Posts Tagged ‘Sadler’s Wells’

Using history as a guide, if I was shopping for a potential champion, I’d be looking for an “ugly duckling.”


NORTHERN DANCER by Brewer, Jr. The colt was royally bred, but so tiny that E.P. Taylor failed to sell him as a yearling. In fact, potential buyers laughed when he was paraded out with the other yearlings!

Of course, none of the thoroughbreds discussed in this article were ugly. Not literally. But metaphorically, there was something about each one of them that hearkens back to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale: they seemed to be ugly ducklings but what no-one saw at the time was that they were not ducklings at all. Some weren’t good-looking enough. Others took too much time to come into their own. And still others were waiting for a special someone to come along, someone who looked into their eyes and saw who they really were.

The individuals whose stories appear here are only the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” — VAULT readers will certainly be able to name many others who fall into this category.

And it all adds up to this: If there’s any “secret” to finding yourself another Frankel or American Pharoah or Black Caviar or Treve, it has to do with looking “under the feathers.”


Perhaps we can’t help it. Horses are beautiful animals and thoroughbreds can be exquisite. And no matter how often horse folk remind us that beauty and talent don’t necessarily go hand in hand, it’s all too easy to ignore when you’ve got a plain bay standing next to a magnificent chestnut…….


KINCSEM (filly, 1874-1887)

This lovely print of KINCSEM shows off her lustrous liver-chestnut coat, massive chest and powerful hindquarters.

This lovely print of KINCSEM shows off her lustrous liver-chestnut coat, massive chest and powerful hindquarters. But it was painted in hindsight, when the world already had learned that she was incomparable, making one doubt its absolute accuracy.

She may well have been the greatest thoroughbred of them all, winning 54 times in as many starts on two different continents. Kincsem took on all comers and was so devastatingly good that she also ran in 6 walkovers when no-one would run against her.

But at her birth, she was declared by her owner-breeder, Ernest Von Blaskovich, to be the ugliest foal that he had ever seen — and most agreed with him. When Von Blaskovich offered the majority of that year’s crop of foals to Baron Orczy, the latter purchased all but two — and one of the rejects was Kincsem.

Here is one fairly accurate description of a thoroughbred that was so brilliant she actually paused to graze before taking off after the others, only to win going away:

She was as long as a boat and as lean as a hungry leopard … she had a U-neck and mule ears and enough daylight under her sixteen hands to flood a sunset … she had a tail like a badly-used mop … she was lazy, gangly, shiftless … she was a daisy-eating, scenery-loving, sleepy-eyed and slightly pot-bellied hussy …” (Beckwith in “Step And Go Together”)

As a broodmare, Kincsem was pretty decent, although she never duplicated herself. But through one of her daughters, she comes down to us today in the bloodlines of Coolmore’s fine colt, Camelot. In her native Hungary, Kincsem is a national hero and a film based on her life (although it appears that the mare isn’t its central protagonist) is due for release in 2016.

For more on this remarkable thoroughbred:


And on the film:



IMP (filly, 1894-1909)

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.

IMP in 1898, going to post at Hawthorne Race Track.


She was the 1899 HOTY and twice won the honours for Champion Handicap Mare (1899 & 1900). She had her own theme song (below): “My Coal Black Lady.” And she was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1965.

But when she came into the world, the tiny daughter of Fondling (1886) by the stallion, Wagner (1882) was looked upon poorly by her owner-breeder because she wasn’t pretty and her conformation showed not the slightest hint of promise. But her owner-breeder, D.R. Harness of Chillicothe, Ohio kept her anyway, perhaps because the fact she was bred in the purple overrode his misgivings. Her ancestry included direct descent from the Darley Arabian, Eclipse and Lexington.

Imp raced an unthinkable number of times: 171. But she won 62 times, with 35 seconds and 29 thirds and raced more against the boys than those of her own sex. She set track records from 1 3/4 to 1 1/16.

By the time she was retired, at the age of eight, she was a national figure.

