WELL-respected Meath breeder Ken Parkhill and his family have enjoyed a good measure of success at the Cheltenham Festival over the years but even he can’t believe his luck in having two of their Castletown Quarry Stud homebreds – Fury Road and last year’s Grade 1 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle scorer Bob Olinger – in with live chances of winning there this year. Ferny Hollow is another bred by Ken but unfortunately this ante-post Arkle Trophy favourite will miss the Festival again this year due to injury.
The fact that two of those three trace back to his late father Marshall’s foundation broodmare High Board, the dam of Champion Hurdle winners Morley Street and Granville Again, and the third, Bob Olinger, to his own mare Sharpaway, makes the prospect even more exciting.
However, neither Ken, nor his wife Lulu or sons Peter and Nicky, who are very involved in the family business, are entertaining any thoughts of travelling over to Prestbury Park.
Said Ken: “We’ve never been to Cheltenham because it’s always a busy time for us with mares foaling. We’ll settle for the television again but I just hope that it’s not behind closed doors and stays open because it’s so important for the industry.”
Corbiere’s victory in the 1983 Grand National was another red-letter day for the Parkhill family, although Ken admitted: “My father, who died about 15 years ago after a good innings, was the boss then, so he should get the credit. We’re still breeding from that family.”
Ken currently has about 35 mares, 33 of them homebred from “three fantastic families” on the 155-acre stud, his father having started off with probably just two mares. Parkhill explained: “When my father started breeding, we weren’t big into thoroughbreds. We dealt mostly in half-breds and sold troopers to the Swiss Army and the Household Cavalry – that was our main business.
“But we had thoroughbreds before that, without being big players in the game and my father bought High Board at the sales in Ballsbridge in Dublin when I was at college in UCD, doing veterinary. He’d had the same family before and, when he saw the pedigree coming up for sale, he was anxious to get back into it.”
High Board’s sire High Line was a very good stallion then with a major influence on the breeding scene. High Board was only a three-year-old when Marshall bought her and he started breeding from her straight away.
He sent his mare to Coolmore’s top stallion Deep Run for her first and third coverings and struck gold almost immediately with those foals being the future Champion Hurdle winners Morley Street (in 1991) and the Martin Pipe-trained Granville Again, formerly in the care of Henry Cleary for Bert Allen’s Slaney Meats, two years later.
The yearling sales were the go-to sales for young National Hunt horses in those days and Marshall sold Morley Street to Toby Balding as a yearling. Ken recalled: “He was, by far, the better horse and was good enough to win on the flat.
“He travelled to America where he won back-to-back runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Chase in Belmont which won him two Eclipse awards. Morley Street won 20 races altogether, including four Aintree Hurdles and was a class act.”
High Board’s influence on the Parkhill’s breeding empire continues to this day and Ken is justifiably proud of the fact that she is the third dam of both Ferny Hollow and Fury Road. Coincidentally three of her unraced daughters were also responsible for three Grade 1 scorers in the 2019 Cheltenham Festival winner City Island, Ascot Chase winner Hand Inn Hand and the Punchestown Champion bumper winner Lovethehigherlaw.
Said Ken: “We sell nearly everything as three-year-olds and, again, we’ve been very lucky with a few point-to-pointers like Bob Olinger. We have done well with a lot of our stock down through the years, some of them very serious animals but our main aim is to sell them as three-year-olds at the store sales. That’s the purpose of the call.”
Reflecting on the part he plays in all this, Parkhill acknowledged: “I think the main thing you need is luck. Judgement also comes into it and you have to build up a good reputation and treat the people who buy from you properly. Only by doing that will you come to be regarded as a reputable outfit and people will come back to you again.”
He continued: “We sold a lot of horses to different places and did a bit of show jumping with some before selling them on and also dealt in hunters. When I qualified as a vet, I did a little bit of sales work but I was never in practice – I was based at home most of the time just outside Trim, down the road from Boardsmill Stud.”
Ken described the Floods as great neighbours, commenting: “They have great stallions that we can use which makes it easier for us.” Parkhill still has good reason to remember his graduation from UCD as his father marked the occasion by buying a good little filly for him called Sharpaway.
Owned, trained and ridden by Ken, who was having his first ride, she won a bumper at the 1979 Punchestown Festival. “There was a lot of sentiment involved.”
Her granddaughter Zenaide repeated the feat in a Cork bumper many years later when making a winning debut for his trainer’s wife Louise, better known as Lulu Parkhill, to give their son Peter success in the saddle at his first attempt.
Zenaide, of course, is the dam of exciting novice chaser Bob Olinger, for whom the sky is the limit over fences. Ken made the decision to send him to Pat Doyle in Holycross for his point-to-point education and, with an impressive 15-length win at Turtulla under his belt, it wasn’t long before he was snapped up by Brian Acheson’s Robcour and made his way to Henry de Bromhead’s yard.
Parkhill has always been a great advocate of the Irish point-to-point scene. “The one thing that Bob Olinger, Ferny Hollow and Fury Road have in common is that they all came through point-to-points. It just shows the importance of it and the good work these lads do. They’re the backbone of the whole thing.”
Ken emphasised: “It’s so important for people to get their horses in with the right point-to-point trainers and the top lads and we’ve been very lucky with Pat Doyle, Donnchadh Doyle and Stuart Crawford who has a nice horse that we bred.”
He is also fortunate that all three of his Cheltenham contenders are with top trainers in de Bromhead, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, and Noel Meade is also on the team, having produced a winner for the Brooklawn Syndicate in Mare Quimby. The pressure will be on them come the second week of March, but Ken can do no more.
He and his family will be living on their nerves in the build-up to each race and recognise how lucky they are to have three chances of hitting the jackpot at jump racing’s most important meeting of the year.
It’s probably fortunate that Ken doesn’t favour one over the other: “Because we sell them as young horses, we don’t really get a chance to know much about them. They all go to different places and it’s only when they’re being broken and in work that you start to find out more about them. All three were very straightforward when they were here.”
As every breeder knows, a colt foal traditionally provided the biggest pay day when it came to selling them but that is all changing and Parkhill welcomes the efforts that have been made in recent years to improve and expand the race programme for National Hunt fillies.
There are so many more opportunities for them now and he welcomes the leasing scheme for fillies, saying: “At times breeders are put under pressure to keep a line alive and you see so many families that have fallen by the wayside.
“Some of them can skip a couple of generations and bounce back and it’s really now that we’re starting to reap the benefits because of these fillies that we had leased out. Their progeny are coming onto the track now and it’s a very nice way for people to get involved in racing without too much expense.
“We have the name of going to the sales with our stock but, the odd time, we get an enquiry about fillies for lease and we’ve dealt with quite a lot of syndicates that way – the Blue Blood Racing Club, Supreme Horse Racing Club who we had a lot of luck with, Whitegrass Racing Syndicate, The Lion Mouth’s Syndicate, Brooklawn Syndicate and John Battersby Racing.”
For Ken, it’s a win-win situation and he is currently quite excited about a filly called Eabha Grace who is out of a sister to Bob Olinger. She won her bumper at Thurles in good style for Willie Mullins but was out of luck in the Grade 2 mares’ bumper at Leopardstown recently.
Further proof, if it was needed, that the breeding of horses is one gift that keeps on giving. Just ask Ken! As he said: “It’s a family affair here and everyone has their say. It’s not always 100% agreed on but we get by.” ?