Darley Flying Start: Cultivating leadership through education

A Darley Flying Start trainee works with a yearling at Kildangan Stud.

Darley Flying Start strives to produce committed leaders who will contribute to the long-term success of the Thoroughbred industry. The two-year management training course offers lectures, visits, and hands-on work placements, with graduates going on to careers in existing and emerging racing nations. Having graduated its first class in 2005, Darley Flying Start has built a strong alumni network across countries and continents, helping bring Sheikh Mohammed’s vision for this program to life. Darley Managing Director Joe Osborne reflects on Darley Flying Start’s mission and the importance of investing in education. 

Anyone who visits Dubai leaves there in no doubt that Sheikh Mohammed is a man of vision. It takes vision and a confidence in the future to build the 21st Century city that is Dubai. It also takes vision and confidence in the future to invest in education. The spend and effort don’t get instant payback – the return on investment can take decades to be realized. Education is very much part of the infrastructure of Dubai with world class institutions providing learning to students of all ages and backgrounds. 

Back in 2002, Sheikh Mohammed provided the inspiration and impetus for Darley Flying Start: A two-year, full-time scholarship program for the Thoroughbred industry that is embraced by Darley’s global group of companies. The 12 trainees selected each year spend time at Darley’s facilities in Ireland, England, the United States, and Australia in addition to three months in Dubai. There are work placement opportunities at three stages during the course and these have included placements in Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, and South America. Darley Flying Start combines a dynamic range of lectures, visits, and hands-on experience. The emphasis throughout is on developing business skills, leadership, and entrepreneurship. This framework interfaces with industry leaders globally so it provides an unparalleled learning and networking opportunity.

Darley Flying Start trainees. Photo: Darley.

Graduates are already achieving success and playing a leadership role even though the program is relatively young. Would they all progress if Flying Start did not exist? Probably, but not as quickly and not as effectively. Flying Start is just that: A fast track and an immersion experience. It crams the equivalent of 10 years into an intense two. It’s not just the learning – experiential and academic – it is the interface with industry leaders across the globe that gives it the unique reputation it has earned. Trainees gain contacts who are invaluable to them. It is not surprising that most of the graduates get their first job offer from someone they have met during the Flying Start program.

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on developing the trainees’ leadership skills and this is done through a combination of academic modules and through assigning individual leadership responsibility during the course. 

That being the case, what is Flying Start looking for? There is a misconception that candidates need to be an industry “insider” to get accepted to the program. From the outset, there has been a strong emphasis on experience in the Thoroughbred sector as a selection requirement, and the preference is for well-endorsed experience with industry leaders. A surname alone won’t suffice to get an applicant selected. Even though there are recognisable names amongst the current trainees and graduates, there is a long list of well-connected individuals who did not get selected. It’s not a “one size fits all” set of criteria – this is a course for future Thoroughbred industry leaders so the primary requirement is for commitment to the business and ambition to work in a leadership role in the future.

Next is focus: It’s easy to talk about lofty ambitions, but it takes drive and attention to detail to achieve them. This is not a program for new entrants, it is for those who are aiming to reach the top and have already started that journey. The application deadline is in early February each year and, an average of 150 apply. Around 35 are interviewed. So the odds are not as daunting as some may think. 

Although diversity is important – a representation from 17 different countries is an impressive endorsement of the global appeal of Darley Flying Start – there are no nationality quotas. The priority is selecting the 12 most suitable applicants each year – the 12 who impress the selection panel as the most likely to be future industry leaders.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the program is the group dynamic. Perhaps it is not surprising that like-minded individuals would create an energetic synergy, but the level of that energy surpasses expectations. Each intake has its unique chemistry, but it is always positive and forward thinking. Diversity certainly helps. Not just in terms of nationality but also background and ambition. Conversations can circle global Thoroughbred news in a matter of minutes: Melbourne, Lexington, Tokyo, Paris, London, Hong Kong… Graduates say it is that buzz they miss most of all when they leave the program. While the selection process is competitive there is a strong sense of team spirit on the program itself and lifelong friendships are formed. It is a challenging two years and not every trainee reaches the finish line, but for those who do it is truly an experience of a lifetime. 

A more recent initiative is Dubai International Thoroughbred Internships (DITI). This is a 10-month scholarship exclusively for Chinese university graduates. Launched in 2011, it provides an opportunity to learn at one of Darley’s five locations (Australia, England, Ireland, Japan or the U.S.). The interns undergo a two-week induction in Beijing in August and then spend two weeks in Dubai in December. This is not Darley Flying Start, though one of the first intake’s graduates, Tam Man Hei, was selected for that program last year and is now in the U.S. With Thoroughbred breeding and racing in its infancy in China, there are no clear career paths on which to progress. That being the case DITI, is an opportunity to give the Chinese interns from a wide range of college degrees an insight into a globally successful group of companies in a globally successful business. On completion of their internship, they will have observed best practices that can be transferred into any business sector, and they will bring an understanding of the global Thoroughbred business back to China, and they will have an appreciation of Sheikh Mohammed and Dubai.

Graduates of both programs will travel and progress. Every one is an ambassador for Thoroughbred breeding and racing and will continue to be for decades to come. The return on investment is to our business and it will be all the better for it. 


Joe Osborne is the Managing Director of Darley’s Irish operation, Kildangan Stud.  He is also a director of Darley in Australia, England, France, and of Darley Flying Start, the management training programmed launched in 2003.  He is a graduate of University of Kentucky and prior to joining Darley in 1994, he managed Pin Oak Stud in Kentucky for eight years. He completed the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Programme in 1982/83 and The Irish National Stud’s Trainee Stud Manager’s Course in 1982. He has been chairman of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association for the past two years. 

View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus

More Racing Articles

By the same author