Consigning was far from the end goal when Adrian and Philippa O’Brien opened the doors to Hazelwood Bloodstock at Red House Stud near Newmarket on February 1, 2016. From the outside looking in, their rich backgrounds within the industry across both hemispheres made the launch of a new enterprise the logical step forward. Yet greatly aiding the venture was the fact they were able to offer a service with the backing of a small yet high-powered group of clients, several of them southern hemisphere breeders looking for a base to place their European interests.

Thus, the idea of a boutique boarding operation swiftly came to fruition. And as it turned out, the launch of a sales arm wasn’t far behind.

“Really, selling horses was about completing a range of services for our clients,” says Adrian O’Brien. “Our first consignment was at [Tattersalls October] Book 2 in 2017. We had three colts, one of which was a pinhook of my own. And it’s grown since then.”

Grown it has. Since that debut consignment, Hazelwood Bloodstock has gone on to top Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Sale in addition to two renewals of both Book 2 and the Tattersalls December Yearling Sale. Not only was the Book 1 sale-topper, a 3,600,000gns Dubawi half- brother to Barney Roy, the most expensive yearling to sell worldwide in 2019 but he was also one of two seven-figure yearlings within that particular Hazelwood draft, which averaged a whopping 1,958,333gns.

We are lucky in that they own some exceptional bloodstock, which makes it possible for us to do what we do

The ultimate aim, however, is the production of high-class racehorses and in that Hazelwood continues to compile an enviable record, one that is currently highlighted by the top-class American pair In Italian and McKulick, both sourced by agent Mike Ryan with trainer Chad Brown.

Closer to home, there are also various classy three-year-olds to look forward to in Hans Andersen, winner of the 2,000 Guineas Trial at Leopardstown, and Sounds Of Heaven, who made a winning return to action in the Michael Seely Memorial Stakes at York.

The quartet remain true to the ethos of Hazelwood as a boutique operation, with each being the well-bred products of highly successful breeders.

“We started with a terrific small group of clients who essentially all remain,” says O’Brien. “We are lucky in that they own some exceptional bloodstock, which makes it possible for us to do what we do.

“We foaled ten mares in our first year. We didn’t consign back then – there was too much else going on, we were trying to find our feet and establish a good base of staff. Then we prepared one Book 1 horse the following year, which was consigned through somebody else.

“It was never actually our intention to consign – it was never a driving force. But in 2017 we had those Book 2 colts, and then later that year [subsequent Group 1 winner] Barney Roy appeared on the racecourse and we happened to have – and still do – his dam Alina on the stud. She had a Kodiac yearling filly with us at the time. It was decided that she would go to the December Yearling Sale and she duly topped it at 400,000gns to David Redvers.”

Adrian and Philippa O’Brien have built Hazelwood up into one of the most successful bloodstock operations in Europe. Photo – Bill Selwyn

Those early results provided swift justification for the O’Brien family’s return to Newmarket, a decision that had required a cross-hemisphere move from Australia.

For 20 years, Adrian O’Brien was part of the Coolmore Australia team, latterly as stud manager, while Philippa was on the veterinary team at the renowned Woodlands Stud at the time it was under the ownership of Bob Ingham. O’Brien also spent three years as stud manager of Plantation Stud in Newmarket.

“The Hunter Valley was home for a long time,” he says. “I was lucky to work with some exceptional horses. I did a lot of flying with the stallions. I was with Galileo when he flew down there for the first time and I flew with Danehill many times. There’s too many to mention but Royal Academy would be one of my favourites.

“There were some magnificent mares too. Hveger [dam of Highland Reel and Idaho] springs to mind. What a phenomenon she’s been and now we have her daughter Via Condotti here, which is nice. She’s an exciting mare, a beauty.

“There are nice overlaps like that. We also board Reem, who has produced two Book 2 sale-toppers [the 750,000gns colt King Leonidas and 525,000gns colt Ziryab, a recent smart-looking winner at Leicester]. I remember her as a foal at Coolmore Australia. And I knew Florentina from down there too, and she’s now the dam of In Italian.”