For more about Imp:



PHAR LAP (gelding, 1926 – 1932)

“Bobby” as he was called by those closest to him, arrived in the stable of trainer Harry Telford looking like a very, very sorry excuse for a racehorse. Which, in turn, precipitated the first crisis in Phar Lap’s biography, unbeknownst to the scrawny, dishevelled colt who had been born in New Zealand and was a son of the promising sire, Night Raid. Trainer Telford had bought Bobby for owner, David J. Davis, who rushed over excitedly to see his latest acquisition. After a moment of silence, Davis went ballistic. The compromise was that Bobby would be leased to Telford for a period of three years, the trainer covering all costs and the owner getting one third of the colt’s earnings. Assuming he could run.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

How big was PHAR LAP? Have a look at these figures! Photo and copyright, Victoria Racing Museum, Australia.

The rest, as they say, is history: Bobby aka The Red Terror aka Phar Lap (meaning “lightning/bolt of lightning/lights up the sky” in the Thai language) was a champion. His great heart, together with his victories, moved Australia and New Zealand — and the racing world– to fall in love. And, in 2016, we are still in love with him:

Bobby’s risky run @ The Melbourne Cup in 1930 should have been a movie:



WAR ADMIRAL ( colt, 1934-1959)

“Sons of Man O’ War ought to look different,” Mr. Riddle decided, as he looked at Brushup’s new foal. It was a bay colt with no real pizzazz to it …. and it was tiny. Riddle found it impossible to hope for much from the little fellow, who much-resembled his dam. And Brushup had been hopeless as a runner, pretty as she was. Riddle tried, in vain, to hand the colt over to his partner, Walter Jeffords Sr., but when Jeffords refused, it was decided that Brushup’s boy would stay in the Riddle stable until he showed what, if anything, he had as a runner.

War Admiral [2006 Calendar, Nov]


By the time he was a three year-old, Riddle had learned that even though The Admiral was the size of a pony (15.2h) he did, indeed, carry his sire’s blood.

And that blood would show in not only in War Admiral’s Triple Crown, but also in the breeding shed. As a sire, his contribution to the breed was as definitive as was the impact of sons and daughters like Busanda, Busher, Bee Mac, Searching, War Jeep and Blue Peter on the sport itself. War Admiral led the general sire list in 1945, the 2 year-old sire list in 1948 and the broodmare sire list in 1962 and again in 1964.

Although The Admiral’s sons were not influential as sires, both Busanda and Searching made a huge impact. Their descendants include the likes of Swaps, Buckpasser, Numbered Account, Iron Liege, Hoist the Flag, Gun Bow, Striking and Crafty Admiral, as well as two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Other descendants of note from the War Admiral line include Dr. Fager, Alysheba, Cigar and, most recently, Zenyatta.

To this day, breeders point with pride to War Admiral in the lineage of their thoroughbreds. What the name connotes is timeless, synonymous with the very essence of the thoroughbred.

For more on War Admiral:



ZENYATTA (filly, 2004)

As the tale is now famously told, the yearling daughter of Street Cry did not look her best in the sales ring as a yearling, due largely to a case of ringworm. But David Ingordo could see beyond all that. And Ann Moss has recounted how she and the filly seemed to “just click” at first meeting at Keeneland, just as though Zenyatta had chosen her.

When the hammer fell, the filly had been acquired by the Mosses. But she was not their only purchase that year and shortly after their yearlings arrived at Mayberry Farm, they received a call from Jeanne Mayberry. Jeanne had this to say,”Either you bought yourselves some very slow yearlings or else that Street Cry filly is very, very good. Because when they’re out together running, she leaves them all behind as though they aren’t even moving.”

Prophetic words.

But fast as Zenny was, it took time and patience to “get her right,” as the Mosses’ Racing Manager, Dottie Ingordo Sherriffs, has said. But when trainer, John Sherriffs, did get her right, the result was the birth of an American racing legend:

Retired with a record of 19 wins and 1 second place in 20 starts, Zenyatta’s fans have not diminished in the slightest. At this writing, Zenyatta is the only filly/mare to have ever won two different Breeders’ Cup races and the only filly/mare to ever have won the BC Classic.



