Joe Banhan Q&A: The IHRB’s Official Starter On His Passion For Breeding

Official Starter for the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, Joe Banahan is hugely passionate about breeding, and from a small but select broodmare band, his family have enjoyed notable success on the Flat from their Moortown House Stud base near Navan.
Joe’s parents Percy and Elaine have recently passed away but, along with his wife Edel, he has carried on the proud family tradition in breeding.
In this week’s Starfield Stud-sponsored Q&A, Banahan, a former jockey, reveals how he became infatuated with breeding, what he aims to achieve from Moortown House Stud in the coming years and much more.

Brian Sheerin: You are not long home from the Saudi Cup where you have been working as the chief starter since its inception in 2019. How did that come about?
Joe Banahan: Tom Ryan was keen to find an English-speaking starter because of the amount of international runners at the Saudi Cup and he approached Denis Egan who was the chief executive of the IHRB at the time. When Denis mentioned it to me, I told him that I would be delighted to do it. Tom would have known me from his time in Naas and was aware that I would have been starting all of the big races over here. They were looking for someone with experience of starting the big races so that’s how it came about. We got through the first year okay, although it didn’t go like clockwork, but we got through it anyway and it was a good learning curve for everyone involved. I have been asked back every year since and Tom has assembled a good team. He has Michael Prosser, the clerk of the course at Newmarket, who brings a wealth of experience, stewards secretary Adrian Sharpe and Phil Tuck, the resident stewards secretary who knows all the locals and how the system works.

What has been the biggest challenge? As you said yourself, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing and, like anything new, there are always going to be teething problems.
The language. Without question. The biggest barrier is the language. We would have different sets of requests coming through right throughout the week from different connections of horses all over the world. Maybe it’s to do with a horse being blindfolded at the start, going in early or late, that sort of thing. That needs to be communicated to all of the stalls handlers, who don’t have a lot of English, but the two starters who are out there on a regular basis are a great help in getting the right information across. It’s a huge challenge and it’s not comfortable, I have to say, as I don’t have an English-speaking assistant who is fluent in Arabic. That’s one thing I mentioned to Tom when I was leaving this year that, if we could get someone who could speak both languages going forward, it would be a massive help.

Horses have been a constant in your life. Your late parents enjoyed a lot of success from Moortown House Stud and you are keeping the legacy going.
I don’t think my father ever had more than three mares at one time. He was rooting away at the bargain end of things but I took a big interest when I bought a mare the time I was working down with Dessie Hughes on the Curragh. She was lucky enough for me, in that I got a few quid for the first foals, but I was seeing more and more that you needed a bit of quality to be going to war at the sales. When you are dealing with basement mares, it’s never going to happen for you, so I suggested to my father that we go over to the December Sales at Newmarket and look for something. We spent the three days going around looking at all of these mares with beautiful pedigrees and our mouths were open. I suppose, back in those days, forty or fifty thousand would get you something decent, but now it wouldn’t get you a ticket in the door. We came across a filly with a great pedigree but she was quite refined and light. Her name was Almaaseh (Ire) and she was a first foal out of Al Bahathri (Blushing Groom {Fr}) by Dancing Brave. Tom Jones had trained her but she wasn’t much good–I think she was third in a four-horse race. She’d a fantastic pedigree and a good friend of my father’s, Joe Clarke, a renowned breeder and vet, had a look at her to see if she’d enough bone to breed from. He felt that she did so we got her bought. Our maximum was forty thousand but Philip Myerscough bid the forty thousand for the mare. Not to be outdone, my father put up the hand and bid one more, and he got her.

