THE Hannoveraner Verband is over 100 years old. Almost three centuries ago, the state stud was founded in Celle in 1735 to cater for the local farmers breeding horses in this part of northern Germany.
There’s no state stud in Ireland for sport horses. So when you think of the foremost stud in Irish Sport Horse history, especially one with a strong farmer-breeder base, Slyguff Stud immediately comes to mind.
As the late Nicholas O’Hare, the Irish Horse World’s breeding columnist for decades, rightly noted, Slyguff is the “cradle of Irish sport horse breeding”.
Their stallions, mostly home-breds, have produced the most Irish-bred Olympic medalist horses. Carrolls Royal Lion, Carrolls Young Diamond, Lough Crew, Mill Pearl, Mill Ruby and Special Envoy were all by King of Diamonds, the stallion selected by An Post to represent the Irish Draught breed on a series of commemorative stamps in 1980.
Those horses and more - most of all, the cult heroes Eddie Macken and Boomerang - became household names, not just amongst farming and horsey households, but with the man on the street.
Before on-tap streaming services and social media, families tuned into RTÉ and BBC to watch Dublin, Hickstead, the Horse of the Year Show and Olympia, to watch show jumping or read the daily newspapers about European and world championship reports or Grand Prix and Derby wins.
A connection to Irish sporting heroes led to that amusing incident described by the Hanoverian Verband’s breeding manager Ulrich Hahne when a Dublin taxi driver asked him who had won the Nations Cup that day. “That would not happen in Germany!”
Of course Boomerang, the horse that dominated the Hickstead Derbys of the 1970s/80s, along with the Hannoverian-bred Deister, was by Battleburn, although another memorable Hickstead Derby victor was the veteran pair of Nelson Pessoa and Vivaldi, by Slyguff’s Imperius.
That was then. Much has changed both here and on the continent since. Now in 2023 when thinking of the perfect case study example to run in tandem with Hahne’s interview, Slyguff came to mind. Particularly after Hahne’s observations about the decline in thoroughbred stallion use in the Hannover region and the Croker Cup. Which, incidentally, was won by Hatton’s Gibeon.
There’s only one hurdle though. You’re asking one of the most publicity-shy families for an update on the Bagenalstown stud’s stallions and views of its current manager Barbara Hatton, Tom O’Neill’s grand-daughter.
“Was there not enough written already?” she asks good naturedly. It takes some persuading, however, the O’Neill-Hatton ‘auld decency’ gene overtakes any fears of self-promotion notions. They’ve obliged their customers for decades, most of all their farmer-breeder base, what’s another request?
Any qualms about going to the well again for an article are few. There is no Slyguff Stud website or glossy social media campaigns so any opportunity to document the huge legacy the stud has left Irish breeding wins out.
Alan Hatton proudly wearing the Tiggy’s Trust yellow ribbon, with the 2022 Croker Cup champion: Slyguff Stud’s Gibeon \ Susan Finnerty
If there’s one word to describe the family it’s loyalty. Breeding traditional, standing traditionally bred stallions and most of all, to their customers.
In general, breeders stay loyal while stallions are producing the goods. However, as is human nature, customers drift away or move on to the next commercial stallion. Not so at Slyguff, where two-way loyalty has as much to do with the owners.
Take the scenes at Dublin last August after Alan Hatton, Barbara’s cousin, led the Croker Cup champion Gibeon back to his box.
Alan himself didn’t have much time then for the win to sink in. He performed a flying costume change from his suit jacket, complete with a Tiggy’s Trust yellow ribbon on its lapel, to a blazer. His Carlow Hunt Pony Club team were competing in the mounted games immediately afterwards so any celebrations were short-lived.
Linda, Barbara’s sister, is Tiggy Hancock’s godmother and Alan proudly wore the Trust’s signature yellow ribbon at Dublin.
Back at the stallion boxes, a flood of delighted customers showered congratulations on Barbara, Linda, their brother David and mother Frances.
A tot of Jameson was fetched for Frances, almost overwhelmed by the win and reception when ‘the Queen,’ as she is affectionately known as, walked into Ring 1 with Barbara to receive the Croker Cup from judges, bloodstock manager and trainer John Ferguson and Jean-Luc Dufour, from France.
