The Breeding of the Toro Bravo
I was recently commissioned by Running Of The Bulls, Inc. – the United States’ largest tour operator to Pamplona for its annual Fiesta de San Fermín – to provide some information for their clients on the bulls themselves.
I was asked for a light, introductory, Hall of Fame of Bulls in Pamplona. However, since I also work with the industry body the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, I took this article more seriously than they expected. As a result, by the time I was halfway through writing I was already several thousand words over my limit…
The full written version is here, minus a series of specially filmed interviews I did for them around the world which are available only on their site, www.runningofthebulls.com.
In it I discuss about a dozen ganaderías, ranches that breed bulls registered under Spanish law as being of the fighting bull ‘race’.
However, there are many, many more. According to the Ministry of Culture’s latest figures, published Spring 2018, there are 1,329 ganaderas de reses de lidia, ‘breeders of fighting cattle’, in their registry.
These supplied the past season’s 1,553 bullfights of all varieties. These include novilladas with novice matadors, rejoneo from horseback and full corridas in which 1,2 or 3 full matadors face 6 full-sized toros bravos, ‘brave bulls’, and various combinations of these types of event.
(These combinations can lead to media confusion. Although there were only 387 pure corridas last year, there were a further 370 events in which at least one matador faced a toro bravo as part of the event.)
These were serviced by the 10,959 licensed bullfighting professionals in Spain, 825 of them being matadors.
And this is all alongside the 17,920 popular festivals involving cattle such as the encierros, ‘bull-runs’, for which Pamplona is famed.
It is a big thing, this mundo de los toros, ‘world of the bulls’.
Disclaimer: Something I added to the original article was a piece of advice to those seeking anything but the most general knowledge of the various types, breeds, bloodlines and individual ranches of bulls:
To quote the late, great Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, “nobody knows anything.”
By which I mean that anyone who gives anything but the broadest of advice about how an encierro, or a corrida, of bulls will behave based solely on where they came from is talking 90-proof bull in the other sense of the word ‘bull’.
I would add here that I do not go into anything like the detail required to fully get to grips with this subject. This is a not even a pen-portrait but a sketch, and a crude one at that, filled with more personal anecdote than genealogical and genetic data. If you want to read something serious then learn Spanish. (Or, indeed, French, where there may soon be more bullfights than in Spain.)
The disclaimer to one side, there are traits that tend to crop up time after time, from a combination of genetics and environment – nature and nurture – singular to a ranch and its history and practices from breeding selection down to nutrition and handling.
For those who want to know about the ancient history of how the Spanish fighting bull came about, I talk on that subject elsewhere. However, the fighting bull is now is a very much a legally defined grouping of cattle with a common history and genetic inheritance.
This ‘group’, the toro de lidia, ‘fighting bull’ – or less formally, toro bravo, ‘brave bull’ – is legally divided into five extant castas, ‘castes’, or foundational ‘types’. These are further divided into sub-types, called encastes, or ‘breeds’, some ranches like Miura being so historic that they have become a breed in themselves. (The Jijona type is extinct, so is not covered at all.)
N.B. I keep saying ‘legally’ not just to cover my own back – such matters are disputed – but also because the above distinctions really are a matter of national law, The most recent statement of which is the Real Decreto 60/2001, de 26 de enero, sobre prototipo racial de la raza bovina de lidia, ‘Royal Decree 60 / 2001, of the 26th of January, about racial prototype of the race of fighting cattle.’
Type 1: Cabrera
The only breed today that has any significant quantities of this bloodline is that of the famous ranch of the Miura family. Founded in 1842, no other ranch has so consistently sent bulls to Pamplona.
I cannot even remember how I personally first heard of the Miura bulls, they always seem to have been in my consciousness, so mythically entrenched in the world of the bulls are they.
The fearsome myth of the Miuras has somewhat outgrown the reality of the cattle, although the reality is still formidable enough. As Hemingway described them in Death In The Afternoon, his 1932 introduction to the bulls, “the old caste of fighting bulls raised by the sons of Don Eduardo Miura of Sevilla… the curse of all bullfighters.”
There are not many photos of their ranch, Zahariche, outside Seville, because they do not like cameras there. However, I do have these of myself from 2009 & 2010, when I was under the tutelage of the grandsons of those “sons” Hemingway mentions – the two brothers who now run the ranch, Eduardo and Antonio Miura – and a great-grandson, their matador nephew, Eduardo Dávila Miura.
Of course, I only trained with small Miuras when I was there, at most a little over five hundred pounds, as in the photo below.
