As thoroughbred racing — like everything else — enters a period of globalization, owners and breeders worldwide must confront the implications of an increasingly international and streamlined industry. And perhaps no one organization has been more pro-active in rising to this tide of change than Coolmore.
Make no mistake about it — as magnificent as was Coolmore’s George Vancouver in winning the 2012 BC Juvenile Turf recently, the ultimate goal for the son of Henrythenavigator is that he will refresh the Coolmore product when he enters their star-studded stallion roster. If he’s good enough, that is.
On the face of things, Coolmore is an organization that consistently thrills thoroughbred enthusiasts with the range and depth of its stable. Trainer Aidan O’Brien has gained legendary status through his association with the progeny of such stallions as Sadler’s Wells, Danehill, Montjeu and Galileo. However, “the lads,” headed by owner, John Magnier, run the largest commercial bloodstock enterprise in the world and keeping it that way is the goal.
In the Coolmore galaxy, the orbit of an individual thoroughbred is galvanized around that objective. A fact the organization made abundantly clear in 2007, when the promising Holy Roman Emperor was yanked out of Aidan O’Brien’s hands to re-place the sub-fertile and, as it turned out, ill-fated, George Washington.
The best of Ballydoyle combine entertainment with the promotion of the enterprise they represent, Coolmore. The casualty of the great Australian champion, So You Think, is a case-in-point. Much as trainer O’Brien’s public act of contrition about his failure to get the horse right was appreciated by racing romantics, it was foremost a means of protecting So You Think’s stud career and the organization’s brand, or product. Candid though the substance of his remarks were, in essence O’Brien was “taking one for the Team” by deflecting criticism of a thoroughbred who had seemed to do little but run downhill since his arrival at Ballydoyle, Ireland.
With apparent ease, O’Brien and Tom Magnier, John’s son, do Coolmore and So You Think proud in this interview, held minutes after the champion’s impressive victory in the 2012 Prince of Wales Stakes at Ascot.
The Coolmore of 2012, with its satellites in the USA and Australia, was the brainchild of eminent Irish trainer, Vincent O’Brien, breeder John Magnier and business magnate, Robert Sangster. A cast of other notables, including jockey, Lester Piggott, Canadian owner-breeder, E.P. Taylor, horseman and business tycoons Charles Engelhardt and Stavros Niarchos put in appearances as well as Coolmore gained its momentum.
In 1973, Robert Sangster was introduced to the 23 year-old John Magnier. Magnier, married to Vincent O’Brien’s daughter, Susan, would turn out to be the conduit that brought the billionaire and his father-in-law together. The timing was perfection, an instance of Jungian synchronicity that would change the world.
Even though Vincent O’Brien was still training out of his Ballydoyle headquarters for elite owners like Charles Engelhardt, the Firestones and Raymond Guest, who campaigned the fabulous Sir Ivor, he was also mulling over the implications for the Irish thoroughbred of losing his brightest and best individuals to stud duty in the USA or England. An idea began to take shape and O’Brien approached Claiborne’s Bull Hancock to propose that they form a syndicate. O’Brien was already involved in bloodstock and breeding on a modest scale, but he wanted an inroad into the American market. Sadly, with Hancock’s sudden death, this first initiative fell apart.
But the seed of possibility remained with O’Brien, who was really so much more than a man who trained thoroughbreds. He was excessively knowledgeable about thoroughbred bloodstock. And he had a vision: buy colts with outstanding pedigrees who would make great stallions and see if they can be proven on the turf. In other words, buy –first and foremost — to make stallions. Irish stallions. The best in the world.
This was radical thinking in the 1970’s.
The usual practice was to buy colts and fillies who looked like they could run. If they turned out to be decent producers, all the better. It was an orientation shaped by the wealthy in the UK and, to a lesser extent, in the USA. They didn’t need to make serious money with each horse they bought — that was, after all, part of the fun. As for breeding, the overwhelming practice was to exchange seasons with one another. The thoroughbred industry was, essentially, a very exclusive club.
But Vincent O’Brien had other ideas. He wanted to build an Irish bloodstock interest that would function on a grand, commercial scale. In 1975, with the purchase of two-thirds of Coolmore Stud from its owner, Tim Vigors, and the appointment of son-in-law John Magnier, who had the “sharpest brain in the bloodstock business,” as its manager, O’Brien put a foundation in place to do just that.
