Waleed ben Zaied: "As a breeder, the most important thing is to love your horses for who they are"


Waleed ben Zaied: "As a breeder, the most important thing is to love your horses for who they are"

Present on the European, Middle Eastern and North African stages, the Écurie Qardabiyah was recently in the spotlight at Bordeaux. Indeed, Zafraan Qardabiyah won on his debut there. Hailing from Libya, owner-breeder Waleed Ben Zaied has agreed to answer our questions.

JDG Arabians. – Were you surprised by Zafraan Qardabiyah's winning debut?

Waleed Ben Zaied – I was expecting a good result as the horse has ability and he had been well conditioned by his trainer. Jean de Mieulle has always liked him. He thinks that he will be even better over longer trips given his pedigree, and with particular relevance to the distaff side. I bought Ouahhaja (Hamza), the grandam, in Tunisia.  I then sold her on to the United Arab Emirates (UAE): as Sheikh Sultan was looking for a PA horse devoid of French or US bloodlines in order to meet the criteria of the Heritage Arabian Racing Club (HARC) which he had founded. One of the mare’s offspring, Marwa W'rsan (Maymoun W'rsan), raced in the UAE under the banner of W'rsan Stables for trainer Jaci Wickham.

Zafraan Qardabiyah is the first foal of Intisar Qardabiyah. Why did you choose to breed her to the stallion Majd Al Arab?

We are indeed talking about the first foal of Intisar Qardabiyah (Akbar) to run in France, and in Europe for that matter. Another of her products was sold to the UAE. Breeding a mare by Akbar (Djelfor) to Majd Al Arab (Amer) represents a good cross. Mahabb (Tahar de Candelon) is another stallion which we have used, but the quality of his semen wasn’t very good. We weren’t very lucky. It's a shame because the Mahabb/Akbar cross is a proven one. We will continue to try to use it. Intisar is due to be bred to Al Mamun Monlau (Munjiz).

Zafraan Qardabiyah is trained by a young Frenchman, Jean de Mieulle. What prompted your choice of trainer?

Primarily, because he received a good grounding from his uncle, Alban, who is a very good trainer. Some professionals, given the very large strings at their disposal, don't give the horses the attention I expect from them. I’ve come across a good combination: namely a young talented trainer who prizes quality over quantity. So we will send him horses and he will act accordingly. Furthermore, Jean de Mieulle has a very good record to date as he is nearing the six winner mark from 25 runners this season. He takes good care of the horses – and this also applies to the way he oversees his own operation. As already stated, he prefers quality to quantity and so the potential of the horses is exploited to better effect. He’s really dedicated to his profession, and I think he has potential. His excellent training track doesn't freeze over, which is also the case with some British facilities. So he can train even in very cold weather. That's a real plus. Being based in Normandy means that his stable is not that far from my home. This makes visits to the stable that much easier.

How long has Qardabiyah been in existence?

It took off in France in the 2009-2010 period with the launch of our broodmare band. This was the beginning of our project. The foundations of our breeding operation entailed trawling into Tunisian bloodlines – some of which are associated with the families of Gr1 PA winners. We also have a mare of Russian origin, Valuta Khan (Depozit). She has produced Lamet Shamel (Af Albahar), a winner on her debut at Mons last year. In February, still at Mons, she ran second to the Gr1 PA class performer Mashhur Al Khalediah (Jalnar Al Khalidiah). Lastly, she found only the male horses too strong for her in the Prix de Carthage (Gr2 PA) at Toulouse. We run horses in Sweden, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and England, and achieve some good results to boot.

Can you elaborate on your best horses?

Bachair Al Qardabiyah (Dormane), second to Mahess du Soleil (Dahess) in the Shadwell Arabian Derby (Gr1 PA) at Newmarket (2015), springs to mind. His trainer then made the mistake of running her up too soon in the Qatar Arabian Trophy des Juments (Gr1 PA) during the Arc de Triomphe week-end.

Sheimah Qardabiyah (Dahess) is out of a mare who has the paternity of our Tunisian-bred stallion Chahata (Hosni). She has won some good races in three different countries: Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. She has since joined our broodmare band, and has produced a very attractive colt by Jaafer Asf (Amer). Christened Dargees, he is on the verge of going into training. We also sell foals to the UAE, Qatar and the Sultanate of Oman. Many of our homebreds are sold before reaching the racecourse. A considerable number of the horses in our first crop, as already stated, were sold to Sheikh Sultan. We also had a very good PA mare, Turkia (Halim), and a Gr1 PA winner in Tunisia.  We’ve had to select which horses to retain as we can’t keep them all. I’m somewhat sold on the idea of introducing ‘fresh’ blood, and selling on those horses which are capable of shining for their new owners. However, I only sell healthy horses. If a horse has a problem, he remains in his box, and there’s the alternative outlet of selling horses for companionship purposes.

