How did you feel about the Godolphin Stud & Stable Staff Awards in 2017, first to be nominated, then to actually win the Stud Staff category and Employee of the Year title?
It’s lovely to be nominated. I think it’s important that people appreciate their staff – and that’s the same across every industry.
When you see the Godolphin Stud & Stable Staff Awards mentioned in the press, it seems very distant, until someone is nominated, then it comes into your world.
Once I was into the final four, I started to look at the opposition – like checking the race entries! When it comes down to three very good candidates you start to get excited.
Everyone on the shortlists was capable of winning the big prize
In truth, I would have been disappointed not to win the stud category – I’m very competitive. It’s how you have to be in this job; my yearlings have to look outstanding.
I would not accept criticism of my yearlings because, in my view, they are the best.
On the evening, when you held the trophy and heard the applause, what was your overriding emotion and had you ever felt like that before?
I was delighted to win the stud category. As much as anything I was pleased for the stud – you are putting the entire farm into the public domain. Everybody here on the estate was aware of what was going on. Andrew and Madeleine were on the phone to Simon [Marsh, General Manager] during the awards wanting to know what was happening. It’s difficult to put it into perspective.
It’s a shock to the system. There’s elation at winning – then you can sit back and have a glass of wine!
The night is wonderful; you’re in a lovely hotel and you’ve got this wonderful meal but, to be honest, you don’t even notice what you’re eating.
Everyone on the shortlists was capable of winning the big prize. You’re up against some proper horsemen and women who have spent decades and lifetimes doing what they love doing.
In a way, the Employee of the Year wasn’t as important as the Stable Staff Award. Though the former is for you and that makes you intensely proud that you’ve gained something for yourself. I’m equally proud of both trophies.
In your view, what can a nomination do for an employee’s morale, and his place of work?
I think it lifts the entire farm/stud. Everyone is part of the nomination and there’s a knock-on effect.
All the staff at Watership Down Stud felt the uplift – they all knew about the nomination – and of course they benefited financially from the success.
What has life been like since the Awards – has it changed your outlook in any way?
I think I’m more aware of the outside world now. You live in your own little bubble and people come inside it for only a few weeks a year when you go to the sales.
That’s the only time you meet everybody. It’s a very isolated existence. You spend your life working, you love what you do and you don’t care to go out into the wider world.
The award widened my appreciation of the industry in general – it’s a wider circle than you imagine.
When you joined Watership Down Stud in 1992 there was no infrastructure and no broodmares. How did you go about getting the operation up and running?
Basically, all we had was a view! In 1992 we had eventers here – Mark Todd was practising on the farm ahead of the Barcelona Olympics. The yard was here but the rest of it was a country park.
At first, Madeleine and Andrew had more National Hunt horses. That was Madeleine’s passion, but it wasn’t mine. I’m a Flat man. So that was the question in the first few years and I wouldn’t have stayed if we had continued on that path.
There’s a lot of pleasure in building the farm, laying out paddocks
It wasn’t until Simon went to America and bought a mare called Silver Lane for a lot of money that I thought the focus was seriously changing to the Flat.
Andrew was getting more involved and asked what the end game was, because National Hunt horses were simply retired after racing.
So they decided they would go out and buy a select group of mares, with the idea of racing the fillies and selling the colts. That’s what I wanted to do.
There’s a lot of pleasure in building the farm, laying out paddocks, etc. That’s what we did in the first couple of years. It’s all been done gently and that continues to this day – some years we bought one mare or none at all.
The stud has been self-funding for the past 25 years because of the quality of the broodmares. Credit to Michael Youngs, a fantastic pedigree man who has been behind the majority of the pedigrees that we have bought, including Darara, who was the real game-changer.
The Lloyd-Webbers are passionate about their horses. How involved are they at Watership Down Stud?
Andrew and Madeleine are behind the whole thing. Madeleine is a businesswoman, very driven and so astute. Andrew doesn’t just sign the cheques; there has to be a plan in place.
We have only a few horses in training and the key thing with Andrew is that you do not want his racing colours trailing home in last – it’s not what he is about.
You would never send Andrew racing to watch his horse come home six lengths off the pace. Racing is a bug and Andrew loves it.
The dream when it’s born is that you have bred a racehorse
His horses have taken him around the world and his colours are now famous. Andrew and Madeleine love producing top-class horses.
However, the stud has to pay for itself and the horses sent to the sales help pay the bills.
You are known to have been present for every foaling at the stud over the past 25 years. Is that the part of the job you enjoy the most – or do you get more satisfaction from watching the progeny race?
I’m always around, yes. We foal our own and of course have some outside clients, such as Bjorn Nielsen, who shares his mares between here and Kiltinan. Stradivarius was foaled at Kiltinan and came here for his sales prep.
The majority of Watership horses are here, but if they go to an Irish stallion they will stay at Kiltinan. It’s our sister stud.
