Shamrocks in the Bluegrass: Robbie Lyons

Robbie Lyons, Mike Ryan, and Gerry Dilger back in the day
Courtesy of Robbie Lyons

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He has been here longer than just about any of them, albeit he arrived in 1978 presuming himself to be only breaking a longer journey. One breeding season in Kentucky, and then it would be off to Australia. Having instead become a pioneer of a remarkable Irish diaspora, Robbie Lyons is a perfect template for the many compatriots who have meanwhile flourished in the Bluegrass: an innate flair for trading, a fierce work ethic, and the willingness to take a gamble.

He wasn't particularly raised to the horse game–his father was in the farm machinery business–but had plenty of exposure through extended family. Cousins David and Mary McCann, for instance, bred the Grand Prix-winning show jumper and leading Sport Horse stallion Cruising. His uncle Bill Corrigan whipped in the Carlow Hunt, while an aunt, Mabel Lyons, competed in many point-to-points.

Sure enough, young Lyons found his way into Pony Club and hunting with the Kildares and the Naas Harriers. But no less valuable to his ultimate calling were days at sheep and cattle marts in Blessington and Maynooth.

“Doing that taught you what type of beast made you money and what did not,” he recalls. “I've been around plenty of cattlemen. Those were people who knew how to close a deal. They didn't just know a good-looking animal when they saw one, but were good with figures, they were sharp, on the ball. For them it was about the deal as much as anything else.”

An initial vocation did not survive “a vain attempt at veterinary medicine” at Trinity College nor valuable experience with Jimmy Kelly, whose Naas practice included a few stud farms and trainers on the Curragh. As for so many, the turning point–at Kelly's suggestion–was the Irish National Stud course under Michael Osborne, who also happened to be president of the rugby club where Lyons played in Naas. Both Kelly and Osborne remain cherished as mentors who opened new horizons.

“The course basically gave you exposure to a breeding season on a stud farm: stallions, breeding and foaling mares, sales preparation,” Lyons says. “Trainees were dispersed to various studs, and I drew Yeomanstown, then run by Tony Coyle for the Levins-Moores. Gerry Dilger drew Brownstown Stud under Tony Butler. We figured we did enough walking to cover the distance to Newmarket on foot, and Gerry probably back again as he walked several lots a day to my two. Even though we only spent a few months with those two legendary horsemen, it was like getting a PhD, invaluable.”

Dilger would soon follow him to Kentucky, but it was Lyons along with fellow trainees Gerry O'Brien and David Brophy who served as pathfinders–albeit strictly David Mullins got there first–after John Williams asked Osborne for grooms suitable for the Spendthrift stallion barn.

Robbie Lyons | Courtesy Susie Lyons

“There wasn't much going on in Ireland, so the three of us signed up,” Lyons recalls. “I really had no thought that I'd stay. But it turned out to be one opportunity after another. Obviously it was totally different to what we'd been exposed to at home, whether in the National Stud or just covering mares down in the country: Spendthrift was a massive operation: 3,000-4,000 acres, hundreds of mares, 28 stallions.”

And it so happened that these rookies arrived just as the whole commercial environment was heating up. Affirmed, Seattle Slew and J.O. Tobin had just been syndicated to stand alongside the icons Raise a Native and Nashua, while Caro was new from France.

“It was just at the time that the idea of stallion syndication was really taking off,” Lyons recalls. “The value of shares and seasons was soaring, and vehicles like Matchmaker were emerging to streamline trading. It was all pretty wild.”

Most importantly he met Susie, his wife for over 40 years, who had come from Virginia to work sales and break yearlings. Together they resolved to move around, meet as many people and gain as much experience as possible.

They started out at Walmac-Warnerton under Johnny Jones, prepping for Keeneland July, before proceeding to the Saratoga sale with Smiser West.

“Post-sale, Dr. West kindly introduced us to Bert and Diana Firestone, who took us on to break their yearlings at Catoctin, Va.,” Lyons explains. “These were some of the best-bred yearlings around, as they were breeding from amazing racemares. Genuine Risk and Cure the Blues were also there at the time, for some R & R: they had a magnificent training barn and track, run by another great horseman, Marvin Green.”