Whereas my other friends, for example my very first matador teacher, the now one-eyed Juan José Padilla, has faced Miuras weighing almost three-quarters of a ton on many occasions. Like this 1,600lb tank I photographed him with in Pamplona in 2011.
(Padilla is the reason I came to Pamplona in the first place. We had been fighting on a ranch in Córdoba in Spring ’09 when he invited me up and told me he would teach me how to run the bulls. What happened is Chapter 15 of my book Into The Arena: www.intothearena.com)
Despite Spanish law saying they are on the only remaining Cabrera, there is actually a drop of blood from all five types in there, just as some Cabrera remains elsewhere. Which explains the wide variation of hide colours possible from Miura.
They have a unique look and are not only large, but that great muscularity – often the very biggest in Pamplona – is laid over large and long bones. Despite being strong, long-limbed and tall, they are sufficiently well-constructed so as to be agile in comparison to other bulls, although this is also a manifestation of a psychological disquiet. If anything they resemble the animals from another part of my life, polo ponies, because the ratio between their power-to-weight ratio and their bone-to-muscle ratio is so particular.
Their horns are correspondingly large and notably thicker than most other bulls, although they still narrow to a point.
These are not the only reasons for which they are feared in the ring. They are also highly intelligent, learning fast not to go for the lures of the capote, the pink ‘cape’ or the muleta, the more famous red cloth used in the final 15 minutes, but to search for the man.
In his autobiography, Juan Belmonte: Killer Of Bulls (trans. Leslie Charteris 1937), the father of modern bullfighting said that they were the only bull that did not close its eyes when its head inside the cape. They were always looking for the man.
They have even been referred to as ‘The Bulls Of Death’ and, although this is hyperbole, they did kill the toreros Pepete, Llusío, Espartero, Domingo Dominguín, Faustino Posadas, Pedro Carreño, Domingo del Campo and the great Manolete in 1947.
Their fame spilled out beyond the world of the bulls when Ferrucio Lamborghini, who had inherited a lucrative tractor business and a playboy’s love of speed, decided to stop buying the sports cars of Enzo Ferrari and started to make his own. He chose a raging bull as his logo in counterpoint to Ferrari’s “prancing pony” and called the world’s first supercar the Lamborghini Miura in 1966. This link has been maintained over the decades, the 2001 Lamborghini Murciélago being named by the carmaker’s new owners Audi after the unkillable animal which was pardoned in the ring in 1871 and given to the ranch as a seed bull.
One explanation for their danger in the ring is that they are bred and reared with very strong herd bonds. This works in favour of the bull-runner because when they are alone in the ring they are at their most dangerous, but when in a herd in the street they are very different: they attempt to stay together, bulldozing runners out of their path but without an urge to injure severely.
This is why they hold the speed records for the fastest encierros. However, should one become separated, a suelto, a ‘loose one’, their combination of unpredictability and intelligence with speed and strength can lead to catastrophic injury. And, even as a group, their weight and speed can dish out plenty of damage even if they don’t really ‘mean’ it.
Type 2. Gallardo
The bloodline of Gallardo similarly has one major breed remaining, that of the family of Pablo Romero, like Miura from Seville, and second only to Miura in their number of appearances in Pamplona. (The ranch was founded in 1885, 43 years after Miura.) However, by the last quarter of the 20th century, something was clearly going wrong with the bloodline – most likely inbreeding depression – and the family sold the ranch. It is still preserved under the name Partido de Resina, but they have not returned to Pamplona in quite some time.
Type 3: Navarra
As you might expect, this is the type indigenous to the region of which Pamplona is the capital. (Navarre was once a Kingdom in its own right, spanning the Pyrenees, now this side of the mountains forms an autonomous community of the Kingdom of Spain.)
In terms of bullfighting, this breed is not seen anymore (hence no photo of a male in the ring, only in the campo, and more often than not it is the females that are used in taurine events.) In terms of bull-running, it remains popular. In fact, one of the pastores, herdsmen, of the bull-run of Pamplona, Miguel Reta, breeds them on his own ranch.
RETA DE CASTA NAVARRA
I had the pleasure to run with them a couple of years ago down the hillside goat-path to the village of Falces, 35 miles from Pamplona. Down a steep incline, a razor-sharp crystalline rockface on one side and a sheer drop on the other, this is a fearsome run, even without a dozen Navarran cattle stampeding at you. Which is why less than a hundred people run it. (I am circled in blue.)
Type 4: Vazqueña
The last old, archaic rarity on the list, embodied today only by a couple of fallen or falling breeding houses.
There is Concha y Sierra, who founded their ranch in 1887.
