Johnny Collins: ‘I Bounce Out Of Bed Every Morning – I Love This Job’

No shortage of hard work and bundles of perseverance lie behind Johnny Collins’s achievement in turning his Brown Island Stables into one of the finest nurseries of equine talent there is.

It is all the more remarkable in that he achieved this with no racing background and just his own eye and pocket to get the whole thing off the ground.

Competitive and ambitious, the 46-year-old counts several million euros worth of stock at his County Cork base, which is the culmination of over 15 years producing top-class horses over both codes.

And when it comes to identifying young stock, few do it better. Mshawish (Medaglia d’Oro), a dual Grade I winner and the best Flat horse that Collins has had through his hands, cost just $10,000 as a yearling at Keeneland but rocked into €170,000 at the Arqana breeze-up sale the following summer in 2012.

“You have to experience the disappointment for when they don’t work out to appreciate the satisfaction for when it does,” – Johnny Collins

Then there has been mammoth success over jumps as well. Irish Champion Hurdle winner Petit Mouchoir (Fr) (Al Namix {Fr}) and Champion Bumper winner Relegate (Ire) (Flemensfirth) were the first big names to fly the flag in that sphere for Collins, who is now a regular sale-topping consignor at the major breeze-up and store sales in Europe.

With this year’s breeze-ups on the horizon, Collins can count 24 two-year-olds to represent him from Dubai to Deauville. But it’s not a case of just turning up. Oh no. Last year was forgettable to say the least as Collins took a haircut on a lot of his breezers and it was the stores that came to his rescue later in the spring.

It takes a certain amount of resolve to make this game pay. A great deal more of the stuff is required when things aren’t exactly going your way. Taking his medicine is something Collins became accustomed to in the early days and, while success has been more plentiful in recent times, he has dealt with the disappointments the same right the way through: by building back bigger and stronger.

“My horses weren’t good enough last year,” says Collins, straight to the point. “Even in tough years, if we had good horses and they performed well, we never had any trouble selling them. It’s when your stock is below average, that’s when you’ll suffer.

“But, every now and then, you need a shake to keep yourself focussed in this game. That will open your eyes and remind you that it’s not that simple. If it was only a matter of going around and buying them with your eyes closed, well then anyone could do it.”

He added, “You can get complacent at this job. You could think you can walk on water sometimes and that everything you touch will turn to gold. We didn’t have a good year last year. Our first sale was our best sale at the Craven and after that we probably just held our own. I probably just about washed my face with the breezers. But then I’d a very good year with the stores.

“The one thing you wouldn’t want to do when you’ve had a bad year is to go and change too many things. What we’ve done in the past few years in developing horses and the system here, it works, so there’s no point in changing that. All that part of it is fine. We just didn’t have enough good horses last year. It’s all about the horses.”

An operation the size of Brown Island Stables is only ever a few bad years away from hitting the rocks. This is a ship that navigates the most unpredictable of waters and one that carries millions of euros worth of cargo. With so much at risk, one would forgive Collins for resembling a German Shepard with a headache on a mid-February work morning, but he and his loyal bunch of staff are unfailingly helpful.

One by one, 20 two-year-olds whizz up the grass gallop close to Collins’s base, with crucial notes made on the closest thing he has to hand, which in this case is a white envelope.

“I like to see them dropping their heads there now and going about their work,” says Collins in between lots. “If they are doing that and trying for you, there’s a good chance they will go the right way because they’ll do the same in their races.”

In the group of workers we have colts by Twirling Candy and Blame, who are bound for the first breeze-up of the year in Dubai on March 21. There’s six for the Craven and the same number will go to Doncaster with the remainder being divided up between France, Fairyhouse and Newmarket.

Johnny Collins and Norman Williamson | Tattersalls

“When I started breezing horses, we were buying ready-to-rock two-year-olds. They were little five and six-furlong horses. It’s changed an awful lot now. Look at last year for example, an Irish Guineas winner [Native Trail (GB) (Oasis Dream {GB})] and a St Leger winner [Eldar Eldarov (GB) (Dubawi {Ire})] came through the breeze-ups. It’s amazing really.

“The yearlings were a great trade last year and it was hard to get them. I bought five at Book 2, two at Fairyhouse, two at the Somerville Sale, two at the Orby and the lads helped me out with six from America.”

The lads, as referenced by Collins, are international bloodstock agent Chad Schumer and his European representative Nancy Sexton, who have helped him to source stock from America while he was unable to travel to the States.

