Ronan Burns viewed 19 properties before finally settling on Herbertstown House Stud in 2011. Such a painstaking quest hinged on the importance of raising his burgeoning bloodstock interests on the best possible land, a consideration that has stood the Burns family in good stead during their long innings at Lodge Park Stud in County Kilkenny, Ireland.
Burns gained a wealth of knowledge during his Kilkenny upbringing, and has embraced the challenge of establishing his own stud. The Herbertstown history might be short but, judging by early results, he has found the ideal base in the 180-acre stud, which neighbours Castlemartin Stud in the heart of Kildare.
“I had five yearlings in the first year,” Burns said. “They’ve all run and all have won.”
A good showing every autumn at the yearling sales keeps the books in order but the real ethos behind Herbertstown House is to raise runners. And in that respect, Burns is up and running.
The very first horse sold by Burns under the Herbertstown banner was this year’s G3 Winter Derby winner Tryster, a 150,000 guineas purchase by John Ferguson at Book 1 of the 2012 Tattersalls October Sale. The following year, Ferguson returned to the draft to pay 180,000 guineas for the Sea The Stars filly Endless Time, to date the winner of three of her four starts for Godolphin.
“It’s a relief to have had a good horse like Tryster come off the farm in the first year,” Burns said. “So far, over 90 percent of the horses that we have sold have run. We’re operating at 80 percent winners to runners and 23 percent stakes horses to runners.
“For me, soundness is the main thing. There is some commercialism in it but breeding racehorses -- and sound horses -- is key. And, if they run, then those people will come back to you.”
Burns is better equipped than most to deal with the highs and lows of the breeding industry. The Burns have been at the forefront of the game since Prix Robert Papin heroine Folle Rousse became the first G1 winner bred by the family in 1968.
Grandfather Paddy Burns campaigned Park Appeal to win the 1984 Cheveley Park and Moyglare Stud Stakes and later sold her to Sheikh Mohammed, for whom the daughter of Ahonoora bred Cape Cross. That same year, the family paid 42,000 guineas for another Ahonoora filly, Park Express, who subsequently became a dual Irish champion following victories in the Nassau Stakes, Lancashire Oaks, and Irish Champion Stakes.
Park Express was also highly successful for Lodge Park at stud, producing champion Dazzling Park and top Japanese sprinter Shinko Forest before foaling another champion in 2008 Epsom Derby winner New Approach at the grand age of 22.
She was also the granddam of 2012 Epsom Oaks heroine Was, and members of Park Express’s family remain highly sought after, as illustrated by the fact that three Galileo fillies out of her listed-placed daughter Alluring Park, including Was, have realised a total of 7,700,000 guineas as yearlings at Tattersalls since 2010.
Although then still pinhooking with his brother Damian, Ronan was by that time operating under his own steam at Herbertstown House.
“I have three brothers at home,” he said, “and I kept a nice base of mares there. But I had a wife and young child so I decided to look for my own farm.
“Herbertstown is 180 acres. I built the house, fenced the whole stud -- all 13 kilometres of it -- and planted a lot of new hedges. It has the one yard with 21 boxes and then at the bottom of the stud I built an isolation yard. Everything here is about injury prevention -- all the boxes are rubberised and the yards and roadways have anti-slip surfaces. Every penny I make goes back into the stud.”
With first-hand knowledge of how New Approach thrived as a youngster with his 22-year-old dam, who was by then blind and living with a bullock as a companion, Burns is not afraid to add older mares to his own broodmare band, an approach that has already reaped major rewards.
“It’s about trying to buy the best mares possible,” he said. “Good, sound mares that breed racehorses. I saw Lodge Park profit from Park Express -- as long as you nurture those older mares and mind them well, they can reward you.
“The first mare I bought was Bintalreef. I bought her carrying to Dynaformer and the foal she was carrying was a stakes winner [Listed winner Buxted]. Bintalreef was very talented - she went off a short price for the 1,000 Guineas in 2000 but injured herself coming out of the stalls.
“[G3 winner] Horatia was the second mare I bought and Min Alhawa was the third.”
