive a rugged existence, this is not a great surprise. Discounting what Argentine horses have done in competition among themselves, consider what they have meant to American racing:
April 30, 1967
•In 1945 not a single Argentine-bred horse won a stakes in the U.S. In 1955 four did, and in 1965 the number was 15. Last year 19 Argentine-breds won 25 American stakes. The 19 included such now-familiar names as Moontrip, Paoluccio, Tronado and Davis II. On the last day of the long (234 days) New York season the 5-year-old Damelo II (a son of Sculptor and grandson of Tenerani) won the two-mile Display Handicap, giving Argentina the distinction of having produced the winner of the longest handicap run anywhere in the U.S. Two months earlier a nine-race Aqueduct card included 23 foreign-breds, 13 of them from Argentina.
•In 20 years Argentine-breds have accounted for some of the most prestigious U.S. stakes victories. Two of them, Talon and Miche, won the Santa Anita Handicap. The fine filly Miss Grillo won 10 stakes during 1946-49, including the mile-and-three-quarters San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita. Another victory in this race, now run on the grass, was achieved in March by Niarkos. Sensitivo won the 1962 Gallant Fox, and Rico Monte captured four handicaps, including the Whitney, in 1947. Both Mister Black and Tudor Way won the Gulf-stream Park Handicap, and in 1965 Primordial II won an upset victory in the Widener Handicap, just 10 years after El Chama (an Argentine-bred representing Venezuela) turned in an equally surprising upset in the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel.
•Although neither Talon nor Miche has produced a top runner—and the American offspring of Tatan and Arturo A. have yet to race—Endeavour II (imported in 1947) has produced winners of over $4 million, including the 1953 2-year-old champion Porterhouse; Rex Ellsworth's fine handicap star, Prove It; the filly Big Effort; and, most recently, the 1967 Santa Anita Handicap winner, Pretense. Rico Monte, sire of the good race mare Endine, has been an effective if not sensational producer, but the best of them all might have been Ellsworth's Nigromante (imported in 1957), who died at a time when his most illustrious son, Candy Spots, was making a name for himself at tracks on both coasts.
Breeders everywhere are usually cautious about where to assign the credit for the success of either an individual stallion or the operation of an entire stud farm. Leslie Combs jokes—but is serious—about his wonderful Spendthrift water, and Joe O'Farrell preaches about the mineral properties in the belt of land that runs through Ocala, Fla. Any breeder worth the price of his annual racing manual knows that one stallion can make a farm, temporarily at least, and that soil care and pasture rotation are important. Still, all will concede that the late William Woodward Sr. was right when he said many years ago, "Upon the quality of the mares depends the success of the stud."
Horse-wise Argentines have known all along that Woodward was right. And no one seems to know it better than Se√±ora Victorica Roca, who has 180 broodmares at Ojo de Agua. Concerning 120 of these she says, "I wouldn't sell one of them for all the gold in the world." The se√±ora has sold a 2-year-old Aristophanes colt to Mike Phipps for $120,000, and she estimates that the full brother of Forli that she plans to sell this fall should bring between $250,000 and $300,000. "After the sale to Mike Phipps," she says, "Tim Vigors came to me from England, and so did my countrymen Julio and Carlos Menditeguy, who were buying for Rex Ellsworth. They wanted to buy my best mares, but I was firm and told them all, 'If you lose your mares you lose everything.' "
The basis of Argentine breeding has been British bloodstock. For every French stallion or mare that made the trip to the pampas, 10 came from England. Today there are roughly 6,000 foals a year in Argentina; the country ranks second in the world to the U.S., which last year produced nearly 20,000. And the problem, similar to the situation in the States, is an excess of production. This is the belief of Breeders Luis and Pepe Duggan. "With some 10,000 mares," says former 10-goal polo player Luis, "we're obviously getting some good horses, but we're getting too many bad ones, too. Nevertheless, you cannot stop a man from sending his own horse—even if it is a bad one—to the stud if he wishes. If you do that it is the end of the game."
Arturo Bullrich, leading sales executive who supervises the auctioning of the majority of horses foaled in Argentina each year, sees a bright future for the Argentine horse, especially in the American market. "The more the U.S. goes to distance racing and to grass racing," he says, "the more interested its people will be in our product, for it is a product of a perfect climate and of a land rich in minerals." Breeder Julio Menditeguy and his brother Carlos, both former 10-goal polo players, agree. They carry 150 mares and five stallions at their Haras El Turf, some 80 miles from Buenos Aires, and brought the stallion Arturo A. to the U.S. to be syndicated by Leslie Combs. "It seems," says Julio, "that in the U.S. you breed mostly for speed because you want a quick return. Here we breed to stay, and our staying blood comes from English classic winners going many generations back. But there is no reason why a cross between your U.S. speed and our staying power should not produce an ideal horse."
