Despite how Kildaragh Stud has made it seem in recent times, producing winners isn’t easy. Each one, regardless of the level they reach, draws upon a breeder’s experience, enthusiasm, skill and no little investment.
Having applied all of the above, the Kavanagh family’s nursery has enjoyed a real purple patch during the early stages of the Turf season, with noteworthy performances at the Newmarket and Curragh’s Guineas meetings as well as Chester’s May jamboree, while a slew of unexposed talents elsewhere have promised more for the future, and significantly so in some cases.
No horse has carried the Kildaragh brand with greater distinction in recent times than Native Trail, who wasn’t bred on the farm but stands as a testament to the upbringing the Kavanaghs’ provided after he was pinhooked as a foal from breeder Haras d’Haspel at a cost of €50,000 during the Arqana Breeding Stock Sale.
The son of Oasis Dream won’t be remembered for leaving any great windfall behind, having been sold on to Mags O’Toole and Norman Williamson for 67,000gns the following October, but the Kavanagh fingerprints will forever be found on a European champion nonetheless.
Native Trail famously stormed through an unbeaten juvenile season that culminated in bulldozing efforts in the National and Dewhurst Stakes, and he resumed at three with a bloodless win in the Craven Stakes before a gallant runner-up effort to stablemate Coroebus in the 2,000 Guineas. Sent to the Curragh, he subsequently landed a Classic success of his own in the Irish 2,000 Guineas.
Going back there was a filly that I’d actually broken and ridden in France that Robin Scully raced called Seven Springs. I remembered her and knew it was a pretty fast line that Khalid Abdullah has since astutely developed
Native Trail first came onto the radar of Peter Kavanagh, who runs Kildaragh alongside his wife Antoinette, when the Arqana catalogue dropped through his letterbox, with the pedigree containing a recent star in Calyx and an old acquaintance in Seven Springs, dam of Observatory’s sire Distant View.
“We knew his pedigree quite well and it was one you’d have to respect,” says Kavanagh. “There was plenty of speed on the bottom line and I’d used Oasis Dream in the past successfully. Going back there was a filly that I’d actually broken and ridden in France that Robin Scully raced called Seven Springs. I remembered her and knew it was a pretty fast line that Khalid Abdullah has since astutely developed.”
Kavanagh, who pinhooks around ten foals each year, recalls that the young Native Trail was a bigger model than he would usually select, but says he was struck by an intrinsic quality that he could not ignore.
“He was a bit bigger than I’d usually go for but he had an air of elegance about him and he just struck me as a noble horse,” he says. “Even if he was a little tall he was one of those horses you see and you keep coming back to. I probably looked at him three if not four times and I could see more right than wrong with him. He had great presence and a very fluent action.”
A bid was duly left with Sam Sangster and Kavanagh secured Native Trail for the reserve price. Once the youngster was safely back at Kildaragh, his athletic prowess was soon apparent.
“He was just a force of nature,” says Kavanagh. “He was a big imposing horse and you could give him as much work as you wanted. If he knew his own strength he could have been very difficult, but he was a very easy horse to be around and you never thought you were doing too much with him because he was such an exuberant individual.”
While a 210,000gns breeze-up transfer to Godolphin means it has been left for Charlie Appleby to harness Native Trail’s natural brilliance, Kavanagh is rightly proud of his and Kildaragh’s part in the horse blossoming into one of the most exciting talents around.
“You’re always trying to put things on the farm in favour of producing good horses with significant capital expenditure, improving facilities and streamlining the horses’ routine and taking everything to the nth degree to make things work,” he says. “And then you get a horse like him coming through the system and it really vindicates what you’re trying to achieve.
“We’ve greatly increased our acreage over the last few years and have applied a lot of farmyard manure on a three year rotation and graze a lot of cattle in the summer and sheep in the winter on the extended paddocks. I firmly believe pedigrees will not improve, whereas the environment will improve pedigrees.