Each of those mares subsequently bred group winners once in the hands of Burns. Bintalreef, an ex-Shadwell mare by Diesis, was sent to Hurricane Run, to whom she foaled 2012 G2 Futurity Stakes winner First Cornerstone. Horatia, who was bought for 85,000 guineas in 2007, went on to breed G3 winner Moment In Time, who also ran third in the 2013 G1 E. P. Taylor Stakes at Woodbine. Then there is Min Alhawa, another ex-Shadwell mare bought for $42,000 at Keeneland in 2006 who is currently in the limelight as the dam of Tryster, by Shamardal.
“Min Alhawa was catalogued to Book 5 at the Keeneland November Sale,” remembered Burns of the Riverman half-sister to 1,000 Guineas winner Harayir. “She was in foal to Sahm and I got €150,000 for the resulting filly as a yearling at Goffs.
“She was quite a light-boned mare with a lot of quality. Tryster was a gorgeous yearling, always a lovely mover. I had always felt that Shamardal was a very good stallion and, at that point, I thought he was good value. I also thought he would suit her physically.
“There was a lot of interest in Tryster at the sales, although some people were a bit worried about him being out of an old mare. It was great that Sheikh Mohammed bought him, especially as he had owned New Approach and granddad had sold him Park Appeal.”
While there is undoubtedly fondness for Tryster, Burns nominates First Cornerstone, who went through the sales during Burns’ Lodge Park days, as his highlight to date. Unsold as a yearling, he won the Listed Canford Cliffs Stakes at Tipperary in the colours of Burns’ wife Marcella -- for whom he was the first horse in training in Ireland -- before selling to Team Valor.
Burns also holds a special regard for Libertarian, the 2013 Dante Stakes winner and Epsom Derby runner-up, whom he pinhooked as a foal with Damian. A first-crop son of New Approach, Libertarian was unsold as a yearling for €55,000 and changed hands at the following year’s Tattersalls Craven Sale for 40,000 guineas to Lars Kelp.
“Neither Libertarian or First Cornerstone sold as yearlings,” Burns said. “We bought Libertarian privately off Liam O’Rourke and sent him to Arqana, but he was the wrong type for that -- too big. So we sent him to the Craven, where he did one of the slowest breezes of the sale. But we’re sellers and let him go to Lars Kelp.”
Herbertstown House Stud is currently home to 12 mares. Asides from Bintalreef and Horatia, they comprise an impressive list of proven producers and/or talented runners, including Genuine Charm, dam of last year’s G1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship winner Rich Tapestry; Fanny Cerrito, dam of G1 performer Poseidon Adventure; G2 Cherry Hinton Stakes winner Dora Carrington (dam of Australian G3 winner Julienas); and G3 winners Brazilian Bride (dam of this year’s Listed-winning sprinter Rivellino) and Shamwari Lodge.
“I buy mares for the long term -- I don’t like to trade mares -- and sometimes it takes two or three years to really understand the stock they produce and the best way to go with them,” he said. “I spend a lot of time working out the matings and try to use sound stallions that match physically as well as mentally.”
Burns does a lot of the stud work himself, including the foalings, but is assisted by a tight knit team of staff that includes head lad Christy Eyre.
“The aim is to have 12 foals on the ground a year,” Burns said. “I like to have plenty of land per horse to allow them to roam. The idea is to keep every horse as natural as possible. All the yearlings are hand-walked during prep and will spend a lot of the day out in pens. Every yearling is treated as an individual.”
While the emphasis at Herbertstown House is increasingly on maintaining a strong foundation of mares, pinhooking foals continues to play its part with one in three yearlings on the stud having been bought last winter.
Pinhooking was initially employed during Burns’ Lodge Park days as a means to gain sufficient funds to start the broodmare band, but it has been no back number as, asides from Libertarian, the roll of honour includes G3 winners Colombian and Beacon Lodge as well as listed winner Jadalee.
A select number of pinhooks will once again feature alongside the homebreds at this year’s yearlings sales. By then, given the swift rate that Herbertstown House is gaining momentum, there may well be further to celebrate from the stud on the track.