Whytemount Stud’s Ronnie and Linda O’Neill, pictured here being presented with a Connolly’s Red Mills The Irish Field Breeder of the Month Award for Outlander by Joe Connolly (left) (photo courtesy of Caroline Norris & The Irish Field)
Like jockeys and trainers, breeders and stallion masters need ability, but they also must have opportunity, access to quality/numbers and a slice of luck. When money is a factor, you must be shrewd and fortunate. Then, when the window of opportunity opens, you have to go through it.
Ronnie O’Neill fulfilled a lifetime’s dream just by standing a stallion at Whytemount Stud, where his late father had done the same from the 1930s through to the 1950s, his own father having moved to the farm from Slyguff in Carlow the previous century.
It was 30 years ago, after a successful riding career as an amateur with Paddy Mullins and then carving out a niche buying unraced Aga Khan mares to train and breed from, when Ronnie finally sourced Shahanndeh. Although the son of Assert was being used as a teaser, he was a half-brother to Shergar and was affordable.
It didn’t matter either that Stowaway took a decade to become an “overnight” success, or that Affinisea lost an amateur riders’ handicap in Killarney. You have to be clever enough to look beyond the obvious fault lines and spot the potential once you’re blessed enough to stumble upon it.
It is notable the number of times the phrase, “Stowaway paid for that” comes up when talking to the O’Neill’s. It applies to the conservatory in which we sit, with intense heat emanating from a stove under a lovely, wall-mounted photograph of Ronnie and the late Champion Sire.
It applies to the 40 acres of coveted land the O’Neill’s acquired to expand their holding, almost unique in dairy farming headquarters as equine land.
It also applies to the expansion of their broodmare band – many of them Stowaway’s daughters – and to the fact that, what was one, is now five sires, even after the passing of the king. Between four of them, they covered an estimated 500 mares last year.
What hasn’t grown is the team running the place: Linda the glue keeping it all together in the office; Ronnie and their son and daughter, John and Debbie, working full time with the horses and catering for their multitude of loyal clients. Vet Catherine Dwan and farrier Tommy Newton also add their invaluable expertise, but it is still a staggering feat, particularly when one considers that daughters Charmaine, a former Champion lady rider, and the Rachel, partner of trainer Shark Hanlon, have now moved on to pastures new.
Stowaway was posthumously crowned Champion NH Sire last season, having died at the age of 21 in 2015, with 74 winners yielding €2,331,061. It was a season when he topped the Cheltenham charts for the second consecutive year, thanks to Champion Chase heroine Put The Kettle On, Monkfish, Telmesomethinggirl and The Shunter.
Stowaway, whose stallion career started off slowly but who was posthumously crowned Champion NH Sire in the 2020/2021 season
Monkfish is injured but the other trio, along with the likes of Grade 1 winner Fury Road, Kilcruit, Fiddlerontheroof, Hillcrest and Stattler could still carry their old man’s banner next month.
A small headstone has been erected in honour of the life-changing horse, who was the slowest of burns, already having covered mares for a decade by the time he became a sire sensation. O’Neill describes the day he and Linda went to Dalham Hall to see the Gordon Stakes, Great Voltigeur Stakes and Dubai Turf Classic winner, whose career had been cut short by injury after his Nad Al Sheba triumph early in 1998.
“They had him out in the paddock and couldn’t catch the bugger,” he recalls with an admiring smile. “The minute we saw him, we loved him. We saw him walking up towards us, a big walk.”
“A beautiful, dappled coat,” reminisces Linda.
“Gorgeous,” nods Ronnie. “He’d size. Lots of people didn’t like Slip Anchor but I did. Some said Slip Anchors wouldn’t jump. Stowaways would jump the conservatory here! It turned out that they loved to be in front and could jump the opposition into the ground that way. It was the jumping that made so many of them two-milers, though maybe you wouldn’t have thought the mares he was bred to would produce them. He put the jumping into them. It took lads a while to cop onto that.”
His very first mare was the dam of future Grade 1 winner Outlander but, though the stock did well at the sales, there was very little outside interest. Shark Hanlon always bought some of them and Western Leader was a dual bumper winner under owner Barry Connell for him before winning a Grade 2 novice hurdle in February 2010. He was leading in the Grade 1 Sefton at Aintree two months later before suffering a tendon injury.
