The Rise and Rise of Coolmore: How the foundations were laid for a breeding empire; In the first of a three-part series ending on Friday,.
ON October 28, 1971, a young Irish stud owner, with the backing of fellow Irish breeders, concluded a deal to purchase Green God, one of the season's fastest three-year-olds, for 160,000gns. On October 30 the colt notched the best win of his career in Haydock's big sprint, was recognisably a champion, and the investors knew they had a bargain.
John Magnier was just 23 years old when he had the better of a deal with Green God's owner, self-made multi-millionaire David Robinson. That transaction can now be seen as the launch pad for a spectacular career that transformed the world of racing and breeding.
It was a deal that established him as a young man with the Midas touch, whose judgement breeders could trust and, crucially, it brought him to the notice of Robert Sangster, whose family firm Vernons was then the sponsor of the race in which Green God clinched his championship.
Magnier might have been young in years, but he was not young in experience. The untimely death of his father, Tom, had necessitated his withdrawal from school and plunged him into the management of the family's Grange Stud in County Cork, where the famous jumps sire Cottage had flourished in grandfather Michael's day, and where the boy was suddenly responsible for the celebrated Fortina and another popular jumps stallion in Even Money.
In that epoch-making year of 1971, Magnier launched Deep Run on his stud career at Grange, also acquiring Khalkis and Laurence O to stand alongside Prince Hansel, to form a team he advertised as "the greatest selection of NH stallions in Europe". And, on another Cork property, at Castle Hyde, he made a quiet entry into Flat breeding with Varano and Divine Gift, pounds 300 horses who were soon to be overshadowed by Green God, full for his first season at 1,500gns within days of his purchase.
But it was not long before Green God was himself put in the shade. In 1972 Magnier put together a syndicate to buy another champion sprinter from Robinson, Deep Diver being secured for pounds 400,000, and a year later he masterminded the pounds 650,000 purchase of Sir Michael Sobell's crack miler Sun Prince.
Meanwhile, up the road in County Tipperary, Tim Vigors was seeking to improve the fortunes of his 400-acre Coolmore Stud, recruiting Arc winner Rheingold and two top American-bred performers for Vincent O'Brien's stable in Thatch and Home Guard for the 1974 season. At the same time Sangster, already an O'Brien patron, was formulating his ground-breaking plan to attack the American yearling market for prospective stallions.
Suddenly it all seemed to come together. Sangster would team up with O'Brien and take an interest in Coolmore (less than ten miles from Ballydoyle) with Vigors, and the dynamic, ambitious young man whose business acumen had so impressed them both would be approached to manage affairs.
In 1975 the deal was done. Magnier brought Castle Hyde and Grange into the fold and became a full partner in the venture. Within a year the assault on yearling markets was in full swing. The acquisitions-sometimes with partners-included colts who would race to fame as The Minstrel, Alleged and Be My Guest.
Coolmore could never be home to The Minstrel or Alleged. The game plan dictated that initially the most successful graduates would have to be sold back into the highest market, to finance further acquisitions. The little dual Derby and King George hero went off to Windfields in the United States in an $18 million deal in 1977; a year later the double Arc victor departed for Walmac, valued at $16 million. The funding was in place to keep the ball rolling.
By 1980 the Coolmore-Castle Hyde combine was flourishing, up to a point, but Green God (who died young), Deep Diver and Sun Prince (both sent to Japan) had all failed, and such as Rheingold, Godswalk, Home Guard, Gay Fandango and Mount Hagen were not creating much excitement.
Thatch was the one horse with something of a reputation, but, while Airlie had Habitat and England's National Stud housed Mill Reef, the Tipperary-Cork enterprise still seemed somewhat `second division'.
That was about to change, and the horse who achieved the breakthrough was a contemporary of The Minstrel and Alleged who had not earned enough recognition on the racecourse to achieve a lucrative sale to the States.
Be My Guest had not won above Group 2 level, and had been only sixth-best of the 1977 three-year-olds at Ballydoyle, but he was by Northern Dancer, and that was the ingredient Coolmore had lacked in the succession of modest achievers in its early years.
By the time Be My Guest was crowned champion sire in 1982, with Classic winners On The House and Assert among his progeny, the follow-up was in place. The flirtations with sons of Round Table and Forli had long passed, the team's buying programme and Sangster's own breeding programme had been concentrating on the Northern Dancer line for five years. The foundations had been laid for a breeding empire such as the world had never known.
It took Be My Guest's banner year to raise Coolmore's public profile in terms of actual achievement, but Magnier had never been in any doubt that its time would come, and the years spent dealing with material that did not realise the highest hopes were anything but wasted.
He learnt how the major stallion farms in Kentucky-like Gainesway, Claiborne and Spendthrift-operated, and he adapted their techniques as they seemed appropriate for Coolmore.
He honed his skills in promotion and marketing, and quickly demonstrated a knack for maximising stallion income. While nine out of ten stallions failed to make the grade as sires, judicious management might make them profitable, and Magnier proved adept at making money-makers of unsuccessful sires.
