It’s only been a decade since Murray and Shirley Popplewell started breeding Arabian horses in earnest, yet their farm has grown from modest beginnings into a virtual magnet for Arabian trainers and bloodstock agents from all over the world. What is the big attraction? What makes people travel to Saskatoon? It’s not magic, but it may as well be. The Popplewell’s started buying well bred, national award-winning horses in 2000 and have been making astute breeding decisions from the start. The results are a high percentage of quality, world competitive Arabian horses with matching pedigrees … something every good breeder wants to own, and every good trainer wants at the end of their lead. The first horses bred by Popplewell’s in 1999 were Regional Top Fives. By 2001 they had produced several that were eventual Regional Champions and Reserves.
In 2002 the couple had their first Canadian National Top Ten with a horse that they bought, a Futurity Filly winner named TF Falconsimprint.
“It was about this time that Shirley and I made the decision to make Rae-Dawn more visible,” says Murray. “To that end, Claudinei Machado came to work for us as a full time trainer at the farm. Later in 2003 a prime location for stabling at the Canadian Nationals in Regina opened up and we took it. It’s proven to be an outstanding way to mingle and connect with owners and breeders from all over the world.”
Popplewell’s began to seriously interact with Arabian horse owners, to make new friends and to coax them to visit their farm a few hours north of the Regina Fairgrounds. Between 2007 and 2008 a great many good things happened for Murray and Shirley Popplewell and Rae-Dawn Arabians. Their carefully orchestrated breeding program started to serve notice in the national arenas. RD Jornada (Odyssey SC) was a 2007 Canadian National Top Ten Futurity Colt, and their homebred Falcon BHF daughter, RD Fabreanna, was named 2007 U.S. National Champion Yearling Sweepstakes Filly. It was a defining year for the farm, and RD Fabreanna went on to be U.S. Reserve National Champion Futurity Filly in 2009. Every bit as life altering was Popplewell’s decision to buy a colt in the spring of 2008.
“We were at the Las Vegas World Cup Show and Claudinei came running up to me and said, ‘You’ve got to see this colt!’” says Murray. “I told him that we didn’t need a colt, but he insisted.”
The colt Murray “had to see” was Bey Ambition (Regal Actor JP x Bey Shahs Lady). Murray took a careful look at his correct legs, clean throat and long neck. It was the quickest purchase he ever made. Bey Ambition won his Two-Year-Old Colt class at Las Vegas and then went on to be named 2008 Canadian Reserve National Champion in the Two-Year-Old Colt Jackpot. The obvious Canadian favorite, the crowd gave him a standing ovation when he received his award.
Rae-Dawn presented four other horses to Top Ten at the 2008 Canadian Nationals then took an entire entourage of American breeders up to Rae-Dawn Arabians to see the horses and enjoy the Popplewell’s hospitality. The trip was such an overwhelming success that they repeated it again at the Canadian Nationals in 2010, this time with the generous loan of Sam Peacemaker’s private plane.
By the summer of 2009 the whole Arabian horse world was abuzz with excitement about the new Popplewell colt. Bey Ambition was an enormous favorite for the National Futurities and he didn’t disappoint. In Canada he took Reserve National Champion and then came the larger test … the 2009 U.S. National Championships.
“I told Claudinei to show him to the crowd and go for a beautiful presentation,” Murray recalls. “The competition was so tough in that class that I hardly dared to hope for anything.” But Claudinei and Bey Ambition trotted “over the moon” and turned in the presentation of a lifetime. At the end of the day, roses were the obvious conclusion.
Having the National Champion Futurity Colt in the barn has boosted Rae-Dawn Arabians “up the ladder” a bit more and provided the opportunity for Murray and Shirley to really focus on their program and its future.
“We want to be Arabian horse breeders,” Shirley says thoughtfully. “Our initial goal was to breed Arabians and sell them as weanlings. It doesn’t happen right away. It takes time to develop a market. You have to produce a horse that people acknowledge as good, and then do that consistently. We want to breed another national champion like RD Fabreanna. She’s not simply a great champion, she’s gotten better with age and that’s important. Andy Sellman took RD Fabreanna national champion as a yearling and he did a great job of preparing and presenting her. She was also U.S. Reserve National Champion in the Filly Futurity last year. That class had to go to a tie-breaker, so she nearly won the class. It would have been so good in 2009 to have owned the National Champion Futurity Colt, Bey Ambition and, in the same year, to have bred the National Champion Futurity Filly, RD Fabreanna. It almost happened! Above and beyond the training, handling and politics of the national arena, RD Fabreanna is a very good Arabian horse that gets better with age. That’s what we want to breed.”
