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Leadon A True Renaissance Man


Des Leadon and Mariann Klay | Racing Post

By Chris McGrath

How do you begin to describe the value of a man like Des Leadon to the Thoroughbred industry? Well, since you can turn to him in almost any other dilemma–whether you need someone to address the more calamitous implications, for breeding and racing, of Brexit; or to fly a priceless stallion across the world; or, with his wife Mariann Klay, simply to prepare a foal for sale–then we might as well borrow his help here, too. Because the way he describes his working environment could equally be applied to the range and diversity of his own accomplishments.

“When I talk to people who are thinking about getting into our wonderful industry, I liken it to that marvellous French culinary creation: the gateau mille-feuille,” he says. “Because there’s a thousand layers to it. And that creates an endless fascination.”

Leadon wears his erudition lightly, the easiest and most gregarious of companions round Swordlestown Little, just in the lee of Punchestown racecourse, on a summer afternoon. They say that if you want something done, you ask a busy person. In the same way, it appears impossible to feel as though you are intruding on the time of a man who puts it to such fertile use.

Mares and foals graze peacefully among cattle as the shadows begin to lengthen across the paddocks. “It means there is more even grazing of the sward,” explains Leadon. “The cattle fertilise it for you, and they also have a great calming influence on the horses. We try to make our foals civilised, used to being in and out, easily handled.”

When they first came here, 20 years ago, there was no water or electricity in the stableblock; no house; and nowhere to store feed, bedding and equipment. These are now in “the Sinndar barn,” as Leadon calls it, auspiciously painted in the green and red livery of the Aga Khan.

“Mariann and I met riding out for John Oxx,” Leadon says. “Unlike me, she was a very good amateur rider; she once beat Johnny Reid in a photo. But I did ride out there for 26 years. And I took a real shine to Sinndar (Ire) (Grand Lodge). I was standing at the top of the gallops when [Johnny] Murtagh patted him down the neck and said: ‘He’ll stay.’ And I thought, that’ll do me. I had 40-1!”

That is as close as Leadon ever expects to come to a Derby winner. This is a boutique operation, the original 55 acres of Swordlestown Stud’s isolation annex since expanded to 90–but still adhering to the old rule of one mare and her followers per 10 acres.

“I had no real idea what stud farming is,” Leadon admits. “Nowadays I liken it to haemorrhage. There’s two sorts of haemorrhage: venous haemorrhage, where it sort of leaks out; and arterial haemorrhage, where it spurts out. Stud farming is like arterial haemorrhage, with one big difference: in arterial haemorrhage, at least you’ve got the blood before it’s gone!”

That said, Swordlestown Little has been among Ireland’s top five vendors of foals in each of the last five years. Graduates include Lilbourne Lad (Ire) (Acclamation {GB}), now standing at Rathbarry; Ajman King (Ire) (Lope De Vega {Ire}), who completed a four-timer in a valuable handicap at Epsom on Oaks day; and Spring Loaded (Ire) (Zebedee {GB}), who confirmed himself a sprinter of group calibre when winning under a big weight at Ascot last Saturday.

“We set out, quite deliberately, to be niche producers of very nice foals,” Leadon says. “Mariann does a wonderful job educating them, and they’ve done us proud. When Lilbourne Lad won the Railway S., we danced down the stairs of the grandstand. Like all those moments in racing, nobody can wipe the smile off your face for a full week. But the little ones can give enormous pleasure too.”

One such is My Snowdrop (Ire), a daughter of none other than Lilbourne Lad, who recently won at Listowel for Oxx and a syndicate of friends. Her veteran dam, responsible for the farm’s first black-type winner in 2007, delivered this filly in the middle of a snowstorm. Sold as a foal, My Snowdrop returned to the ring as a yearling with a reputation as something of a lunatic. “But when she heard Mariann’s voice, she came over and put her head in her arms,” Leadon says. “After that, she wasn’t going anywhere but home. I must say she was extraordinarily difficult to break, but her win at Listowel would have given us as much pleasure as any of the big ones.”