By now Vigors had been bought out, and Magnier-always given full rein to run the stud side of things-was the son-in-law of one partner and "best friend" (Sangster's own words) of the other. The confidence expressed in him by the ace talent-spotter/trainer and his multi-millionaire patron recognised a rare genius for stallion management with the potential to raise Coolmore to an unassailable position in Europe. They just needed to provide him with the right horses.
There were no great expectations for Be My Guest, whose initial fee was 5,000gns, but the fad for Northern Dancer was already strong in 1978, and Magnier procured him an unusually large book for a first-season horse of 54 mares. In one hit he had more than recovered all that had been invested in the horse, while obtaining for him the prospect of strong numerical representation and consequently a brighter chance of success.
At a time when syndicates were generally formed on the basis of 40 shares, and investors looked for a return within four years, this was an exciting development for those involved. Better still was the legislation, in place uniquely in Ireland since 1969, exempting stallion earnings from income tax.
Magnier had long exploited that advantage with Grange's jumps horses, to the extent that in one year Deep Run had covered 230 mares. What might a top Flat horse earn under that favourable fiscal regime, if bigger books became acceptable?
Bigger books had become acceptable in America, and the Ballydoyle/Coolmore combine's involvement on both sides of the Atlantic had helped to bring about a closer alignment of markets. Arab investors had joined in, driving prices for young stock and breeding stock even higher. Even the British had recognised the change in values, starting Troy out at Highclere in 1980 at pounds 40,000, the same price as top-quality sires like Habitat and Mill Reef.
Try My Best, a champion two-year-old who had flopped at three, was still the most expensive Coolmore stallion in 1980, at 15,000gns, and sub-normal fertility meant he could never be exploited to the full. But that was also the year when Habitat's successful half-brother Northfields was acquired from Dowdstown House, and a further declaration of intent was sounded by the purchase out of training, for a reported $5 million, of the Mr Prospector horse Hello Gorgeous.
It was clear that when the Ballydoyle pipeline failed to deliver the hoped-for quota of stallion prospects for Coolmore, there were funds available to ensure they were acquired. Even the fiasco that developed over the stable's much-hyped 1980 champion juvenile Storm Bird was turned to advantage, with a three-quarter share in him being sold for $22.5 million before he had raced as a three-year-old. The deal led to Coolmore's acquisition of the Ashford property in Kentucky, which would become a significant branch of the empire.
If Storm Bird failed to enhance his reputation in 1981, Kings Lake did, and at the end of that Nijinsky colt's season as co-champion miler Magnier felt emboldened to announce a fee of 50,000gns for his first Coolmore season. Eyebrows were raised, but not for long, as Be My Guest came good and Ballydoyle began to send along the steady stream of stars that had long been expected.
In 1983 Be My Guest's fee was hoisted from 10,000gns to 75,000gns in the wake of his championship. Alongside him stood the latest Derby winner, Golden Fleece, at 100,000gns. A year later there was a Prix du Jockey-Club victor in Caerleon at 80,000gns, in 1985 a multiple Group 1 scorer in Sadler's Wells at 125,000gns, in 1986 an Irish Derby hero in Law Society at 60,000gns.
Logic dictated that they could not all be superstar sires, but they could be promoted as potentially just that to an international market, and as breeders clamoured to use those they fancied, the tax-free funds flowing in could finance the expansion of the empire, establish the infrastructure on which it depended and provide the wherewithal to deliver long-term dominance of the industry, based on a supply of horses to satisfy every sector of the marketplace.
By THE late 1980s it hardly seemed to matter that the Maktoum family had become the dominant players at yearling auctions, and that Sangster-along with the succession of partners he had from time to time recruited-had withdrawn from the scene. Even the certainty that Vincent O'Brien's outstanding career was drawing to a close could not halt the Coolmore colossus, which was becoming ever more closely identified with Magnier, and Magnier alone.
With no tax burden on the massive sums pouring into Coolmore, its predatory instincts could be satisfied by acquisitions of horses `made' at other studs, such as Ahonoora, Alzao and Night Shift. It could outbid rivals for the best stallion prospects off the racecourse, which was how the likes of Danehill, Grand Lodge and Spectrum joined the fold.
High fees and big books became the rule, but there were deals, too: incentives for breeders designed to enlarge the client base while helping the horses to more and better chances. And there were state-of-the-art facilities, with top-quality staff providing efficient service to customers and a high standard of care for their stock.
What Magnier established in Ireland, he emulated at Ashford and in Australia, extending the bounds of what traditionally seemed possible with stallions in terms of workload and earning capacity, while providing a service that almost defied breeders to believe they might do better to patronise someone else's horses.
Magnier had just a small group of Irish breeders prepared to back his judgement over Green God 30 years ago. There are legions worldwide now who will testify to his Midas touch, and the record books provide confirmation, not least through the 13 Anglo-Irish sires' championships annexed by Caerleon and Sadler's Wells.