And she became a notable breeder for him.
My father had bought a share to Dancing Dissident, who’d just retired to the Irish National Stud and, given they had burned up all their money on the mare, they sent her to him and got a colt foal [Almaty]. They sold him as a yearling and he ended up being the top-rated Irish two-year-old for Con Collins in 1995. He won the Molecomb S. and another Group 3 at the Curragh–it was enough to make him the highest-rated two-year-old in Ireland that year. That was the start of it and we subsequently sold some high-priced stock out of the mare. Now, he got foal-shares to some of the best stallions who were standing at that time, but it never really worked out for him. She actually had a Galileo (Ire) filly who died roughly six weeks before what is now Book 1 but was called the Houghton Sale back in those days. As a result of that Galileo filly dying, Coolmore let my father into Oratorio (Ire) at a reduced fee and the resulting colt didn’t make that much money but he turned out to be a good racehorse. He turned out to be Military Attack (Ire) and Amanda Skiffington bought him on behalf of John Hills at the Orby Sale. He won at Ascot and, as a result of that, got sold to Hong Kong for major money. He became a champion out there. There was another filly out of the mare, Artisia (Ire) (Peintre Celebre), who went to William Muir, and while she wasn’t much good as a racemare, she ended up breeding Red Cadeaux (GB) (Cadeaux Genereux {GB}). He was a brilliant globetrotter. Then there was another filly out of the mare, Miss Brown To You (Ire) (Fasliyev), who again was no superstar, but she ended up breeding Big Orange (GB) (Duke Of Marmalade {Ire}).

You retain an interest in the family with Empowermentofwomen (Ire) (Manduro {Ger}).
I bought back into the family through Empowerementofwomen, a half-sister to Big Orange. Bill Gredley bred Big Orange and, a year or two before that horse had come on the scene, I bought the mare. Listen, she hasn’t been that lucky for us in that there was a nice Teofilo (Ire) filly in France who broke her leg the week before she was supposed to run. Tina Rau was the agent who bought that particular filly off me and she told me that she was held in good regard. Noel Meade has had a couple out of the mare, Zoffman (Ire) (Zoffany {Ire}) and Sheishybrid (Ire) (Mastercraftsman {Ire}), and they have won their races. Hopefully one of them will bag a little bit of black-type this season. We lost a Churchill (Ire) colt out of the mare last year but she has a nice Saxon Warrior (Jpn) yearling this year. All didn’t go according to plan with her foaling this year and, while the foal is alive, it’s an ongoing situation. It’s been a little bit up and down with her so far so hopefully we can have a bit more luck with her going forward.

Have you got mating plans done for your mares yet?
Empowermentofwomen could go to Gleneagles (Ire). I think he’s an underestimated sire and gives you a fair chance of getting a black-type horse. He was an exceptional racehorse himself and I think he could represent value. He has had 11 black-type horses and Royal Scotsman (Ire), who is in training with Paul Cole, could be deemed a slightly unlucky loser in the Dewhurst so who’s to say what he might achieve this year. That’s the way we’re thinking anyway but, it’s just in the past few days I started to entertain the idea of something like Sioux Nation or even Magna Grecia (Ire). We have gone back to the drawing board a little bit but it’s in situations like this where you are probably better off going with your gut.I have a daughter of Empowermentofwomen by Cape Cross (Ire) and she is only starting off. She has a very nice Ten Sovereigns (Ire) yearling and is in foal to Gleneagles. She’s going to go to Minzaal (Ire) this year.

