'I Went to Coolmore From School and Didn't Come Home': David Bowe's Life in Bloodstock 

David Bowe, second left, with his siblings Brian, Louise and Christy | Emma Berry


“I was speechless,” says David Bowe of being presented with this year's Wild Geese Award at the ITBA's National Breeding and Racing Awards on Sunday night. 

The award recognises Irish men and women who have forged successful careers in the bloodstock industry worldwide, and its recipients to date have included those working in Australia and America. Bowe didn't fly too far afield, though he did serve a stint in the States early in his career. For more than a quarter of a century he has been based just across the water in England, with the last 22 years spent as manager of Jeff Smith's Littleton Stud in Hampshire.

“I was humbled, absolutely blown away, the fact that I was chosen, especially when you think about all the previous recipients,” he adds. “I can't understand why, but it's just wonderful to be acknowledged by the ITBA, being an Irishman. Well, it's phenomenal, absolutely, I couldn't ask for better.”

He may not be able to understand why but plenty of people who have worked with Bowe over the years can vouch for the skills and horsemanship that put him in the running for such an award. The video of tributes shown on the night included one from Bill Dwan, who said, “He's an absolute gentleman. I don't know anyone in the business who has a bad word to say about him. It's not ever about David; it's about the horses, it's about Jeff.”

Smith himself said, “Year by year he has improved the stud from what it was.”

Growing up partaking in all the usual pony endeavours during his schooldays, Bowe's real education began in a nursery famed not just for its equine graduates but for plenty of two-legged graduates as well.

“I went to Coolmore from school and didn't come home,” Bowe says. “I think my father hoped I was going to go on to academia but it was never going to happen.

“Coolmore was just the best training academy in the world. If you rose to the occasion, they let you and enabled you to do everything. So they sent me to America, and I came back from America and ended up managing Abbeyleix estate for Lord de Vesci for five years.”

Bowe eventually found himself in England, with his early time there spent working at the National Stud and at Longholes Stud in the days of the Hon. John Lambton when it still stood the stallions Komaite and Wolfhound.

“And then I came to Littleton Stud and met Jeff Smith,” he continues, “and really, I guess, all the graft and work I did previously at Coolmore and Abbeyleix and in America, I was able to put it into practice here. Jeff is a unique man. He's probably going to be the most influential person I've ever met, in that he enabled me to be able to go and do what I've been lucky enough to do. It's been brilliant.”

Smith is of an increasingly rare breed of owner-breeders running a select operation. He is loyal to his trainers, many of whom have had horses for him for decades, and he races his homebreds, which are supplemented from time to time by the odd foal purchase.

On top of his regular stud management duties, Bowe has been key to this element of the Littleton operation in selecting the foals at the sales, and with some notable success, headed by the four-time Group 1 winner Alcohol Free (Ire). The daughter of No Nay Never was bought from her breeder Churchtown House Stud for €40,000 and was resold following her four-year-old season for 5.4 million gns at the Tattersalls December Mares Sale. 

“We had land here, we had staff, and sometimes we came up short on numbers, so Jeff let me go off and buy a few. It's going back a long time ago now, but the first horse we bought as a foal was called Dream Eater. He did very well for us,” says Bowe of the son of Night Shift who was a Listed winner and was placed eight times in Group races, including finishing third in the G1 Queen Anne S. behind Goldikova (Ire) and Paco Boy (Ire).

“We've done that ever since, really. We never buy any more than maybe three or four every year. We've been lucky. We buy them from good nurseries and you know that they're in good shape when you buy them,” he adds.

“I would go out there and spend the money as if it was my own. You're looking for value. But basically, I'm lucky enough that I can go and buy an individual and I don't have to worry about the fact that the sire is not fashionable. I like the horse and I'll buy it, and Jeff and myself are on the same page. It's about the actual individual rather than what it's by or what it's out of. Equally, that's very important for the residual value afterwards if you're going to breed or resell. But primarily, the first thing is the physical specimen.”

Casting his mind back to the halcyon days of Alcohol Free, he says, “Honestly, nobody could tell me or anybody else that she was going to be as good as she was. I liked her and I hoped, like we all do every time you buy one, that she was going to be good, but for her to be as good as she was, was beyond our wildest imagination.”

