La Grelee


In our continuing attempt to include as many international mares as possible on our Reine-de-Course list, we find that we have neglected the stud of one of France’s finest breeders, Elisabeth Couturie.  While we did, in fact, cover her great horse Right Royal, he was profiled when Quiver was named a Reine-de-Course almost 10 years ago.

Since it has been such a long time, we feel that what she wrote of this magnificent animal should be mentioned again, as it speaks to her love of horses:  “I like to think that to all the men who knew and loved him, Right Royal brought something of value to their lives.  He rests now where he was born and died, a rest that is well deserved.

“Such is the story of Right Royal, a great horse with a heart as big as himself.  I cannot help but think that with horses, it is the same as with mankind.  It is the qualities of the heart that really count the most.”  Anyone who wrote so eloquently about a beloved horse brought not only a knowledge of the breed to her contribution, but a special kind of insight into that intangible quality we call by many names – courage, bottom, and yes, heart.  So with apologies to subscribers with a special affection for Mme. Couturie’s grand horses for taking so long to include them, let us begin.

A Foundation With American Flavor

Without the intervention of the American William Chanler, there is some doubt whether or not the Couturie family would ever have ventured into Thoroughbred breeding.  Their lovely farm, Le Mesnil, complete with a chateau, had some dairy cattle and grew good vegetables, but the only horses on the place were animals kept for pleasure riding.

Chanler was looking to establish a breeding operation in France and wanted a good start for his stallion, Olympian.  Chanler believed that land which produced good dairy cattle also produced good-boned runners, so he and Jean Couturie, the future husband of Elisabeth, struck a deal.

Olympian proved no bargain and was pretty much a total flop.  However, some of the mares that Chanler sent to France were quite a different story.  Also, as Peter Willett wrote in his great book, Makers of the Modern Thoroughbred (to which this article owes much of its information), the Chanler connection proved invaluable in later years as a touchstone to other American breeders like the Widener family.

No Quantity To Speak Of, Just A Touch of Greatness Here And There

The stallion Helicon was, overall, nearly as big a flop as Olympian.  Only a moderate runner, he was at his best at 10 furlongs, winning the Hastings Plate and Redcar Welter Handicap at that distance.  He did manage to stretch out to 1 ½ miles for the North Derby at Newcastle, but no one mistook him for a classic horse.

Lurking in his pedigree, however, was the blood of Grand Duchess, the third dam of Reine-de-Course Our Lassie (Mill Reef, Blushing Groom, *Khaled, etc.)  He was also tail-male to the speed influence Bend Or, so his was a pedigree that might well have done more had his race record attracted consistently better mares.

But despite his lack of luster, the stud book as we know it today would be very different without him.  As it is said that the final tagline boils down to Galopin having sired St. Simon, it is equally true that when Helicon sired the mare Helene De Troie, dam of *La Troienne and Adargatis, he too became immortal. And he did even more –  also getting the mare La Grelee, of which Madame Couturie wrote, “She bred us nothing but classic animals.”

The Reject

La Grelee was the proverbial accident that happened because Jean Couturie was, like his wife, soft-hearted.  From one of the first mares that Chanler sent to France, Simper, descended the mare Grignouse.  In 1918 she produced a terribly crooked foal to the cover of Helicon and Chanler decreed that she be destroyed.

Couturie pled for her life and Chanler gave in but would not take any money for the crippled filly, since he was sure she was totally worthless.  This ‘worthless’ individual turned out to be La Grelee, the classic producer and  sixth dam of Ouija Board.

The Best Offspring

La Grelee’s finest son was the Rabelais colt Rialto.  Winner of the (now) Group 1 Prix d’Ispahan and second in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe we find him today most frequently via Wild Risk, which means he is everywhere, as Wild Risk is in the pedigree of Unbridled.  Rialto also sired Sif, dam of Sicambre, sire of Prix Ganay and D. C. International winner Diatome, Belmont winner Celtic Ash and broodmare sire of  Epsom Derby winner *Sea-Bird.  Sicambre also appears in the pedigree of recently-retired Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.

In addition to Rialto, La Grelee got French One Thousand Guineas winner Roahouga, who sadly did not advance the family, and classic placed Romeo and Phebe in addition to Prix d’Ispahan winner Alycon.

