We've all had them, those redoubtable matriarchs deep etched in the annals of our sport, who've "outbred" the rest of us two-to-one through the guile and dedication that belongs to womanhood in the horse game more than to its male counterparts. It's always dangerous to generalise, and I guess I'll pick up a bit of flak for categorizing it thus, but most of them are either single or could've done what they have without the men around them, stretching the laws of gravity in the breeding game well beyond its usual norms. We've had our eccentric Pat O' Neil, England has its Kirsten Rausing, Australia has Cathy Haines, France has long celebrated the name of Madame Jean Couturier, and Ireland has Sonia Rogers and Pat O' Kelly. To be fair to all of them, each might have differentiated themselves in one form or another from the stereotypes I've portrayed here, none more so than Mrs Rogers who enjoyed a long and fruitful marriage to her late husband, Captain Tim Rogers of Airlie Stud. Another thing they have in common is the riveting attention you get when talking about all things equine, and while it's not necessarily universal, I have noticed in more than a few of them a certain vagueness in their expressions and a dimming blur across their eyes when the subject turns to economics. Typical of the characters I've portrayed here, none of them are conscious of or could care less about the waves they've made through the horses they've bred, and in several of them there is an attractive reticence bordering on shyness.
I've chosen my subject today for two reasons, the first of which is the locality of her stud farm on the banks of Ireland's River Boyne, where the Gosses fought alongside the McGuires at the Battle that took its name from that famous stretch of water; and my second purpose is the celebration of yet another headline-grabbing sale by the Kilcarn Stud at Goffs Orby last week.
As you approach Navan, about a half hour north west of Dublin, the glade of trees on the left conceals the entrance to a striking avenue. Bordered by endless paddocks on either side, the road leads you to a 200 acre farm which ranks with the world's most successful thoroughbred nurseries. There is something of a Miss Marple about Miss Patricia O' Kelly, and rather like Agatha Christie's legendary sleuth, she stands shorter than most people, but, in terms of the horses she's bred, she's head and shoulders above all of us mortals. You won't find her on Twitter at the sales nor checking her emails with a furrowed brough, she doesn't demand attention or hassle buyers, she'll simply do what she's done for longer than most yearling buyers have been alive: offering another sterling draft of yearlings, which she's been doing for more than 70 years. Success in the world of racehorses is hard to come by, we all know that, and when it arrives, it often invokes assumptions from those on the side that it's the way to instant riches. Until you've been there yourself, you'll never know its testing hardships and its personal sacrifices.
Kilcarn was acquired sight-unseen by Major Ned O' Kelly at the height of the Second World War; unruffled by the ravages of one of the great human tragedies of our time, he commissioned his brother to buy it in his absence.
John O' Kelly arrived on a pony and trap from his Ballygoran Stud in Maynooth while Ned was away in Melton Mowbray on active service with the Royal Veterinary Corps, and duly did the deal. Boarded out of the war through an injury from an old flying accident, the Major returned to Ireland with his wife and daughter in 1943. While you might have anticipated an altogether different product coming out of a sophisticated London boarding school, the lure of horses, dogs and the outdoor life was a magnet for the adolescent Pat which remains undimmed to this day. When, at the age of 18 she might've yearned to see more of the world and broaden her horizons, the untimely death of mum Marjorie put an end to any aspirations she might've held beyond the farm. She was needed at home, and in those days, young people answered the call. To understand the constraints of life in the rural Ireland of the age, you should remember that without much petrol, travel for the average family came via horse or bicycle, which in the context of modern Ireland breathes hope for the future of South Africa. The family's smartest mode of transport was a trap and a cob they bought from Spicer's Bakery; to get a mare covered on the other side of town, the O' Kellys hitched her up to the trap at daybreak and returned after sunset. That wasn't so long ago. By today's measures, it's extraordinary to see how Ireland has progressed, and while I can't take you back to the war years, I can speak personally of the quirky country alleyways, the back-to-front road signs and the upside-down expression of the English language that still embraced the Emerald Isle when we bought Northern Guest in 1983.
While Ireland has undergone seismic shifts since those days, and as recently as 2008 boasted the second-highest living standards in Europe, not much has changed in the way they do things at Kilcarn. I was at Darley's Dalham Hall Stud in England not so long ago, and was asked if I would share my stallion-viewing time with a small party of ladies from across the Irish Sea. While we'd never formally met, I knew exactly who Pat O' Kelly was, and surprisingly for a Zulu farmer, she knew who I was; we instantly struck up a chord, talking horses of course.
