Henley Embracing Steep Ascent at Airdrie

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Ben Henley

By Chris McGrath

Some people just stand out from the beginning. Ben Henley, newly promoted general manager of Airdrie Stud at 37, has long been marked out for responsibility–much like the man who appointed him. Brereton C. Jones was only 25, after all, when becoming the youngest representative ever elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates. And that didn’t work out too badly, either.

Henley had barely started out in his native Australia, for instance, when the late Ann Raymond entrusted much of the day-to-day running of Sledmere Stud to the raw 20-year-old only recently promoted from the maintenance crew. Yes, Ann Raymond: doyenne of the Hunter Valley’s old school, who remembered Phar Lap being hidden on her father’s stud after someone took a potshot at him a few days before the Melbourne Cup.

“We had a family friend at Sledmere, so I’d been coming for a week or two during the summer since I was 11 or 12,” Henley said. “Hard labour, basically, but I just thought it was the best thing ever, to be on horseback, to work with the cattle and the horses, I thought it a fantastic way of life. By the time I was 16 I was a full-time farm hand; did that for two years, and then spent about four working with the horses.

“About then Miss Raymond got hurt a few times, broke some bones and was incapacitated. But that was a blessing for me as I got to pretty much run the farm, on the horse side of things, reporting to her daily. Sledmere has grown a lot since but back then it was really a private, family broodmare farm. Miss Raymond was a great horsewoman and it was a very good way to learn, hands on, doing everything.”

There was no obvious reason for Henley’s affinity with the horses. His father was a stonemason; his mother and stepfather ran a Sydney restaurant for 20 years. Sure, he had a pony as a kid; there was even a little dressage and showjumping, but he soon tired of that: “I was more interested in riding around chasing cows–‘Man From Snowy River’ style!”

Yet everywhere he has been, Henley has been fast-tracked. He left Sledmere when the local breeders’ association awarded him a scholarship to the Irish National Stud course–after which he was promptly retained as a foreman, to help train the next intake. By 23, he was helping to establish Oakgrove Stud in Wales for John Deer. How very apt, then, that when he first came to Kentucky it should have been with More Than Ready. He was accompanying the shuttler from Vinery Australia.

“I had no intention of staying more than six months,” Henley admitted. “But within a week I was just blown away, and knew I was going to be here a lot longer.”

The Vinery Australia manager, Peter Orton, was an old mate of Tim Thornton, who was running Airdrie for Governor Jones. Thornton offered Henley a place on his nominations team; and, ten years on, it was his retirement that proved the cue for Henley to take the reins.

Bret Jones, of course, remains integral both to the future of the farm and its present excellence. But if the Governor’s son exudes the same Jones appeal that won over voters first in West Virginia, and ultimately in Kentucky, then the family also knows that even the strongest stallion roster can only be as strong as the team behind it. Shortly before Henley’s promotion, for example, Airdrie recruited the highly regarded Cormac Breathnach from Adena Springs to its nominations desk.

“Yes, it’s a big step up,” Henley said of his new post. “But I’ve been really lucky the way Tim and Brerry took me under their wing from the start, giving me a lot of responsibility and involvement with all aspects of the business. And Bret shared a lot of that stuff with me, also; they’ve all been amazing: they took me in like family, treated me like one of their own from day one.”

The Governor himself, after all, was younger than Henley when first restoring Thoroughbreds to these acres–reviving a great but latent 19th Century heritage–in 1972. And it’s not hard to see why the Airdrie regime should have groomed this young man, so to speak, for high office. For Henley had gone to exacting lengths to acquire a cosmopolitan Turf education long before there was any such thing as a Darley Flying Start.

“The Irish National Stud course really opened my eyes,” he reflected. “At that point I thought racing only existed in Australia and New Zealand, I had no idea about the international market. So that was a fantastic opportunity, to meet all these people from all over the world and learn about European pedigrees. I couldn’t get my head out of those Goffs and Tattersalls catalogues. And then of course you’re also learning a totally different way of raising a horse. In Australia, they’re outdoors in large groups, and not handled anywhere near as much. Obviously in Europe the weather doesn’t allow for that style of doing things, so you’re in there with them in barns a lot more.”

During the year he stayed on, Henley assisted in some 250 foalings–notably a Giant’s Causeway filly delivered by none other than Urban Sea (Miswaki), whose mighty son Galileo (Ire) had won the Derby the previous year.

“But all the big shots on the farm came in to help with that one,” Henley said with a smile. “It’s a bit more intense, that’s for sure, with a mare like that. You want it to go right! But it was really cool to follow that filly’s race career.”

My Typhoon (Ire), as she was named, ended up winning the GI Diana S. In the meantime, Henley had put in those couple of years as stud groom at Oakgrove until his visa expired.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Mr Deer was just getting going with Averti (Ire) (Warning {GB}) and really focused on getting as many mares to him as possible, raising them well and racing them. And we had a lot of luck, Avonbridge (GB) won the [G1] Prix de l’Abbaye from his first crop. He was out of a great mare called Alessia (GB) (Caerleon) whose Machiavellian foal a couple of years before was Patavellian (Ire)–and he won the Abbaye as well.

“It was testing, to be in a position of responsibility as a foreigner and still very young,” he said. “Most of the people working there were older, so it was a challenge to learn how to deal with people–and a really good experience for me.”

His next move was instructive of the ambition and diligence underpinning Henley’s laid-back demeanour. For while he had no interest in a track career, he felt that any future stud manager should have a proper grasp of what a trainer might expect of a horse arriving from a farm. He duly served a stint with John Hawkes at Crown Lodge, learning much from Peter Snowden who was still assistant to Hawkes at that time.

