THE first thing to hit you as you drive through Juddmonte’s New Abbey farm in Kildare is the palpable calm. Far from the adrenaline of last week’s Tattersalls December Foal Sale where Juddmonte invested the guts of 2.5 million guineas on four exceptional fillies, the paddocks remain lush as they rest in winter and the proud architecture feels like it’s taking a breath after a busy year.
A vital part of the late H.H. Prince Khalid bin Abdullah’s breeding vision, New Abbey is a dry sandy-soiled farm which allows Juddmonte to winter all 91 of this year’s European weanlings in safety and peace. The calm isn’t just applicable to the atmosphere, it’s imbued in both stock and staff, headed up by Juddmonte general manager of Ireland and European racing, Barry Mahon.
As we settle into a discussion on the weanling cycle, it soon becomes clear that the devil is in the detail. The Juddmonte foals are handled from the time they are an hour old. At that hour old someone is in taking their temperature, checking their vitals, putting a head collar on them.
“The main thing with the growing foals at New Abbey is the monitoring of weight,” explains Mahon. “On a graph we want it to stay in a straight line upwards, to keep increasing gradually. You don’t want any spikes. When you get a big spike or big dip in the weight graph, it’s usually an environmental or a dietary change or a stress-related change.
“At this stage of their life, spikes like that can cause OCD and chips and cysts and subchondral bone defects, et cetera. Weighed monthly, we are trying to get them to grow and develop but to keep their growth rate as constant as we can.”
The Juddmonte foals are all born in England where the mares are boarded across Juddmonte’s Newmarket farms. Once they are weaned, they are put in little groups of six or seven and they travel to Ireland in that same herd.
“To them they have changed location but it’s the same faces they are looking at, sniffing and smelling,” says Mahon. “So, it actually doesn’t stress them out too much, they will arrive here at 7am and they will be in the paddock at 7.30am.”
The foals are all microchipped, marked and vaccinated on arrival at New Abbey. Worming programmes are a hot topic, and New Abbey has a rigorous testing programme in place for their youngstock.
“We worm count them every 12 to 16 weeks. We are aware that horses are getting more and more resistant to worm doses, so if they don’t have a worm count, they don’t get a worm dose. Simple. We have very good paddock management, very little overstocking, we graze a lot of sheep and cattle to maintain the pastures and it’s not something we see a huge amount of is a big worm count. You might see it in something that was sick or its immune system was compromised along the line, but apart from that, in a normal healthy animal, we wouldn’t see much.”
Already on hard feed when they arrive in Ireland, the foals’ intake increases gradually over the course of the winter as the grass deteriorates. Up until around now, the youngsters live out 24 hours a day, coming in for a feed for an hour in the morning. Routine becomes very important for the foals to be settled in their new home. They start staying in at night at the end of November and will remain in at night right through to about March 1st. The groupings alter a little as the team begin to take note of the physique, movement and conformation, alongside the pedigree.
“We start changing things in November in that we categorise the weanlings a bit differently and put them into groups by grade, rather than with their initial herd. We have our own internal system; we will grade every horse 1-10 scale, 10 being Frankel and one being something that’s not,” Mahon says, laughing.
The foals stay in that graded group for the rest of their time with Juddmonte before they go into training. They leave New Abbey in the spring then move over to the fattening farm in Kilcock in the summer. The breaking process then begins, and they will stay in that same group until they head off to their trainers.
As we’ve been talking, two foals have been meandering with their handlers, Andrew Philips and Angelo Matta. Last seen by the public in March, the striking bay colt walking proudly but softly by is out of the “Queen of Racing”, the unparalleled Enable. Covered on Valentine’s Day last year by Juddmonte’s third generation homebred and 2014 Cartier Horse of the Year, Kingman, the DNA of two titans has gifted Juddmonte the finest of prospects.
Retired as the most successful Juddmonte homebred racehorse, Enable’s balletic elegance symbiotic with her deep chest and that Nathaniel strength and scope, made her unbeatable. Just take a look at an old photo of Enable as a foal and you can begin to see her physical traits unfolding in the colt.
As I watch, trying desperately to resist the temptation to over-romanticise the colt, he doesn’t help the cause by playfully plucking and eating the last of the season’s ornamental roses. Even with my attempts at journalistic objectivity, I find it hard to fault an inch of him. He’s a model. With the sweetest of temperaments to boot. It’s tough to look at him in all his hairy, weanling glory and not ponder his importance - like Atlas in Greek mythology, he could be seen to carry the pillars of the racing world, but it’s not the Juddmonte way to think like that. According to Mahon, the family don’t like to put pressure on any of their stock. Que sera, sera.
