THE baton was passed early this year, but there was little time to sit back, relax and bask in any glow. Cathy Grassick is the second woman to hold the position of chairperson of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, and the first to smash that glass ceiling to smithereens was Eimear Mulhern.
As it happens, Eimear is a role model for Cathy, someone she counts as a friend, mentor and client.
However, it was a quarter of a century ago that the current chairman of Goffs took on the top role in the breeders’ representative body, and the new incumbent hopes that there will not be such a gap again. It is time for women to step forward,
This is proving to be quite the year for Cathy. She welcomed the New Year in with her marriage to Jamie, whom she properly met at the Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale, “the place where great romances begin”, she smiles. Though she knows his family well, she had not met him. Now Jamie is part of the Newtown Stud team, so he has an understanding of the whirlwind work schedule Cathy sometimes has to juggle.
“Jamie is a great support. He knows the business, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of form, but he lets me get on with my work. I suppose he and I have different views on horses, which I think is good, because it is always interesting to get an alternative take on things.”
Being a listener will be an important skill in her role as chairperson of the ITBA, and one that Cathy feels she has honed through her life experiences. She said: “One of the things I learned early on was that everyone has a valid opinion. I’m always open to listen to other people, because you never know where you are going to get the next bright idea from, or valuable piece of information. That was something that dad used to always say to me.”
Dad was Brian Grassick, a much-loved and much-missed bloodstock agent who, with his wife Sheila, established the family’s Newtown Stud outside Naas.
Cathy’s bloodstock agency still bears his name, and there is no doubt who her hero was, and remains. She speaks of him with love, affection and with admiration.
“Dad was very principled. He had very high standards. He used to always say that ‘a high standard of work, carried out consistently over a period of time, will not go unnoticed’. You set goals and you stick to them. He never relaxed when it came to standards and a work ethic.”
While Cathy follows in the footsteps of Brian with her agency work, she is quick to acknowledge the strength of her mum, Sheila, a lady who comes from a family of strong women. When Brian died in 2009 at the age of just 54, Sheila was catapulted into a role that she perhaps never envisaged. Yet she grasped the nettle, took on the challenge presented, and she has continued to grow the stud business. She and Brian has only established Newtown in 1996.
“Mum’s a smart cookie,” Cathy laughs, before adding, “she’s a very shrewd businesswoman, and keeps us all on the straight and narrow. I suppose that’s something that has been passed down through the generations. Her mum, my grandmother, Rosaleen MacCallion was extremely involved in the family business. She and her husband Tom were early pioneers of the clothing industry in Ireland.
Brian Grassick \ carolinenorris.ie
“Mum has a very sound financial brain, and is a rock of good sense. She and dad had strengths that complemented each other. They were a great partnership. I think its similar now with myself, Sally-Ann and mum at Newtown, with Caroline Hannon as manager. We all bring different strengths to the table.”
A woman who wears a lot of hats
NO, it’s not a fashion statement. Cathy Grassick is someone who relishes a challenge, and being busy is not a problem. It’s just a matter of putting on the right hat. On a practical basis, this simply means prioritising.
Bloodstock agent, stud farmer, breeder, advisor, show judge and more. Cathy does it all. Now she has added on the workload associated with being chairperson of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association. Is this something she relishes or worries about?
“I suppose it’s very true that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. I am someone who can wake up with an idea in the middle of the night, and have to go and write it down. I don’t switch off very easily, though Jamie is very good for me and does tell me to relax a bit at times.
“When it comes to the ITBA, and its workings, I suppose that it is something that I relish. After all I have been involved now for some time. I came through the Kildare/Dublin region and joined the council very young. Rory Mathews from Barouche was really great and encouraged me, as did Shane Horan who is now with Juddmonte. We organised some great awards’ nights.
“Through that involvement I learned how the organisation functioned, and dealt with issues. When dad passed away I went forward for the council. For me, it was daunting to go forward, but I also believe it is important for women to put themselves in that position.
“Eimear Mulhern was someone I looked up to my whole life, but you don’t always envisage getting yourself to that position. I am lucky to have some great former chairman who have mentored me, like Eimear and Derek Iceton. Then Christy [Grassick] and John McEnery have been so supportive. John gave me the confidence to step up from being vice-chairman, and he is still a great support now.
“John had a difficult chairmanship, because he had to try and cope with keeping the organisation alive and vibrant during the pandemic. What he achieved during his time was so impressive.”
With so many irons in the fire, does Cathy worry at all that her role as chairperson could ever be compromising, or conflict with her professional work? “No I don’t. I think it helps that I am aware of the difficulties that people on both sides of the fence face.
“So, I believe that perspective is useful. I would like to think that I am very approachable.
Girl Power: Jacqueline Norris,Sheila Grassick and Eimear Mulhern \ Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
“We are working very hard with the council, the regional representatives and the Next Generation to make ourselves more visible, more contactable, and we are going to work diligently to revitalise the regional committees.
“For example, this week we witnessed how Sean Murphy is such a vibrant and enthusiastic chairperson of the western region, an area not as populated with breeders as others, and their awards lunch at Galway was something to be very proud of indeed.”
Facing the challenges, and celebrating success
EVER a realist, Cathy Grassick calls it as it is. The Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association is going through a period of change, and Cathy is up for any challenge.
“We are so fortunate to have Shane O’Dwyer, himself a breeder, as chief executive, Una Tormey as operations manager, and until recently we had Kerry Ryan at the heart of the Association.