What else have you got on the farm?
There are two other mares who I own in partnership with a guy; one is a Shamardal half-sister to Jacqueline Quest (Ire) (Rock Of Gibraltar {Ire}), who won the 1000 Guineas but lost it in the stewards room. She’s been a bit of a slow burner but we have a nice Starspangledbanner (Aus) filly out of her called You Send Me (Ire), who is in training with Fozzy Stack. She ran very well on debut at the Curragh and they think she is quite nice. We’re hoping that she will do okay this year and bring the mare into a different level because she has a nice New Bay (GB) yearling filly this year. She’s in foal to Space Blues (Ire) but is not due to foal until April. The other mare is called Lisanor (GB) and she’s by Raven’s Pass. We bought all of these fillies out of training and she was owned by Anthony Oppenheimer and in training with John Gosden. She is a lovely-looking filly and cost 26,000gns, which we hoped would represent a bit of value at the time. We bought her the same time that Olympic Glory (Ire) was retired to stud and I liked the idea of a son of Choisir (Aus) so we flew over to Al Shaqab in France to have a look at him. We liked what we saw and sent the mare to him in her first year and she produced quite a decent filly in Mintd (Ire). She might not have been your typical sales filly but Willie McCreery loved her and he bought her. She was a smart two-year-old–finished second to Fairyland (Ire) (Kodiac {GB}), won her maiden at Listowel and finished second to Land Force (Ire) in a Listed race at Tipperary. After she finished second to Land Force, Willie got her sold to America, where she won a Grade 3 for Brendan Walsh. Lisanor has had a few foals since and, while they’ve all won, there are no superstars. She has a Calyx (GB) with Yeomanstown and that is going to the Doncaster breeze-up sale so I am hoping that can do something. She has a nice Lope De Vega foal on the ground and I dropped her down to Starspangledbanner there last week. Obviously Olympic Glory is by Choisir so we’re trying to pick up that link by going to Starspangledbanner. We were very impressed by her Lope De Vega foal so we said we’d take a chance with Starspangledbanner. We also have a daughter of Lisanor by Oasis Dream (GB) who turned out to be disappointing. She ran a few times but never managed to do anything–I think she had a mind of her own. We believe that she had a level of ability and are going to send her to Arizona (Ire) this year. He’s by No Nay Never and won his maiden by eight lengths and won the Coventry as well. At a relatively small fee, he should give us a chance.

What is it that drives you?
I suppose I had a little bit of luck from day one. I used to rent a flat off Mrs Cuddy on the Curragh when I was working for Dessie Hughes. Her husband Mick had a good bit of success with fillies who were all trained by Liam Browne. Daness and Ridaness won the Moyglare Stakes for him in the ’70s. When Mrs Cuddy’s husband died, she got fed up with the horses and happened to say to me that she wanted to get rid of them. Knowing the pedigrees, I bought one of the mares [Royaltess (GB) (Royal And Regal)] off her for five thousand and sent her to Fairy King. Her first foal [Makbul (Ire)] was very nice and I brought him to Goffs that November. I’ll never forget, Philip Myerscough came down to look at the foal and he was very impressed with him. About a half an hour later, he comes down with another gentleman, none other than Vincent O’Brien! Well, Vincent spent 20 minutes looking at this foal. He gave him an awful lot of time. They bought the foal for €18,000. For me, it was like winning the lotto. I bought the mare for five, spent the same on the nomination and had eight grand left over. I was addicted after that.

That’s a dream start.
It planted the seed firmly in my mind. Around the same time, we bought a mare [Chaturanga (GB) (Night Shift)] from the Godolphin dispersal, a mare out of Game Plan, who was second in the Oaks. Game Plan was a half-sister to Shahtoush (Ire) (Alzao), who went on and won the Oaks a couple of years later. The best Chaturanga bred was probably Mooretown Lady (Ire) (Montjeu {Ire}), who was very temperamental but had loads of ability. I sold her to a friend of mine, Michael Smith, who still has her today and, while she wasn’t a successful broodmare, she did breed a good broodmare by Fastnet Rock (Aus) called Fastnet Lady (Ire). Michael has bred I Am Superman (Footstepsinthesand {GB}) and Fastnet Crown (Hallowed Crown {Aus}) out of that mare. It’s hard to breed any sort of a winner and then to get a black-type winner, it’s not an easy thing to do. When you do achieve it, you really have to enjoy it, and it gives you huge confidence going forward because you think that, if you’ve done it once, you can do it again, and maybe even at a higher level. I spend ages on the matings plans for the few mares I have. You’d swear I have hundreds of them! You just lose hours and hours going through pedigrees to see what might work and what is coming through. It’s a real passion.

