David Stack of Coolagown Stud in Fermoy, County Cork, is known as one of the livelier characters in the Irish bloodstock industry, as he’s never short of a few words of wisdom or friendly jibes.
Pinhooker and marketing expert Amy Lynam put it best, perhaps, when she visited the farm during the Irish Stallion Trail in January and tweeted a video of him leading up a horse accompanied by the caption “a rare few minutes of quiet from Davey Stack”, with the comment gleefully retweeted by the man himself.
Don’t go thinking that Stack is a figure of fun, or doesn’t take the business seriously, though. Quite the contrary, as he has gained considerable respect for determinedly building the family operation into a credible independent stallion station.
He has five stallions on his books for 2023: intriguing new recruit Storm The Stars, Group 1 hero Way To Paris and proven sources of talented jumpers Carlotamix, Shantaram and Zambezi Sun.
Outlining the origins of Coolagown Stud, whose motto is ‘Home of the Gallopers’, Stack says: “My father Bernie was a pharmacist in Fermoy and started the farm in the 70s. He bred and trained a lot of point-to-point winners, and sold many on, especially to Tom Costello. He also bred Travado, a son of Strong Gale who won the Arkle for Nicky Henderson in a golden age of two-mile chasers.
“It was when I got into the business that I had the genius idea that we should stand stallions, and Air Display, a son of Nikoli with a beautiful back pedigree who ran second in the Hollywood Derby, was our first. Two years later we bought Cezanne, who turned out to be completely infertile.
“Cezanne was a beautiful horse with a gorgeous temperament, and he was good enough to win an Irish Champion Stakes, but I think the phrase is ‘jaffa’. Completely seedless! Luckily we had him insured and he was replaced by Humbel, and the likes of Fleetwood and Papal Bull followed.”
Humbel, a big, tough Theatrical half- brother to Breeders’ Cup Distaff heroine Escena, ran over hurdles towards the end of his career and got the odd good jumper, while Fleetwood, a well-bred son of Groom Dancer who took a Haydock maiden by eight lengths on his sole start for Sir Henry Cecil, supplied some classy handicappers like Poole Master and The Sawyer.
“Cezanne was a beautiful horse with a gorgeous temperament, and he was good enough to win an Irish Champion Stakes, but I think the phrase is ‘jaffa’. Completely seedless!”
Papal Bull took Stack to the top table of racing. He was bought as a stallion prospect by a syndicate headed by Coolagown, and continued to race in their colours at five, when he was just pipped by Duke Of Marmalade in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the pair pulling well clear of Youmzain.
“My first child, Ryan, had just been born so I was unable to go to Ascot, but I was at home screaming at the telly,” says Stack. “The deal came about because I’d rung Coolmore to ask about another horse, Ask, and was told by Eddie Fitzpatrick that he was booked for The Beeches Stud but that they had another solid, nice-looking horse, who was Papal Bull. I went over and looked at him, and liked him, so we came to an agreement.
“The deal was that we could race him for another year, and Sir Michael Stoute told us he’d do well. Unfortunately we didn’t get a win, but he ran second in the Princess of Wales’s Stakes and King George, and was unlucky in Germany, where he was just beaten into third by Kamsin in a Group 1 only for the winner, Oriental Tiger, to be thrown out later so we were up to second again.”
Like Fleetwood and Humbel, and other some-time Coolagown Stud residents such as Daylami and Ridgewood Ben, Papal Bull delivered several useful horses without hitting the heights of success.
They maintained an income stream for the stud, though, and crucially allowed reinvestment in incrementally better prospects, to the point that the roster now boasts top-class performers by fashionable sires.
“We’ve had to sift through a lot of stallions to get to where we are now, it’s all been building up bit by bit,” says Stack. “You can’t expect just to buy a horse and for him to be a hit. I see Way To Paris’s popularity in his first two seasons here, along with the acquisition of Storm The Stars, as the culmination of 30 years of standing stallions. It’s been a hell of a slow process, but we got there.”
Way To Paris, a Champs Elysees half- brother to dual Group 1 winner Distant Way who landed the Grand Prix de a head second to Sottsass in the Prix Ganay, has covered around 220 mares in his first two seasons at the operation.