The same lucky tackbox, made back in 1966 by a local man for King of Diamonds’ Dublin appearance, stored the family’s first red rosette at the RDS in 42 years. Back in 1980, they had a Dublin double when Bawnlahan Beauty won the Irish Draught mare class and their Highland Flight mare won the Guinness show jumping championship for novice horses. A great talent-spotting class then for international dealers, that year was no different.
“She was bought by Max Hauri, renamed Judy and was reserve for the Swiss show jumping team at the Los Angeles Olympics.”
Seven months on, the memories are still as vivid. “It never crossed our minds that we’d win. It was just about getting everyone there and back okay, not about winning. The plan for Gibeon was to get him out there and seen, Dublin is the shop window for thoroughbred stallions.
“Fair dues, they [RDS] had two renowned, top class horsemen judging the stallion class. It’s a real crowd-puller for the breeders,” said Barbara.
The Horse Sport Ireland-sponsored thoroughbred stallion class at Dublin had struggled in recent years to find the minimum number of entries; the cost and concerns about travelling stallions, coupled with the fact that the use of thoroughbred stallions is dwindling in Ireland, being key factors.
However, the Hattons had consistently supported the Dublin class in the alternating guises of either a judged class or a parade in the past with their home-bred Golden Master, Master Imp’s sole thoroughbred son, and Pointilliste.
Typically, there was no big party or celebration afterwards for the family and they also politely declined the responsibility of having the Croker Cup lodge since at Slyguff.
The thoroughbred factor
The use of thoroughbreds has reduced to a trickle amongst Hanoverian breeders. There is much chatter about the importance of thoroughbred blood for breeding top-level eventers and retaining traditional lines.
Few stallion owners though are either prepared to stand a thoroughbred or are resigned to covering small books of mares if they do. A love of the breed and customer service are the primary reasons to carry on.
King of Diamonds was their famous Irish Draught resident at Slyguff, followed by a line of ‘half-bred’, later rebranded Irish Sport Horse, stallions: Slyguff Joker, Highland King, Kings Servant, Kings Master and Master Choice.
Thoroughbreds rule though. Imperius was purchased from racehorse trainer Con Collins on the Curragh and the Hul A Hul thoroughbred mare Tranquilla from John Hutchinson. The result of that cross was Master Imp, up there with another thoroughbred stallion Heraldik in the global eventing sire rankings.
Another Slyguff thoroughbred find, Highland Flight, was bought privately in England on Tom O’Neill’s only overseas trip with good friend Johnny Hughes.
Poynton, Stetchworth Lad on a one-year swap from the Banner County, Balda Beau, Grand Plaisir, Nazar, the father-son double of Master Imp and Golden Master, plus Pointilliste are more of the thoroughbreds to have lodged in the stallion boxes, a stone’s throw from the farmhouse back door.
Golden Master was bred from an old Prefairy mare named Marand. Gibeon can keep his silverware, ‘Gold’ is still Barbara’s pride and joy.
Both he and Masters Choice (Kings Master x Grand Plaisir), bred by Dan Cleere, carry on the Imperius line for breeders.
Barbara’s many contacts in the bloodstock world have helped her source some Slyguff thoroughbreds.
Artcic Tack Stud’s Eoin Banville and their vet Justin Browne helped find the Giant’s Causeway Pointilliste, while another friend Peter Nolan tipped Barbara off about Gibeon’s availability.
By Cape Cross and out of the Galileo mare Gravitation, the dark brown stallion was bred by Avington Manor Stud and was in training with Richard Hannon. The two-time racecourse winner was bought in 2021.
“It was during lockdown and I only saw a video of him being led by this 6’4” fellow! But as soon as I saw him, I knew he was what we wanted and he had such a good temperament.”
On account of his Timeform rating, Gibeon was fully approved by Horse Sport Ireland after undergoing linear profiling at the HSI springtime mare inspections at Warrington Equestrian Centre.
His first crop of approximately 30 are now yearlings and last year that figure more than doubled with over 70 mares covered.
Slyguff has primarily been a thoroughbred stronghold. Back to the era of Bawnlahan, (the dam of the King of Diamonds’ full-brothers Kingsway Diamond and Jack of Diamonds) and Diamond Lad. (This King of Diamonds son also stood for a spell with the Hattons before moving to more Draught-plenty areas).
Would Barbara ever consider standing another Irish Draught stallion?
“No, for a couple of reasons. I love thoroughbreds, they’re beautiful animals. And this wasn’t a Draught horse area as such for years. In recent times there’s been a revival of the Draught and the leisure market is more buoyant.
