Coolmore (Part one - the early years)

Filed on 20 Mar 2006 @ 16:20

Flat racing is made all the more fascinating by the fact that every season brings a fresh crop of thoroughbreds and a new set of dreams for their connections. However, whereas each generation of horses is restricted to a single Classic campaign, in the year-round whirl of bloodstock buying, history has an amazing habit of repeating itself. If you need proof, read on...

Back in July 1985, at Keeneland Sales, Lexington, Kentucky, a group of sombre-faced Irishmen accompanied by a high-rolling entourage headed by Robert Sangster lifted the already balmy bloodstock market to a new height when paying $13.1 million for a Northern Dancer colt subsequently named Seattle Dancer. The purchase - for which the billionaire Maktoum family of Dubai came off second best - was made on behalf of Coolmore, a stud operation just ten years old but already the largest and most internationally-aware outfit in thoroughbred breeding.

In a rare interview a decade earlier, the then 27-year-old John Magnier outlined his plans for Coolmore:

The then 27-year-old John Magnier outlined his plans for Coolmore

"If we keep stallions here and stand them very a short time we would be buying tenth-rate stallions – and when we went to the yearling sales nobody would want our produce," he said. "We have got to avail ourselves of the outside markets and stand stallions which will have international appeal as well."


That evening at Keeneland was all part of the Coolmore masterplan and those who had known Magnier, a tall imposing figure with a steely gaze, from an early age never doubted that he was going to be a big success in life. Magnier grew up at Grange Stud close to Fermoy in Co Cork in an area that had been synonymous with National Hunt breeding for years. Born on February 10 1948, and educated privately at Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick, he left school aged 15 following the death of his father Tom.

He helped his mother Evie (whose sister Mimi was married to the late former Jockey Club senior steward Lord Manton) run Grange Sud, and visitors to the farm recall seeing a young John Magnier milking the family's dairy herd. The Magnier family had bred National Hunt horses since the 1850s and Grange Stud's stallions had included Cottage, who died aged 24 in January 1942 and posthumously sired Vincent O'Brien's triple Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Cottage Rake.

The O'Brien family from Churchtown and the Magniers went back a long way. John Magnier's mother had been matron of honour at Vincent's wedding in 1951, so it was very appropriate that, in the summer of 1975, John married O'Brien's daughter Susan. The couple now have five children.

"Exceptional ability"

Vincent O'Brien, himself a successful breeder long before Coolmore, once said of Magnier: "He is a man of exceptional ability; he thinks big, deals shrewdly, and is most-knowledgeable about bloodlines and everything to do with the stud business. John is so able I feel he would have reached the top of whatever profession he chose, and our very close association has been the greatest pleasure to me - it is a joy to work with someone of his calibre."

There is mutual admiration between the pair and Magnier said of O'Brien: "Not only would I describe him as a great trainer - he is on a plane apart when it comes to breeding matters - Vincent can compete with anybody in buying on looks alone. He could, I am certain, pick a potential winner, even a future champion, without even looking at the pedigree. Nobody before Vincent, or likely to come after him, could ever match his knowledge of pedigrees and bloodlines. It's uncanny really."

After taking charge of Grange Stud, the ambitious Magnier bought nearby Castle Hyde Stud to add to his portfolio and by the mid-1970s was building up a thriving operation. Further north, Wing Commander Tim Vigors was developing Coolmore Stud in which Vincent O'Brien, whose Ballydoyle stable was just a few miles away, became a partner in 1973.

O'Brien recruited Magnier, whom he regarded as "the most capable young man in Europe for the job", to manage Coolmore when Vigors, who was to drop out of the partnership following a divorce, wished to move out of Ireland. Magnier, via bloodstock agent Jack Doyle, had met Vernon's football pools heir Robert Sangster at Haydock in 1971 when in Britain to buy Green God to stand at Castle Hyde. Sangster, 12 years older than Magnier, was impressed by the young Irishman and supported Green God.


Both were ambitious and in January 1975 the Vigors/O'Brien partnership announced an amalgamation with Sangster and Magnier, to form an operation known as Coolmore, Castle Hyde and Associated Studs. Gay O'Callaghan, who had run Castle Hyde Stud, helped manage the fledgling operation with Magnier, while other early key members of staff included eventual general manager Bob Lanigan and former jockey Tommy Stack, as well as Magnier's brothers David, who continues to run the family's Grange Stud, and Peter.

The Coolmore philosophy, dreamt up by Magnier and put into practice through Sangster's wealth and O'Brien's training skills, was to buy into the hugely lucrative stallion market by acquiring potential sires either at the sales or produce them in the breeding shed. A number of other investors were involved and the partnership who owned the $13.1 million yearling, bought through British Bloodstock Agency director Joss Collins, was typical of the make-up of those at the time. Sangster and Coolmore took a 65 per cent stake, Greek shipping billionaire Stavros Niarchos had a quarter and wealthy San Francisco builder Danny Schwartz owned ten per cent.

Other investors in the various syndicates included Alan Clore, son of wealthy financier Sir Charles Clore, Jack Mulcahy, the Irish-born American steel magnate who had advised Vincent O'Brien to take a share in all his own horses, Paris-based Jean-Pierre Binet, Bob Fluor of the American-based Fluor Corporation, Swiss billionaire Walter Haefner, London insurance broker Charles St George, Scottish aristocrat Simon Fraser, Irish property developer Patrick Gallagher and Yorkshire-based David Aykroyd.

Vincent O'Brien would be joined at the sales by a trusted team of advisers, including his brother and right-hand man Phonsie, Coolmore's vet Bob Griffin, bloodstock agent Tom Cooper of the BBA's Irish division and the father of Alan Cooper, racing manager to Stavros Niarchos, and colourful Californian agent Billy McDonald.

Big spenders

The sales team were entrusted with huge sums with which, effectively, to gamble on a mega scale. But Magnier's bold strategy was soon paying dividends. The first crop of sales purchases included the Derby winner The Minstrel, Eclipse winner Artaius and Be My Guest, who had been bought at Goffs for Ir127,000gns and will always be fondly remembered at Coolmore.

The first crop of sales purchases included Derby winner The Minstrel

Having started covering for Ir5,000gns at Coolmore in 1978, his fee rose to Ir75,000gns as he was initially champion first-season sire and then Britain and Ireland's champion stallion in 1982. Be My Guest, who died aged 30 in 2004, is remembered at Coolmore - and at Goffs - by a life-sized bronze.

There were many other outstanding results on the racecourse or at stud in those early years from such greats as Sadler's Wells, who was bred by Sangster's Swettenham Stud out of a mare bought as a yearling at Keeneland, El Gran Senor, Be My Guest's son Assert, Alleged, Storm Bird, Golden Fleece, Fairy King and Caerleon. They laid the foundations for a bloodstock empire that has continued to grow and while many of the main players, both human and equine, may no longer be around, John Magnier's Coolmore is still a breeding operation without parallel.

Filed on 20 Mar 2006 @ 16:20