I've been relieved in my time to know that there are other people in our business who like me, are not too smart with a computer. One of them is Coolmore's John Magnier, and here was another living proof that life in the fast lane can be bearable even for the technologically challenged. Pat O' Kelly maintains the tradition of a manual record of every horse that graces her pastures at Kilcarn in the form of the original Stud Book, featuring a double page entry for every mare since inception. On the left the pedigree lineage is written up in longhand, as well as the source and the cost of any additions which were not homebred. Every horse includes a record of its progeny at the sales, some personal remarks and when they've passed on, a death notice. The progeny are listed on the right, including the sire, the name and the race report. It's comforting to know, we're not so far behind the civilized world at Summerhill!
There are those that devote a lifetime to the toil of breeding racehorses with only a modicum of success, but when genius combines with the single-minded dedication that resides so strongly in the womenfolk of our game, it's a recipe for an explosion. In a matter of five years, Kilcarn had already produced a champion English two year old, Big Dipper, and Le Sage would lower the colours of the best European milers in Goodwood's Sussex Stakes under the hands of the immortal Gordon Richards.
An Irish Derby hero and the winner of England's oldest classic, the St Leger, came courtesy of Sodium in 1966, while the leading racer and stallion Pitskelly, was spawned just four years later. Other milestones came from the triple Group One star Snurge, who set new standards in European prize money, and the Royal Ascot celebrity Banimpire, but the ground-shaking story in Kilcarn's history was the acquisition of a Welsh Pageant filly foal on Tuesday, December 4th 1973 at the Tattersalls December Sale. Welsh Flame by name, she was knocked down for 11 000 guineas and won four races, before her consignment to the Kilcarn paddocks. Like all of us, the O'Kelly's have their preferences in the acquisition of mares: Ned O' Kelly didn't mind them being on the small side, he preferred a quality type rather than a lumbering giant, and his record tells us he had a practised eye. Unusually, he insisted on breaking his youngsters in before taking them to the sales, to avoid the pitfalls of a poor education and the hard mouths that follow necks stretched against the bit. He also knew what a good sales preparation could do for the money in the ring.
As part of the full circle that characterizes the breeding of thoroughbreds, Welsh Flame's first yearling was a filly by Artaius, who stood at the Rogers' family's Airlie Stud, where our own Greig Muir "did" some of his time in Ireland. As fate would have it, Flame Of Tara was unable to go to the sales, and wound up in training with a youthful Jim Bolger, among the founder donors at our School Of Management Excellence. The filly did what she needed to do and won the Coronation Stakes (Gr.1) at Royal Ascot. Here was the genesis of a fairy story.
Flame Of Tara's second foal was Salsabil, a daughter of Sadler's Wells who won five Group One races including the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket, the Oaks at Epsom and became the first filly in 90 years to win the Irish Derby. Her classic credentials were already on the scoreboard when her brother (by Last Tycoon) topped the Cartier Million Sale at around the time Cheryl and I were exchanging our Hillcrest home for Hartford. Marju earned his fame with a runner-up effort to Generous in the Derby before claiming Group One glory in the best three year old mile in Europe, the St James Palace at Royal Ascot. They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but there is no stopping a "blue hen", and her next daughter Danse Royale, came out under Lester Piggott at Deauville to claim the Prix de Psyche. Suddenly, the whole world wanted a piece of the "Flame" family, and for many years it has taken Pat O'Kelly and her team to the mountain top at Goffs. Here's the full circle again; the family's filly by Raven's Pass out of Spirit Of Tara topped the sale again last week at €2 million.
Before I revert to the "matriarchs" I've talked about here and the idiosyncracies that mark their personas, another characteristic most of them share is a self-effacing manner that doesn't know the awe in which the thoroughbred world holds them. Just recently, Pat O' Kelly admitted to being a stranger to most of the buyers in her own Lilliput, while "some I only know by sight. And lots of them don't know me of course". Like hell they don't! "I would be interested to know who's who, but I think sometimes they are afraid to talk to me as I'm rather reserved by nature, and it's quite difficult to introduce myself. I hope some of them might come and say hello". If ever you're wanting to shake hands with a legend, there's your invite.
Pat O'Kelly & Major Ned O'kelly / Goffs Orby Magazine (p)