It was Ted Walsh’s intervention on the televised coverage of Leopardstown’s January meeting the following year that changed everything, helped by another pair of Hanlon winners.
“It was a real cold day, there was nothing else on. It was on RTÉ and everyone was sitting watching it at home. After Hidden Cyclone won, Ted Walsh said that he was bred by Ronnie O’Neill down in Kilkenny. ‘He also has his sire,’ he said. ‘He’s a phenomenal horse, he’s having winners every day of the week. He’s the best value in the country at a thousand euros. He’s got one in the bumper as well.’ And Mart Lane duly came out and won!
“We were always getting a few quid for the foals, but there weren’t many running. He wasn’t covering more than 20 mares. We tried to get Western Leader – a lovely horse – into the Land Rover Sale but they wouldn’t take him. There was nothing on his page. Now the mare fills the page ’cos she bred nine winners by Stowaway, five of them black-type horses. The phone never stopped ringing after Ted said what he did on TV.
“Once Stowaway did get going, no-one else had three-year-olds except us and everyone wanted them. We were getting a fortune for them. We’d full brothers to Hidden Cyclone and to Western Leader. They were all mad to buy them because the horse was in fashion. That’s where he really scored for us.”
It was a shock to the system, but they coped. A lot of mares had to be turned down, which was some turnaround. At the end of 2011, Stowaway was the busiest stallion in Europe, having covered 312 mares. Champagne Fever came along and won the Cheltenham Champion Bumper in 2012 and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 12 months later, adding to the stallion’s lustre and the legend is still growing, long after his death
As homebreds, 17-time winner Hidden Cyclone and Grade 1 winners Outlander and Champagne Classic stand out from all the successes, the latter out of a Shahanndeh mare to sweeten that experience.
“If he’d gotten the mares, he’d have been Champion ten years earlier,” says O’Neill of Stowaway and that particular pudding is laced with proof.
AFFINISEA is the heir apparent, albeit with gargantuan hooves to fill. As you enter his stable, he needs to be distracted by a plastic hose to avoid you losing a few digits. He chews away on that like a teething child and by his owner’s account, takes to his job with similar vigour and no waste of time.
Affinisea, whom Ronnie describes as “a stunner, with a pedigree to match”, was the busiest stallion of 2021
He is a stunner, a Jim Bolger-bred heart-throb with a pedigree to match. A glance without peaking through the detail of his racing form might leave you underwhelmed. Again, that is why O’Neill managed to source him, having gone to John Oxx’s in pursuit of another potential deal that didn’t materialise a year before.
“He was after fracturing a pastern. He was gorgeous, a three-quarters brother to Soldier Of Fortune, the record-priced foal sold in Ireland at the time (€850,000 in 2011), and by Sea The Stars. What more would you want? I knew I hadn’t a hope in buying him. He had won in Roscommon (on debut in July 2015) and then got injured. I said to John Oxx, ‘If he comes on the market, let me know.’ The phone rang a year later; they were pulling the plug on him for racing. He had run in an amateur race in Killarney after Roscommon (in July 2016). It was just his second run, a prep race to get ready for the Blandford Stakes, and Hidden Cyclone, the horse I bred, beat him.”
That quirk of fate makes everyone smile, even now. Katie Walsh was on board Affinisea, Patrick Mullins on Hidden Cyclone. The injury that ultimately ended his career occurred on this day – “he finished on three legs” – but it is just another reason to love the Hanlon-trained winning machine.
Linda emerges after a brief absence brandishing a shot of the Killarney finish as Ronnie is still narrating the tale, demonstrating the type of perfect timing you would expect from such an established tag team.
“That’s my favourite photograph,” he continues, without pause. “If he’d won that day, he’d be going for the Blandford Stakes and then the Leger and he’d have hit the headlines. I wouldn’t have had a prayer of getting him. But he got hurt and I was just in the right place at the right time.”
And now, despite not yet having had a runner under Rules at the time of writing, Affinisea has been the busiest stallion of 2021, emulating Stowaway. This time, no evangelical intercession on television was needed, however. It was the beauty of his progeny that spoke to breeders.
“They were pure stunners. All his stock look like himself. He could have a chestnut mare but it would be a black foal. He stamps every one of them, either dark like himself or bay. I haven’t seen a chestnut foal yet.”
