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A Passion for Horses

County Kildare, home of the Irish Derby and siring place of champions, is the heart of the horse country.



County Kildare, the heart of Ireland’s horse country, spreads to the west and south of Dublin in a gentle triangle of rolling hills and pastures. The brilliant green of the landscape almost hurts your eyes. Mares with spindle-legged foals graze on the hillsides, and rail fences divide the land into neat grids.


The N7 motorway slices through its center, but to discover Kildare you have to bump along the narrow back roads that play hide-and-seek with the River Liffey. Mossy stone walls mark the boundaries of old estates. Here and there a wrought-iron gate, as high as a house, frames a tree-lined drive. Black-faced sheep often well up out of a dip in the road to wash across it like a woolly tide.


Love of horses had brought me to Kildare, one of Ireland’s less visited rural counties. More than one-third of its 75,000 acres is devoted to stud farms. In Ireland horses are a major industry, providing jobs for 25,000 people and accounting for $96 million in exports (calculated with the Irish pound at $1.60). But in  Kildare horses are more than just a business. They are a passion and a way of life.


The country’s most famous stud farm is the Irish National Stud at Tully near the town of Kildare. Government owned, it is open to the public. The founder, Colonel William Hall-Walker, who bought the land in 1900, believed that horses should be bread and raced according to their horoscopes. Stalls were built with skylights so that the stars could favorably influence  his prospective winners.


His methods were unorthodox, but within 10 years the eccentric colonel’s horses had won all of Europe’s top races. In 1915 he gave his farm to the British Government. It was presented to the Irish Republic in 1943 and two years later became the Irish National Stud.


I drove out to Tully on a warm late-summer afternoon. The breeding season for thoroughbreds ends in mid-July, and most of the hectic activity that started in February had ended. Some of Colonel Walker’s old stalls survive: the light from skylights glances off hay bales stacked there for storage. The horses now occupy 288 modern stalls.


A blacksmith and his apprentice hammered rhythmically beside an open fire in the forge. Next door in the saddlery, the rich smell of leather filled the small room. Foals get their first harness a few days after they are born, and every harness is handmade on the farm.

The Sun Chariot yard, the maternity ward of the Irish National Stud was deserted. The last foal had been born in June. Within a few days of the birth, the mares and their foals are turned into the paddocks to graze on the  famous Kildare grass. I peered into a horse incubator about the size of my garage. The “covering” or mating takes place in the covering yard or shed between February 15th and July 15 each year.


The National Stud handles about 500 mares each year, and visitors who are there at the right time may get a glimpse of the proceedings through the open door. Owners pay between $I,600 and $14,000 for the services of one of the National Stud’s stallions, and a chance of raising a winning race horse. Payment is made after certification of pregnancy by Oct. 1. The rule is, “no foal, no fee.”


The stallion paddocks are along the Oak Walk, the mares’ paddocks along Tully Walk. Hundreds of horses graze on the Stud’s 950 or so acres and are visible from the farm’s paths and roads.


The Irish Horse Museum, small and intimate, is housed in one of the original groom’s residences. Here famous horses are pictured, jockeys’ silks and saddles are on display and races that took place 30 years ago are replayed on a movie screen.  The most striking exhibit is the skeleton of Arkle, the legendary Irish steeplechaser. The mention of his name, along with the downing of a few pints of stout, guarantee acceptance by insiders in any rural pub.


Anyone spending a week or more in County Kildare comes away with a new vocabulary. Horses’ names reeled off in casual conversation have a way of worming their way into your mind. Arkle, “the most gallant horse that ever lived,” died in 1970; Santa Claus, the 1964 Irish Derby winner, seemed to have run just yesterday, and people still speculate on what really happened to the Aga Kahn’s stallion Shergar, who was kidnapped in 1981 and never seen again.


Any story about Irish horse country automatically becomes a story about the people involved in training, breeding, owning and racing horses. “T’was never a man or woman born who doesn’t love a horse,” was a sentence I heard more than once in Kildare’s pubs and paddocks.


Several factors make Kildare one of the world’s best places for horse breeding. First, the grass. There is a high concentration of limestone in the soil, which is believed to produce strong bones. And second, the people seem to have a natural talent of raising horses.


Kildare’s reputation has attracted breeders from all over the world. The Aga Khan owns Ballymany Stud. Kildangan Stud is the palatial farm of Dubai’s Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and his brother Sheik Hamdan owns Derrinstown Stud. Moyglare is the beautiful farm of Mr. And Mrs. Walther Haefner, who are Swiss.


I stayed at the Kildare Hotel and Country Club, which had been a stud farm until 1989. The elegant Georgian house, with its horse paintings, Waterford chandeliers and chintz armchairs is fill of memories. The stable yard, which now houses duplex apartments, was home to generations of Irish-bred hunters. “When McClory owned the place, they had a lot of parties and filled the granite horse trough with wine,” one wistful neighbor said in recalling a former owner. A golf course has now replaced the gallops (where horses are put through their paces) and cattle graze in the fields.


At lease one table in the hotel’s Byerley Turk Restaurant is always reserved for the local horse crowd. If they are drinking Champagne, it is usually a good sign. It was there that I met Hubie de Burgh, chairman of the racing committee of the Curragh Racecourse and the manager of Derrinstown, one of Kildare’s best known stud farms.


The next day I was driving through the gilded wrought-iron gate that guards the entrance to Derrinstown Stud, near Maynooth. It belongs to Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum, crown prince and finance minister of Dubai. He also owns Shadwell Estate in Kentucky’s bluegrass country and another stud farm in England. He has produced two Irish Derby winners and has 184 broodmares  and 385 horses in training.