Contacts made in Australia have helped Hazelwood carve a niche as a base for those mares owned by southern hemisphere interests. While a number remain in Newmarket to drop northern hemisphere-bred stock for their owners, the southern hemisphere covering season also assumes a sizeable element of the 120-acre operation. One such mare ended up being Florentina, who was covered by Kingman to southern hemisphere time in 2018 after foaling In Italian. The resulting colt was foaled and raised at Hazelwood and later shipped to Australia, where he sold at the 2021 Magic Millions Gold Coast Sale for A$1.8 million.

“Red House Stud is absolutely steeped in history,” says O’Brien. “I didn’t ever want to trade as Red House as I felt that was somebody else’s work – it was Tom Warner, managed by Alma Taylor and advised by Robert Percival. And they had great success, especially with that good mare Star, who bred Pastoral Pursuits and Goodricke. Mansingh and Petong also stood here with success.

Philippa is also a vet. It’s a stud business model that works really, really well

“I wanted a mobile name for ourselves, so that’s how Hazelwood Bloodstock came about. We are lucky to have some great facilities on our doorstep – [veterinary hospital] Rossdales is only down the road. And of course Philippa is also a vet. It’s a stud business model that works really, really well. It means you have a first opinion within seconds. And she knows the mares so well, she knows every quirk and trait, and that knowledge is layered further over time.”

In Italian: Grade 1-winning mare was raised and sold by Hazelwood on behalf of John Camilleri. Photo – Keeneland

He adds: “It’s really good-draining land here as well. Let’s remember that we’re less than a mile away from where last year’s Derby winner [Desert Crown, bred by Strawberry Fields Stud] was bred and raised. It all just proves you can breed and raise a good horse in Newmarket.

“So we knew the farm could produce a good horse, we knew it was on good land and so we really had no excuses. And we’ve been working on improving the farm facilities and the mares ever since.”

The farm has indeed continued to churn out good horses. Its high-profile resident mares include Astrelle, a Group 3-placed daughter of Makfi whose stud record for Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Maktoum’s Essafinaat UK Ltd consists of three black-type winners from her first three foals. Fearless King, her 2017 colt by Kingman, set the ball rolling as winner of the German 2,000 Guineas prior to taking up stud duty in Germany. He was followed by the Pride Of Dubai filly Just Beautiful, winner of the Sceptre Stakes, and then McKulick, whose wins for Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown include last year’s Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational. Now the earner of close to $1.2 million, the Frankel filly remains in training this season.

“Astrelle is an extraordinary mare who has her quirks – for instance, she always foals standing up,” says O’Brien. “She’s not over big and nor are her stock, but they can all run.

“McKulick was very well bought by Mike Ryan [for 180,000gns at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Sale]. She wasn’t the biggest and if we’re completely honest, she didn’t walk as well as the market demands. Mike bought her very well. He puts in the work and he’s a phenomenal judge. I think he looks at horses differently from some others at the sales – he’s about tempo and rhythm. And the results speak for themselves.”

Remarkably, McKulick was one of two Grade 1 winners purchased off Hazelwood in the Tattersalls ring by the powerful Ryan – Brown partnership in as many years after In Italian. Bought on behalf of Peter Brant, the Dubawi filly shook off a bad case of pneumonia as a three-year-old to rise through the ranks, ultimately developing into a consistent Grade 1 performer. She is particularly effective at Keeneland, where she has turned in front-running Grade 1 victories in the First Lady and Jenny Wiley Stakes and also ran second to Tuesday in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Bred by John Camilleri’s Fairway Thoroughbreds, she was a 475,000gns Book 1 purchase by Ryan.

“In Italian came in the amazing year when we topped the sale at 3.6 million guineas and got 1.8 million guineas for the Kingman colt out of One Last Dance,” says O’Brien. “475,000gns obviously isn’t an insignificant amount of money but she turned out to be the best of them all.