But Ajman King’s success at Epsom also had an extra frisson, sealing a very special visit to London for Leadon’s father: for a reunion of his old flying buddies. Not many of them left, now, but then not many in his particular line of work had even survived the war. As a Lancaster pilot, he had limited life expectancy; but as a pathfinder into the bargain–marking and remarking the target with flares–he was really sticking his neck out. “People have forgotten how many Irishmen fought with the Allies,” his son notes. “To preserve the freedoms that we now all take for granted.”

Leadon Sr. was still performing barrel rolls and loops three years ago, 70 years after crash-landing at RAF Wyton with a bomb on board. After the war he continued with a career in aviation, but it was his other passion that filtered through to his son. For between leading 1,000-bomber raids Leadon Sr. would race by motorbike from the Cambridgeshire airbases to ride out for Captain Cecil Boyd-Rochfort in Newmarket.

He also trained a couple of point-to-pointers himself, alongside the airstrip. “He almost got himself court-martialled once,” his son smiles. “Because the ground was getting firm, he had a fire practice so that they sprayed beside the runway.”

For young Leadon, then, the unsurprising choice was vet school or flying school. His father took him up for an hour in a two-seater, showed him the ropes, and then said: “Right, we’ll go home and you tell mum your decision over lunch.” When Leadon came down in favour of vet school, his father exclaimed: “Good! Because when I handed you the controls this morning, I formed the impression you had the ability to kill us both.”

As a student in Dublin, Leadon wrote to Twink Allen in Newmarket and was invited for a six-month project exploring prostaglandin as a means to control the breeding cycle of mares. Needless to say, Leadon was also riding out–for John Winter, who had a filly named Double Finesse (GB) in his yard at the time. Later noted as dam of Mr Brooks (GB) (Blazing Saddles {Aus}), she was owned by another legend among Newmarket veterinarians, Peter Rossdale. And though Leadon did return to Ireland once qualified, doing a stint in practice and a thesis back at Trinity College on heritability of heart size, he returned for 3 1/2 years with Rossdale. “Peter was the oracle,” Leadon says. “And still is. He would challenge you, not teach you, and see how you progressed.”

In the case of Leadon, the progress would be giddy. A Fellowship of the RCVS, for research into equine prematurity. In 1984, appointment to the inaugural team at the Irish Equine Centre, as head of clinical pathology; he is still there today, as consultant clinician. And, in the interim, an alphabet soup in the service of profession and industry alike. A cursory ample: veterinary advisor and now vice-chairman of the ITBA; president of the British Equine Veterinary Association; and respectively president and international director of the global and American equivalents.

Difficult, then, to convey more than a fragment of his wisdom on a panoply of vital challenges. Leadon was, for instance, a natural choice as one of the envoys sent by the Irish industry to Brussels this spring, in the hope of unravelling something of the Brexit tangle.

“It’s a huge challenge to this island,” he stresses. “The UK represents our land bridge to Europe, and more than 2,000 mares come here from continental Europe, using that bridge, every year. That landline has got to remain open. Because the knock-on effects would go far beyond the TPA [the tripartite agreement].”

“We pulled some figures from the sales companies that enabled us to show that Thoroughbred exports from the European Union to third countries–the Middle East, North America, the Far East, Australasia–totalled €1.3-billion over a five-year period. That’s a hell of a lot of money. And the argument we expounded was that this industry is bigger than the sum of its parts. Damage any one part of it, you damage the whole lot.”

Movement of breeding stock, post-Brexit, would lack the oiled wheels available to racehorses through the “high health, high performance” system for competition animals. This permits a 90-day sanitary bubble for horses whose point of departure is certified as disease-free, provided they have no contact with local horse populations.

“That won’t work for breeding,” Leadon points out. “There’s no way you’re going to get a mare from France or Germany to Ireland and back out again in 90 days, it’s just not practical. But we do have a saving grace: the code of practice for dealing with infectious diseases, which has stood the test of time in the breeding industry for 35 years. Uniquely among pre-Brexit agreements, it can remain in place regardless of whether there’s a soft or a hard Brexit.”

But such lifeboats seem to be few and far between. Leadon quotes a report anticipating a 10% hit on Ireland’s GDP from a “soft” Brexit; and a staggering 40%, from a “hard” one. That could have a disastrous ripple effect on investment in Thoroughbreds across Europe.