Diana, Matt, and Bert Firestone with jockey Joe Bravo at Monmouth in 2015 | Equi-Photo

Eventually Lyons received a call from a friend in Ireland, Tony Watkins, who had attended a syndicate meeting for Tap On Wood. Also present was Wing Commander Tim Vigors, the Battle of Britain veteran, on behalf of W.R. “Fritz” Hawn who had recently bought a farm in Midway, Kentucky.

“Tim was unhappy with the management and was looking to make a change,” Lyons recalls. “Tony threw my name out there, Tim flew over and met me in Lexington along with Hawn and, long story short, I was offered the job. It was an amazing opportunity for someone of my age and background. But despite my inexperience, the farm produced some very nice horses.”

These included multiple graded stakes scorer Lovlier Linda and G2 Richmond S. winner Gallant Special. Four years into this dream job, however, Hawn sold up to Will Farish, then developing Lane's End on adjoining land. But a closing door turned out to open the other way: Farish had hired Mike Cline, who had been managing his mares at Big Sink, in the process creating a vacancy there.

“Susie and I had become good friends with Mike, and he very graciously recommended me for the manager's position,” Lyons says. “E.V. Benjamin and his son Tony ran Big Sink primarily as a commercial operation, and were major consignors at Keeneland and Saratoga. So it was another great opportunity to help sell nice horses for some very good clients.”

In time, moreover, things would turn full circle: the Benjamins sold Big Sink to his former employers, the Firestones. “Made me feel like I should be in the real estate business!” says Lyons.

All the way through, his career attests to the value of relationships in this business; in other words, the value of trust. His next move, for instance, he credits to another good friend in Richard Holder, who recommended Lyons to Hilary Boone, owner of Wimbledon.

“It was a beautiful farm of several hundred acres, and had produced plenty of good horses including Golden Fleece,” Lyons recalls. “Relaunch was among the stallions standing there, and he'd just been joined by Danzig Connection. They were both in big demand, and proved a great way of making new contacts alongside the clients I'd been able to bring from Big Sink. The fact that their books were limited to 65 mares made us pretty popular in the office! We had some pretty good staff there, also: Bobby Spalding managed the yearlings, and I was able to bring Mark Moloney and Des Ryan over from Ireland on trainee visas. While I thought all three 'kinda average' at the time, they turned out all right!”

The Lyons family | Courtesy of the Lyons family

Lyons now reached a point where he felt that he had adequate experience and contacts to strike out on his own. He was already doing some foal pinhooking and Steve Johnson, a friend from their Spendthrift days, brought an opportunity to his attention.

“Steve had developed a showplace farm with Ed Seltzer,” Lyons explains. “But plans had changed, as they often do in the horse business, leaving a large part of Margaux unoccupied. Steve made it very attractive for me to lease what was a top-class, turn-key farm: fresh land, state-of-the-art barns. I had gathered up some nice clients and all I had to do was move in with horses.”

Among those clients was Virginia Knott, for whom Lyons bred Lucky Song–sent to Luca Cumani, she won the G2 Park Hill S.–while he meanwhile reconnected with Hawn, and indeed Lovlier Linda: her son Old Trieste thrashed Grand Slam by 12 lengths in the GII Swaps. As ever, Lyons emphasizes the role of good staff, led by Moloney, who had accompanied him over from Wimbledon. Others included Sandra Russell, who arrived as a novice but was able to return home after 10 years to establish Lismacue Stud; while Leslie Heermann had inherited talent from her father Victor, who set a world record for a yearling when selling a Lyphard colt for $1.7 million in 1980.

“But while I had a good core business, I knew I needed to get out there,” Lyons reflects. “I knew that Mike Ryan was on the muscle, as well, so we said, 'Let's go out and buy some weanlings, see if we can get somebody to partner up with us, get some new people into the business.' Mike had this all-important banker who was game enough to lend us the money. Our mutual friend Gerry thought this was a wonderful idea, so he jumped in too.

Mike Ryan | Sarah Andrew

“I knew Mike to be a man of action as a couple of years previously we had hatched a plan with Phil and Judy Needham to buy some fillies out of training in Newmarket to breed to Hostage, a son of Nijinsky newly retired to Domino Stud under Phil's management. Together we went through the catalogue picking out some suitable candidates and sent Mike to Newmarket with a small bag of cash to buy one or maybe two fillies. At the conclusion Mike had bought four, none of whom we recognized! But all of them made money. As I said, a man of action: send Mike to a sale on your behalf, and you will own some horses!”