The old imagination was fired up again last year thanks to another foal purchase, Ghostwriter (Ire) (Invincible Spirit {Ire}), trained by Clive Cox. The colt finished his unbeaten run of three last year with victory in the G2 Royal Lodge S. to leave Smith and Bowe dreaming of the 2,000 Guineas. 

“Again, one of the important things is buying from good nurseries and we bought Alcohol Free from the Gaffneys, and they're just proper horse people. And the same with Ghostwriter. We bought him from Norelands. They always produce brilliant stock. You're ahead of the game already because you're bringing home healthy stock,” he says. 

“The lovely thing about buying foals is we can bring them home here and then we have them for the next 14 months until they go into training. We're at an advantage because we have such good relationships with everybody, and it is about the bigger picture, it is about the team. It is about the girls here on the farm, like our head girl, Kelly Stevens, and the trainers, the pre-trainers. It can't be put down to one person, but it's wonderful to be credited by it anyway.”

Ghostwriter is not alone in fuelling the Classic dreams of the Littleton Stud team this year. Of arguably greater importance to a breeding operation is to have a talented homebred filly, and Smith looks to have just that in See The Fire (GB), who won her maiden last August and was then second in the G2 May Hill S. and third in the G1 Fillies' Mile. But then again, she was bred to be good, as the Andrew Balding-trained filly is by Sea The Stars out of Smith's G1 Juddmonte International winner Arabian Queen (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}), making See The Fire a fifth-generation Littleton homebred. 

“We've had a really, really good winter,” Bowe says. “We're dreaming about what we're going to do. See The Fire has done so well and we're hoping to go to the Guineas without a trial because she ran so well in the Fillies' Mile. It was a good test of stamina and she saw it out well.

“So we hope she'll do the fantasy stuff: Guineas and go to the Oaks and maybe the King George, who knows?

“Ghostwriter, he loved that hill [at Newmarket] and he was seriously impressive. So we're chuffed to bits with him also. Clive is delighted. I was speaking to him the other morning actually, and he doesn't think he'll go for a trial with him either.”

Arabian Queen, Alcohol Free, Ghostwriter and See The Fire are just the latest names on a long list of classy animals to have carried Smith's purple and blue colours over the last four decades. From the speedball Lochsong (GB) to the high-class sprinter/miler Chief Singer (Ire) and the people's favourite stayer Persian Punch (Ire), the owner has been rewarded for his investment in the sport with plenty of days in the sun. To hear Bowe describe his boss is to understand that there would be few people more deserving of such success. 

“Jeff  understands the game intrinsically,” Bowe says. “He understands that, one, it's a sport. Yes, there is a lot of money involved, but he takes bad news as well as he takes good news. 

“Jeff said to me a long time ago, 'If you don't trust your trainer, why would you have a horse in training? So why would you interfere with the training regime?

“We discuss things with the trainers but, fundamentally, the trainer makes a decision and it makes life an awful lot easier. Sometimes we might say, 'What do you think about dropping back in trip?' But the upshot is they're the trainers, we're not. So trust your trainer, let them get on with it. Let them train the horse. And then if it doesn't work out, it is not for the want of trying.”

He continues, “Jeff is in it for the sport. There's a huge aspect of enjoyment in it, and it gets you over the dark days when it doesn't go so well. 

“He is a purist and we are looking to win the Derby. We love speed and going back to Lochsong, a lot of the families were speed, speed, speed. And we weren't trying to breed the speed out of them, but daughters and what have you, have gone to proper Classic-type sires that may not fetch you a fortune in the ring if you went there, but they could breed you a Classic winner.

“We have a nice boutique stud with some lovely mares that we can breed to whoever we like. We've had some fun.”

With hopefully plenty more fun in the offing, Bowe concedes that he has enjoyed his decades in England. “Don't, whatever you do, say that I've become anglicised,” he says.

Right, so we won't say that then. But this particular wild goose admits that he may well be called home eventually to Ireland, where he has land of his own. Bowe's advice on Sunday night for younger folk wishing to become involved in the industry was, “Immerse yourself in it, get involved in it, and stick with it.”

They are words to live by, whatever your passion in life, and as he acknowledges, when you find that passion, a job becomes simply a way of life.

“I would imagine I'll retire back to Ireland,” he adds. “By retiring, I mean buying and selling a few, walking around the farm. I would love it, but I also love England so much, and my kids are here, so going back would be difficult, but it's only over the water.

“I'm here for the time being, though, and enjoying every minute of it.”


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