In any institution, whether a school or a sport like horse racing, it works out a lot better if everyone develops in the same, linear way. Couple that with our love affair with speed — intelligence being linked to quickness and, in the case of thoroughbreds, ability with running fast enough to win, preferably at two — and you have the “cracks” through which genius and greatness all-too-frequently slip ……..


EXTERMINATOR (gelding, 1915 -1945)



EXTERMINATOR. Copyright The Estate of Bob Dorman.

EXTERMINATOR. Copyright The Estate of Bob Dorman.

The story of “Old Bones” is famous. He’s as legendary a figure in American thoroughbred racing as Man O’ War — and some say he was the best of them all. High praise for a big, coarse gelding who was bought as a rabbity for a flashy colt named Sun Briar, the hope of  Willis Sharpe Kilmer for the 1918 Kentucky Derby.

The man who first saw under the surface of the lanky chestnut with the deep, dark eyes was trainer Henry McDaniel. It was he who studied Bones and Sun Briar as they worked, noting the intelligence of the former at dealing with his moody running mate. And when Sun Briar couldn’t run in the Derby — and after considerable lobbying by McDaniel and Colonel Matt Winn, the President of Churchill Downs — Kilmer agreed to let the ugliest of his horses run instead. And so it was that Exterminator stepped on to a muddy track and transformed, in three minutes, from an ugly duckling to a Swan King.

To read more about Exterminator: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/a-collectors-mystery-exterminator-and-bob-dorman/


DISCOVERY (colt, 1931- 1958)


Discovery, a brilliant runner and outstanding broodmare sire, won Horse of the Year in 1935 over Omaha. Discovery appears 4X5X4 in Ruffian's pedigree.

DISCOVERY on the track. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

The son of Display had a brilliant, dazzling chestnut coat and lots of chrome. Born at Walter J. Salmon’s Mereworth Farm and owned by Adolphe Pons, the colt was impressively bred and ran head-first into the accompanying expectations. Predictably, he disappointed, winning only 2 of 13 starts as a two year-old.

At three he appeared again, looking fit enough. However, among the 3 year-olds that year was a colt named Cavalcade, who had already beaten Discovery the year before. In the Derby, Discovery chased Cavalcade home; in the Preakness, he finished third to High Quest and Cavalcade.

But Discovery was just getting going. He went on that same year to win the Brooklyn and Whitney Handicaps, and then set a world record time for 1 3/16 miles in the Rhode Island Handicap.

But his finest years were at four and five. In 1935, the colt won 11 of 19 starts, carrying an average of 131 lbs., gaining him the nickname “The Iron Horse.” Retrospectively named 1935 Horse of the Year (over Triple Crown winner, Omaha) and throughout 1936, Discovery’s winning ways continued. Of his Whitney win, the New York Times wrote that the chestnut ran “…the most decisive victory to be scored in a big American stake in many years.”

DISCOVERY was named Horse of the Year for 1935. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

DISCOVERY was named Horse of the Year for 1935. Photo and copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

As a sire, it was Discovery’s daughters who gave him purchase on immortality, producing the great Native Dancer, Bold Ruler and Bed O’ Roses.


SEABISCUIT (colt, 1933-1947)

Rejected outright as a colt foal because of his size and conformation, the little son of Hard Tack languished as a runner until he hooked up with trainer Tom Smith, who could see right through the disguise. In Smith’s hands, “The Biscuit” blossomed into a horse with fire in his blood. It was the Depression Era: a good time for a hero to come along. Especially one who had once been “not good enough,” through no fault of his own. He battled back from defeat. He battled back from injury. And he taught America how to look a setback straight in the eye — and vanquish it.

Enjoy this rare footage of The Biscuit at work and play:


RED RUM (gelding, 1965- 1995)



RED RUM at work on the beach. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun

RED RUM at work on the sands of Southport, England. Photo and copyright, The Baltimore Sun


“Beloved”  is probably the first response when someone speaks his name. Or “Immortal.” Something like that.

In its long, distinguished history the National Hunt has known many great horses, but none who rose to the standard of Red Rum. He was, quite simply, the greatest steeplechaser who ever lived.