“You have the likes of the Lamberts standing the Grange Bouncer line and Donal Goland’s Rebel Mountain horses, so Draught breeders are already well catered for around here.”
Hers and Frances’ broodmare herd produce up to eight foals a year. The mares run alongside their suckler beef herd now that the sheep flock on the Bagenalstown farm has scaled back.
It’s a very natural environment with the stallions turned out “as often as possible, weather permitting. All our stallions have been favourites, they’ve all been good servants to us and are a part of our family.”
Similarly, their customer base is the farmer-breeders and, as with farmer-breeder numbers in the Hanoverian region, Barbara finds that demographic is shrinking amongst their customers.
“They’re farmers with a lot of history of horses in the family. It’s a way of life for them, both farming and breeding horses, but we’re losing it rapidly,” she remarked.
Remaking Memories: Frances Hatton at Dublin Horse Show with her family; Barbara, Linda and David with an old photograph of her in the exact place with Loftus and Tom O'Neill of Slyguff Stud \ Susan Finnerty
“They’ve been the backbone of Irish breeding for generations and it will be a pity if horse breeding is carried on by just the professionals.
“We’ll always breed traditional. We had mares that were good to us and, yes, I suppose there were a few that ended up uneconomical and I could do with being tougher but with old Irish pedigrees, once they are gone, they are irreplaceable.
“We have a few regular customers every year and all they will breed too is traditional too. I’m glad to have seen the best of it all and Covid certainly made you appreciate what you had and have.”
She still believes that the greatest challenge facing Irish horse breeders is the quest for the perfect horse with a clean set of X-rays. The confusing stallion classification system and green books across the board for horses are another matter for debate.
“When you’d show some breeders Golden Master (classified as NA1, previously S1), breeders wouldn’t use him because of the stigma of a blue book for a foal.
“Same with Balda Beau, another S1 stallion and yet he bred Cambalda, the event horse of the year in America! He was the stunt horse here, getting only a handful of mares.
“There’s too much chopping and changing with the system, now it’s all green books and all kinds of classifications.”
She is politely reserved about her years on the Irish Horse Board having first been elected in 2017. “I served two terms on the Irish Horse Board, on Horse Sport Ireland’s Breeding Sub-board and then the Breeding, Production & Advisory Council (BPAC) before BPAC was made defunct.
“I had an interest and thought I’d have some influence but didn’t quite make the impact I’d anticipated. I did my bit.”
What about ‘the Queen’ herself? “Glued to Cheltenham last week! No interest in the betting, just to watch the racing and horses. Again, none of this could have been possible without Mum. Her knowledge, help and support throughout the years has been the bedrock of the family business.”
For years too, Frances has been the other part of the mother-daughter double act, welcoming callers and customers to the farmhouse kitchen.
At 92, she is still as politely sharp as a tack. “I watched Cheltenham just to look at the lovely horses. For all those breeders and owners, Cheltenham is the ultimate.”
Just like Ring 1 was their Cheltenham last August.
Final question for Barbara is the same asked of Ulrich Hahne. Do you like your job?
“Yes, I sure do. I love meeting the breeders every year when they arrive with their mares and foals and farming life in general.”
>1936 - Slyguff Stud started by Tom O’Neill.
>1962 - King of Diamonds (Errigal - Ruby) was foaled.
>1984 - The home-bred Slygof (Imperius) and Swiss rider Bruno Candrian finish individual fifth at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
>1987 - Master Imp (Imperius - Hul A Hul) foaled at Slyguff.
>2006 - Highland King wins the United States Equestrian Federation’s eventing sire of the year trophy.
>2007 - Loftus O’Neill receives the inaugural Irish Horse Board’s Outstanding Contribution to the Irish Sport Horse award in Athlone.
>2008 - An individual silver medal for US event horse McKinlaigh (Highland King) at the Hong Kong Olympics in the same year as Loftus, Tom’s son, passed away.
>2012 - Master Imp produced the most event horses (High Kingdom, Master Crusoe, Master Rose, Ringwood Magister), at the Olympics
>2014 - Master Imp set a precedent of being the leading event horse sire in the British Eventing, United States Equestrian Federation and World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses rankings that year. In the same year, Balda Beau wins the USEF sire of the year trophy.
>2022 - Gibeon, the latest in a long line of thoroughbreds at Slyguff, wins the Croker Cup.