MICK Flanagan has it down to a fine art. The young bloodstock agent is making a real name for himself since establishing Townley Hall Bloodstock in March 2012, reaping the rewards for what amounts to an incredible work ethic.
Clearly, Flanagan has a keen eye for opportunities and new markets, as well as knowing what to look for in a horse, but it is his endeavour that makes it happen. He almost spends as much time in airports as he does in sales rings.
He only turned 31 on November 4th and married long-term girlfriend, Nikki McDowell last May. She is accustomed to him not being around a lot. As managing director of the family firm, McDowell’s Jewellery, she knows all about business.
There is no equine influence in Flanagan’s background. From Tullyallen, just on the Louth side of the Meath border, the only animal around was the family dog.
Instead, he gravitated towards a neighbour who dealt in cattle and spent a summer milking cows in New Zealand.
“I came back to UCD to do Agricultural Science and fell in with a few lads that were into racing,” he recalls of the development that altered his career path. He became hooked. Stints in studs in France, South Africa and USA followed, as well as a role with Peter & Ross Doyle Bloodstock.
The big break arrived when he gained a place in the Darley Flying Start two-year management training programme for the thoroughbred industry in 2007.
He spent a year as pupil-assistant to renowned South African trainer Mike de Kock, before securing a job as a bloodstock agent with Dermot Farrington.
Then the time came to spread his wings.
When he is not travelling the world, he is looking at developing his own stud farm, although there isn’t a clear plan.
“I built 15 stables this year along with a house. I fenced the whole place but I’m just not sure what I’m going to do. I’ll probably buy a couple of foals and slowly over time get into a couple of mares and grow it that way.
“Oh listen, I’ll probably go to Goffs next week and I won’t be able to help myself. Buy a couple of foals and see how we go!”
That sums up the business and the game, the hobby and the sport. You have to be passionate about it but it’s mostly business.
When we speak around midday on Wednesday, Flanagan is back on terra firma about three hours having landed from America. He’s also had a look at a few foals since he landed. There isn’t much down time.
DÓC: Tell me about your US trip.
MF: I had two weeks in Keeneland. There’s no point dipping in for three or four days and hoping to fill your orders. You really have to stick it out to the last in order to get exactly what you want and keep everyone happy.
Ben McElroy is another Irish agent from the Curragh who’s been in America for the last 20 years. I’ve been teaming up with him on the foal side of things for the last seven years in America. We managed to pick up 11 in total and all of those are for resale either in Keeneland next September, or next August in Saratoga, New York.
We’re happy enough with what we bought. It was tough to get them in the first two Books. Obviously they’re the best two Books, the better pedigrees and the better physicals. We’re trying to buy them for as little as we can and that’s not always possible in the first two Books. It was a frustrating few days. We managed to pick up four in the first two Books and then 3, 4 and Book 5 we hammered away and got more bought as the sale went on.
We have a syndicate of lads that go in every year and they’re happy enough for myself and Ben to crack on and work through the Books. We take a certain amount of the animals ourselves… It’s probably important that myself and Ben go in on these horses because it injects a little bit of confidence that we’re buying in.
DÓC: Is the resale end your dominant market then? Or do you cover all the bases?
MF: I do a little bit of everything. I would send a few horses out to Australia from Europe and I’ve been doing that in tandem with Chris Waller, the champion trainer in Sydney, for six years.
We had our best result this year with a horse that was formerly called Magog (now named Grand Marshal) and had four runs in the UK when trained by Roger Charlton. We bought him off Roger and sent him out to Australia and he won the Group 1 Sydney Cup worth AUS$1.6m in April.
I bought a couple of yearlings for clients down in Australia and again this year, thank God, we had our best year yet at that. I’ve got a client called Merriebelle Stables - they’ve got a farm in Kentucky and Navan and we decided two years ago just to dip our toe in the Australian market.
In 2014 we bought three yearlings. One was useless, another was okay and we traded him on for quite a nice number to Hong Kong. The third was a horse by Encosta De Lago (Vanburgh) that we picked up for €100,000 and gave to Chris Waller and three weeks ago he won the Champion Stakes at Royal Randwick, which is a Group 1 race. The colt is an entire and we have a stallion prospect on our hands. We’re going to target him towards some of the better mile races in the autumn of the Australian year.
Between mares, foals, yearlings, tried horses, I try to keep my hand in on a little bit of everything. It’s a way for me to keep busy all 12 months of the year and if I do it in both hemispheres, it almost becomes seasonal.
When I’m looking for racehorses off the track for Chris Waller, it’s probably from April right through to September in Europe. When all that dies down then we kick on into the yearling sales and you’re phoning up a different sort of client from September through to the end of October.
Once November kicks in, the yearling man is happy, the tried horse man is happy and it’s my foal and mare buyers then that kick into gear.
DÓC: You mentioned the frustration of waiting for a chance to buy. So is staying a fortnight a case of holding your nerve or a matter of necessity.
MF: It’s a matter of necessity. If I had’ve gone out there for four or five days, I definitely would have put myself under pressure in order to get a couple of horses bought and maybe that’s not the right thing to do by the syndicate.
When I was younger, I started out buying and selling cattle and was always told ‘Never buy under pressure, never sell under pressure’ and I take the same approach with horses. If you rush into these things, it can go very wrong.
DÓC: What prompted the decision to go out on your own?
MF: I spent two and a half years with Dermot Farrington. It was a great education. It was a job whereby I was assisting him but he gave me my head to go to Australia, to America and try and make a go of it.