“He’s a gorgeous horseand he was high-class, tough and sound in his racing career,” reports Stack. “He’s predominantly National Hunt but he’s covered some really high-class Flat mares, too, including the dams of top-level winners Byrama and Trip To Paris.”
Storm The Stars, a blueblooded son of Sea The Stars who won the Great Voltigeur Stakes and placed in both the Epsom and Irish Derbys, retired to Haras du Lion in France in 2018. His first two crops comprising 88 foals, now aged four and three, have already yielded a double- digit tally of winners, including a few over jumps.
“He’s very good-looking – almost as sexy as the stud manager here! – walks for fun and has loads of presence,” says Stack. “From what I’ve seen, he tends to stamp his stock, and they look scopey but strong. They should be out early but also prove to be progressive and take well to fences. He’s got some interesting youngsters that have been purchased privately in France and brought to Ireland, some with Willie Mullins and quite a few with the point-to-point trainers.
“His biggest selling point is his page, though. He’s by Sea The Stars out of a Sadler’s Wells mare who’s a half-sister to Giant’s Causeway and the dams of Decorated Knight and Gleneagles.”
“He’s very good-looking – almost as sexy as the stud manager here! – walks for fun and has loads of presence”
Storm The Stars’ dazzling distaff pedigree has inspired Stack to try something a little different with his own multi-purpose broodmare band this year.
“He’s got plenty of Flat mares booked in and I’m actually sending three of my own to him this year, including two by Acclamation,” he says. “I’m hoping to produce horses who either race on the level and show good form before selling at the horses in training sales, which seem so buoyant at the moment, or are precocious enough to win a bumper or a point-to-point, as that’s what the market wants.
“It’s a change of tack I’ve been thinking of for a while, as those sections of the business are so strong. We’ve got to mix it up a bit, and look at doing things a little differently, because studs like ours aren’t in a position to introduce a new stallion to the market and just sit back and wait for 300-odd mares to rock up at the gates.”
Competing with the colossuses of the Irish National Hunt industry, which have loyal followings and more money to spend on stallion material and marketing endeavours, is indeed a daunting task.
“We don’t have the budget to advertise our horses in their first two or three years, so we have to hope that word spreads about their first foals to get more custom, and luckily that’s exactly what has happened with Way To Paris,” says Stack. “The bigger studs can expect to cover 200 to 300 mares with their new horses, but I can only guarantee a fraction, so every mare you get is a triumph.
“It can be brutal. You can have a breeder who has a mare booked in for a late afternoon slot, but he has two other mares being covered elsewhere earlier in the day and it’s easier to stay there, so he rings up and says he’s not coming. It’s dog eat dog.”
The costs of keeping horses and running a breeding operation have also soared in recent times, in line with general inflationary trends.
“Feed, hay and straw bills have all gone up,” explains Stack. “We were paying €13 per bag of feed a year ago, and now we’re paying €17. We use about 130 bags per week. That’s an extra €500 a week, so costs have nearly gone up by 33 per cent.
“I can’t do anything about it. If you don’t feed the horses properly your clients won’t be happy, and I treat every horse like my own anyway. Then on top of all those other overheads you have the wage bill, and you have to pay more to get competent staff as they’re so hard to come by. I live for each July, when foals are registered and I’m paid.”
“The bigger studs can expect to cover 200 to 300 mares with their new horses, but I can only guarantee a fraction, so every mare you get is a triumph”
It begs the question, if operating an independent stallion stud leads to such a precarious existence, why not do something else? Stack is, for instance, an IT whizz and that sector notoriously pays well.
“I do it for the craic,” he replies drily. “No, the serious answer is that for all the downsides, the stress, the costs, the annoyances, when it goes right it gives you a high that drugs couldn’t give you.
“It can be something as simple as a mare who’s been barren for a few seasons and then comes back to us and clicks, and gets in foal on her first or second cover, or another mare who’s produced two disasters by other people’s stallions, and then gives birth to a lovely, healthy foal by one of ours.”
Much like how smaller, independent high street businesses compete against conglomerates by offering a more personalised, bespoke service, it no doubt stands Coolagown Stud in good stead that clients get to sample Stack’s unique views on life.
“Quietness is not something I do, I can’t help chatting and talking to everyone,” he says. “I don’t believe in sitting back, you’ve got to put yourself out there as an approachable personality. If you go around acting like an asshole people will think twice about doing business with you.
