James Harron Q&A: 'Foxwedge Really Got Things Going For Me'

Harron: one of the sharpest minds in the game | JH Bloodstock

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James Harron is one of the most respected operators of his craft internationally. Based in Australia, the native of Northern Ireland credits Gai Waterhouse, agent George Smith and Winx (Aus)'s breeder John Camilleri of Fairway Thoroughbreds as being some of the key influences in his career.

   Foxwedge (Aus) is the horse who got the ball rolling for Harron Down Under. He sourced the high-class sprinter-turned-stallion as a yearling and, from there, refined the art of making stallions on a commercial level through colt partnerships.

   It's a little under 10 years ago when Harron secured the backing of a team of investors who purchase 10 to 15 yearlings every year with a view to blooding them into stallion prospects through success on the racetrack. 'TDN Rising Star' and subsequent G1 Golden Slipper hero Capitalist (Aus) and King's Legacy (Aus) are graduates of this hugely successful system.

   Portfolio management and filly partnerships are also listed among the services he manages under the banner of James Harron Bloodstock and, as one of the slot holders in The Everest, he has won the race with Redzel (Aus) in 2017 and again this year with Giga Kick (Aus).

   Harron also manages a number broodmare bands, including Morningside Stud, who he purchased a mare on behalf of at Fasig-Tipton last week. He then sat down with Brian Sheerin at Keeneland to discuss his career in bloodstock and the benefits that come with being based in Australia for this week's Q&A.

 

Brian Sheerin: Tell us a bit about your background.

James Harron: I've worked with horses most of my life. I spent my school holidays down in Coolmore in Tipperary, rode out for a few different National Hunt trainers and eventually I went to Enniskillen College. From there, I went to Paul Shanahan and then went to Australia for a three-month stint doing the yearling sales for Coolmore at Inglis. After that, I went to Gai Waterhouse for a week's work experience and that turned into a year. That was the start of me in Australia as I just fell in love with the place.

I also spent some time with Coolmore Australia and in a sales role with Hubie de Burgh. We travelled to a lot of different countries, including extensively in Australia, so that allowed me to pick up a really good client in the Batemans who allowed me to buy them some yearlings. We struck it off with a good colt in Foxwedge and one of their foundation mares in Satin Shoes (Aus) (Flying Spur {Aus}. That really gave me a launching pad so I went out on my own. I'm coming up on 11 years trading on my own but it feels like 40 years!

 

BS: What are the main advantages to trading in Australia?

JH: It's a very exciting marketplace but it was very different 10 years ago or 12 years ago. There is a huge level of interest among the general public and racing is a part of their culture. I just felt that it was very much an untapped market and agents weren't really a big thing when I came here whereas in Europe there were so many. In Australia, the trainers were buying all of their own horses or else their owners were, so the opportunity looked good. I just enjoy the atmosphere in Australia and the way that they do business. They are very amenable to giving a young person a start. It's part of their psyche, they want to give young people an opportunity. It has come together well and we have evolved as a business in terms of where we are focussing on. One of the biggest things that I am proud of is that we have pretty much got the exact same clients with us now as we did in the beginning. That means a lot. On top of that, our key staff Anna Ryan and Stephen Heath, have been with us from the start.

 

BS: You are recognised as one of the best judges of a yearling in the business. How did you get to where you are now?

JH: I was fortunate to be around the right people and was always listening and learning. Where things really clicked into place for me was when I was working with Gai Waterhouse. She had an agent, George Smith, who has had an incredible record over the years. He was fantastic to learn from. We would go around doing all of the pre inspections for Gai and he would write all of his notes by hand. I would then type up all of his notes into the computer system so that we had it all set up for Gai. We would sit there in the evenings having a few beers and he'd ask me, 'what's my rating on this or that,' and it really sunk in. He was amazing with his time and that was the time when things started coming together for me and dots began to get connected. You never stop learning and listening from the trainers to get feedback on all of the horses and try to refine it. The minute you think you are getting better at this job, you have a bad year–that's the game.

 

BS: It's one thing to have practical knowledge and another to make the shrewd business moves, which you have clearly done. Who was it that influenced you on that side of things?

JH: I have always enjoyed the business side of things. I have some great people around me, including clients of the agency, who are great people to learn from and I am able to bounce different things off them. Without singling too many people out, but John Camilleri has been a fantastic friend and mentor. It's a matter of identifying where you want to be in this industry and acknowledging what your strengths are within it. Most importantly, you need to know what people want out of your business and that was the biggest thing we wanted to identify. We tried to make it sensible for people to race horses and to give them an opportunity not to be just paying out bills but to put some form of a structure in place so that people could race horses in a somewhat commercially viable way.

 

BS: And what are the services that you provide and how have you developed your business in Australia?

JH: From an early stage, we wanted to work with the trainers and manage the horses on behalf of the owners throughout the whole process. We identified who we believed to be the best breakers, pre-trainers, spelling farms and we also have our own vet, Johnny Walker, who does all of our own inspections on a fortnightly basis and reports back to us as an independent. We are managing a tiny percentage of the horses a trainer would have in their stable so we can give it that little bit more attention and focus. We also work on the programming and have a form expert, Mark Shean, who works closely with us and he helps us with our placement in New South Wales. We have Deane Lester in Victoria as well. They are integral parts of the team. We just try our best to dot the is and cross the ts and get as much good data together [as possible]. The people who we work with, they really welcome the feedback and we work together to make plans and it's enjoyable. The owners are part of the whole process and fully understand where they are going. Plans don't always work out but it's nice to have some system in place.

 

BS: But when it does work out, especially when you make stallions like Capitalist and King's Legacy, that must give you huge pleasure.