CONCHA Y SIERRA
The most famous story about the bulls of this hierro is about the 21st of June 1917 when the great Juan Belmonte faced the bull Barbero. Watching from behind the barrier was his friend and rival, the ill-fated genius of toreo Joselito. The two of them divided Spain, their fans having to be kept apart by police for fear of riots until the death of Joselito on the horns of a bull in 1920.
On the day in question, Joselito watched Belmonte torear, and, with the pride, insight and utter lack of false modesty of the true torero, said:
“They say that I am the best, and I am. But out there today that man reinvented bullfighting.”
However, the only examples I have ever seen of these cattle are in the museum of curiosities that is the country estate of the photographer Robert Vavra outside Seville. I visited them – and him – in 2015 when I was chauffeur to the greatest among the Anglo-American bull-runners, Joe Distler, and his family.
Vavra is best known for his bestselling books on horses, but he knew more than enough about bulls too. Hence this photo of him in a bull-ring in his younger days, between the American matador, John Fulton, and Ernest Hemingway.
Speaking of Hemingway, the other great ranch that came from that bloodline were the bulls of the Duke of Veragua.
The region of Veragua in the Americas is today divided between Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panamá, but then it was an area claimed by Christopher Columbus in payment for his services to the Crown of Spain in the European discovery of that continent. In the end his grandson was granted the title of 1st Duke of Veragua in 1537.
In 1835, the 12th Duke acquired a herd of fighting bulls that had originally been the property of the Royal Family, and these bulls over time became the greatest of the 19th century. Hemingway wrote of them in 1932:
They were at the beginning of this century and for years after, among the bravest, strongest, fastest and finest looking of all the bulls of the Peninsula… I saw the last of the good bulls, the fast decay and the finish of the Veragua breed, and it was sad to watch.
There are some bulls today that claim to be this breed, however, on further inspection of the history books and the genetics it turned out to be an even more complex claim than whether or not the remains in the tomb of Christopher Colombus in the Cathedral of Seville are his or someone else’s… (Of course, the only DNA they can test those old bones against are the current Dukes of Veragua.)
There is undeniably some blood left in what was the original ranch when it was bought by the great Juan Pedro Domecq y Núñez de Villavicencio in 1930, who then moved them from their Madrid home to his finca in Andalusia in the south, Jandilla – as I discuss later – and bred them out with bulls of Conde de la Corte (which still exist and are still run and fought in Pamplona today.)
Type 5: Vistahermosa
The fifth and final type, from which 99% of modern bulls come, is that of Vistahermosa. With the exception of Miura, all the bulls you will see in Pamplona come almost entirely from this origin, named for the first Count of Vistahermosa who bought his herds and ranch from the Rivas brothers in 1774 in Dos Hermanas, less than 10 miles due south from Seville Cathedral.
Given the extensive nature of this type across the geography and history of Spain, it is, like the types, divided into breeds, and the breeds into lines, and the lines into ganaderías. The great English aficionado Michael Wigram – co-founder of the most important bullfighting magazine in Spain 6Toros6 – once drew me a map of this on a napkin in Bar Horacio in Seville – now sadly closed – and I have it to this day.
Rather than getting bogged down in the history and genealogy, or even attempting to engage each famous trunk and every great branch, I will simply choose a handful of ganaderías that are important to Pamplona and also the greater world of the bulls.
I begin with those that come from the breed of Saltillo. This is a purely personal choice: I began my bullfighting career with the cattle of Saltillo and they provided the only animal I ever killed. Named Consejote he was, up until then, the largest bull I ever caped.
Originally from one half of Vistahermosa’s herds, they changed hands a couple of times before ending up being purchased by the Marquis of Saltillo in 1845. Some were sold on to the Count of Santa Coloma, some to the Marquis of Albaserrada, but a group remained under the Saltillo name which was bought by the grandfather of my friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova, and his sadly late brother Félix.
In the photograph on the right is their family in the main courtyard of their grandfather’s Seville town house along with my own: from left to right, Enrique Moreno da la Cova y Maestre, Clive, Barbara and Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Enrique Moreno de la Cova y Ybarra, Félix Moreno de la Cova y Maestre and Isabel de Solís y Martínez Campos. (Above us are the bulls of Saltillo and also Jandilla, which the Moreno de la Cova family also owned, purchased from Isabel’s grandfather, Juan Pedro Domecq, and now owned by their cousin Borja Domecq. The hierro of Saltillo has since this photo also passed to a cousin, José Joaquín Moreno Silva.)