“If you’re at a big stud you could probably get away with insulting people’s wives as much as you want because for every client you lose there’s five more waiting to get in. I can’t do that; I know I have to sell my personality.”
Stack’s impish sense of humour isn’t always self-serving. He has been known to distribute tubs of sweets around the various offices on the sales grounds as thanks for their work behind the scenes.
“You don’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads, so a quick ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’, or even a crappy joke, could make a huge difference”
“It’s just a small gesture for the good work they do,” he says. “We’re all on the same team working together, and you’ve got to look after people. I’d like to think I wouldn’t treat the person in the Vauxhall any different from the one in the Merc.”
Stack’s outgoing personality serves another important purpose. He is keenly aware of the mental health issues that afflict a lot of people in the breeding industry, doing work that can be lonely, frustrating and financially difficult.
“You don’t know what’s going on in other people’s heads, so a quick ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’, or even a crappy joke, could make a huge difference,” he explains. “It’s particularly important in this business. I’ve had a few friends who have struggled, and I’ve told them they can call me whenever. I’d rather speak to them at two o’clock in the morning than deliver their eulogy.”
There’s no shortage of National Hunt stallions to choose between in Ireland, but it’s doubtful whether any besides Way To Paris, Storm The Stars and co are in the care of such a good egg. Here’s hoping they bring the jovial Stack some serious success.
Stars all the way
Irish National Hunt stallion masters have placed all their chips on Sea The Stars proving to be a proficient sire of sires. It doesn’t seem a bad bet, when the world champion son of Cape Cross generally gets good-looking, sound and stamina-blessed stock.
Besides Storm The Stars at Coolagown Stud, there are at least seven other sons in jumps or dual- purpose roles across the Irish Sea.
Several have been heavily mined by breeders in recent years. None more so than Affinisea, a three-parts brother to Soldier Of Fortune who sold to the Tsui family for €850,000 as a foal and won a Roscommon maiden in a light career for Jim Bolger.
He has been the busiest sire in Britain and Ireland for the past two seasons, covering 325 mares at Whytemount Stud in 2021 and 382 in 2022, on the back of his early foals looking the part and winning a few point-to-points. His oldest crop, aged five, contains the smart hurdlers Affordale Fury and Ifiwerearichman.
Whytemount Stud last year added another Sea The Stars son to its roster in Behesht, a Listed-winning three-parts brother to Grand Prix de Paris victor Behkabad. He had previously stood at Calumet Farm in Kentucky, and covered 59 mares in his debut Irish book.
Another hugely popular Sea The Stars son is Crystal Ocean, who took the unusual route of being crowned joint-world champion and then retiring straight into a jumps role at The Beeches Stud. The Prince of Wales’s Stakes winner, a half-brother to fellow top-flight winner and promising stallion Hillstar, has been sent 281, 302 and 352 mares in his first three seasons between 2020 and 2022.
Eagles By Day and Fifty Stars joined the throng of National Hunt sires by Sea The Stars in Ireland last year. Eagles By Day, out of teak-tough Lillie Langtry Stakes and Galway Hurdle winner Missunited, was a Group 3 winner and third to Japan in the King Edward VII Stakes, and stands at Glenview Stud, while Fifty Stars, a sibling to top hurdler Whiskey Sour, gained Group 1 laurels in Australia and was sent 76 mares at Sunnyhill Stud.
Harzand and Mekhtaal are the latest Sea The Stars sons drafted into jumps service in Ireland, along with Storm The Stars. Dual Derby hero Harzand, from a strong Aga Khan Studs family, sired some useful Flat horses like French Fusion and Soapy Stevens and a clutch of promising hurdlers at his old home of Gilltown Stud and he has now moved to Kilbarry Lodge Stud, while the well bred Prix d’Ispahan winner Mekhtaal transfers to Knockmullen House Stud after spending his first four seasons in France.
The French National Hunt stallion ranks still boast Sea The Stars’ Pattern- winning sons Knight To Behold and Stellar Mass, as well as the unraced Zaskar, who is out of Zarkava and is thus a half-brother to the upwardly mobile sire Zarak.
Curiously, Britain is yet to gain a jumps-orientated stallion son of Sea The Stars, for all that National Hunt breeders there must wish they had easy and inexpensive access to Flat options Baaeed, Sea The Moon and Stradivarius.