By the time Donald “Ginger” McCain got his hands on the bay gelding, he had won a few one-mile races over the flat before being passed from one training yard to another. The horse who had descended from the great St. Simon, and whose name originated from the last three letters of his dam (Mared) and sire (Quorum) was never going to amount to much, running in cheap races with modest purses.

GINGER McCAIN WITH RED RUM PICTURED AT HIS STABLES BEHIND SECOND HAND CAR SHOWROOM. SOUTHPORT 1975. pic by George Selwyn,119 Torriano Ave,London NW5 2RX.T:+44 (0)207 267 6929 M: 07967 030722 email: george@georgeselwyn.co.uk Vat no:3308110 05

Ginger McCain with RED RUM, pictured at his stables behind his used car dealership in Southport, 1975. Photo and copyright, George Selwyn.

The first thing that McCain set out to do was to rehabilitate the gelding, who suffered from the incurable disease, pedal osteitis, a disease of the pedal bone. (This was discovered after the trainer paid a goodly sum for “Rummy” on behalf of owner, Noel le Mare.) The “cure” was swimming and long works on the beaches of Southport. And it worked miracles. Red Rum blossomed into a tough, rugged individual. (It should be noted that Ginger adored Rummy and the horse was never put at-risk in any of his races, unlike the situation when he was running on the flat.)

The result was not one, but three, wins in the Aintree Grand National, arguably the greatest test of any horse’s courage and stamina in the world. His first win came at a time when the Grand National was flirting with extinction. It needed a hero and it got one, in the form of a thoroughbred once-destined to run on the flat until he could run no more, and a used car salesman who “also” trained National Hunt horses — and saw something quite different in his Champion’s eye:


JOHN HENRY (gelding, 1975-2007)

“For the first two years of his life, John Henry had been peddled like a cheap wristwatch.” (Steve Haskin, in John Henry in the Thoroughbred Legends series)

JOHN HENRY at work.

JOHN HENRY at work.

To say he was “difficult” doesn’t even come close: for what ever reason, John had a nasty disposition, despite his workmanlike performances on the track. It would take trainers (and there were many) like Phil Amato and Ron McNally to work their way around temperament issues to gain the gelding’s trust before the John Henry we now know and admire emerged.

In his 3 year-old season, there were glimmers of ability. But from 1980 to his final win, at the ripe old age of nine, John Henry turned out to be the stuff of greatness. And not only was it his “arrival” as a turf star: John’s rags-to-riches story captivated fans who even today, almost nine years after his death, still revere his memory. Indeed, for many, John Henry is one of a pantheon of superstars, right up there with Exterminator, Man O’ War, Secretariat, Ruffian and American Pharoah.

By the time he was retired to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, John had twice won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year (1981, 1984), with 39 wins in 83 starts and earnings of over six million dollars USD. His 1981 election as Horse of the Year was unanimous and at the time, unprecedented for a nominee to receive all votes cast. In addition, John was inducted into the American Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.


ISTABRAQ (gelding, 1992)

Unlike John Henry (above), whose bloodlines were blue collar, Istabraq came from a royal line: a son of Sadler’s Wells (Northern Dancer) whose dam, Betty’s Secret, was a daughter of Secretariat. Owned by E.P. Taylor, the Canadian thoroughbred breeder and owner of Northern Dancer, Betty’s Secret was sent to Ireland in 1987 to be bred to some of Northern Dancer’s British sons. Taylor died two years later and the mare, in foal to Sadler’s Wells was purchased by Hamdan Al Maktoum.

The foal she was carrying was Istabraq.

ISTABRAQ as a foal with his dam, Betty's Secret (Secretariat).

ISTABRAQ as a foal with his dam, Betty’s Secret (Secretariat).

The colt foal seemed to understand from the very beginning that he was “someone special.” And indeed he was destined to be — but it took time.