The two brothers, Adolfo and Victorino Martín Andres, set up their ganadería in 1953 using the letter ‘V’ as their brand in the breed-book in honour of their grandfather Venancio. They parted company in 1988, with Adolfo taking the ‘V’ with him and Victorino, confusingly taking an ‘A’ for his. Until the parting of their herds their rearing methods were the same, and they are pretty much the same since, with certain differences brought in by Victorino’s son – who trained as a veterinarian – who now runs that ranch.
Known for being tricky in the ring, yet of all the breeds of toro duro, ‘hard bull’, they are the ones who have created the greatest number of spectacular corridas in terms of the toro and torero combining in moments of unity, or harmony, of movement that is required for beauty to emerge and thus creating a work of art worth watching (all the while underlined by the fact that these bulls are not, comparatively speaking with other fighting bull breeds, ‘easy’.)
The first corrida which ever truly amazed me, and emotionally moved me as all Art should, was a corrida of Victorinos in 2007 in Seville, with a matador named El Cid and a bull named Borgoñes (which led to my 2008 article on bullfighting for Prospect, my 2009 move to Spain, my own 2010 bullfight, my 2011 book Into The Arena, and so on.)
However, having said that, I must admit to having neither fought nor run the cattle of this house. They like to stick together, which is a good thing as they are less likely to turn suelto, and have some of the confidence of other toros duros when in a group – Miura, Palha, Cebada Gago – and are more likely to knock a runner out of the way than chase him in order to kill.
One of the many great runs of my friend, mentor and co-author of The Bulls Of Pamplona Joe Distler, was with the Victorino’s in 2005, almost forty years into his running career. I’ll leave you with the photo Life magazine took of him leading them around the curve in his sleeveless red shirt above. (Even the young master-runner Tom Turley in the green and white sleeves is getting out of the way.)
JUAN PEDRO DOMECQ
From here on in I will be dealing with bulls which are uniformly – with one final exception – almost entirely from the breed of Juan Pedro Domecq, which is actually four breeders of bulls possessing the same forenames and (first) surnames as they are four generations of fathers and sons.
As mentioned, it was originally Juan Pedro Domecq y Núñez de Villavicencio who took the Madrid herds of the Duke of Veragua and crossbred them with bulls of the Conde de la Corte ranch, itself a breed and one derived from the old breed of Parladé (which, along with Saltillo, Santa Coloma and Murube form the four main foundational breeds of Vistahermosa.) However, he kept the hierro, the ‘brand’, and the divisa, ‘colours’, from Veragua despite the almost 97% elimination – according to the DNA tests – of their blood in the herd.
Those bulls changed through the breeding and selection work of his son, Juan Pedro Domecq y Diéz and his grandson, Juan Pedro Domecq y Solís, resulting in short forelegs, with horns often fine pointed at the end of a long and upturned stem, and their vast goring muscle, the morillo, so notable in relation to their overall proportions. The fearsome picture above shows this clearly.
I have heard various estimates over the years of the effect Juan Pedro Domecq y Solís and his forebears had upon the fighting bulls in Spain, the most common being that 75% of the DNA standing on hooves today is down to him, but whatever the truth – I suspect more – he was a man in terms of bull-breeding of whom it can be said, without exaggeration, that there was a before him and an after him.
This is not always considered a good thing: he made a bull that is more ‘noble’ in the Spanish sense of the word – meaning quicker to charge, straighter and longer in the charge, and more likely to follow the cape than look for the man (or, as a former soldier I knew put it, “a bloody fool, but a bloody mean fool”.)
As a result, matadors who practice their craft to create beautiful lines of interplay between human and animal bodies, whilst also having the proximity to the animal which allows the drama of these sculptures to be highlighted by risk, prefer these sorts of bulls. The critics, though, say the seeing the same matadors doing the same dance with the same ‘safe’ “McDomecq” bulls is damaging to bullfighting as an art-form.
The truth or not of that statement to one side – how successful have the choppy, dangerous and technically challenging corridas of non-Domecq bulls ever been – I can say with certainty that damaging the bullfight was not Juan Pedro Domecq y Solís’s intention.
I met him one day during the feria del caballo, ‘feria of the horse’, of his native Jerez de la Frontera in 2009 along with some three dozen other members of his family in that singularly equine town. (The old saying goes: “Are you from Jerez? Then you must be a Domecq or a horse.”) He was charming and light, speaking fluent English and expressed fascination by my work on my book Into The Arena.
“It sounds very important Alexander,” he said, with no hint of insincerity or flattery. “I am also working on a book, but it is nothing in comparison.”
His book came out not long before my own and, when my Spanish had developed far enough to read it – and my knowledge of his importance similarly developed – I finally understood how extraordinary my two “gin-tonics” with him had been. His book is one of the works of reference for me; my own book is a light thing in comparison. Although, perhaps as a beginner one has to read the poverty of mine to fathom the riches of his.