The ultimate test is whether they make it on the track. Hanlon has one close to running, bred by Rachel, while Sea Village was declared to run by trainer Oliver Signy for the Mick Fitzgerald Racing Club in a Hereford bumper on February 16th but was a late non-runner due to Storm Dudley.
“It’s make or break time but there are good reports coming through and there are supposed to be some good ones due out in the point-to-points,” says Ronnie with relish.
This isn’t a one-sire town though. VALIRANN is in demand and the 12-year-old has sired winners from five furlongs to three miles, being able to put speed into stock although he was a stayer himself. Grade 2 Aintree Bumper winner Knappers Hill (Paul Nicholls) and Martin Brassil’s progressive handicapper Panda Boy are his current flagbearers, while the grapevine suggests there might be some talent unleashed through the flags shortly.
Meanwhile, MANATEE and FEEL LIKE DANCING have both had winners in France.
“I always liked the Monsun horses and he’s a gorgeous, big horse,” says O’Neill of Manatee, who like Affinisea is 11. “He was a very good racehorse. Darley bred him and Godolphin raced him. Andre Fabre trained him in France where he won three times. There’s size and scope to him and he stamps his foals. He’s already had winners with his first crop over jumps in France and there’s been huge interest in him.”
Monsun’s son, Manatee, who was bred by Darley and raced by Godolphin
There is particularly excitement around Feel Like Dancing’s Dancing City, who had been well touted before recording an effortless 12-length triumph in a point-to-point maiden for Cormac Farrell. Willie Mullins quickly opened Joe and Marie Donnelly’s cheque book for the now five-year-old.
“He’s a bull of a horse,” says O’Neill of Dancing City’s sire, a Galileo 12-year-old who, in stark contrast to Affinisea and despite his forbidding stature, is playful away from the covering shed, constantly sticking his tongue out to be rubbed. “He’s had a lot of winners in France. We were told that Cormac Farrell had a Gold Cup horse by him (Dancing City). It’s too good to be true to hear that. We went down to see him running first time out in Borris before Christmas. So did Willie Mullins. He’s supposed to have given a lot of money for him after he bolted up.”
Feel Like Dancing, “a bull of a horse” who has had plenty of winners in France and whose son, Dancing City, bolted up first time out at Borris House before joining Willie Mullins’ yard
And there’s yet another new arrival this weekend, as BEHESHT is being transported to Whytemount. Once more, his is a quirky, roundabout story where the impossible becomes real.
“He sort of fell into my lap, so’s to speak. We had an Aga Khan mare from that family. I was watching him and saw him in France one day and thought he would make some stallion, as it’s a powerful pedigree. There are Group 1 Flat winners and Grade 1 National Hunt winners in his first two generations. And the grandam (Behera, by Mill Reef) was a Group 1 winner who was second in the Prix de l’Arc.
“He was sold for €525,000 out of Dermot Weld’s and then went over to the States. He was wasted over there but the fact he’s a Sea The Stars will make him popular back here. It was too good to be true and I couldn’t turn him down once he became available, even though we weren’t looking for another stallion.”
Given that it’s a small family operation, why build to five stallions?
“We’re gluttons for punishment,” announces a smiling Ronnie. Linda adds:“He often comes in with the phone to me and says, ‘Mind that,’ because it never stops ringing and you’d get nothing done.”
It truly is something to be proud of. And, while their skill, horsemanship and work ethic has played a huge part, they keep the attribution simple. The key ingredient was Stowaway. “We thank him every day of the week,” says Linda.
“To have the Champion Sire and the busiest sire in Ireland and Britain last year for a small place in the middle of nowhere, with the mighty Coolmore way behind us and them promoting everywhere, it’s unbelievable really,” notes a still amazed Ronnie.
“A lot of people are doing it as big business. We’re doing it as a living, day and night, nothing else. We have to do it to make a living. Other lads have backers behind them. We have to think about it before we spend but we’re lucky we have great support from the breeders. We’ve got a huge base that have been coming back for years and we love it when they get a good horse. They’re amazing people and, after Stowaway, they keep returning.
“It’s a great way of life. It keeps you going day to day; you’ve something to get up for in the morning, a new foal being born or the like. Of course it has its down days too. Things go wrong. It’s not all plain sailing but we love it.”
And how it shows.