“Sure, he’s standout. Look at him there, ears pricked, looking in the window,” Mahon says. “That’s a very rare thing, usually they would be going nuts. When you see him there, when he puts his head down, the movement of him.
“I think he’s a horse that’ll continue to change. As a lot of our foals do when they come from England, to get onto the Irish pastures they tend to change physically. They widen, they get stronger, they develop more bone, they get bigger feet. They just change and you can see it in him.”
That you can. He’s got great propulsion, a beautiful swing to him that you can’t help but follow.
It can’t be simple to keep 91 foals sound, even with the incredible facilities on-hand at New Abbey, but Mahon is philosophical: “At the end of the day, they are flight animals out in the fields together. You always have accidents, there’s no way of avoiding that, no matter how much you look after them.”
It’s easy to map out the Enable colt trajectory in theory, with a presumption he’ll eventually become a stallion, but of course it’s not a given.
“At the end of the day, with the world we are in now, unless they show it on the racetrack and unless they show it in performance it’s irrelevant, “Mahon says. “Like, they can be as good physically and be as well-bred as you can get, but if they don’t show it on the racetrack, you are not going to be a stallion for general farms.”
Juddmonte is synonymous with the late Prince Khalid and since his passing his family have become very involved. Talking about the future Mahon says: “Prince Saud has been racing with us in France recently. To sit down and talk to him, listen to his interest and his passion for it and for maintaining Juddmonte at the level that Prince Khalid had it, is huge. They are so passionate. I think they are all very aware what their father has built up - it’s so special, they are so very adamant they want to maintain it.”
I ask what the most complicated part of Mahon’s job is, and for him it comes back to the management of both horse and human, saying: “It’s to make sure that the horses are cared for properly. To make sure that you try and get the best staff you can to maintain it, to create an environment where everyone works together, the horses are happy and the staff are happy.
“That is a big thing, staff are a big part of the equation, if you don’t have good staff it spills over into an unhappy environment. It spills over into the horse husbandry and care and management, so staff are so important. One of the biggest challenges in our industry at the minute is recruiting staff, to recruit the good staff that will work hard and care for the horses. That’s very difficult.
“At the end of the day, talking about difficult, the horse is either going to be fast enough or not. We can only but feed it the best we can, exercise it the best we can, do its feet the best we can, give it the best veterinary care, and all-round care for it the best we can.
“It’s either going to be an elite athlete or not. But to provide the staff, to give that horse the best care is a difficult thing at the present time, with the way the current industry is.”
With the extensive grounds and yards, I was surprised to discover that New Abbey only has 15 members of staff, the Ferrans farm has 60.
“We only have two gardeners,” Mahon says laughing. “But for example, Andrew during the summer would be driving the tractor and Angelo will be on the strimmer. At the end of the day you are employed by Juddmonte to work on the farm and maintaining the farm is part of your job. It’s very much a working farm.
“And that’s why we love staff that are not limited to just horses, it’s that they are very comfortable jumping on a tractor or jumping on a lawnmower or whatever might need to be done to keep the farms at the standard that Prince Khalid set them at.”
It’s a busy enough schedule for the staff of Juddmonte multi-tasking, but for the weanlings life remains sedentary, for now at least. The youngsters will stay at New Abbey until March and then as yearlings in February will have a set of screening x-rays done to make sure that there are no chips, et cetera.
They’ll move over to the farm in Kilcock which has more fattening clay-rich soil, and will remain out in the field until September 1st when breaking commences. If all goes to plan, they will start riding around the second week of October. And all being well, they will stay cantering until approximately February or March of the two-year-old-season, before going to their prospective trainers.
I can’t help but think it must be a special moment for the man or woman who first climbs aboard any of the Juddmonte youngstock, but what about the Enable colt I ask, who will ride him for the first time?
“I don’t know,” Mahon says with a laugh. “I’ll leave it to the guys in the yard! I know among the senior guys this year there was one who rode Calyx and was clambering to ride his little brother.
“There are guys who rode the sister or rode the dam themselves when they were yearlings. They usually sort it out among themselves. But I think there’s going to be a long queue for him!”
As we walk the two foals quietly back to their expansive field tucked away in the New Abbey idyll, I can’t help but smile as Enable’s son gallops off to his friends and they begin a mighty circuit…guess who’s up front?