Visits have to be arranged by appointment and a guide will bring visitors to the paddocks and stables. Sheik Hamdan visits Derrinstown only occasionally, but his home, like those of other horse owners, is not open to visitors. The stallions occupy stalls set around an oval ring where their handler walks them for prospective clients who pay stud feeds averaging around $8,000. Since I was not a client, I didn’t think I would get to see the stallions, but Mr. De Burgh asked the handler to walk the horses in the ring for me. The stalls, all with skylights, are cleaned several times a day. Each stallions gets two pints of Guinness mixed with his feed everyday, and eats hay imported from France. After they retire, generally as soon as they win a few top races (each race presents a risk to the horse), they are groomed and pampered, and never ridden again. All they have to do is cover 50 to 60 mares a year.


Many private owners welcome visitors and love to show them around. Perhaps it is pride of place or merely an extension of Irish hospitality. The best way to arrange a visit is to phone the farm directly for an appointment or call Irish Thoroughbred Marketing, a division of the Irish Horse Racing Authority, for a list of owners who allow visits. “I would guess the vast majority of the owners here in Kildare do welcome visitors who are genuinely interested in horses,” says Matt Michell, general manager of I.T.M.


One of the farms I.T.M. arranged for me to visit was Moyglare in Maynooth, where I was taken around by a trainer. Here the emphasis is on winning races. Most stud farms generate income through stud feels and the sale of yearlings. Moyglare is different. Very few foals or yearlings are ever sold, and there are no stallions for breeding purposes. Broodmares are sent to other stud farms for breeding and yearlings are bought and trained. The farm has 65 horses in training. Pine-covered paths crisscross the 500-acre farm where jockeys and trainers exercise the magnificent animals.


About 30 minutes away, near the town of Celbridge, is Corbally Stud, owned by Sean Collins, a retired veterinarian in his 60’s. At the center of Corbally’s 400 acres is a beautifully restored Georgian house, in front of which stands a bronze horse. “That’s Persian Bold – you could say he owns the place,” Mr. Collins told me. Persian Bold, a 19-year old stallion has sired 850 winners. He and three other stallions live in spacious stalls behind the house. The stallions get only one pint of Guinness, but Mr. Collins adds six fresh eggs to their feed each day.


Some breeders keep their most promising yearlings to train as race horses. But training is very expensive and many prefer to sell them.


At Goff’s Bloodstock Sales, Ireland’s oldest and largest horse auction house, at Kill, a half-hour’s drive from Dublin, there are 9 to 10 sales a year, the most important of which is the Yearling Sale held in October. Anyone can attend, free of charge. Jockey’s trainers and “pinhookers” (horse speculators) mingle with sheiks, dukes and international tycoons. It’s a sale, a social event and as often happens in Kildare, an occasion when drink may be taken and a good time is had by all, Bidding is done in Irish Guineas, an ancient currency that no longer exists but is traditional in horse sales. An Irish Guinea is roughly one Irish pound and five pence. The most exciting auctions are held in October, when international bidders attend and prices shoot sky high.


To top off my week in Kildare’s horse country, I spent a weekday afternoon at the races. County Kildare has three race tracks, all within four to nine miles of each other. The most famous is the Curragh, which hosts all five of Ireland’s Classic races including the most famous one, the Irish Derby. The race I attended was a minor one. The stands were about half full. A few women wore hats. The men all wore ties and some had field glasses draped around their necks.


I studied my racing program intently, “Wouldn’t bet on that filly,” said my neighbor tipping his hat back on his head. It was the fourth race, and I had my eye on a three-year old from one of Ireland’s foremost trainers. I had watched Dermot Weld put his horses through their paces at the Curragh gallops a few days earlier.


The Curragh, which means race course in Gaelic, is a flat plain that begins less than a mile west of Newbridge. For centuries it had been used as a common grazing area. Curragh sheep are still allowed the run of the fields, but grids keep them off the course and the gallops. The springy turf is said to be especially good for galloping horses.


Bets are placed with the “Tote of Bookmakers,” a centralized betting system controlled by the Irish Horse Racing Authority.  Bookmakers are confined to an area next to the track. They print the odds on blackboards and usually take bets of $6 or more. Bets placed in sterling (British pounds) are paid out accordingly. Bettors shop for the best odds and sometimes bargain with the bookie who may accept a smaller bet on a slow day.

In the fifth race I chose a bookmaker by the name of Pat O’Hare and a horse named Macgillycuddy. I was betting Irish. I went down to the rail to watch 11 horses thunder over the finish line. All around people were ripping their tickets into multicolored confetti and moving gently but inexorably toward the Champagne bar, below the stands to the left of the Parade Ring, where owners were celebrating their victory or commiserating over their losses.


Irish music poured from loud speakers, and set dancers , who fill the time between  races with traditional Irish dances, moved onto a makeshift stage. The horses and jockeys were in the Parade Ring where trainers and owners had gathered to discuss the results. “She’s lazy,” gasped a breathless jockey as he slid off a beautiful filly. One of the owners I had met waved to me. I had been in Kildare just over a week and was surprised how many faces I recognized.  Ya win?” I turned around to face the 24-karate smile of one of Goffs’ auctioneers. “How could I possibly lose?” I laughed. “If that’s the case, you’re buying the Guinness.”



The New York Times

Sunday, April 16, 1995