“Their commitment and work ethic is truly inspiring, and with their input the wheels of the ITBA are well-oiled, and they deliver for breeders day after day.”
On a practical, everyday basis, the work of the ITBA was affected, like it was for all, by the pandemic. There is a need, she believes, to reconnect. “The pandemic meant that we had little real contact, and the regions and Next Generation have slightly dissipated and become a bit disjointed. We are going to get out there and go and visit the different regions, bringing people the message of the work that is being done behind closed doors.
“We also need to get better at singing our own praises a bit, telling about the amazing work done by the entire team. Look at what Des Leadon is doing at international level to try and bring in the higher health status, something that is very important for the movement of horses.
“The ITBA worked in close collaboration with Horse Racing Ireland to bring about the IRE incentive. That is something that happened under John McEnery’s chairmanship, and with the invaluable support of Suzanne Eade. It has been so successful, and it is not just rewarding people for buying Irish horses, but you get to see the difference in the sale ring. ITM is doing a fantastic job of implementing the scheme.
“We are in a process of change at the moment with regard to governance. While previously the chairperson role was two years, I have agreed to stay on for three years to implement the necessary changes. Cathal Beale, who is my vice-chairman, has done Trojan work in this area.
“Then there is TAMS [Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme]. My first big meeting after taking on this new role was with the Minister for Agriculture in the Irish National Stud. We had a very positive engagement, and this was on the back of continual lobbying by the ITBA with people like Ministers Martin Heydon and Pippa Hackett in the Department of Agriculture, and Peter Burke.
“There were many others who were passionate about supporting the thoroughbred industry – Senators Fiona O’Loughlin and Paul Daly, and TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Cahill.
“When we met Minister Charlie McConalogue we got a very positive response. We weren’t looking for special treatment, per se, but rather we wanted inclusion. It is not understood clearly by people outside the industry that many of us are actually farmers – we are horse farmers. We carry out the exact same business as farmers, the same land management. We are a very green industry.
“Many of us have cattle and sheep on the farm, to even out the grazing pattern. Look at someone like Frank Motherway – he is both a very successful dairy farmer and a highly successful horse breeder. In fact, the conditions in which you have to house horses are more expensive for a small breeder than for a small farmer. All we were asking for was inclusion.
“I think it is important how we take our next steps, how we work with the Department of Agriculture to make sure than TAMS is delivered effectively across the whole equine industry. This is something that hasn’t been achieved by just one sector, and the Minister made reference to that in his speech.”
In addition to all the work outlined, are there any more challenges or ambitions that Cathy would like to realise during her term in office? “Breeders, particularly flat breeders, suffered a lot during the pandemic from having to move their horses to sell in England, and that was further complicated by Brexit. I would like to encourage even more vibrant sales within the country, which should be possible with the IRE incentive.
“I know that there are lots of Irish-bred horses that go to sales outside of Ireland. That has to happen and I am very keen that breeders do well, no matter where they sell their horses. It is necessary to have vibrant sales companies here, and very important that Goffs and Tattersalls Ireland are very successful for the health of the industry.
“Finally, on the subject of welfare, I think our record is very good. Breeders love their horses and we have a high standard of welfare. We are going to continue to work, through our educational programmes, to support breeders in this area. We also need to communicate the message to the outside world.
“One thing that concerns me is the growing disconnect between rural Ireland and the growing urban areas. This is something that faces farmers as well as horse breeders as the population centres grow. It is very important that we work to make sure that our politicians realise what a good industry this is, how successful it is, how we are world leaders. We need to communicate that message externally, not just telling ourselves how good we are.”
Group 1 runner-up last year, Flotus was sold to Katsumi Yoshida for 1,000,000gns. She was bred by Newtown Stud in partnership with Tim Pabst \ Laura Green
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to work with horses. When I was in school and we had an art project, my teacher used to say ‘we are going to do art and Cathy is going to paint a horse! It’s been an obsession from an early age.”
“At the sales my father had some very strong, successful female clients like Clodagh McStay and Eimear Mulhern who were role models for me. Dad would have bought horses also with Jackie Norris and with Harriet Jellett. From then it just seemed like something I could do. My parents were there for myself and my sister, and I am indebted to them for always supporting us. We always had their backing. I think it is important that as girls we were never set any limitations.”
“There were and are so many great women in the business – Mrs Weld, Miss O’Kelly, Mrs Whitehead, Sonia Rogers, Valerie Cooper – even going back to Mrs Biddle. Mrs Weld was ahead of her time, while Miss O’Kelly used to travel with me from the sales in Deauville to catch our flight back from Paris. She used to say ‘oh, we are just like Thelma and Louise!”
“I studied business and law; it was a tough course, but a brilliant one. It’s something that stands me in good stead in my work now, and in many different situations. I then did a post-grad in marketing and advertising.”
“Australia – I absolutely loved it; it was brilliant. I had to stand on my own two feet and earn my own reputation. That was very important to me. You had to prove yourself, you really had to show that you knew what you were talking about. Once you did that you flew.”
“Why did my brother Mark not follow in the business? He says that his overenthusiastic sisters frightened him! He’s a journalist and sub-editor, living in London and he’s a music and film guru. My dad had a great love for the written word, and was very much into poetry and literature. My brother’s love for it came from dad.”
“My reasons for doing anything in the ITBA, my reasons for doing anything in the industry is not for my own personal benefit; it’s for the good of the industry. At the end of my term I don’t mind if I don’t get my name attached to anything. As long as the industry is in a good place and our breeders are successful and in a strong position. I think that’s the role of the chairperson.”