Remember Barley from Darley, he of the riveting lecture on Sheikh Mohammed's pre-training programme in Australia. At last year's Winter School, Barley Ward-Thomas delivered a paper on what the Darley operation Down Under had done to address the consequences of losing to the commercial market a horse like Pierro, described by Australia's top trainer, Gai Waterhouse as the best two-year-old she'd ever trained. Pre-Pierro, unlike his horse breeding and racing activities elsewhere in the world, Sheikh Mohammed's Australian operation was run on commercial lines, which meant that the bulk of the young stock, whatever their credentials, were for sale.
Australia has one of the most vibrant racing and breeding industries on the planet, and the upside value in a potential stallion is enormous. While most commercial farms have to sell to make or maintain their viability, Sheikh Mohammed has a sovereign wealth fund in his backyard that makes selling horses a novelty rather than a necessity, and the lesson with Pierro, who now graces the paddocks of his principal rivals, Coolmore, was never to let a good thing go.
The most sought-after stallion prospects in Australia often emanate from the winners of their celebrated two-year-old race, the Golden Slipper, the richest race of its kind in the world: any colt claiming the gold in the 'Slipper', is instantly worth a minimum of Aus$10 million (R100 million,) but most times well in excess of that. The success of the Darley Australia programme in developing their young horses, and in particular their two-year-olds, is best expressed in the fact that of the top twenty eligibles on the merit log for this year's renewal of the Slipper in March, an astonishing eight (or 40%) are graduates of the Darley programme; while Barley was typically modest in volunteering it, it's evident from results, that nowhere else, not in Europe, Britain, Ireland, or America, does the Darley programme come anywhere near the hit rate of the 'boys in blue' in Oz. If the truth be known, the only other operation that can claim comparable success in that department anywhere in the world, is Coolmore. Which reminds us, some things never change.
Kelsey Riley reports that the likely chart topper for the time being is the TDN Rising Star, Ottoman (Exceed and Excel), the current 6-1 co-favorite for the Golden Slipper alongside the Gai Waterhouse-trained colt and fellow Rising Star, Vancouver (Medaglia d'Oro). Ottoman will still have to have her running shoes on, however. Among the high-class rivals she will face is her own stablemate Holler (Commands). He and Ottoman both recently returned to John O'Shea's Crown Lodge Stables after a brief freshening at Darley's Osborne Park training facility just outside Sydney. Godolphin's juvenile contingent was strengthened again on the weekend when it provided the exacta in the Listed Lonhro Plate at Randwick with Haptic (Exceed and Excel) and Furnaces (Exceed and Excel), and that pair are now 10-1 and 12-1, respectively, for the Slipper.
"With about 170 yearlings to enter its racing stables each year, it no doubt takes some serious organization to ensure each horse is given a chance to reach its highest potential. According to Jason Walsh, Racing Manager of Godolphin in Australia and Bloodstock Manager of Darley Australia, that process begins from birth. "The vast majority of our foals are born and reared at Darley Woodlands in the Hunter Valley under the management of John Sunderland," he said. "A smaller number are born and reared at Seymour in Victoria, at Darley Northwood Park under the guidance of Stud Manager David Collison." He continued, "These young horses are routinely inspected and monitored for their development and progress, and as they approach January of their yearling year (15-16 months of age) they are sorted into groups based on pedigrees and physical attributes with a view to sorting them into those that are expected to be the more precocious of the crop. This is a fluid process, but is designed to ensure that those horses likely to make an early appearance on the racecourse are broken in the early part of the year."
"The breaking and pre-training process takes place at Darley Kelvinside, just outside Scone in the Hunter Valley. Kelvinside was the first Australian property purchased by Darley in 2003, and is the base for its stallions. Darley has seven properties in Australia: Kelvinside and Woodlands Studs in the Hunter Valley; Northwood Park in Victoria; Twin Hills in Cootamundra and three training centers: Crown Lodge at Warwick Farm in Sydney; Carbine Lodge at Flemington Racecourse, home of the Melbourne Cup, in Victoria; and Osborne Park outside Sydney."
Walsh noted the process of breaking in an individual at Kelvinside takes about four weeks.
"We are very mindful that the system is designed to suit each individual horse and their requirements," Walsh explained. "Even as young foals and yearlings, the horses are subject to a good deal of handling to accustom them to life as a racehorse, and the breaking process for that reason requires little confrontation. Once each individual is deemed prepared after breaking-in, it will transfer to Crown Lodge for one week with trainer John O'Shea, who will then have the opportunity to inspect each horse and introduce it to life in a city training environment. After that week each horse is sent for a spell - a break away from training for a week at Twin Hills, about a four-hour drive inland from Sydney."