I was terribly saddened when he died in a car crash in 2011. I will end my discussion of his bull in the ring – my words on them in terms of running come after – with photos of him facing his own cattle. Here, despite the half century between photos, he shows a skill, courage and dignity that almost none of his critics possess.
In Pamplona his bulls – now his son’s – have had a great history, being down at number nine (by year, and in total) of the top ten for goring runners in the streets – in their sixteen appearances in the town – but up at number one (by year) for the number of ears cut by matadors in the bull-ring: good to run, good to watch.
Jandilla is, as mentioned, a brand of antiquity and importance and has changed hands, and bloodline, more than a few times. It is now the breed of Juan Pedro Domecq y Diéz, who bought it back from the Moreno de la Covas, and belongs to one of JPDyD’s other sons, Borja Domecq y Solís.
Their danger in Pamplona is legendary, with 28 gorings in 16 encierros, including the above fatality and also goring 8 people in one year alone – 2004 – and yet in the ring they have been very good, with two ears cut per appearance.
They are, in my opinion, and following my theory, the opposite of Miura – the herd is likely to fracture into sueltos, which is when they are most aggressive, but that aggression is great for a trained torero in the plaza de toros.
In fact, the day I went to Jandilla to face Borja’s cattle – alongside the matadors Dávila Miura and Rafaelillo – was the first day I began to learn how to link passes with a bull. This is where the art of bullfighting really lies, moving from one pass to another, so it ceases to be a split-second tableau and becomes a ten second section of dance. Hence the beauty of Jim Hollander’s photo of Alejandro Talavante with one in 2016.
Just to prove that bulls are not their bloodlines, next we look at another Pamplona regular. Fuente Ymbro have been there every year since 2006, ten years after the ranch was founded by Riccardo Gallardo. Their origin is pure Jandilla, but while they perform well in the ring in terms of ears cut, their goring rate in the street is almost as low as Juan Pedro Domecq.
The ranch, in the province of Cadiz south of Seville, will always be special to me as it is where I first entered the ring myself. It was during an exhibition tentadero – testing with capes the mothers of future bulls – for ¡Hola! magazine between the matador of 2009, Miguel Ángel Pereira, and Spain’s greatest amateur torero, my friend Adolfo Suárez Illana. (Adolfo also happens to be the son of Spain’s first Prime Minister after the dictatorship of Franco, a Prime Minister who like his son was an amateur bullfighter, just as his son followed him into politics.)
NÚÑEZ DEL CUVILLO
If the Juan Pedro Domecq family defined the modern bull, Joaquín Núñez del Cuvillo and his family have perfected it.
In 1991 Don Joaquín acquired the ranch El Grullo from the Osborne family whose famous bull silhouette was used to advertise their brandy with roadside signs. When such advertisements were banned, there was a public outcry that these particular ones should not be removed, so the wording on the body of the bull was blacked out but the great symbolic effigial beasts remain alongside the freeways of Spain.
He mixed the bloodlines of Osborne with those of Juan Pedro Domecq and his own relations, the breed of Núñez, and created a bull that is the favourite of the finest toreros de arte, those who prefer the dance to the challenge, but recognise that the bull must stay upright and dangerous and charging to the very end of the fight. And, as my old biology tutor at Oxford used to point out, environment always plays its part. Hence the photo below, showing the bulls being exercised from horseback to develop stamina as well as strength. It also shows their standard physical type and colour variations.
I was once told that in the bad year for bullfighting that was 2015 this was the only ranch in Spain that actually made money from the corrida. Whether or not that is true, they provided the first bull in the quarter millennium history of the great Royal ring of Seville, La Maestranza, that charged so aggressively, but nobly – straight and unceasing – that it was pardoned.
Their goring rate is low in the run, around Miura levels, although also their success rate in the ring is quite low as well. This may be because their physiology and anatomy is not ideal to provide the size of bull Pamplona requires. Elsewhere they prosper.
In fact, the last time I entered the ring myself was on their ranch for a “family only” tentadero with Joaquín, his children and grandchildren – no professionals, no spectators – in 2018.
The family, the cattle and the ranch will always hold a place in my heart as it was the first ranch I ever visited, to see the veterinarian treating the wounds of the toro indultado, ‘pardoned bull’, Ídilico, who had come back from facing the Maestro de los Maestros, the master of all matadors, José Tomás in Barcelona in 2008. That bull went on to spend the rest of his life as a semental, a seed bull, among the stunning pastures of his forefathers.