“Remember it’s international pedigrees that make the whole thing work,” Leadon says. “Look at countries where the breeding industry has stagnated: the racing industry all but disappears. Germany would be a sad case in point, Italy another. That is not a route we want to go down, so we must preserve that land bridge for the benefit of all.”

There are, moreover, extremely serious issues regarding the supply and efficacy of vaccines. “My personal nightmare is an outbreak of nervous form herpes virus at a major sale,” Leadon confides. “It would kill the industry. Sales companies must face that Domesday situation. Because this isn’t some fantasy. We saw that in France only last year [when Jean-Claude Rouget lost two horses], and it’s also occurred in a major horse show in Ohio.”

Another source of anxiety: the vaccine against Equine Viral Arteritis dried up last winter, which apart from anything else created major headaches over the shipping status of shuttle stallions. That is a requirement Leadon understands perhaps better than anyone on the planet, having first researched equine aviation as long ago as the Seoul Olympics of 1988, before being enlisted commercially to assist Thoroughbred shipments for both breeding and competition. Asked to establish his credentials as an expert witness, in a court case 20 years ago, he was appalled to calculate that he had already spent two full years with horses at altitude.

“In times gone by, between 6 and 11% of horses [shipping between continents] would have some degree of respiratory compromise,” he recalls. “Nowadays we can get that down to about half of 1%. So it’s a real illustration of how bringing science and research to bear on clinical issues can yield fruit for the industry.”

The stakes can be daunting. Three years ago Leadon was accompanying $400-million worth of stallions from Australia to the U.S. when one contracted colic. A divert, with all the consequences in terms of quarantine, would have cost $750,000. Leadon’s judgement, offered to a global conference call in the cockpit, was that he could control the colic. Luckily, he was right.

The biggest single boon of veterinary science, during his career, he reckons to be ultrasound. “It’s transformed our ability to diagnose and manage pregnancy and illnesses,” he says. “But from an industry perspective, the most important result has been to allow us to reduce the number of times a stallion mates with any given mare. It’s not that long ago we were regarding 55 mares as a good book, and were cross-covering everything. The stallion was doing as much work for a fraction of the number of foals.”

When it comes to genomics, however, Leadon is unabashed in cautioning against too credulous a faith in the advance of science.

“When you’re talking about genomics in cattle, sheep and pigs, you’re talking about millions of observations,” he says. “With Thoroughbreds, you’re talking about thousands. So there’s a difference in scale. And there’s a great difference between the qualities required of a racehorse to win a very good race against a continually shifting standard, than there is about producing milk or back fat.”

“We did it here, out of interest. And one of our best mares would have gone straight down the tubes, she was classified as the slowest of the lot. She’s actually the dam of sprinters. That’s just an anecdote. The real issue is that there’s huge overlap. The tool is appropriate for populations of animals; not for the individual, because you don’t know where you are in that cross-thatch between the categories.”

“Of course, the defence is that it is only used in conjunction with everything else. Unfortunately human nature hasn’t operated like that. We’re not trying to take away anyone’s living. But we want people to go in with their eyes open.”

To Leadon, the whole magic of bloodstock lies on the margin between science and art. Yes, things are less haphazard than they used to be. Being so deeply versed in the things we can do to assist the process, however, ultimately persuades Leadon that the sport will always be sustained by some unknowable alchemy.

Hence five months of debate on the farm, every year, on the right mating for each mare. “Sometimes we get it really right, other times–like everybody else–we get it quite spectacularly wrong,” he says. “Same with mare selection. You buy the best you can, but that isn’t always the one with the flashiest pedigree. I’ve always liked the Michael Caine principle: ‘Not a lot of people know that.’ It’s nice to know something not everyone knows.”

“Our first really good mare was one I had ridden in races. Another we took because we knew her half-sister and thought she might be a black-type horse. We were wrong. But another half-sister was! And the family has really blossomed, with Spring Loaded in England, and Dinnozo (Ire), ironically by Lilbourne Lad, who has won the guts of a million in Hong Kong.”

“But then there’s Third Dimension (Fr) (Suave Dancer), the dam of Ajman King [and seven other winners]. We saw this mare walking past at Deauville, and she was just so beautifully elegant. And she has paid us back over and over. So that’s the real joy of it: looking after these little family trees, and trying to get them the best deal in life. It’s immensely rewarding.”

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