It is somewhat curious that Argentines, interested as they are in staying blood and distance racing, should have so little regard for the great gains made by French breeders along these same lines. "French success on the track," says Arturo Bullrich, "does not mean success as a stallion. It seems to me that the French produce purely for better blood with no regard for the production of beauty. But in Argentina, as in England, we like good-looking horses." Se√±ora Victorica Roca agrees, despite the fact that she stands the French stallion Cardanil II along with Aristophanes at Ojo de Agua. "I am against the French," she says, "because they are guilty of excessive inbreeding and they have not the right regard for looks. Cardanil is standing here only because he produces fillies with speed, and they are ideal to be bred to Aristophanes. You see, speed must come from the mares, while stamina comes from the stallion."
Although racing has made considerable progress in Chile, Peru, Venezuela and, recently, Brazil, Argentina is still lengths ahead of other South American countries and is likely to remain so. There are more than 20 tracks in Argentina, and the best racing takes place in Buenos Aires, where crowds of more than 60,000 are not uncommon at the two major courses at San Isidro and Palermo. Racing at the former is mostly over grass, while the Palermo surfaces are dirt. At both the purses are moderate (highest, $40,000), the competition is keen and the emphasis is on distance racing, for most Argentine breeders agree that no race has much lasting significance unless it is contested at a distance between 2,500 and 3,000 meters (roughly between a mile and a half and two miles).
To raise stock for this sort of work and, hopefully, to impress U.S. buyers, many Argentine stud farms have become as selective and efficient as their counterparts in Kentucky, California and Florida. The two most impressive are the combined operation known as Comalal and Chapadmalal, about 255 miles south of B.A. and only 15 miles from the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, and Ojo de Agua, about 40 miles away.
At Comalal, where the breeding farm alone takes up more than 11,000 acres, Owners Miguel E. and Miguel A. Martinez de Hoz have 150 mares and four stallions. Of the 100 foals arriving each year, all the colts are usually sold as un-raced 2-year-olds, along with all but about 15 fillies, who are first raced and then retained for the stud. Their Argentine-bred Sideral is the country's leading stallion in number of winners, but the most famous is Court Harwell, who has topped both the English and Irish stallion lists and whose most notable son at the moment is Meadow Court, second in the Epsom Derby and St. Leger and winner of the Irish Derby in 1965.
The showplace of all, however, is Ojo de Agua, with its spectacular variety of trees and flowers, its unrivaled band of broodmares, and a mistress who wanders through her apparently limitless acreage feeding her horses carrots out of an old flower basket and making up mating lists that she has persuaded herself should produce nothing but crop after crop of future Forlis. Part of the old house in which she lives at Ojo de Agua was built more than a century ago by one of her ancestors, whose name was Pedro Luro. If the name rings a bell the reason is that Pedro Luro was also the grandfather of Trainer Horatio Luro, who won two Kentucky Derbies in three years with Decidedly and Northern Dancer.
A few classically bred mares were imported from England to Ojo de Agua in 1878, and the foundation of the stud was assured with the arrival of such celebrated stallions as Cyllene and, later, Congreve. In the farm's cemetery, where only mares who have produced winners of Argentine classics are permitted to be buried, there are already more than 40 tombstones. "Twelve of the 20 broodmares officially considered as the foundation mares of all Argentine breeding came from this stud," says Se√±ora Victorica Roca proudly. While praising her own stock, the se√±ora is just as quick to put a not-so-gentle knock on her competitors. For example, when the success of the stallions at Comalal is mentioned, she stiffens immediately and says, "I'm against Sideral, because I'm against a horse who just produces winners. He may have 30 or more winners, but what about the classics? I am in favor of an Aristophanes, who may produce fewer winners but who produces a champion like Forli. Just look at Aristophanes! He has the best of all Hyperion characteristics—an eye the same color as his coat, roast chestnut."
Since the death of Don Julio Victorica Roca 13 years ago, his widow has guided Ojo de Agua with a firm hand. An advocate of many of Tesio's breeding theories, she still relies mostly on a set of her own rules for evaluating a horse. "Conformation, soundness and pedigree are important, in that order," she said. "I put conformation on top because I like the look of a good horse. Not only his overall structures—I also want a nice, clear eye and an attractive head. Soundness comes next, because only by mating two sound animals can you expect a sound offspring. If one or the other is not sound you multiply your chances of producing an unsound foal. This brings us to pedigree. It is very, very important, yes, but if the horses with the best pedigrees in the world have poor conformation or are unsound, I want nothing to do with them. In other words, I want the best horses, and if they aren't the best I don't want them."
Later, in the se√±ora's dining room, there was enough silver to furnish a combined Tiffany and Cartier display. "The big silver cups in here are duplicates for the breeders," she said, "and what you are now looking at are 19 Gran Premio Nacional cups. No other stud in Argentina has ever won more than four!"
"Do you have any opinions about racing in the U.S.?" she was asked.
"I know nothing whatsoever about your racing or your breeding," she said, "except that it is bound to improve if you continue to import horses from Ojo de Agua. I also know you have a race there called the Kentucky Derby."
"Did you know, then, that your distant cousin, Horatio Luro, trained two winners of the Kentucky Derby?"
Se√±ora Victorica Roca rose from the table. The glow from the big fire illuminated a smile she did not try to conceal as she replied, "I always thought Horatio was a nice boy."