The following letter was submitted to FARMER’S WEEKLY in response to the article “Nature’s Best for Top Thoroughbreds” (pp 54-56) which appeared in the July 28 edition. The article looks at ‘farming in harmony with nature’ (biological farming) and Summerhill’s Farm Manager BARRY WATSON was interviewed to learn more of his secrets about soil health, pastures and growing concentrated feed.

The letter appears in full below.  

IT IS GREAT to see Farmer’s Weekly expand so deeply into the realms of the requirements of the Thoroughbred racehorse. I was brought up on what was left of my Grand-father’s Straffan Station Stud in County Kildare, Ireland. In the early part of the last Century he recognised that cattle and thoroughbreds were the most symbiotic of farm stock and he bred such horses as The Tetrarch, Dark Ronald, Delaunay and Milesius. When he died prematurely in 1926 the stud virtually died with him for his sons were too young to take on the enterprise.

The rolling Limestone-based emerald pastures of Ireland are ‘home’ to the best horses in Europe. It matters little whether a Belgian is seeking a show jumper or an Arab a premium stud line, both head down the Limerick road out of Dublin. Some stop off on the vast open veld of The Curragh, others continue to the Golden Vale of Tipperary and Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle or the stud farms of County Limerick. Barry Watson quite rightly relates soil health to animal health. The Thoroughbred came to be recognised as fleet of foot in early C.18th, many being brought back from the later Crusades in the Middle East. The Arab was crossed with the stouter English saddle horse to achieve the combination of speed and stamina. (The same objective of marrying the speed of a Greyhound to the herding instinct of the Collie brought about the Lurcher.) The French imported Arab stock from the earlier crusades in what we now recognise as Lebanon, and grazed them in the Vallé de Perche in Normandy. They grew into Percherons and the species is still growing larger there.One of the most fascinating  aspects of Thoroughbred racing is the slow degrees by which the horse is running any faster relative to the investment therein.
Last  April Irish horses won the Aintree Grand National for the 5th time in 8 years having taken the first three places in both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle at the National Hunt Festival. In years gone by the English were able to afford to buy young Irish stock that showed promise but the boom in the Irish economy has enabled the Irish to keep their best at home. Nobody has found the magic formula that guarantees success in either flat or National Hunt racing and anyone who believes that Thoroughbred bloodstock investment financed by oil wealth is the key to eternal success deludes themselves. Barry Watson identifies the essentials as reflected by the success of Summerhill Stud. Parasitic control and ‘best’ feed are amongst a stud’s priorities and I shall be interested to learn the merits of clean maize in the Thoroughbred’s diet. It is a long shot from the best of Canadian oats that was imported to Ireland before compound feeds came into their own. Weeding ranks highly and I write of two varieties. I am not on about Plantain or thistles but about the nutritional value of weeds. I had the good fortune to have the late Major Cyril Hall as a mentor in my youth. He was  stud manager to HH The Aga Khan at Gilltown, Ballymany and Turf Lodge on the edge of The Curragh. Walking the paddocks of Ballymany in June 1962, I remarked upon the enormous variety of grasses and herbage that mares and foals were grazing. I explained that the French National Grassland Research establishment were teaching me to ascertain which grass mixes were most beneficial to certain breeds of cattle. The Major assured me with a disarming smile that The Aga’s bloodstock enjoyed and did well on the sward of many varieties. I have seen a mass of thoroughbred racing dynasties come and go in 50 years but the leader of the Ismaili sect of Muslims is held in awe by virtue of the fact that his dynasty endures near the top of the tree season after season. Oh it’s the grass all right, and the trace elements and the humus content and the wormers and the grooms and the trainers and the work-riders and the jockeys and the farriers and the veterinary surgeons and the breeding and the weeding out of inferior stock. Add in the long term dedication of The Aga and his Managers and there is a force that other dynasties cannot match. Enjoy your time at the top, Summerhill.

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