By Melissa Steele
Not many things last for 20 years these days. We live in a fast world, filled with quick fixes, often with little thought for longevity and sustainability. But still, there is great comfort to be found in a constant that stands up to the vagaries of time.
One such example, which has steadfastly served our own industry for the past two decades is Godolphin Flying Start; the two-year scholarship which, every year, fully immerses 12 young enthusiasts into the Thoroughbred world on a global scale with the aim of creating future leaders who will, one day, bring the sport forward through best practice innovation and change.
Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary year, the true impact that the programme has had on the game is beginning to shine through. And central to its success and durability is Executive Director of Godolphin Flying Start, Clodagh Kavanagh, whose firm but fair leadership style has also stood the test of time.
It is a firmness that earns the respect required to ensure that 24 trainees–often located on opposite sides of the world–will always turn up to work on time and (nearly) never miss an assignment deadline. Coupled with a fairness that can read a situation from 1000 miles away and invariably find the best solution.
With a tendency to be always looking forward, rather than back, Kavanagh recently took time to reflect on what has become an institution over the past 20 years.
“The concept for Godolphin Flying Start stemmed from the idea that great leaders can come from anywhere, with any type of background and training,” she says. “To ensure the longevity and sustainability of horseracing and for it to hold its place in the world of sport and business, we needed a conduit for people from all over the globe, with an interest in the sport to learn and experience it on a global scale, whilst being equipped with the leadership and management skills to become future Thoroughbred industry leaders.
“Diversity was always a key part of the plan too and it was essential for its success that we find people from different parts of the world who were passionate about the sport, no matter what their background or whether they came from a racing nation. Creating a vehicle for these individuals to learn and bring horseracing forward through strong leadership was what it set out to achieve.”
Fast-forward to the present day and it would seem that initial plans for Godolphin Flying Start have held strong. There are now over 200 graduates from 20 nations, 50% of whom are leading various sectors of the industry as CEOs, managers, business owners, directors and entrepreneurs.
On the subject of whether the programme has achieved what it set out to, Kavanagh says, “It probably took 10 years to see if it was achieving some success in terms of leadership. Because it's a two-year course, the earliest graduates would have been seven or eight years out of the programme by that stage and they needed that amount of time to achieve career success and be in positions where they had the confidence and influence to lead.
“So, I think it took 10 years to test whether it was starting to work, and I think after 20 years we can definitely say that we have attracted a very diverse group of people; that the programme has given them the training and opportunities required to achieve personal success and begin leading the industry through voluntary positions and developing new initiatives.”
When it comes to this success, Kavanagh is quick to deflect praise onto others, whether that be an extremely engaged board of trustees, the generous and steadfast sponsorship from Godolphin, or the numerous partners involved with providing lectures, externships and a deeper understanding of the industry from a practical perspective.
It is true that without the support of a great number of people, Godolphin Flying Start would never have lasted or thrived for as long as it has, but a huge part of its longevity has also been down to its ability to adapt.
The nuts and bolts of it have remained the same. It has always been five countries over two years and essentially Godolphin-based and -sponsored, but it is in its nuances that it has adapted in the last 20 years, crucially upholding its relevance in an ever-changing world.
“In terms of adapting and changing,” says Kavanagh, “I think there are probably three key elements. One is that generations change and their expectations and their needs change, so something like introducing a wellbeing module in recent years has been important.
“Secondly, the world has changed around horseracing and Godolphin Flying Start, particularly with technology and communications. It has been essential for us to keep up with other industries in this area and it is something we have invested a lot into, be that through our online platform, using Zoom for meetings or creating an online rather than paper application process.
“Finally, from an industry perspective, the development of partnerships with leading stud farms and trainers all over the world for practical experience and externships has helped to bring the course forward enormously. That's been one of the biggest changes since the start.”
Of all the challenges presented over the years–not least maintaining control of two-dozen twenty-somethings on different sides of the planet–Kavanagh cites maintaining high standards to be the toughest.
“Godolphin Flying Start has set visions and values for itself and its trainees which is a constant stretch for myself and the people that work on the programme,” she notes. “We strive to be the best education and training from a personal development and professional development perspective. To be the best in the world, not just the best in horseracing but the best in the world.”
Not one to dwell on her own achievements, when asked of what she is most proud, Kavanagh is keen to shift the focus.
“I'm very proud of the resilience and the innovation to be able to not just survive but to continuously improve and adapt over 20 years and maintain the level of applications,” she says. “Just to still be here after 20 years is an achievement in itself. However, there's no doubt that the thing I am most proud of are the graduates and their achievements. In particular the Alumni Award winners in recent years.”
The Alumni Awards, to which Kavanagh refers, have been in existence since 2015. They are voted for by peers to reward graduates that have shown “Business Excellence” or “Leadership Excellence” in their careers thus far. The winners–to name only a few–include director of the Irish National Stud, Cathal Beale; Vicky Leonard, whose Kick Collective is shaking up marketing in the Southern Hemisphere; Henry Field, managing director of Newgate Farm which is home to 13 stallions; and Classic-winning trainer Francis-Henri Graffard.
It is through this, now vast, network of alumni that the legacy of Godolphin Flying Start will live on, far longer than its initial 20 years.
As Kavanagh explains, “An effective alumni network really has two functions. It is the connection and support for the alma mater whereby graduates are actively still involved with the programme through providing lectures, visits, mentoring and even employing other graduates. The other job of the alumni network is the creation of a community whereby they are there to support and challenge each other, to do business together and share experiences and information.”
Attendance at any international bloodstock sale provides evidence of the Godolphin Flying Start alumni network in action. Be they consignors, agents, trainers, stallion managers, media or sales company staff, there is invariably a huge melting pot of those coming together to do business.
But the benefit of this network now goes far beyond just business relationships. With the privilege of shared unique experiences comes with it strong common ground, forming the basis for great friendships. Away from the sales toppers or group winners, many of life's other big milestones have been celebrated and among a spider's web of connections will be best friends, confidants, housemates, husbands, wives, parents and godparents.
The opportunity to look back and celebrate all that Godolphin Flying Start has accomplished in its two decades will take place at the 20th Anniversary Conference in Ireland on June 29, a date nestled smartly in the calendar between Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby.
“I think that we'll have a hundred alumni at the conference, which would be the greatest gathering of graduates ever,” Kavanagh says. “I expect that there will be an amazing dynamic and energy in the room because from my experience of running the other conferences–of which there have been four–the camaraderie, conversation and business that goes on, not necessarily facilitated by the conference itself, is just amazing.”
The theme of the event will be around business and leadership, with a presence of CEOs and entrepreneurs who have disrupted or created change in their own business sectors. The 2023 Alumni Awards will then be presented before a gala dinner.
Kavanagh adds, “It will be an opportunity to cement friendships, make new friends, do business, come up with ideas and continue professional development. But mostly it will be a great celebration and a time to show appreciation for the opportunity that everyone involved in Godolphin Flying Start has benefitted from. It will be a tribute to the legacy of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed to the industry.”
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