The Magnier and O’Brien families had known each other for several generations and the former had been breeding thoroughbreds since the early nineteenth century. When young John Magnier took over the family business, it consisted of the famous Grange Stud, which earned a prominent name for itself by standing Cottage, the sire of Cottage Rake, the first of Vincent O’Brien’s national hunt horses to win in England, where he took the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1948. In 1973, John Magnier bought the 200-acre Castle Hyde Stud near the Grange. By 1975, young Magnier was standing 13 stallions at his two stud farms and was gaining the reputation of being a very canny breeder.
Robert Sangster was committed to horse racing, both on the flat and over the hurdles. But prior to meeting Magnier and O’Brien to discuss a possible alliance, he had already sought out the advice of Lord Derby. Sangster already had thoroughbred interests in Ireland, England, France and Australia, and a modest band of broodmares at Swetenham Hall, whose offspring he sold at Newmarket and Deauville. But despite the trappings of success, Robert Sangster wanted to move beyond “playing around with racing and to launch a commercial venture on an international scale.” Lord Derby’s advice was plain: get yourself the best trainer and be prepared to spend at least a million BPS on bloodstock. Sangster was very keen to “get into racing in a big way,” but he was equally excited by the possibility of building a breeding empire. His vision was to open up the breeding business beyond its intimate circle of affluent owners and breeders and to create this operation on an international level. But to do that, Sangster needed the kind of expertise that would ensure his scheme paid off.
And that expertise came, initially, in the form of John Magnier, Vincent O’Brien and Lester Piggott. The latter was the UK’s legendary jockey, a man who could get the very best out of almost any horse he rode. Magnier and O’Brien would spot the right bloodlines. O’Brien would train them. Piggott would ride them. And Sangster would buy them.
As well, in 1975 came the amalgamation of John Magnier’s Castle Hyde and Grange studs with Vincent O’Brien’s Coolmore. The organization was called ” The Castle Hyde, Coolmore and Associated Studs.” It would provide a home for the partnership’s stallions and broodmares. Ballydoyle, which O’Brien had owned since the 1950’s would be Coolmore’s training headquarters.
It was to the USA that the newly formed syndicate went to buy bloodstock. With them came Demi O’Byrne, the veterinarian who attended Nijinsky during his racing career. O’Byrne would learn even more than he already knew about the thoroughbred simply by listening to and watching Vincent O’Brien and John Magnier at the bloodstock sales.
O’Brien was no stranger to Keeneland and, in this aspect of things, he was a good 30 years ahead of many of his (British) contemporaries. As he would tell his biographer, Ivor Herbert, ” I like American horses. They can race more than ours; they are stabled at the track; they’re taken from stables to racecourse — no long travelling involved. But because they are raced more often the horses have got to be tough to stand up to it; they’ve got to be genuine and game. The horses have got to be very sound because of the type of dirt surface on which they race. This is really hard on horses’ legs. I think the American trainers and vets are tremendous experts to keep the horses on the go the way they do.”
If Vincent O’Brien had kept an “I Like American Horses” photo album, here are some of the individuals who would be in it:
Together with Lester Piggott, the Sangster-owned and O’Brien-trained The Minstrel would be their first venture. And it would be fortuitous.
So successful was the little colt with the huge heart that a share in him was bought by Windfields, where The Minstrel stood most of his short life. Sending the colt back to North America ran contrary to the syndicate’s mission, it would seem. However, O’Brien counselled the others that the colt was a middle distance horse and not a classic winner. And, although he had sired the British Triple Crown champion Nijinsky, Northern Dancer was still a comparatively “new face” on the bloodstock scene.
So began the years of plenty, when the syndicate swooped down on Keeneland and other American consignors to buy the best they had to offer. Among their acquisitions at this time were Caerleon (blue riband sire of champions Generous, Arc winner Marienbard, Warrsan, Corwyn Bay, Kostroma), Fairy King (sire of Arc winner Helissio, Falbrav and champion sire, Encosta de Lago), Be My Guest (who was unlucky insofar as he had been born in the same year as The Minstrel and Alleged, but who turned out to be a very fine Coolmore sire), dual Arc-winner Alleged, the unlucky Storm Bird and the brilliant, though short-lived, Golden Fleece.
