Michael Donohoe – 'A Good Trainer Will Make A Bad Agent Look Very Clever'

Michael Donohoe | Tattersalls


   Michael O'Donohoe of BBA Ireland and leading owner Zhang Yuesheng have been making waves off the track in recent weeks after buying a number of high-quality broodmare prospects to visit the Chinese businessman's Group 1-winner Lucky Vega (Ire) at the Irish National Stud.

   Zhang Yuesheng also has Royal Ascot heroine Magical Lagoon (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), who Donohoe bought from Coolmore for 305,000gns in 2020, to look forward to in Saturday's G1 Juddmonte Irish Oaks at the Curragh.

   As well as speaking about Zhang Yuesheng's growing operation in Ireland, Donohoe shares his background in racing, how he became a leading bloodstock agent and what particular area of his profession gives him the most pleasure in this week's Q&A.

Brian Sheerin: It seems as though Zhang Yuesheng has been in the news every week recently for the acquisitions made off the track but excitement levels must be reaching fever pitch ahead of the Irish Oaks with Magical Lagoon?

Michael Donohoe: You could say that Saturday is the fruition of a lot of hard work. Mr. Zhang and Yulong have put in a lot of investment in Irish racing and Jessica [Harrington] and Shane [Foley] have worked hard in producing horses like Magical Lagoon to perform at their best in races. Mr. Zhang trusted us from the outset, gave us a nice budget to work with, and we were able to buy Magical Lagoon from Coolmore. She gave us great excitement in winning at Royal Ascot and we're hoping there will be more to come from her on Saturday at the Curragh with a bit of luck. Emily Upjohn (GB) (Sea The Stars {Ire}) and Tuesday (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) will be hard to beat but it's gratifying to know that we have a live chance in a Classic.

BS: The market suggests that Emily Upjohn will be extremely difficult to beat but what are the confidence levels like in the Magical Lagoon camp?

MD: We're hopeful. It's hard to be confident against fillies of the calibre of Emily Upjohn and Tuesday, although Tuesday has had a couple of hard races of late so we'll have to wait and see if she is declared. Emily Upjohn has to travel over to Ireland for the first time and it's a new track for her. It's hard for these horses, especially fillies, to be travelling when it's so hot and warm and we have the home advantage. Magical Lagoon is a course winner and only has to travel a half an hour over the road. We're hoping that will give us a small edge but we're hopeful rather than confident.

BS: She's always looked like she wanted 1m4f and proved that at Ascot. On top of that, she has only run five times in her life so is open to further progression.

MD: That's it. She's bred to get this trip–she's a half-sister to Novelist (Ire) (Monsun {Ger}), a multiple Group 1 winner over 1m4f, and is from a stout German family. We were a bit disappointed by how she ran in the G1 Fillies' Mile at Ascot last year but, in hindsight, what she did as a 2-year-old was very impressive. The trip was what won it for her in the G2 Ribblesdale S. at Royal Ascot as she out-stayed her rivals. We're hopeful that we'll see a bit more improvement from her on Saturday and that she'll see the trip out well.

BS: She's already worth her weight in gold as a broodmare prospect. Are there any plans made on that front?

MD: No plans, and Mr. Zhang and Sam Fairgray will make the decision, but Jessica, Shane and myself believe that she'll be even better next year. Almost everything in that family, they seemed to excel as 4-year-olds, and obviously Galileos train on. She's of such a sound disposition and is improving with every start so we'd love to see her in training next year. To be honest, we think she could reach a different level altogether if she does.

BS: You have been busy bolstering your broodmare band in order to support Lucky Vega. The commitment to Lucky Vega must be a massive vote of confidence for outsider breeders as well.

MD: It has a knock-on effect and several of the mares Mr. Zhang bought were from Irish owners. He has based all of his breeding stock in Ireland and has them spread out between a couple of different farms. All told, and including horses in training, Mr. Zhang has 100 horses in Ireland which obviously generates plenty of employment. He's a big supporter of the Irish bloodstock industry. There were several farms in England and France interested in standing Lucky Vega but, in fairness to him, he decided to stand him at the Irish National Stud. He had his first winner in Ireland, Yulong Baobei (Ire) (Choisir {Aus}), and has an affinity to Irish racing.

BS: What were the picks of the broodmares you picked up at the sales?

MD: Obviously Txope (Fr) (Siyouni {Fr}) is very exciting and will head to John Sadler in California to run in the [GI] Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 20. We're really looking forward to her. She's a Classic winner already, a Group 2 winner, a lovely physical who will make a lovely broodmare down the road. We bought a few lovely fillies at the July Sale at Newmarket as well. We got a lovely Siyouni (Fr) filly called Le Designe (Ire) [for 180,000gns], a couple of well-bred Galileos, the pick of which was Shining Bright (Ire), a full-sister to Changingotheguard (Ire). We have Galileo's Compass (Ire), a full-brother to Changingoftheguard, who looks very exciting. I was actually with Jessica on Tuesday morning and he did a lovely piece of work. Shining Bright was probably the pick of them but we got mares by Dubawi (Ire) and Pivotal (GB) as well. It was hard work and there was plenty of competition but I think we did a good bit of shopping.