“Whether it’s the grassland management or the people who handled the horse on the way through, it’s a culmination of a lot of things that leads to a horse like Native Trail. Even though he mightn’t have left us a lot of money, you know you’ve obviously done things okay and didn’t interfere with his ability and his class.”
Among the other recent Kildaragh success stories, which also include the likes of Blenheim Boy and Tuscan, is the homebred Roman Mist, who has been leased to Hot To Trot Racing and sent to trainer Tom Ward and was last seen winning the Snowdrop Fillies’ Stakes.
While Native Trail may have always stood out as something out of the ordinary, the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor has emerged as a much less likely star having started life in handicaps from a mark of just 63.
“She looked very modest but just seems to have hit a vein of progression,” says Kavanagh. “She’s so tough and courageous. It’s hard to pinpoint where all the improvement comes from because she’s not the most imposing physical, she’s just a handy-sized filly.”
If the filly’s frame gives little away about her considerable racing abilities, the toughness she possesses is precisely what Kavanagh hoped to instil when breeding from her dam, Drifting Mist. The winning and Group 3-placed mare is by Muhtathir, a stallion Kavanagh identifies as a positive, if underestimated, influence.
“We actually bought the dam as a yearling,” he says. “I was underbidder on her as a foal so bought her the next year [for €20,000]. We’ve always had luck with Muhtathir, who was a totally underrated stallion. He did very well subsequently over jumps, with his son Doctor Dino being a case in point, and his stock were very versatile, they’re very easy to mate and they were very generous. We have two mares on the farm by him because he’s a great outcross and I think he brings a lot to the table.”
He did very well subsequently over jumps, with his son Doctor Dino being a case in point, and his stock were very versatile, they’re very easy to mate and they were very generous
Another Kildaragh-bred filly who went on to join Roman Mist at stakes level was Sea Silk Road, a daughter of Sea The Stars who won the Height Of Fashion Stakes at Goodwood last month on just her third outing for William Haggas and the Tsui family’s Sunderland Holdings.
Kavanagh says the 190,000gns yearling has always been held in the highest regard.
“We’ve thought a terrible lot of her all the way through,” he says. “I can still remember her the morning after she was foaled and I said ‘Wow, what a filly’, she was just the real deal. If you were to design one you couldn’t do a better job. The mare is a little bit temperamental but this filly was just so solid, easy to work with, and no matter where you saw her, she caught your eye.
“When we sold her there were better-bred fillies than her in Book 1 but few with better balance or confirmation. Fortunately Maureen Haggas and John Clarke liked her a lot so they acquired her for Madam Tsui. She looked impressive the other day so hopefully she has a good future ahead of her.”
Sea Silk Road had been part of a notable Kildaragh double when breaking her maiden at Nottingham in early May, as the stud also saw Flaming Rib produce a career-best in a Chester conditions stakes. Having already claimed the Doncaster Stakes among five juvenile victories, the son of Ribchester later ran a close second in the Sandy Lane Stakes at Haydock Park towards the end of the month.
Flaming Rib looks well bought by Sackville Donald having been picked up for just 35,000gns, and Kavanagh says other buyers may have missed a trick by adhering to a prescriptive view of what constitutes good movement in a yearling. “This horse probably lacked an extended walk, which penalised him in prospective buyers eyes, but if you are looking for a fast horse to win over five or six furlongs an extended walk is not a prerequisite in my opinion,” he says.
“He’s also by a first-crop sire in Ribchester, who I liked because he was a very versatile horse and he won four Group 1s. His progeny might not have been as precocious as people expected but we believed in him and we sent the mare back to him subsequently.”
Interestingly both Flaming Rib and Sea Silk Road are out of German-bred mares, with the former out of Suddenly, an Excelebration half-sister to Group 2 winner and German Derby second Savoir Vivre, and the latter out of Oriental Magic, a Listed-winning daughter of Doyen bred by Gestut Auenquelle. While Kildaragh operates on a commercial basis, the presence of Suddenly and Oriental Magic among the broodmare band illustrate that, for Kavanagh, form and function will always be prioritised over fashion.