The colt’s name was Sindhi for “brocade” but the weave of him proved inferior on the flat, where he managed only 2 wins. His jockey, the great Willie Carson, described the youngster as a “slow learner” who “…also lacked speed and was not at home on fast ground…I came to the conclusion that the reason he was struggling was because he had no speed. In fact, he was one-paced…”

As a three year-old, he developed foot problems. He was, in fact, flat-footed, making shoeing him a problem. When Istabraq refused to quicken in his last race as a three year-old, despite Carson’s aggressive ride, Sheikh Hamdan let trainer John Gosden know that it was enough: Istabraq was to be sold.

John Durkan started his career as a jockey.

John Durkan started his career as a jockey before becoming an assistant trainer to the great John Gosden.

When John Durkan, Gosden’s assistant trainer, heard that Istabraq would be listed in the 1995 Tattersall’s sale he resolved to acquire him. He saw possibilities for Istabraq, but not on the flat — as a hurdler. Having informed Gosden that he would be leaving to go out on his own, Durkan began searching for a possible buyer for Istabraq and found one in J. P. McManus, a wealthy Irishman who had made a fortune as a gambler. Following the sale at Tattersall’s, McManus shipped Istabraq back to Ireland with the understanding that the colt would be trained by Durkan. In his young trainer, Istabraq had found someone who believed in him.

“He is no soft flat horse. He is the sort who does not get going until he’s in a battle. He has more guts than class and that’s what you need, ” Durkan told McManus, “He will win next year’s Sun Alliance Hurdle.” Prophetic words.

"No soft

“He is no soft flat horse…” Durkan counselled J. P. McManus. And you see it here, in the power as ISTABRAQ launches, even though he’s a good distance from the hurdle.

But the young Durkan would soon be beset with tragedy, although not before watching his beloved gelding take ten hurdle races in a row from 1996-1997. Durkan was battling cancer and was shipped to Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York City; Aidan O’Brien took over training duties. By 1998, John was dying and moved home to Ireland, succumbing on the night of January 21, 1998.

Charlie Swan wore a black armband in John’s memory on the day of Istabraq’s first start in 1998, the AIG Europe Champion Hurdle. The gelding, who was now 6 years old, was a national hero and thousands turned out to watch him begin his 6 year-old season in grand style at Leopardstown:

And then this gallant thoroughbred just went on and on and on, beginning with a win two months later at Cheltenham in what would be the first of three wins in the Champion Hurdle:

Retired in 2002, Istabraq is now in the fourteenth year of a happy retirement at his owner, J.P. McManus’ Martinstown Stud. There, the horse who was voted in 2009 the favourite of the last 25 years by the Irish people, hangs out with his BFF, Risk of Thunder, and continues to greet fans who visit from all over the world:

For more about Istabraq, one of Secretariat’s greatest descendants: https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/secretariats-heart-the-story-of-istabraq/



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Together,we saved over 20 horses from going to slaughter in Canada or Mexico in 2015. And every donation counted in this effort because no donation is too small. Hale, Trendy Cielo, Maya Littlebear, Felicitas Witness and 16 others, including two mares and their foals, thank you.

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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. 

“Glorious George,” beloved of the racing public, returned to competition when he proved to have a sub-fertile sperm count. Bred by Gretchen and Graham Jackson, the champion came to an untimely end in the Breeders’ Cup of 2007 — the same year that the Jackson’s lost Barbaro.

In light of the unsuitability of George Washington for stallion duty, Holy Roman Emperor — a 3 year-old colt with great potential — was snatched out of training to fill his place.

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.

The title says it all. Vincent O’Brien with The Minstrel, the little horse whose heart and courage won the great trainer’s heart.

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.

John and Sue Magnier chatting with Sir Alex Ferguson.

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.

Cottage Rake’s exploits in England made Vincent O’Brien’s reputation as a gifted trainer. His sire, Cottage, stood at the Magnier’s Grange Stud (IRE). O’Brien would go on to train three consecutive winners of the Grand National — Early Mist (1953), Royal Tan (1954) and Quare Times (1955).

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.

The charismatic and fabulously wealthy Robert Sangster.

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:

Larkspur (Blue Larkspur), one of O’Brien’s early Keeneland purchases, won the Epsom Derby in 1962.