One way or another, then, Keeneland November in 1994 was shaping up as a crucial sale: Lyons had put together a consignment of 15 or so, while the lads would also be shopping for a few weanlings. Shortly beforehand, however, Lyons found himself unusually tired after a day out with the Woodford Hounds. Reluctantly he “allowed Susie to load me up and go to the emergency room,” where a heart attack was diagnosed.

When the surgeon came in next day–actually a fellow he hunted with–Lyons was feeling much better.

“Well, we'll do an angiogram tomorrow,” the doctor said.

“Okay, yeah, let's get that over with because I have to get out of here. We're shipping into the sale Friday.”

When he came back with the results, the doctor said: “Son, you've at least two major blockages and two or three more. You need to have surgery.”

“Okay, tell you what, let me get this sale out of the way and then I'll come back for the operation.”

“Um, that's actually not how it works. In fact, you're going in for open-heart surgery at six o'clock tomorrow morning.”

Lyons cursed. “Do you think I'll be out by Friday?”

He was not. But between Susie, Moloney, and various friends rallying round, Lyons was left wondering whether he should just keep out of the way in future: sales reached seven figures, while Ryan and Dilger spent around $700,000 on a dozen weanlings. But they were only just getting started.

“While I was recovering from surgery, my darling wife went out and bought a farm!” Lyons says. “She moved the horses and set up shop, all while raising four young boys aged nine to two. It's been a great farm. Of the seven Grade I winners it has produced, three [including champion sprinter Kodiak Kowboy] came in the space of two months in 2008.”

Dilger meanwhile leased an adjacent farm and for several years they split the weanlings bought for syndication. “At the peak of it we spent $9 million on 49 weanlings,” Lyons recalls. “The three of us took half and then we'd syndicate the rest. The second year was very successful, I think we got almost 100 percent return, and we thought, 'Jeez, this is easy.'”

Needless to say, that impression would be revised somewhat, not least as the weanling market became more competitive. But as the stakes became giddier, they held their nerve and sometimes rode very high indeed.

“We gave $800,000 or so for a Storm Cat filly, and that didn't work out,” Lyons remembers ruefully. “But we got $1.8 million for a Deputy Minister colt that had cost $785,000, and gave $825,000 for a Mr. Prospector colt that made $1.6m. We bought a lot of really nice horses. Bought a few crows, as well, of course!”

The most satisfying result on the racecourse itself was Russian Rhythm. Bought as a weanling for $340,000, she sold through Ted Voute at Tattersalls for 440,000gns before winning the G1 1,000 Guineas for Cheveley Park Stud. She was among many bought with the European market in mind, often sold at Goffs or Tattersalls through local consignors. Another to make that journey was Shamardal, who came aboard as a yearling in the spring and sold at Tattersalls, again through Voute.

Shamardal | Darley

“Business generates business,” observes Lyons. “Gerry and myself were both full to the brim. Everybody wanted to send you horses when you had some apparent success. But of course it always looks better on the outside. You sell a yearling for a million and people say, 'Wow, these guys are geniuses.' But there's always the other side to it.

“When the syndications wound down Mike and, more so, Gerry carried on.  Gerry brought in some other young lads–Spider Duignan, Adrian Regan, Ted Campion, Pat Costello–and showed them how to do it, ultimately pinhooking a Kentucky Derby winner [Nyquist].”

While it is not quite such heady stuff nowadays, the Hartwell consignment remains an essential calling point at any sale, with wry humor and good stories guaranteed alongside the consummate horsemanship. And another thing that doesn't change is the sense of debt Lyons expresses to his team, nowadays including Jane Lewington, a talented event rider back in England, and manager Shane Hennessy, who “rather reminds me of myself, 40 years ago.”

A lot of water under the bridge since then, clearly. “If I had to do it all over again, would I try to get back home?” Lyons muses. “It felt kind of hard to break in, in Ireland, and there have just been so many great people that God has put in my life here. People you build relationships with, make connections. It's been a great ride. I don't really know how it all came about, but I thank God it did.” He pauses and chuckles. “And I still haven't been to Australia.”

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