The O’Brien, Sangster and Magnier collaboration produced far more than Coolmore, even though that achievement would have been enough to assure them a privileged place in thoroughbred history. They were also responsible for Northern Dancer’s meteoric rise as a source of fine bloodstock.
It was one race in particular that consolidated interest in the Canadian sire’s blood line.
That race pitted the Vincent O’Brien-trained El Gran Senor against Secreto, trained by David O’Brien, Vincent’s son, in the Epsom Derby of 1984. As if the drama of father against son weren’t enough, the two colts racing to the finish were both sons of Northern Dancer. The racing world took notice — and Northern Dancer’s stud career, on a global scale, was launched.
In the O’Brien barn that year was another Northern Dancer colt named Sadler’s Wells. Although he was born in Kentucky, he had been bred by Robert Sangster. The Coolmore group had bought Sadler’s Wells’ dam, Fairy Bridge, at the Saratoga Sales of 1976. She would return regularly to the court of Northern Dancer with spectacular results. But none of her offspring would be more spectacular than the blaze-faced Sadler’s Wells.
Here is rare footage of Sadler’s Wells beating Seattle Song (under Cash Asmussen, brother of American trainer, Steve Asmussen) in the very first running of the Phoenix Park Champion Stakes in 1984.
Through the Seventies and the early Eighties, the Coolmore syndicate thrived. For a decade success followed success, with Sangster being crowned leading owner eight times up to 1985. Then their fortunes took a sudden down-turn. Ballydoyle produced only one classic winner (Dark Lomond) from 1985 – 1990. The Maktoums arrived on the scene in Kentucky and the UK, horsemen so wealthy that they could afford to spend up to 50 million on a thoroughbred, effectively dethroning Coolmore and cutting into its buying power. The market crash of the mid-Eighties also took its toll, as farm after farm went up for sale and owners like the affluent Nelson Bunker Hunt dispersed their bloodstock holdings. Robert Sangster was also feeling the pinch of a slumping thoroughbred market. He began to sell off his holdings in Australia and turned his attention to acquiring fillies who would make outstanding broodmares instead.
At the Keeneland sale of 1983, the Maktoums and Coolmore went head-to-head over a colt who was eventually named Snaafi Dancer. The former emerged victorious — at a price of $10.2 million. (As it turned out, Snaafi Dancer [Northern Dancer – My Bupers] never raced and turned out to be sub-fertile.)
In 1985, there was a meeting in Dubai between the Maktoums and Coolmore. Referred to by some as “The Summit,” the speculation was that some kind of détente would be reached between the two so that both of their separate enterprises might flourish. What actually happened was never revealed, but Vincent O’Brien would train several horses for Sheikh Mohammed and, in 1986, David O’Brien gave the Sheikh his first Classic-winning colt, Authaal, a son of the incomparable Shergar. Jacqueline O’Brien, wife of Vincent and an exceptional photographer, spoke about the wonderful hospitality with which they were received by the Maktoums and, in particular, the trip she took into the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert that had been pre-arranged by Sheikh Mohammed.
A further complication was the untimely death of Coolmore’s Golden Fleece, the one son of Nijinsky who O’Brien was to rate as highly as his sire, if not better. The colt succumbed to leukemia after only a single season at stud. As well, El Gran Senor was found to be less than fully fertile. The insurance money for Golden Fleece was slow to materialize, and El Gran Senor’s problems represented a significant financial loss.
All of these events combined to prompt the partners to begin the ill-fated Classic Thoroughbreds, an investors foundation set up to attract additional equity. As a concept, Classic Thoroughbreds was really a means of Coolmore going public. With the attraction of a larger base of investors, the hope was that Coolmore would recover some of its former purchasing power. Vincent O’Brien was appointed AGM, with a wealthy Board of Directors that included Sir Michael Smurfit, then Chairman of the Irish Racing Board and his father, Jefferson Smurfit, to provide additional support and advice. Despite tremendous pressure, which O’Brien felt very keenly, he nevertheless managed to purchase some decent individuals on behalf of the shareholders. The best of these was, without a doubt, Royal Academy.
And so it was that the partners journeyed on through a particularly rough patch, with O’Brien buying and training new prospects for the shareholders of Classic Thoroughbreds, Magnier managing Coolmore and Sangster focusing on building a solid broodmare band.