The hugely talented Sir Ivor (Sir Gaylord) won the Epsom Derby in 1968 and went on to win the Washington D.C. International under Lester Piggott. A super sire at Claiborne in Kentucky, his offspring include Arc winner Ivanjica, Optimistic Gal and Bates Motel.

Robert Sangster owned Alleged (Hoist The Flag), who won The Arc two years in row (1977, 1978). Sold to Walmac, he proved to be a fabulous sire. Perhaps his most famous offspring was the brilliant Allez France.

Roberto (Hail To Reason), still another Epsom Derby winner for O’Brien in 1972. A useful sire, his best progeny were millionaires Brian’s Time and Sunshine Forever.

The elegant Royal Academy (Nijinsky), shown here with John Magnier’s son, Tom and young Charlie Magnier at Coolmore, Australia. He was O’Brien last purchase at Keeneland, after a fierce bidding war with D. Wayne Lucas, and a horse that did Coolmore proud. Royal Academy won the 1990 BC Mile with Lester Piggott aboard. Piggott had retired 12 days earlier, but came back to pilot the Coolmore colt for Vincent.  An exceptional sire, Royal Academy ranked 11th in the 2012 American broodmare sire list.

 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.

The little horse with the big heart, shown after his 1977 Epsom Derby win. The Minstrel was made Horse of the Year in 1977, thrusting the young Coolmore syndicate into the limelight for the very first time.

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.

Storm Bird (Northern Dancer) was a tidy, beautiful colt and the syndicate went to one million USD for him. The juvenile was undefeated in his first year on the turf and thought to be the next Epsom Derby winner.

So gentle was Storm Bird that even the very young were allowed to visit him. He quickly endeared himself to the whole O’Brien family. Then, in early in 1981, the colt suffered an ugly assault at Ballydoyle: a disgruntled employee got into his stall and slashed off his mane and tail. Although Storm Bird appeared to recover, everything went wrong in his 3 year-old season. A brilliant racing career had come to an abrupt end.

After the attack, O’Brien, Sangster et al. attempted to keep their colt under wraps. Finally, rather than risk a heavy investment, the partners looked for an American buyer. They found one in the person of Dr. William Lockridge, who owned Ashford. The syndicate retained a quarter interest in the colt.

Storm Bird proved to be a sire of sires and an excellent broodmare sire. Storm Cat, out of Terlingua (Secretariat) was his most pre-potent son. Photo and copyright, Amanda Duckworth (ESPN).

Summer Squall out of another Secretariat daughter, Weekend Surprise, was a half-brother to A.P. Indy. Summer Squall, who much resembled Storm Bird, was a very useful sire in his own right. Photo and copyright, Anne Eberhardt Keogh (Blood-Horse).

Storm Bird was broodmare sire to many thoroughbreds. Among the most famous, the well-loved Thunder Gulch, owned by Michael Tabor and one of Coolmore’s premiere stallions. The son of Gulch helped to launch Ashford after it was acquired by Coolmore.

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.)

Snaafi Dancer, Keeneland, 1983.

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.

The Empty Quarter features unique sand formations that make it one of the wonders of the modern world.

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.

The premature death of the brilliant Golden Fleece, the 1982 winner of the Epsom Derby in the fastest time in 50 years, was a blow for Coolmore at a time when the going was already very difficult.

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.

Danehill (Danzig X Razyana, by His Majesty [Ribot]) as represented by equine artist, Susan Crawford.

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.

Together with Danehill, Sadler’s Wells was the product of the unrelenting efforts of O’Brien, Sangster, Piggott and Magnier to build a commercial breeding empire that was self-sustaining. Even though, as a colt, Sadler’s Wells had been eclipsed by the promise of El Gran Senor, through the breeding acumen of Robert Sangster he gave Coolmore Ireland its dream sire.

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.

Vincent O’Brien leads in his beloved Nijinsky after he had captured the British Triple Crown, a proud Lester Piggott in the saddle.

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.

In the future, look for the Coolmore mares to be visiting Juddmonte. Specifically, this guy: Frankel in his new home at Banstead Manor.

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