He continued, “I like a horse with a bit of strength and a bit of movement. There probably are sires who I wouldn’t buy the progeny of because they haven’t been lucky for me or they aren’t commercial enough but I do try and go to the sales with as open a mind as possible. I’d cast a broad net and would look at as many as I could at a yearling sale.

“You can’t overthink it, either. When you’ve your bundle of horses bought, you can only do the best with the horses you have. Of course it gets to you when they’re not progressing the way you’d like them to be. For me, the beauty of it with the breezers is that I have a bunch of National Hunt horses to sell every year as well. So, even if you didn’t have a great year with one code, you would be hoping to have a better year with the other. I’d be telling you a lie if I said that, coming close to the sales, there isn’t an odd night where I’d be lying awake in bed thinking about it all. Of course there are.”

Collins endured his share of sleepless nights at the start. Whilst riding trackwork in America, he began to trade a few horses on the side but, by his own admission, was forced to learn by his mistakes.

“I went buying horses not really knowing what I was doing,” he explains. “I knew how to ride a horse but that was as far as it went. I had to make all of my own mistakes. I was at this a good while before I started making money. But, if you can sustain it, you won’t keep making those mistakes. It would sharpen up your ideas and you won’t make the same mistake twice. You get to look at your mistakes all year. Now, I wouldn’t always buy a horse with perfect conformation but I’d know now what I could live with and what I could work with.”

So, when did the tide turn?

“For the first five or six years I really struggled. Even though I sold a couple of good horses, I was only barely making ends meet. The year I sold Mshawish, I also sold a horse by Street Boss, who made around €260,000. That really got the thing going.”

He added,  “I was only making enough to survive and that was with no staff. Hopefully we can keep it going now. It takes a while to break into it. You’ve to make a lot of mistakes and you need connections, too. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to build up a relationship and a bit of trust. It’s easy to break it then as well.

“With the best will in the world, you can never be sure what a horse will do when it’s put to the pin of its collar. You could have a horse working well but he might not deliver on a racecourse. That happens to trainers as well. You could genuinely think you have a good one but they let you down. Horses have a habit of doing that.

“When push comes to shove, they might not have the heart or the mind to go through with it. That’s why it’s so satisfying when they work out because, you know, everything is on the line as a trader. You have to experience the disappointment for when they don’t work out to appreciate the satisfaction for when it does.”

Like most people who are good at what they do, Collins lives for his work and that passion fuels a hectic but rewarding lifestyle surrounded by horses.

“I love it. I enjoy this job, I must say. I like bringing on young horses and watching them progress. Even the National Hunt horses, I love bringing them on as well. And if they go on to do well for the next man, it’s just a great feeling. That’s what defines success for me but, at the same time, you can’t do it if it’s not financially viable.

“Especially when you start off, you need to have good results in the sales ring to keep the whole thing going and to develop the business. Luckily enough, we’ve sold a few nice horses but you’re always looking for the next Cheltenham winner or the next good horse on the Flat.”

He added, “When you have the operation built up, bar you have it in your head to scale down, you have to buy the same amount of stock each year if you want to keep the same number of staff and the thing going the way you have it.

“Look it, I’m happy with the way I have it. As long as I have enough help, I’ve no interest in scaling back. I wouldn’t see myself slowing down ever, as long as my health allows, because I do live for it. I could retire if I sold all my stock but it wouldn’t make me happy.

Johnny Collins with his son Daniel | Barbara Collins

“You could kick up your feet but what would you do then? I’m a late starter with regards to my family. My wife Barbara and I have a son, Daniel, and he’s only 18 months old.

“I’ve a lot of friends working in jobs they don’t like. They get up every morning to go to work and it’s a struggle. I bounce out of bed every morning to go at this. It’s not like work at all. It’s very enjoyable.”

Facing the reality that comes with preparing over 120 horses for resale and the need to clear a couple of million euros annually to keep the business afloat would be enough to make most people baulk. Not Collins, whose search for a star–and to make a few quid along the way–sustains him.

“There was an old man I used to drink with below in the pub in Middleton, Denis Twomey was his name. He’s since passed away but he used to have a great saying, and it stuck with me.

“He’d say, ‘There are 20 years to come and there are 20 more to back it, now where is the man who can tell the man who wore the ragged jacket?’ Every time I’d see Denis, I’d ask him to say it for me. No matter how many times I’d heard it before, I loved listening to it. It’s a great saying, you know, and it’s very true.”

The post Johnny Collins: ‘I Bounce Out Of Bed Every Morning – I Love This Job’ appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.