Classic Bloodlines Underpin Burgeoning Al Shira’aa Operation

On the wall of Kieran Lalor’s office is the photo of the 1965 Irish Derby winner Meadow Court, his celebrity co-owner Bing Crosby in shot, presumably just before, as legend has it, the great crooner serenaded the crowds at the Curragh with a rendition of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. 

The success of the colt, who was also runner-up to the great Sea-Bird in the Derby and went on to give Lester Piggott his first success in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S., prompted his legendary trainer Paddy Prendergast to rename his stables in his honour. The property at Maddenstown, on the Curragh, subsequently passed into the hands of John and Eimear Mulhern, before being sold in 2016 to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The experienced equestrian is the eldest daughter of Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the younger brother of the current president of the United Arab Emirates and the son of the founder and inaugural president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Beyond the sheikha’s equine interests she has recently launched the Fatima bint Hazza Academic Scholarship Fund, aimed at encouraging and enabling Emirati women to take advantage of higher education.

The Thoroughbred arm of Sheikha Fatima’s global equine operation known as Al Shira’aa is managed by Lalor, who returned home to Ireland after a long stint in the Bluegrass at Ashford, Castleton Lyons and WinStar, and has overseen significant investment and development at the storied farm over the last six years.

A nod to the multi-national ties of the property is provided by the welcome signs at the entrance, which are printed in Arabic, Gaelic and English. Once inside, a glance at the newly constructed stable yards and offices confirms the blending of styles: plenty of stylish modern glass melded with the grey native stone of Ireland.

At a time when Sheikha Hissa has stepped modestly into the limelight in her aim to continue the Thoroughbred breeding tradition of her late father Sheikh Hamdan at Shadwell, it is heartening to find another Arab woman at the helm of a relatively new enterprise with horses in training in Ireland, France and America. The seeds of Sheikha Fatima’s equine interests were sown first in the sport horse world and Al Shira’aa has been the title sponsor of show jumping’s iconic Hickstead Derby since 2017, as well as backing the British Young Horse Championships at Bolesworth. 

It is a name which is gradually seeping into the consciousness of the racing world. Lalor has been busy on behalf of “The boss” through recent yearling sale seasons, buying selectively with an eye very much on the long-term future of the farm.

Half-sisters to Classic winners Mother Earth (Ire) (Zoffany {Ire}) and Poetic Flare (Ire) (Dawn Approach {Ire}), and to Arc winner Waldgeist (GB) (Galileo {Ire}) were recruited in 2021. The first of that trio, Ocean Jewel (Ire), was one of the first-crop winners for Sioux Nation when striking for Willie McCreery last September before adding some black type to her name with a runner-up spot in the Listed Ballyhane Blenheim S.

“It’s easier to go to a sale, and you’re seeing the select drafts of all these top breeders are putting on the market, but our ultimate goal is to breed our own Group 1 horses. We try and breed everything to be a racehorse first and foremost,” Lalor says.

“We want those Classic types, the mile-and-a-quarter, mile-and-a-half horse, that’s our ultimate goal. Now, we do go and buy some speed, like the Sioux Nation filly Ocean Jewel, but with the background of Mother Earth being a top-class, sound filly that ran in so many Group 1s and never threw in the towel. But the ultimate goal with her is to come to back to the broodmare band to be bred to try and produce a miler or a mile-and-a-quarter type of horse.”

He adds of Sheikha Fatima, “She’s very passionate about all breeds of horses. She was a very successful at show jumping and dressage herself, and she has a big show jumping team competing all around Europe and the UAE.”

Her black-and-red racing silks have already been carried with some distinction in the Thoroughbred world, with Al Shira’aa celebrating its first top-level success in 2021 with Mutamakina (GB) (Nathaniel {Ire}) in the GI EP Taylor S. at Woodbine.

“She’s going to Wootton Bassett. We’re very excited, she’s a fabulous filly,” says Lalor of the seven-year-old mare who started out in training with Carlos Laffon-Parias, for whom she won a Listed race in Vichy, before being transferred to Christophe Clement and winning four graded stakes in North America. 

Laffon Parias, who, along with Pascal Bary, trains the French-based horses for Al Shira’aa, also oversaw the racing career of Rumi (Fr) (Frankel {GB}), a Group 2 and Group 3 winner who heads this year to be covered by Kingman (GB). Also heading to the Juddmonte covering shed is Jannah Flower (Ire), runner-up in the G1 Prix de Royallieu last year for Pascal Bary and, like Rumi and Mutamakina, bought by Shawn Dugan.

“She was twice a Listed winner, second in a Group 2 and second in a Group 1 on the day before the Arc, and she’s going to Frankel,” Lalor adds of Jannah Flower.

The prefix of Jannah, which translates to paradise, is likely to be seen more widely in the coming years. This season, Sheikha Fatima and her team at Al Shira’aa will have high hopes for Jannah Rose (Ire), a Frankel filly bred by John Hayes and bought for €650,000, who has raced just once and won at Chantilly. She now holds entries for the French Classics, as does Saadiyat (Ire), a Lope De Vega (Ire) half-sister to Broome (Ire) and Point Lonsdale (Ire).