The dream when it’s born is that you have bred a racehorse. You love them all – it’s something special being present when a new life comes into the world and there’s great pleasure in that.
But there’s also great pleasure in racing and watching your homebred beat the best on the racecourse.
Current stars Too Darn Hot and Lah Ti Dar follow the likes of Crystal Music, Dar Re Mi, Rewilding, The Fugue and So Mi Dar as Watership Down Stud graduates. Is there one horse that stands out for you, either as a youngster or on the racecourse?
Yes, I would say two moments stand out on the track. Dar Re Mi and Rewilding winning back-to-back Sheema Classics. For the dam that is phenomenal. That made Darara very special, and with her last two foals. Also, The Fugue beating Magician and Treve at Royal Ascot – she owed him one after the Breeders’ Cup.
The Fugue was special as a foal, a little timebomb! She would run around our acre wood for hours. That’s just what she wanted to do – she wanted to run from just a few days old.
My role is to nurture these young horses as if they were my own
With breeding horses, one dream gets shattered but the next one is on the way. That’s how it works.
Dar Re Mi is a stunning mare. You can walk into a paddock with 20 mares and find her instantly. She’s just beautiful – the kind of horse Gainsborough painted under every tree.
Watership Down Stud had 35 yearlings catalogued in Books 1 and 2 at Tattersalls’ October Sale. Can you truly enjoy the sales when there must be a high degree of pressure at this very busy time?
It’s the culmination of a lot of work but the pressures are not there from the horses, only from other people and the process of selling. I do enjoy the finished product, taking them to the sales and seeing what they can achieve.
Too Darn Hot’s full brother realised 3,500,000gns at Tattersalls’ Book 1 Sale. How did you feel, before and after he went under the hammer?
The yearling was always a very nice horse with a big reputation as a stand-out colt for the October Sale and we knew it was possible to break the million-pound barrier. What we didn’t know was how the market would value him.
My role is to nurture these young horses as if they were my own and try to keep them in one piece. We give all the horses at Watership Down the same care and attention.
We were over the moon at the colt’s achievement and just hope he can repay his new owners by helping them achieve their own dreams.
Of course, the week was capped by Too Darn Hot winning the Dewhurst. Dar Re Mi has always held a special place in the hearts of all who have met her. I knew she would produce a top-class horse and now she has, a champion two-year-old.
This mare has followed her dam and grandam into the blue-blood elite – she was born and raised under my care and the care and dedication of the Watership team. We are proud to be part of her life and delighted she is part of our lives.
How did your career start?
My career began in 1979 at Garrowby Stud – as a tractor driver rather than a horseman. I could ride horses but not very well. John Johnson, the stud groom, was the driving force behind my ambition, in a way.
In his cottage, he had a silver-plated horse shoe on the mantelpiece belonging to Shirley Heights, from when he won the Derby. That’s where my ambition comes from; I’ve always wanted a shoe from a Derby winner.
In my life, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. I’m 60 now and I hope I’m getting closer!
The industry is the long game and this job’s the long game
Then I went to Theakston Stud, with John McIntyre. I was 25 and he thought I was too young to run a three-stallion stud. He taught me a lot, although it was hard work. If you wanted a day off you fed before you went out and clocked in on your return. I was handling stallions, foaling mares, 360 days a year.
It wasn’t until I saw an advert for Meon Valley that I thought about leaving.
At the time they had Bella Colora, the dam of Stagecraft. I was at Meon Valley for four years. I remember taking Stagecraft to the sales and it was the first time Sheikh Mohammed spoke to me, asking about the horse’s temperament. He bought him for a lot of money.
What would you say to someone thinking about embarking on a career in the breeding industry?
You have to be passionate – and patient. The industry is the long game and this job’s the long game. It takes a long time to learn this role and it’s tough work but the rewards are phenomenal.
Aim high and try to be the best.
Why would you encourage people to nominate a staff member for the Awards?
Every stud has at least one potential staff member that could be nominated for the Stud & Stable Staff Awards. Put them in the mix and give them a chance.
Even if you’ve nominated someone before and they didn’t make it through, nominate them again. Be brave. It will lift everybody where they work.
Every stud should have a member of staff they think the world of.
The TBA’s Economic Impact Study, covered in this issue, tells the plight of small breeders in Britain. What observation would you make on this subject?
The number of coverings per stallion has become ridiculous. When I first started it was 42 mares as a maximum for each stallion. Now you’ve got one stallion covering 220 mares; you’re shortening your gene pool.
As a small breeder, if your lesser-bred mare’s progeny is one of 70 by a stallion at auction, you’re pushed to the bottom. More horses but less choice is no good for anyone.
Finally, how do you switch off and what would be the ideal day spent away from the horses?
I love walking. I’m a country boy from Yorkshire. So I’d spend the day outside walking, and I love to do that here when I can.