Phebe’s branch of the family is responsible for such standouts as Washington D. C. International winner and French champion Argument and Del Mar Oaks (G1) winner Famous Digger.

Anywhere, Any Time

If there is one quality that best describes this group of horses, it is “international”.  Few families can claim so many high-class individuals in so many diverse nations.

Naturally there are many good French horses like Rex Magna and Tahiti II, but there are also major winners in the U. S. like Famous Digger, Approach The Bench and of course Ouija Board.  We find a huge Australian contingent, led by champion Kingstown Town and there are champions in Italy (Ibn Bey), Spain (Cumbrales [IRE]), and England (Owington).

Like his close relation Ouija Board (who has won or placed in races everywhere from Hong Kong to Texas), Ibn Bey was a real glob-trotter. In addition to his Italian championship, he was a champion in Germany and also ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on dirt.

Teleprompter, though a gelding and unable to help the family line, was nonetheless a fan favorite and his win in the Arlington Million was a most popular one.  But mares like his half sister Rosia Bay have kept the family strong, and there are many young mares who suggest that it will stay that way for years to come.

Ouija Board all by herself is a prime prospect, and though her dam died in 2002, she has a producing daughter in Draft Board by Rainbow Quest which is currently based in Germany and also an Inchinor daughter who is based in Ireland.

The Derby Stud first became involved with Le Mesnil when the 18th Lord Derby was named British ambassador to France in 1918.  He boarded his mares with the Couturies and thus established a relationship that later resulted in a trade which proved most fortuitous to the English breeder.

Lord Derby swapped a half sister to the great runner Alycidon for Gradisca, the dam of French Oaks winner Tahiti II.  Gradisca would later become the fourth dam of Ouija Board.

The Pedigree of La Grelee

La Grelee is a member of the No. 12 family (one of the Royal Mare families), via the 12-B (Duchess Diamond) branch.  As was previously noted in our discussion of her sire, Helicon, La Grelee is tail-male to Bend Or, himself tail-male to Stockwell, “the Emperor of stallions”.

She has 13 close-in lines of Pocahontas (1837), all via sons Stockwell, King Tom and Rataplan.  She is also inbred to Alice Hawthorn x4 (Thormanby x3/Lady Hawthorn); to Banter x5 (Touchstone x2/Jocose x3) and her dam Grignouse is inbred to Queen Mary x4 (Bonnie Scotland x2/Blinkhoolie/Haricot).  Finally, there are no less than eight crosses of Beeswing, six via Newminster and two via Honeysuckle and four of Guiccioli, three via Birdcatcher and one via Faugh-A-Ballagh.

This takes us to the very genesis of the breed and intensifies all the best of it, laying down a wondrous patch of primordial genes from whence a dynasty emerged.  All because of a kind man who could not bear to see a crooked filly destroyed.

A Most Unique Woman

Elisabeth Couturie was ahead of her time in many ways.  Carrying on alone after her husband’s death in 1948, Elisabeth continued to make the name of Le Mesnil shine not only in French racing but around the world.

A proponent of such advanced ideas as good nutrition for horses, experimenting in breeding white Thoroughbreds, tracking genes and scolding breeders for ‘going commercial’ and not breeding for true classic horses, she sounds very much like she would fit in today.

One of her more radical ideas was that all good horses should be able to be hurdlers even if they were never asked to go over fences.  And to this day, soundness is found in families where ‘chasers excel.  Thus when one thinks of all the traveling that Ouija Board has done, we see Mme. Couturie’s handiwork come to life in a most modern way.  This is a woman we would very much like to have known!

New Reines-de-Course

New members of this elite family named Reines-de-Course thanks in large part to the pivotal part that Ouija Board has played in recent international racing are:  La Grelee; Phebe, Philomela, Galatina, Gradisca, Ouija, and Rosia Bay.  This family is both classic and female dominated.  It is better to have a filly from this family as a producer than to stand a stallion from its members.

One day in the not-too-distant future, we hope to re-visit this family to add Ouija Board herself.  We are not at this stage of our lives easily impressed, but the race that Ouija Board ran in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf is one we will long remember.

Family 12-B