“Jannah Rose was quite possibly one of the nicest yearlings I’ve ever seen at a sale,” Lalor recalls. “She was a fantastic-looking individual, and she moved great. She was one horse I said to the boss, ‘We just have to own her, whatever it takes.’ In her debut victory, she had to overcome quite a bit in that race to get out into the open. She was very green but when she engaged that run before the finish line, it really got the heart going. That was only a maiden win, but it was quite an emotional win, because she was a very expensive filly. A lot of things can go wrong, but she’s one we’ll be very excited about.”

He adds, “Our main focus has always been France. “They have a great system, that really rewards breeders and owners.”

The operation currently boards a group of mares in France with Julian Ince at Haras du Logis, which includes Celestial Beast, a full-sister to the GI Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner and sire Bobby’s Kitten. Three of them are booked to Logis resident Victor Ludorum (Ire) and another three to Galiway (GB).

In America, the mares are entrusted to Gainesway, and the four being covered there this year are booked to the smart names of Uncle Mo, Into Mischief, American Pharoah and Justify.

“[Gainesway manager] Brian Graves has been a good friend of mine for a long time. They are part-owner in Miss Jessica J (Empire Maker), and so it was just an organic kind of relationship that started there. We’ve tried to have one every year from Europe go over there [to race]. Geoff and Sandra Mulcahy do all of our lay-ups over there and they do a great job, and once they go into the breeding arena they go to Gainesway.”

He adds, “The two Triple Crown winners have both started well. American Pharoah has had some good winners here as well. I’d be all for them, and the boss, thankfully, feels the same. She jumped at the chance of using Justify.”

While Al Shira’aa is very much an owner-breeder operation, all breeders have to sell some stock to keep the numbers at a reasonable level, and David Cox of Baroda Stud is called upon when required to offer youngsters for sale.

“Everybody has that decision, and it’s a very difficult decision to make because inevitably you’re going to sell a really good horse, but our limit is 30 mares,” Lalor says. 

“Until we expand to the level where we could have more flexibility we try to stay strictly to that number. The grand scheme is to improve on all this, so we have 28 [mares] at the moment, and when one comes in, one goes out. 

“Obviously we do want to grow and expand, but that comes with time. We can’t just go and buy a broodmare band in one or two years. We’ve obviously a lot of families in the racing stable and most of them will come into the breeding operation, but we have some flexibility in that regard because if they are doing well and they are healthy and enjoying it they will continue racing. The boss likes to keep them in training, so we race as four- or five-year-olds. Mutamakina was six when she retired.”

Classic relations loom large on the lists of horses of various ages on the walls of Lalor’s office. Lady In Lights (Ire), a Dansili (GB) half-sister to the Guineas winners Magna Grecia (Ire) and St Mark’s Basilica (Fr), was bought in December 2020 carrying to No Nay Never, and her resultant foal, now two and named Spirit Lady (Ire), is one of an illustrious group of 12 juveniles currently being broken in by Ian McCarthy. Also among that intake is the Siyouni (Fr) half-sister to Native Trail (GB), named Native Pearl (Fr); Jannah Pearl (Fr), a Galileo (Ire) sister to Rumi; and Crimson Tide (Fr), a full-sister to Glycon (Fr) (Le Havre {Ire}), all of whom were purchased at Arqana last August.

“The first thing we do when we buy a yearling, they come back here, and they go out together in the field for three months,” Lalor notes. “So they detox from the sales, all of that prepping at such a young age can be quite a lot for them. We try to let them go back to being a horse, as opposed to going straight to a breaker or pre-trainer and then getting turned out in January for a month or so. And our first instruction to Ian is to let them do it in their own time, as individuals.”

He continues, “It’s the same with all the trainers. There’s no pressure to push them. 

Like with Caelestis, the Dubawi [half-sister to Waldgeist], there was probably a lot of expectation for her to come out last year. But she was immature and green, and Pascal [Bary] said, ‘No, she’s not going to be ready until next year.’”

For someone who has cut their teeth with sport horses, as Sheikha Fatima has, waiting an extra year between a youngster’s two- and three-year-old season clearly doesn’t rankle. And, after all, with the earlier purchases now embarking on their broodmare careers, and the early drafts of homebreds in the paddocks, there is much to occupy the team’s thoughts at all levels.

“Sheikha Fatima is very much involved,” says Lalor. “We spent hours on the phone in December going over matings. I go and short-list at the sales, but she sees everything and makes the final decisions. She loves coming to the farm and seeing the foals, the development, how they grow. She has a really good eye for a horse, and with the matings, as I say, we spend hours going over them.”

He adds, “Sometimes I wonder whether we are raising horses or trees. We’ve planted more than 2,000 trees on the farm and it’s an organic farm, so we don’t spray with chemicals, we use seaweed. It’s going to be fabulous in 10 or 20 years when all these trees grow. Everything on the farm is done with the wildlife in mind. 

“The boss is really passionate about it, and it’s more fun when they’re as involved as Sheikha Fatima is. That kind of makes it all worthwhile, and when you get to work with horses like this, trying to develop our own product.”

At a time when the demise of the owner-breeder is much rued, it is indeed encouraging to see an historic farm rejuvenated, from the paddocks to the stock therein.

“I remember the first time we met the boss, and we spoke about what she wanted out of this,” says Lalor. “We looked about, at all those Classic breeders. Coolmore are probably the best in the business, they’re just exceptional, and Juddmonte, too. And so with the same goals and mindset, we dove into this. Hopefully I think we’re on the right path, but we will keep trying to improve and try to keep moving in the right direction.”

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