Your breeding operation is situated in the Manche region at the Château du Bouillon. Why did you choose France?

I chose France because I love Normandy. Above all, I enjoyed going there on holiday but it’s also a great environment in which to breed horses. Traditionally, PA studs are located in the South of France, but they’re also situated there for historical/transport reasons. Other factors that governed this were the ‘trade links’ with the Maghreb countries, plus the presence of Algerians and Tunisians... The Normandy climate and pastures are ideal for horses. It's not that far from England either. Lastly, the best PA races are to be found in France. Of course, some of the more richly endowed races take place in the Middle East, but the French PA races are unique.  

How many mares and stallions do you have on site?

We have about eight mares, six yearlings and four horses in pre-training. I don't really keep any stallions, but have retained frozen semen samples from old Tunisian bloodlines, and namely those of the stallions Chahata (Hosni) and Cheikh El Arab (Dynamite III). The former, still based in Tunisia, is about 30-years-old. Although the latter is dead. I sell the semen samples to the UAE and Tunisia because the duo have proved to be very good broodmare sires. They are two of the most influential stallions in Tunisia. Cheikh El Arab is notably the sire of the mare Harka, who, in turn, has produced several Group PA winners in the image of Ouassila Thabet (Akbar), the winner of the Hatta International Stakes (Gr1 PA), before going on to race in the colours of the late Sheikh Hamdan. She also foaled Nour Thabet (Dormane) – the winner of three consecutive editions of the Grand Prix de Sa Majesté le Roi Mohammed VI (Gr3 PA) This is why I want to preserve the semen of these two stallions: so as to perhaps cross them again with Tunisian lines. This could be interesting at a genetic level. I’ve already crossed Chahata with a mare from a French line. I had a good outcome and have a filly who will soon go into training with Jean de Mieulle. We'll see how she turns out. 

So you only breed for racing purposes?

I also breed Arabian show horses. I have availed myself to two bloodlines, including pure Egyptian ones, and namely the Al Amal AA (Halim Shah I) one. This family has produced some very important stallions, and which are particularly prized by the Polish National Stud, which is an institution that tends to be very conservative when it comes to the conformity of its bloodlines. I’ve also tapped into a much sought after line via Konouz El Farida (Saif Hafid). This mare has produced a beautiful foal whose coat is jet black. He’s very good looking. Alas, many show competitions have been cancelled because of the Covid-19 situation.

What prompted your choice of the name Qardabiyah?

Qardabiyah is a small town near Sirte, Libya. It was in the vicinity of this town that a battle raged (April 1915) between the Libyan and Italian armies during the Italian occupation. It marked the first time that all the Libyan tribes rose up as one against the Italians. It’s symbolic and a nice name for the stable.

How would you define your relationship with the PA horse?

The Arabian horse has been a part of my life since I was young. I also did some show jumping in my country. I’ve always had a kind of devotion to the Arabian horse, which is why I devoted a lot of time to studying the breed academically. As I really wished to immerse myself in the history and evolution through time, and with emphasis on the true origins of the breed. There are many mysteries concerning this horse, even today. No one has yet come up with a definitive answer on this topic.

What makes the Arabian horse so different, and particularly when compared to the English thoroughbred?

The Arabian horse is more robust and difficult to train. For example, it is said that horses judged in the show ring arena on their physique and gait are Arabian horses. Yet there is no real proof of this. As their build and very expressive heads tend to be more reminiscent of Persia than the Arabian Peninsula. During the Islamic expansionist period, and irrespective of whether it was the Arabian desert or Spain, or the final European battle at Poitiers, it was these very small horses which carried the warriors over very long distances.

The English thoroughbred world claims that the ancestors of the breed are the Godolphin Arabian and two other ‘Middle Easter’n stallions. However, this is difficult to prove. In fact, we tend to use the great bloodlines and maternal lines to define the different breeds of horses. However, the evidence is not irrefutable, especially with reference to all the debates concerning certain new bloodlines which have surfaced in the Arabian horse world.