JH: We were fortunate to have Foxwedge (Aus) early on. He won the G1 William Reid S. and was by Fastnet Rock (Aus). He became a high profile commodity and was sold to Henry Field and stood at Newgate Farm. That was their first ever stallion. From there, we bought more colts and found Australian Guineas winner Wandjina (Aus). I always had the idea of putting together a group of people to pool their resources together and try to buy more horses and give ourselves more opportunity to produce these colts to go to stud. What was really astonishing to me was how competitive it is to buy these stallions.

We felt like we wanted to be selling into that market more and more. A lot of our people are breeders so the idea would be to pick up a number of colts to race and try and get them to a high level. Then you can sell down equity to stud farms and also keep equity so they are a part of that process. Within that partnership group, Capitalist came along and it has been a wonderful story. They have continued to support him and he is a success on the track and in the sales ring. That's really the model.

We try to pick up between 10 and 15 colts per year and then produce a stallion prospect. The ones who aren't getting to that level can be traded to Hong Kong, which we have done every year and that has become quite helpful. We've had some nice horses go to race there. We have a very healthy domestic market with provincial and country racing and the ones who don't make stallions or don't have high enough ratings to be sold to Hong Kong can go on and have fruitful careers in Australia. It's pretty much about having a system that can identify the big horse who can make the step up.

 

BS: Physically, what are the main things you are looking for in a yearling?

JH: The big question we try to ask ourselves before we bid on a horse is, if he is successful on the track, would we want to send our best mares to that horse. That sounds a bit obvious but you need to know if he is by the right sire, has he got the right physique or is he from a good enough family. Sometimes you can become sidetracked by a really nice type who isn't by the right sire or doesn't have a good family and it's important to have a product that, if it is successful, we can fully get behind. You can see that by the stallions we have produced, the owners really get behind them and they get commercial books. King's Legacy for example, he covered the highest number of any first-season sire in his first year at stud. From a physical point of view, we are very much looking for a precocious type of horse. We look for one who can run as a 2-year-old and do everything that makes an Australian sire in terms of precocity, strength and robustness.

 

BS: Would you attribute Foxwedge for launching your career?

JH: He really got it going for me and came at a pivotal point, for sure. We used that as a springboard and there have been other pivotal moments along the way but he certainly was the first. Getting Capitalist in the first year of the colt partnership was also very important. They all mean something but those two were pivotal.

 

BS: And is there a particular moment that means the most to you? Was it a race or perhaps a particular deal that stands out?

JH: I was probably at a stage in life when I could really appreciate how significant Capitalist was when he came along. Winning a Golden Slipper, I mean it's the race you dream about and it's all you think about when you are looking at yearlings. When I'm looking at horses at the sales, I try to envisage a horse walking around the paddock ahead of the Golden Slipper.

 

BS: It must be quite rewarding to be seeing him do so well as a stallion.

JH: It is and all the owners follow his progeny no matter where they are running. It doesn't matter how big or small the race is, they are always cheering them home. We look forward to seeing the progeny of horses we have been attached to and try to pick some of them up and try to get them to the same level of their sires. It's a great part of the journey. It's a long and slow burn but, once it starts rolling, it's fantastic.

 

BS: And what are you doing here in Keeneland this week?

JH: We haven't been over here in Keeneland for a long time and only picked up a few here and there over the past few years through various different agents. The opportunity arose to come over this year and we've picked up a few mares. We got two mares at Fasig-Tipton; one will have a foal here and the other is empty. After that, they will travel to England and be covered by Frankel (GB) before coming home to Australia. We have broodmare partnerships, which is what the mare we bought in foal is for, and that consists of a handful of people from our colt syndicates as well. They can use their equity and play around with it that way. The other filly was bought on behalf of Morningside Stud. They have a beautiful band of broodmares.

 

BS: Do you see yourself doing more business internationally?

JH: To be honest, our big focus is Australia and we want it to remain that way. We are fortunate to have good relationships with different people around the world who we can work through and combine with if we need to. I do love the American broodmares for Australia and I think this is potentially going to be a sale that I will keep coming back to. It will be more sporadic than it being planned attending sales internationally. It will be more for when the opportunity arises. We have an amazing industry in Australia and it's a very exciting place to be.

 

BS: What makes Australia such a vibrant place to be based and what could we take out of the industry over there with a view towards European racing?

JH: There is a real mainstream interest in racing in Australia and it permeates through to every level. From the pubs with the TAB machines where they have the racing on, people have grown up with that and their parents or family members have taken a part-share in a horse. The culture is there. The fundamentals have been put in place with the rebate and gambling wagers coming back into prize-money. The administrators are very passionate and push hard. They have made some incredible additions to the racing calendar, most notably The Everest. The amount of people who told me that this year's Everest was their best day on a racetrack, I couldn't believe it. I was talking to some owners who have had 20 Group 1 winners but they said that The Everest was one of the most meaningful days that they have had racing. From the minute you walked in, the atmosphere and the amount of young people there, everything just came together. What that has done is brought in a new and younger demographic. They view The Everest as a cool new race and you just bump into every type, the butcher or the hairdresser, and all they want to talk about is The Everest.

 

BS: Is it just the prize-money that has captured the imagination for the race or is it the trading and the slots that goes with it?

JH: I think it's multi-faceted. The prize-money has pricked everybody's ears. That is probably the most significant part because I am not sure if many people under the age of 35 would understand exactly how the slots for the race works. I have to say, the media did a great job and they were calling you about it every day to see what was happening. There was just this share of information which goes on for 10 months and that helps to promote it.

 

BS: Especially when you leave it late.

JH: Yeah, I know! For different people with different interests, there are many attractions to the race and it's multi-faceted. People in the industry love the dealing side of the race while the young people love the day itself. There is no other day like it. It was just unbelievable.

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