"The Godolphin juveniles receive a short, gradual introduction to exercise over a four week period, followed by a period out of training of a similar duration to refresh both mentally and physically. That cycle continues, and the most precocious of the crop have had up to four cycles through the racing stables by the time of their official second birthday on 1 August. From there, training intensifies, and the most precocious of the lot will be prepared for the first significant juveniles stakes in Sydney and Melbourne the first week of October." Walsh said those early racetrack exploits are important in determining an individual's suitability for the richer juvenile contests down the road. "History has shown that a race start prior to Christmas of their 2-year-old year is important for the top-rated juveniles targeting a Blue Diamond or Golden Slipper, and it is this criteria which we loosely use to determine eligibility to target those races," he explained. "This, however, is not exclusive, and horses can and do race their way to contention in the early part of the New Year. The racecourse is obviously the testing ground for determining each individual's level of ability, and it is not until the early part of the New Year, where the pre-Christmas form lines tend to mix as horses progress towards the juvenile features, that true eligibility for those races becomes evident."
Godolphin - or Darley, which the Australian horses raced under until recently - is no stranger to juvenile success Down Under. In 2011, Sheikh Mohammed campaigned the top two juveniles in the nation in Sepoy (Elusive Quality), winner of the Blue Diamond and Golden Slipper, and Helmet (Exceed and Excel), victorious in the second two legs of the Sydney 2-year-old Triple Crown - the G1 Sires Produce Stakes and G1 Champagne Stakes. Therefore, Sepoy and Helmet swept every juvenile Group 1 in Australia before both going on to win Group 1s as 3-year-olds. In 2013, the filly Guelph (Exceed and Excel) completed the Sires Produce/Champagne double before capturing two more Group 1s later in the year as a 3-year-old. Darley won the Blue Diamond again last year with the filly Earthquake (Aus) (Exceed and Excel). Walsh noted that in its experience, Godolphin has identified a few key elements that are important for juvenile success.
"In our experience at Godolphin the two biggest attributes that the top juveniles have had is a sound constitution and brilliant attitude towards their work, which allows them to continue to gallop whilst maintaining soundness of limb, an appetite in the feed bin and steady mental approach to their task at hand. At Godolphin we are very hopeful that any of the current crop of juveniles might reach such heights, but we are under no illusions that achieving that sort of success at the top level is never easy and it may be some time until we see another horse even near the same class of a Sepoy or Helmet. John O'Shea also uses extensive gate education and takes advantage of the facilities at Osborne Park to nurse his juveniles. He uses barrier education as an integral part of preparing his young horses, as in an Australian context speed out of the machines and taking a position early can be vital in attaining the best finishing position possible," Walsh said. "Similarly, we have the luxury at Osborne Park of having our own private grass training surface, and few Metropolitan-trained juveniles have the opportunity to train on an ideal grass surface such as that. The trainer feels he has the best facilities at his disposal to prepare these horses and maintain their soundness and freshness of mind to contest the early juvenile features for Godolphin."
Walsh insists that the development of Godolphin's juveniles is influenced by each of Darley and Godolphin's approximately 340 members of staff in Australia, and nowhere is that more apparent than by glancing at the pedigrees of Godolphin's racing team. All of their winning 2-year-olds are homebreds by Darley sires, a feat not matched by any of Darley's other satellites in recent times.
"The fact that they are by Darley sires is representative of the model that we use in Australia, and given we have had the luxury of a particularly strong stallion roster at Darley in recent times, this has been a key factor in the success we have enjoyed on the racetrack. The efforts of the Darley and Godolphin employees have come full-circle; Sepoy and Helmet are now both stallions at Kelvinside, and their first yearlings are currently entering the Godolphin training programme. For stallions like Sepoy and Helmet to have been born and raised on Darley properties, enter the Godolphin training system and return to Darley as stallions is not only a key objective for the operation, but it gives our staff a sense of ownership of those horses and engagement in their performance at every stage of their career."
Largely influenced by its purchase for a reported $500 million (R5 billion) of Woodlands Stud and its bloodstock in 2008, Darley has built up a world class broodmare band in Australia to match its stallion roster. As such, Darley Australia has a much smaller presence at public auctions than some of its counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, although it did purchase five yearlings - three fillies and two colts at last year's Inglis Easter Sale.