Some horses are banned because of their obscure origins. Yet, fast-forwarding a couple of generations, their descendants are allowed to race and breed. It’s like refusing someone in your family but not their children. It makes no sense! As either you accept them from the outset or not at all. Then politics and sponsors come into play. Everyone has an opinion on the subject. This is prevalent when it comes to the show horse world, as some countries don’t recognise certain bloodlines or certain stallions. Purity is a subjective thing which nobody can prove.

So what should we do about this?

The most important thing as a breeder is to love your horses for who they are. You can go down the path of genetic testing, but even then you can't trace back through all the generations. Let the art of painting, poetry and history relay to us what the Arabian horse is about: how it was and how it lived at the time. Even during the period of Islamic expansion, the horses of the Arab warriors were undoubtedly crossed with other breeds during the course of their military campaigns. I’m thinking specifically of the Barb horses in the Maghreb. The Arab horse was used to wage war. It was a bit like the tank of its time. The warriors wanted to ride good looking horses, but also ones that exuded strength and stamina. This led to many Europeans importing Arabian horses such as King Wilhelm I of Germany. He created the Marbach Stud, near Stuttgart, in 1817. I have visited and studied the stud extensively. Some very specific bloodlines are preserved there which cannot be found elsewhere. These include the ‘Weil-Marbach’ descendants of Arabian horses which date from the time of King Wilhelm I. Moreover, there are also breeding operations relative to Arabian horses in Poland and Hungary, and, in particular, the Shagya Arabian, which was used primarily for military purposes. In France, Napoleon also made use of Arabian horses by seconding them to his cavalry. Returning to King Wilhelm I, he rode Purebred Arabian horses from Syria.

One gets the feeling that you’re passionate about this subject matter…

Given the help of the University of Leicester, we tried to research the oldest pictorial depictions of the Arabian horse. We also trawled through literature, poetry and religious sources... This was to build the most precise possible image of this horse, and its origins. Does it emanate from the rough and dry soil of the Sahara? Or does it originate in the greener pastures which nestle between Syria and Iraq? We cannot affirm that the origins of the Arabian horse lie in Arabia. This is a very sensitive topic.

Can you elaborate?

Imagine the impact this could have on the Arabian thoroughbred industry if, one day, the main sponsors were to withdraw their support? Besides, these generous partners organise their own races in their countries. Maybe one day they will stop sponsoring elsewhere by trumpeting: if you want to race your horses, come and do it here. The problem is that the breeders aren’t attempting build on solid ground, which otherwise would enable them to survive even without sponsorship. So I don't think this system will last forever.

When Sheikh Sultan, the founder of HARC, died, nobody took over the baton. The new generation, and the successors of the big owners, aren’t necessarily as passionate about the cause of the horse. As they have other passions and hobbies. This is something we really have to watch out for if we wish our sport to survive.

The saving grace of the English thoroughbred is that you can't create an Epsom Derby from scratch. As prestige and tradition are anchored in European racing. History is written at Paris-Longchamp. However, it's different for Arabian thoroughbreds. As there’s no deep-rooted past as denoted by these historical races. Some people tell me that I’m crazy to breed PA horses. It costs the same as an English thoroughbred. However, the latter breed has proved to be more of a money spinner, especially when good breeding lines are factored in.

However, the probability of breeding a good PA horse seems likelier?

Buying a champion and then standing him as a stallion isn’t difficult. Although breeding one is. You need luck, pedigree, physique and, finally, heart. I say this as I bought a Tunisian mare, Jedeliane (Samir),  and she foaled Zahir (Darike)  who won the Grand Prix du Président de la République (local Gr1 PA), and many other top races in Tunisia. I had another product by Darike (Dormane) out of the same mare. I sold him to an Emirati client, and the latter thought that he was acquiring a champion in the image of his brother. Furthermore, the pair were very alike physically. However, the latest offering didn’t have the ‘heart’ of his older brother and was unsuccessful as a racing prospect. It was in endurance sector that he eventually found his niche and proved successful. It’s not easy to produce a champion. It’s not something that’s easily repeated. There are also breeders with few horses and others with many. Despite this, studs with 50-60 mares at their disposal continue to buy! So why do they do this? As it isn’t easy to produce good horses, even when duplicating a formula that has already worked. So breeding horses cannot be just a business. There is a joke about this. Two people are in conversation and the first says: Do you want to become a millionaire? The other says: yes, of course. The first one retorts: you can start out as a billionaire, and horses will turn you into a millionaire.