In 2010 RD Fabreanna went on to be Reserve Champion in the Four-year-old Mare Class at the February Scottsdale Show and U.S. Reserve National Champion Junior Halter Mare. She was not the only horse bred by the Popplewell’s to achieve 2010 U.S. National Show honors. RD Marciena (QR Marc x NW Siena Psyche), now owned by Luciano Cury, was named U.S. National Champion Sweepstakes Filly. In that same class, Murray and Shirley owned another Top Ten Filly, the DA Valentino daughter, DM Endless Romance.
Murray and Shirley understand very well that breeders cannot be collectors; that pastures and resources dwindle and horses must be sold.
“It’s nice when you sell a horse and at the next show the new owner wins,” says Murray. “They are happy and you are relieved that it has turned out well. It’s important for us to breed and sell with integrity. This isn’t about making a fast buck and getting out. On the other hand, nobody is going to pay you for your mistakes. We bought an embryo sired by a famous stallion for a lot of money and eventually ‘gifted’ the foal to a local girl. She is showing it on the local show circuit and having a great time. Every spring we have a gelding sale and sell them for very reasonable prices … as many as you’d like! We are breeding for the national level, but these geldings can go on and be good regional level contenders.”
One of the biggest problems facing the Arabian Breed currently is that people have forgotten about the breeder. The Arabian Breed is dwindling in North America and without breeders there are no registrations, and subsequently no owners or trainers.
“We have to recognize the breeder’s effort,’ says Murray. “Shows like the Las Vegas World Cup are making an effort in that direction and we’ve been doing the same at the Western Canadian Breeder’s Show. We’ve put together a sponsored $1,000 Breeder’s Cup award and often as not it’s the breeder that has put the most thought and care into their program that wins that Cup, not the one with the most money.”
Rae-Dawn produces about 15 foals per year. For the next three years Bey Ambition will have the opportunity to prove himself a sire with the Popplewell broodmares. The band includes Mi Morena (Marwan AlShaqab x Ysabela by Parys El Jamaal), Canadian and U.S. National Top Ten Futurity Filly and Canadian Reserve National Champion Two-Year-Old and the Concensus daughter WV Lexus, a three-time Region 17 Champion and Canadian Top Ten Halter mare. Western Canadian Breeder’s Champion and two-time Canadian National Top Ten, RD Arietta Bay (Baywatch V++), and her dam, TF Falconsimprint (Falcon BHF) are in the group, as well as Regional Champions and National Top Ten winners SA Magic Karma (Magic Dream CAHR) and Enchantress (Magic Enchantment). Embryo transfers from famous mares like the five-time National and Reserve National Champion Mare, NW Siena Psyche (Padrons Psyche), and HL Infactuation (LF Fifth Avenue), six-times National Top Ten and Canadian Reserve National Champion Futurity Filly, add glamour and excitement to the mix.
In 2011 Rae-Dawn Arabians is expecting 15 foals from their own mares and via embryos from a stunning set of national champion and national champion producing mares. Included in this impressive group are National Champion Serenata Eljamaal, dam of the U.S. Reserve National Champion Sweepstakes Filly, True Desire LL; U.S. National Top Ten RD Challs Angel; National Champion RD Fabreanna and National Champion Veronica GA, dam of three national winners: SF Veraz, PCF Vision and SF Sir Real. Also in the mix are the famous Falcon BHF granddaughter, National Champion Dulcinea BHF; Felicia RLC?(*Shael Dream Desert x Camelia K by Donatello K), the 2010 Las Vegas World Cup?Supreme Champion/Gold Junior Mare, and the beautiful show fillies, Cajun Princess ROA and Satin Chall LL.
“We love to breed the horses and when the economy turns around we want to have inventory,’ says Murray. “We also have bred out to stallions like National Champions Pyro Thyme SA, DA Valentino, and Falcon BHF. It lends credibility and though we believe wholeheartedly in Bey Ambition, we also think it’s critically important to use the best in the breed.”
For the past few winters the Popplewell’s have been making changes to their satellite farm in Scottsdale, Arizona, the perfect complement to their farm in Saskatoon. “We bought the Scottsdale property to have a marketplace,” says Murray. Popplewell’s have a facility within minutes of Westworld, including a new indoor show room for their horses, anticipating those occasional winter days in Scottsdale when it’s not sunny and perfect. There, people can sit in comfort while horses are shown in a well-lit and glamorous atmosphere.
“Buying horses is about impulse and the atmosphere is very important,” Murray says. “It’s about the right environment and the right presentation.”
It’s all about the right horses too, and the Popplewell’s understand that part of the game very well indeed.