And what would be your aim when you set out about choosing a stallion?
The first thing I try to do is find a horse who I think will be popular at the yearling sales. Now, that’s two and half years down the line and a lot of things can change after you cover your mare. Obviously you try to eliminate as many risks as possible. I suppose, by going to a proven sire, it gives you a good chance of getting a racehorse on the ground. The thing about that is, the proven sire is normally pretty expensive so, for a lesser mare, it doesn’t justify spending that sort of money. I try to find something that has got off to a good start and hopefully it can build on it. For us, it’s a balancing act. You need to try and make money out of it but you also want to try and breed a horse of some note. The first-season sire is a safe bet in that nobody knows what they are going to be like and they can’t judge them apart from the fact that their foals or yearlings are nice because they haven’t done it on the track. If in general they are nice, and the pinhookers latch onto them, that’s normally the first hurdle crossed. There are other sires that you can get at good value in their third year but it’s a very tricky year because, if their first two-year-olds are no good, your foal is written off before it arrives on the ground. That can be rather sickening. But, equally, if they are successful, and for example we took a chance on Saxon Warrior last year, it can work out well. Obviously in the case of Saxon Warrior, his fee has jumped up dramatically off the back of the success he enjoyed with his two-year-olds. But it’s a gamble and the whole thing is a gamble. Breeding horses is a gamble.

What would your main philosophy be?
I like a stallion with a bit of quality, a good mover, but he doesn’t have to be an extravagant mover. The majority of horses, they’re not the best walkers in the world, but they are good racehorses and you see that when they come out of training and retire to stud. You like to see a horse with movement. At the same time, I’m not looking for a horse with a big lopey walk because that’s nearly a sign that they are a bit on the slow side. You see all these big bumper and maiden hurdle horses and they’d walk for Ireland but sure they’d be as slow as a boat. A nice athletic horse with a good shape, good back end, good hip and nice short cannons with a good quality head. That’s what I like. I also like them to be Group 1 winners. Indian Ridge (Ire) had no pedigree at all and he turned out to be a very good sire so there’s always an outlier but I like using horses who were Group 1 winners themselves.

And I was interested to learn that you consign all of your own horses as well as breeding them.
Having a nice foal or yearling, it gives me great satisfaction working with that horse and bringing it along. Even if it’s not the best model in the world, I would try and have it looking better than anyone else’s going to the sales and we have always been complimented by how well our animals look at the sales. I’d go overboard and try and have a skin on them that you’d nearly shave through. Pristine condition. I get great satisfaction out of preparing them like that and, while a lot of people like to use a big name, at the end of the day, the majority of the horses the big consignors bring to the sales are prepared by the owner. Some are done poorly and some exceptionally well but, for whatever reason, they like to use these people to consign their horses. I’m not saying these consignors don’t do a good job, because they do an exceptional job, but I do all the hard work with these horses and I know their quirks or their personalities so it doesn’t make sense for me to hand it over to a big name for the sale after doing the majority of the work the whole way through.

You clearly have a huge passion for it all.
Some people are interested in golf or whatever but breeding is what fascinates me. Another reason why we like consigning our own horses is because we like to promote Moortown House Stud and I think we have done. I get tremendous satisfaction out of it. The other thing is, if you do it yourself and something goes wrong, well then you can blame nobody other than yourself. I spent a little time working with the big consignors in America when I was younger and learned the right way to show a horse. It’s all about presentation. Again, if you’re handing it over to someone else, you’d be looking on from the sidelines. That would drive me mad. One thing that I love about the sales, you get to meet new people the whole time, depending where you are stationed around the complex. We’ve become great friends with some of the people we have been stationed beside and there’s a great social element to the thing. The buzz when you have a good foal or a yearling, it happened us a few years ago when we had a foal who got 15 vets, and we barely had time to eat all day. You’re just completely revved up over the potential of what might happen. That doesn’t happen very often so it’s a great place to be when it goes well. But it wouldn’t be possible without the help of my wife Edel who does a lot of the hard work at home while I am working at the races. I get to do a lot of work in the mornings but Edel is with them most days and it’s very much a joint effort.

The post Joe Banhan Q&A: The IHRB’s Official Starter On His Passion For Breeding appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.