By 1991, there was cause for great celebration. Their young stallion, Sadler’s Wells, was looking to be the fulfillment of the Coolmore vision, siring In The Wings, Old Vic, El Prado, Barathea and the champion filly, Salsabil, in his first crops:
As well, Coolmore purchased a half-interest in Danehill from owner-breeder Prince Khalid Abdullah in 1990. The young stallion shuttled between Coolmore Ireland and Arrowfield Stud, in Australia, who shared ownership, although Coolmore was quick to buy Arrowfield out when Danehill’s prepotency became apparent. In the Danehill venture, Coolmore handed the world of thoroughbred breeding still another concept: that of shuttling sires to different hemispheres. Danehill was the first of what has since become a common practice.By 1995, the Coolmore thoroughbred, principally under the auspices of Sadler’s Wells and Danehill, was a force to be reckoned with on a global scale.
Both sires got champion colts and fillies. Sons of Sadler’s Wells include Galileo, the late Montjeu, Istabraq (National Hunt champion), High Chaparral, Islington, Beat Hollow, Perfect Soul, Ballingarry, Powerscourt and the fabulous Yeats. Among his daughters are the likes of Imagine, Peeping Fawn, Alexandrova and BC Filly & Mare Turf heroine, Islington.
Danehill had an astonishing 76.9% success rate, including 349 stakes winners who netted a staggering $375 million in earnings. Among his most prominent offspring are Rock of Gibraltar, Desert King (sire of champion Makybe Diva), Arc winner Dylan Thomas, Danehill Dancer, Duke of Marmalade, Elvstroem, Exceed and Excel, Fastnet Rock, George Washington, Redoute’s Choice, Landseer, North Light, Holy Roman Emperor, Peeping Fawn, Oratorio, Cacique and Champs Elysees. As a broodmare sire, he is most recently in the limelight for his contribution to the making of both Frankel and Arc winner, Danedream.
If it can be said that Sadler’s Wells consolidated the reputation of Coolmore Ireland, then Danehill did that and more for Coolmore Australia. The brilliant sire died prematurely in a tragic paddock accident in 2003. But despite his loss, Danehill’s name can be found in the sire line and family of many of our most impressive late-twentieth and early twenty-first century thoroughbred champions.
In 2012, Sadler’s Wells’ millionaire son, Galileo, is well on his way to living up to the benchmark set by his sire — if not surpassing it. Most recently, a thoroughbred who may well be the best ever appears at the top of his CV: Frankel. But Galileo is responsible for other very fine individuals as well. His progeny to date include Nathaniel, Cape Blanco, Red Rocks, Sixties Icon, Soldier of Fortune, Treasure Beach and the champion fillies Golden Lilac, Igugu and Lush Lashes. High Chaparral has given Australia the wonder-kid, So You Think, as well as Descarado, Redwood, Shoot Out,Wigmore Hall and Wrote. Danehill lives on in individuals like Frankel, North Light and Redoute’s Choice. And Nijinsky, so beloved by Vincent O’Brien, has most recently given the world the magnificent Black Caviar, through his son, Royal Academy, the sire of Bel Esprit.
With the retirement of Vincent O’Brien in 1994 and the death of Robert Sangster, John Magnier acquired both Ballydoyle and Coolmore. Aidan O’Brien (no relation to Vincent) was installed as trainer at Ballydoyle. After initial successes with horses like Thunder Gulch, business tycoon Michael Tabor joined Coolmore and owns horses in two- or three-way partnerships with John and Sue Magnier. Demi O’Byrne now represents Coolmore at bloodstock sales worldwide.
The last two decades have witnessed the “rise of Coolmore” and it has expanded to include Coolmore National Hunt (the former Castlehyde stud), Coolmore America (the former Ashford Farm) and Coolmore Australia.
The narrative of Coolmore will endure, as will the names of its founders. Theirs is, above all, a story of the passion of a shared vision and of dedication to the thoroughbred.
But even when you’ve realized your dream, the racing gods continue to play. In a collaboration between Coolmore and Juddmonte, where the latter supplies mares to be covered by Coolmore stallions, Frankel fell to Prince Khalid Abdullah on something like the coin toss that sent Secretariat to Meadow Stables. Each year, when all the Juddmonte-Coolmore foals are born, one or other of the two breeding giants gets first choice.
In 2008, first pick fell to Juddmonte.