We got to a stage whereby I’d probably just outgrown the position. It was three and a half years ago nearly to the day when I went out by myself. It was a fairly daunting move at the time.
Usually when a young guy leaves a bloodstock agency it’s because he’s found some big Sheikh or something like that. That wasn’t the case here. I didn’t have a massive burst of clients but with the travelling that I’d done up to that, along with the Flying Start, I knew enough people whereby I was fairly confident if I could find a mare privately or I could find that horse in training, I’d get it sold. I was at a stage in my life whereby I didn’t need a whole lot to live on. I wasn’t married at the time… it was a fair enough punt to go out by myself.
It really could have gone either way but I’d some good support from David Cox of Baroda, David Myerscough of Colbinstown, Mike de Kock stuck with me, Arqana came on board (with an appointment as South African representative) and it was round about that time that I started selling horses to Chris Waller, so I had a little bit going on to get me through the initial 12 months, two years.
DÓC: Is there enough depth to the market?
MF: There’s always new money coming in, say China Horse Club or Markus Jooste, the South African, but when any of those outfits come into the European yearling, foal or mare market, they really only concentrate on the top 10%.
The top end is very good but in the yearling sales gone by, the middle-to-lower end of the market is still extremely tough. The guys that buy the 50 to 100 grand horse are nearly more important. There’s only so much of that top quality horse on offer and it’s usually owned by the same people year on year… in the middle-to-lower end, new buyers are scarce.
The guy that owns three-to-five mares, we need that guy to stay in business. It’s definitely a tough area to be in. I don’t know how you create more demand but things like the prize money in England doesn’t help.
I’m sure if there was an increase right across the board it would stir things on a bit. I see it in Australia. Every man, mother and dog is queueing up for a piece of a horse. From an economic point of view it makes sense to have a horse in training down there. When you’re racing first up for €50,000, it makes it very attractive.
DÓC: Is there an adrenaline rush when you’re involved in a bidding battle in the ring? Or do you need to be cold and calculated?
MF: The hardest part of a sale for me is going through the barns two or three days beforehand and finding the horses. Once the horses are found you can get on the phone and try and jimmy up your clients according to what you think the horse is going to make. As far as going in and doing the bidding, yeah I enjoy it but I don’t get too caught up in it.
Usually I’ll have a number in my head that’s been discussed and decided with the client. We go in and bid that number and it’s a case of we either get it or we don’t. If we don’t, we don’t think about it too long. We just roll on and try to get another one.
If we do, great. It can be easy to get carried away when you’re in the heat of the whole thing but over time, you learn to be disciplined and not worry about it too much.
DÓC: Is there much homework before you arrive at a sale?
MF: When I’m in Ireland I’m out every week looking at stock and I’m going to look at a couple of foals again this week.
I don’t kill myself with the research prior to a sale. Maybe I should, maybe it’s a weakness, maybe it’s something I should get better at but until I see an animal I don’t really research the pedigree, see what sibling they have rated or cost.
I know some people do but it can be a wicked waste of time if the horse’s legs are on backwards, has offset knees and is a weaver. That’s just time that could’ve been spent looking for a horse that I could have sent to Chris Waller. So I really won’t delve into the pedigree that much until I see the animal in front of me.
If the animal is good enough then I’ll go back home and start to ring around, ring a trainer or two that has a half-sibling to see what he thinks and so on.
I’m a big believer in pedigree but you can’t always put the good physical with the good pedigree. You don’t always have the budget to do that but something I learned when I was working with Peter Doyle is the physical is the priority.
If the horse has any chance of going on and doing anything, he has to stay sound first.
DÓC: Give me an idea of your upcoming timetable.
MF: Next week we’ve got Goffs and I’ll be busy there. After that Tattersalls. Then France. I’ll take two weeks off or so for Christmas. In January I’ll go to the yearling sales in South Africa, New Zealand and I’ll probably go to the Gold Coast as well. February sales: Goffs, Tatts, Arqana, March.
I went to Gulfstream in Florida this year for the two-year-old sale. I didn’t buy a horse but it was a pretty good trip from a networking point of view so I might do that again.
In April you’ve got the breeze-ups back in England and the Inglis Sydney Easter Sale and in May you’ve got one or two sales as well. It really doesn’t stop. If you wanted to be at a sale every week of the year, you could be.
DÓC: Are you always building your client base?
MF: I’m very much still at the building stage. Although it’s going well you just never know when a guy would drop off so you’re always out looking for new guys. I always had it in my head that if you could have five key guys who fitted in with those seasons we’ve talked about long term, for 25 years as opposed to dipping out in a five-year period, I’d be very content.
If you’ve a client list of 15 or 20, you won’t be able to give them the individual attention they need and they do need it because they’re spending so much money. You’re gonna end up in a situation where you drop a couple of balls and people get annoyed.
DÓC: So what’s the state of play in the industry right now?
MF: Worldwide, Ireland is seen to be the best country at racing and breeding. We have the best people, the best farms, the best bloodlines. That’s thanks to the foresight of a few good men but it’s important to look after that now.
It’s good to see the new development going to go ahead at the Curragh.
If you’re taking a couple of clients from overseas racing that have been to Meydan, Singapore, Keeneland or Belmont Park, we have to have the right facilities. Our prize money is actually quite good when you compare it to England.
Everyone just needs to work together to protect the business. Whether that’s a combination of not jacking up stud fees too high… Stallion masters definitely have a responsibility and they know that. They’re as much there to protect the small breeders as anyone else.
If the whole thing is protected in a team effort, that it’s good for everybody rather than a few, that’s the way to go and that’s the way it has been done the last few years.