“I pulled up her foaling report the other day and while it’s easy to say with hindsight, we did like her from the beginning. She wasn’t a rich chestnut, she was a washy chestnut, which isn’t always appealing in  the commercial marketplace. But she was very well-made with a beautiful temperament just like her mother.

“She never had a sick day and everything went well with her. She just grew along in the background and turned out to be a very nice yearling.”

Another bred by Camilleri, Sounds Of Heaven, looked destined for better things when winning a competitive Leopardstown maiden at the back end of 2022, an idea she duly justified when making a successful reappearance in Listed company at York’s Dante meeting. Group 1 targets surely now beckon.

As befits a filly who commanded 650,000gns from Craig Bernick’s Glen Hill Farm as a yearling, she is bred in the purple as a daughter of Ring The Bell, a Galileo full-sister to the Newmarket and Irish 1,000 Guineas heroine Hermosa and her multiple Group 1-winning sibling Hydrangea. Ring The Bell’s first foal, Voice Of Angels, was Listed-placed in Ireland last year while her third foal, a colt by Dubawi, was sold by Hazelwood for 1,500,000gns to Godolphin at Tattersalls last October.

“Ring The Bell is a very exciting mare,” says O’Brien. “Sounds Of Heaven looks very smart. She’s the most beautiful looking filly. The mare gets good-looking stock – there’s another good one on the ground this year – and of course it’s such a brilliant family.”

Sounds Of Heaven was part of the same three-year-old crop as Hans Andersen, who opened his season with a win in the Leopardstown 2,000 Guineas Trial. The Frankel colt was a 450,000gns Tattersalls October Book 1 purchase by MV Magnier and immediately showed a smart level of form for Aidan O’Brien last season, with a defeat of subsequent Group 1 winner Al Riffa at the Curragh followed by a win in the Futurity Stakes.

I remember Ed Dunlop coming down to look at them and it was just one after the other. He turned to me and said ‘Adrian, how do you sleep at night?’ I said ‘Ed, I don’t!’

“We’ve been fortunate to have a good few Frankels come through the place and Hans Andersen was definitely the best-looking and best-moving of them all,” says O’Brien. “He’s a beautiful animal. I suppose there might have been a little bit of a question mark about his dam [Listed winner Shadow Hunter] at the time of his sale but he’s clearly a good horse. We also had his brother here and he was retained and has gone to Joseph O’Brien.”

He adds: “The consigning side has grown. We had four Dubawis in Book 1 last year. That’s not the be all and end all but I remember Ed Dunlop coming down to look at them and it was just one after the other. He turned to me and said ‘Adrian, how do you sleep at night?’ I said ‘Ed, I don’t!’”

Of course, no stud large or small can cope without a trusted network of staff and O’Brien is effusive in the praise of his team, which are led by stud manager Tom Hughes.

“Everyone says their team are the best and I truly believe mine are,” he says. “I knew Tom when I was in the Hunter Valley and he was the yearling manager at Segenhoe Stud. His family bred that good sprinter Mind Games.

“Tom moved back to England around the same time as we did. He did a spell at Newsells Park Stud before coming here, and he’s been with us now for about six and a half years. He’s exceptional at preparing horses for sale.

“We have a cracking bunch of people here. That is the hardest part in this business – getting and retaining staff. But then you have to pay them well and you have to provide good conditions.”

In very little time, the Hazelwood brand has come to run hand in hand with the idea of quality. Once again there will be a high-powered draft of yearlings on offer this year, and who knows, perhaps another In Italian or McKulick is among them.

“We don’t consign too many for outsiders,” says O’Brien. “They’re almost all homegrown products, bar the odd pinhook which I enjoy, and it’s a great privilege to be able to take that kind of stock to a sale on behalf of our clients.”

Via Condotti (left) and Ring The Bell are among the Hazelwood residents. Photo – Bill Selwyn