Then it was on to Vinery Australia, where Orton extended his education into selling seasons, and, with dirt pedigrees and dirt racing as the final piece of the jigsaw, sent him to Kentucky.

“With the expectation that I’d come home,” Henley said with a grin. “That didn’t happen in the end, but I’m forever grateful to him–as without him none of this would have happened.”

So here he is, immersed for a decade in the Airdrie way. Yes, he misses the cricket; and, when seen at the Keeneland January Sale, the Sydney weather too. But three years ago he married a girl who had been to school with Bret, and he has long ago become a fervent evangelist for the methods and principles of the Governor, his family and their team.

“The Governor? He’s one of a kind,” Henley said. “It’s remarkable what he’s done, with Libby, building up Airdrie after starting out with half a dozen broodmares. Now it’s one of the powerhouses of the North American stallion business. He’s raced three [GI Kentucky] Oaks winners in the last ten years, all by stallions standing at Airdrie. And he’s not a billionaire with some big company that pays for the farm. It’s a self-sufficient business, and that’s a remarkable thing to do: to run it for that long, sustaining it, standing stallions, selling yearlings, racing a lot of horses every year.”

Many of Airdrie’s trademark sires–Silver Hawk, Indian Charlie, Harlan’s Holiday, Proud Citizen–have been especially cherished by the commercial clients who have developed such trust in the farm. Now their attention is fixed on young stallions like Cairo Prince (Pioneerof The Nile) and Creative Cause (Giant’s Causeway), each having passed his first tests–respectively in the sales ring and on the track–in pretty spectacular fashion.

“With Cairo Prince, the boss has been very fortunate in that we’ve great partners in Darley,” Henley emphasized. “We said we’d guarantee him a certain number of mares, we’d do the heavy lifting, it’s a win-win for everyone and we’re very grateful for the opportunity. And the horse’s sales have been phenomenal. Forty-three yearlings at $100,000 or more–off a $10,000 stud fee! That’s incredible, especially for some of the smaller commercial breeders.

“We know all our clients so well, and get all the feedback when the foals are hitting the ground, and then when they’re preparing them for the sales. So yes, you could feel it coming–but it’s still remarkable what he’s done.

“He’s a really laid-back horse, very easy to deal with, a pure gentleman most of the time. And I think that’s part of why the market really grabbed onto him: their minds seem really good, they learn things easily. And he’s stamping really well. They’re tall, leggy, [and] look like your classic American two-turn horse, with plenty of scope.”

But while everyone now waits to see whether Cairo Prince can possibly match expectations with his first runners, Creative Cause is already up and away. Though finding himself among a vintage intake, he ended 2017 as the number one second-crop sire by stakes winners, stakes wins, and juvenile stakes winners.

“Creative Cause is going great guns,” Henley said. “Quite often when they make a good start with their first crop, they can kind of slow down–but we’ve seen him come straight back again with that second crop of 2-year-olds.”

Another emerging prospect is the handsome Summer Front (War Front), whose first foals were so well received. Nor is he being treated as inevitably a turf sire by the farm: with versatile influences on both sides, he has been given plenty of partners with dirt profiles.

Then there is Upstart (Flatter), with foals now on the ground from an oversubscribed debut book; and newcomer American Freedom (Pulpit), launched in partnership with Gary and Mary West, with a guarantee of mutual support across his first three seasons. And let’s not forget Majesticperfection (Harlan’s Holiday) and old stalwart Include (Broad Brush), who between them set such standards for the young guns.

“Include’s been a great servant to the farm, with ten Grade I winners including three out of our mares, while never standing for big money,” Henley says. “And now we have his daughters doing good things for us as well. We sold a Cairo Prince colt last year for $900,000 out of an Include mare. And from Majesticperfection’s first crop we raced Lovely Maria who won the Oaks.”

Young as he remains, then, it is worth remembering that Henley has been part of the Airdrie team long enough to savour cycles of this kind. He needs no reminding of the scale of his responsibility: eight stallions, 160 of the farm’s own broodmares on nearly 3,000 acres, and around 70 staff. But what has qualified him for such a massive role is the thoughtful accretion of the little lessons: day by day, experience by experience, mentor by mentor.

“I think being around very good horsemen is the best way to learn–and I’ve been very fortunate, with Brerry and Timmy; and Peter back in Australia before that, he’s a great life coach too, I still talk to him; and even before that Ann Raymond,” Henley said. “I’ve taken bits from all those people and kinda melded it into my own.

“Bret’s been really good, too, because he doesn’t skip any steps. He makes sure he gets a horse the best group of mares possible. Sometimes you’ve got to hurt a few people’s feelings, not letting one in, but he’d only be doing it for the horse. So putting together a nice book of mares, then marketing the foals, he’s always done a really good job at that.

“For us I think integrity is a big thing. And Bret is one of the most honest people you’ll ever meet. He’s straight up, true to his word, and very much like his mother and father. So that’s hugely important to all of us, that respect and integrity.”

So much for the brand. How about the mission? Henley shook his head.

“There are huge shoes to fill,” he stressed. “Brerry and Tim have done such a remarkable job for such a long time, I guess the first thing is not to mess it up. But we really want to continue to grow our stallion business. We have eight horses at the moment, and would love to have a couple of champion sires standing in the barn in the next few years. We obviously love racing, too, so a Derby winner would be great as well–especially one by Cairo Prince or Creative Cause!”

 

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