The current generation of breeders are looking for speed and precocity, probably at the cost of soundness or longevity
“At the end of the day, I think soundness is so crucial,” he says. “The current generation of breeders are looking for speed and precocity, probably at the cost of soundness or longevity.
“I think the German breeders, for the most part, just bred to race so they weren’t particularly concerned with the sales ring, whereas we tend to be totally dominated by what happens at the sales, and that isn’t great for the breed. We’ve bought into some of those German bloodlines purely because they’re so sound and easy to mate and the progeny just want to run.”
Kavanagh’s approach has been shaped by a lifetime immersed in the thoroughbred business. Having grown up on a sheep and cattle farm – “I suppose the stockmanship from there stuck with me,” he says – he travelled to the US, where he spent time at Tartan Farms, which was one of the major racing stables of North America with ten stallions and 200 mares.
“Tartan was a magical place,” says Kavanagh. “A man called John Hartigan managed it and he was an exceptional horseman. It was very interesting moving from Ireland to somewhere like Florida, both in terms of the climate and how you manage horses. I then went to France to Haras du Mezeray for a six-month stint that became a three-year sojourn.
“The farm was founded by Paul de Moussac, who was very progressive, and managed by Antoine Bozo – that dynasty now plays a pivotal role in French racing and breeding. That’s a lovely farm and they raced most of the stock produced there in De Moussac’s famous black and amber silks.”
A 24-year-old Kavanagh returned to Ireland to spend an eight-year spell as manager of Kildangan Stud, and it was following that that he purchased the initial 23 green acres of Kildaragh Stud in 1986. The farm has been developed beyond all recognition since then and a plethora of significant talents have been sold in the intervening years, including the likes of Bocca Baciata, Frozen Fire and Jukebox Jury, along with homebreds G Force, Primo Bacio and siblings Daban and Thikriyaat, to name but a few.
Kavanagh says there is no secret behind Kildaragh’s recent run of form, other than upgrading the broodmare band and installing the finest facilities at the extended Kildare nursery.
“I suppose it’s the culmination of a lot of work,” Kavanagh says. “From foaling the mares, the surveillance at night, and of course the work only really begins when you get the foal on the ground. Rearing young stock is a passion in itself and can be all consuming.
“There’s an awful lot of minding them but I think just getting the basics right is the most important thing of all. It’s an ongoing process but when you like it and things go well, it’s a dream world really. It’s a great existence and a great way of living when you’re surrounded by what you love.”
‘It’s a bit like a relay race’
It is not just the next generation of equine talent that has benefited from being raised at Kildaragh, as the Kavanaghs’ three children – Alice, Roderic and Sophie – are all involved in the racing world. Not only do Alice and Roderic contribute to the family running of Kildaragh, but both have founded their own offshoots, with Alice selling foals and breeding stock through AK Thoroughbreds while Roderic has proved successful as a breeze- up vendor as Glending Stables. Sophie oversees the Kildaragh Stud digital marketing.
“It’s a bit like a relay race,” says Peter Kavanagh. “You can run a place for so long but then you need some new energy and new blood coming through to take it to the next level. Having our kids being so passionate is an enormous boost and something we couldn’t plan for.
“We sent them away to school hoping they’d go and find something different to do and they went and toured the world pretty much but they just sort of came back this way.
They’ve been immersed in it since they were knee high so I’d say neither Alice or Roderic could really live without it. Sophie’s involved in Newbury racecourse [as commercial communications manager] too and I think her happiest hours are riding out for Charlie Hills twice a week.
“It’s amazing but I suppose if it’s in the blood, it’s in the blood. The two enterprises [AK Thoroughbreds and Glending Stables] dovetail lovely into what we already do. Roderic’s breezers come along in the spring and Alice is selling foals and mares for clients after the yearling sales. It doesn’t interfere with the core business but has added an extra dimension to Kildaragh as the three are all very much interwoven behind the scenes.”