BS: Was that the sole reason why you ventured to the July Sale or did you bid on any horses in training?

MD: I bought one horse on the third day for some clients in the Middle East. We had a go at a couple of other horses at the July Sale but didn't have any joy. I did buy horses from the sale at Fasig-Tipton the other night. The marvels of modern technology means that you can buy those form horses from anywhere in the world. It's not as imperative to see them in the flesh once you have a good person on the ground and Dr. Michael Hoare, who vetted them for me at Fasig-Tipton, does a very good job.

BS: The demand for horses in training seemed to be very strong at the July Sale.

MD: As well as buying mares, Mr. Zhang sold horses at the July Sale. Bopedro (Fr) (Pedro The Great), a decent horse, made 80,000gns and Exquisite Acclaim (Ire) (Acclamation {GB}) made 100,000gns. I have been travelling to the Middle East for the past 15 years but the market has really opened up there properly now. They are racing four days a week in Saudi Arabia and making huge progress. The Middle Eastern market is exploding and some of the owners out there have started having horses in Europe and are having great success. It's really taking off now and they all want a piece of the action, which is great.

BS: We've heard a lot about the people you work for but what about yourself? What's your background in the game?

MD: I was born at a sales house. My first memories are not of sport or anything like that, it is of Goresbridge Sales, which my parents set up. I was kept busy by sending out catalogues or mucking out stables and did a little bit of riding but always had an interest in trading when I was younger. I would buy half-bred foals and sell them as yearlings and it progressed from there.

Miley Cash, one of the most famous sport horse dealers, taught me how to tell the age of a horse by looking at his teeth. He also taught me about standing into a horse and confirmation so I picked up tricks like that from a very young age. I was always intrigued by looking at horses when they were young and trying to envisage what they'd be like when they were older.

It progressed into Thoroughbreds and obviously there are a lot of horse breeders and trainers around Goresbridge–Paddy Mullins, Willie Mullins, Tony and Mags Mullins-and I worked for my uncle Michael, whose son Dick is now training. I worked in Tony Mullins' at the weekends as well, Jimmy Murphy of Redpender Stud, I did a stint at Ballylinch Stud and another stint in Norelands Stud. I'll never forget my mother telling me that everyone has an opinion and it's up to you to decide and decipher what you take from everyone. I spent some time in America, also worked for Coolmore and for Paul Shanahan, and of course Eamonn Riley gave me my first real start. I have had loads of mentors but I'd say Eamonn is the standout. He has been unbelievably good to me down through the years, got me going and gave me a chance.

BS: And is there any advice that has stuck with you until this day?

MD: Yes, and that's to trust your own opinion. There are people coming into the game and they pick out horses because they think it's what their client, or what another agent, would buy. However, you should always go with your own gut instinct on a horse.

BS: It all seems to have happened pretty organically for you but is there a moment when you realised that, not only could you carve out a living at being a bloodstock agent, but you could be a pretty successful one?

MD: I was always confident enough in my own ability. Obviously you have to make your mistakes and learn from them and you need to develop an eye for what works. We were out for dinner the other night in Newmarket and Karl Burke reminded me of the time I came down to him to tell him I found a real one over at Keeneland. That horse turned out to be Lord Shanakil, who we bought for $110,000 in 2007, and he turned out to be a good horse. You get a bit of confidence from things like that but, as well as that, there are plenty of horses who you think will be champions and they don't work out. A lot of luck is required and sometimes a good trainer will make a bad agent look very clever. To be honest, I have been lucky to have been buying for some very good trainers.

BS: You bought Silver Birch (Ire), who won a Grand National, early in your career and are now buying horses to go all over the globe but is there a particular aspect of the game that gives you the most pleasure?

MD: Buying the yearlings and seeing them go on and be successful on the racetrack, that's what I love the most. If it's Book 6 at Keeneland or the last day at Fairyhouse, I love trying to find that gem who will go on to justify your opinion, that's a very satisfying aspect of the game.

BS: We're heading into the yearling sale season. Is there any sire you will be looking out for or what is it that you will be looking for?

MD: I would have always been of the opinion that it's all about the horse but I have changed my opinion over the past few years. From experience, I am putting more emphasis on pedigree than I ever did before. Obviously, the mainstay is that you need an athlete, and you need that feeling from a horse, but you need to see how a yearling takes to the sale and see if they are willing. I have bought horses who were not terribly well-behaved at the sale and I regretted it every time. It's all about temperament and your gut feeling but I'm putting more emphasis on pedigree and sire-power now.

BS: And on that, what sires will you be looking out for?

MD: It's all about horses who want to please and, for me, Mehmas (Ire) seems to instill that in his horses. It doesn't seem to matter what they are, how the look or what way they are bred, they want to win. Even at a low level, they might be rated just 50, but they try. The Frankels (GB) and the horses on the Dubawi (Ire) line, they really try and have great minds. That will to win is what you need.

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