Unsung Hero of a Real ‘Cover’ Story

For those of us who only seldom witness a Thoroughbred stallion in the throes of lust, hollering and snorting and shuddering, there’s always a sense of awe at the primal energies harnessed by Nature to meet the reproduction imperative. Presumably, then, even nearly four decades of seeing the same thing repeated again and again–with another new covering season imminent–will never quite stifle that wonder, that privileged connection with the very wellspring of life, the constantly recurring miracle of creation.

Put this to Richard Barry, however, and he gives you a bit of a look.

So between the acknowledged dangers of the environment, the need for composure and vigilance and skill, he doesn’t feel any of that stuff at all?

“No, I don’t,” he says with a shrug. “I just want to get the horse to ejaculate. That’s it.”

Ashford’s vastly experienced stallion manager now offers a grin, as though to assure you that he can indulge such pretentious questioning in those who don’t literally put their necks on the line every day. For those who need to keep the horses and their handlers safe, however, these daily “miracles” represent the precarious ritual on which rest quite incalculable stakes.

“That’s it,” he repeats. “And get him out. It’s a very serious business. You’ll see the guys talking to each other, but they’re always concentrating on what they’re doing. There’s millions of dollars transacted up there every week. But you can’t be too intense, either, because the animals feel it. You have to be… I want to say relaxed, but you can’t relax around them at all.”

So even with two Triple Crown winners on his current roster, extending a cavalcade of champion runners and sires over 38 years, Barry knows that the same flesh-and-blood unites every Thoroughbred, of every station, at the point where the blood is up, and the flesh tapers to lethal feet. He was still a young man, new to his vocation, when a shadow was cast that reaches to this day.

“I watched a guy die,” he says. “John McGuigan. I found him. And that wasn’t in the breeding shed, he was bringing in mares and foals. One of the mares kicked him right over the heart and burst his aorta. That changed me. I give out to those guys up there, if ever I see them being lax.”

That was at the old Murty Farm, where Barry cut his teeth before his recruitment by Coolmore. A rather different program, no doubt, from the one that has since given Barry such responsibility at the very pinnacle of the commercial breeding industry. But it all contributed to his education, no less than the Connemara stallion owned by his aunt back in Co. Dublin.

“The village where I was brought up, Clondalkin, is now part of the city,” Barry says. “I couldn’t find my way round Dublin if I tried now, it’s gotten so big, but there were a number of small horse farms around the place when I was growing up and I must have been about 13 when I started hunting with the Co. Dublin Foxhounds. My aunt bred three-quarter-breds, stuff like that, she’d sell them on for show jumping. And then I used to ride out for a guy named Dave Blackford, he was a small trainer of jumpers round there. But I realized at an early age that I was never going to be a jockey, so I got onto the farm end of things.”

So it was that in 1978 Barry became one of countless young compatriots to have used the Irish National Stud course as the springboard for a job in Kentucky. At the time Wayne and Duane Murty stood the likes of Bold Ruler’s son Top Command.

“Not big names, and I was more into mares and foals really,” Barry recalls. “When I first started that’s what I wanted to do. I’d be lost now in a broodmare barn, veterinary work is so much more advanced: back in my time you palped them and hoped! Anyway I worked the stallion barn for the Murtys, I was always being pushed that way because they needed someone capable of handling them.”

And, actually, that was pretty much how he came to be hired by Coolmore: he was 28, strong and fearless, and equal to a feisty young stallion.

“They had Storm Bird here at the time,” he explains. “He was a bit of a boy and they needed someone to handle him. So I hired on here as stallion manager in 1985. That was the year he had Storm Cat running from his first crop. He finished second [by a nose to Tasso] in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, if he’d won he was gone to Japan.”

What dynasties Barry has helped to establish since then! He has worked on the most intimate scale imaginable with some of the great patriarchs of the modern breed. And while the essence of the whole job could not be more timeless, his career has meanwhile spanned sophisticated advances in the workplace: from veterinarian input to ventilation.

“The breeding shed alone,” he agrees. “It’s a castle compared to what we had when I came here. A black metal shed, and if it was 80 degrees outside it was 100 in the shed. Forty mares was a full book when I started, but we were still as busy then as we are today, because we were breeding the same mare maybe three times in a heat cycle.”

Besides Storm Bird, Barry started out with El Gran Senor–a horse he still cherishes as much as any since under his care.

“He was with me the longest, and an absolute pet,” he says affectionately. “Never gave me any trouble. Apart from the fact that he had a fertility problem! But he was a grand horse, gorgeous, I loved him. He was the opposite of Storm Bird, a child could handle him. Then Woodman came over the June of the first year we were here, he was much the same.

“Seattle Dancer was pretty quiet, too, though he was a funny horse. He’d keep you in the shed an hour in the morning. Yet by the evening, last mare of the day, he was an antichrist, he’d be coming in that door gangbusters. But he wasn’t a morning person at all. Afternoon and evening, 35 seconds he’d be in and out, but mornings you had to let him figure it out. That’s just the way he was.”

Such are the priceless insights obtained through daily proximity into the humble, animal qualities that accompany equine greatness, be it achieved on the track or off it. And it’s that intimate bond, horseman to horse, that is key to this job: figuring out what makes each stallion tick as an individual, with all his quirks and insecurities.

The layman will often hear traits associated with the stock from particular lines. “But at one time we had eight grandsons of Storm Bird standing up there, and I only had one bad actor among them all,” Barry reflects. “And he wasn’t that bad as far as I was concerned. He was tough, put it that way. Some of the others were tough too, but they were quiet animals.

“You’re going to get some bad horses. But there are very few that are born mean. Generally they’re pretty quiet. I’ve had horses come in here with warnings and they’re quiet as lambs. They don’t come in to be mean, so you don’t make them mean.  You’ve got horses like Thunder Gulch, Dehere, [American] Pharoah, you raise your voice you’d hurt their feelings. But you’ve also got horses–like Storm Bird himself, Black Minnaloushe was another–they would get you if you gave them half a chance. Storm Bird got everybody that worked with him, including me: got me right there on the shoulder one night in the breeding shed.”

But remember that Barry did not “start” that horse, who was already seven when he took him on.

“You can train an animal to do just about anything,” he insists. “All it takes is patience. They’re all different. And every mare is different, too. Treat people as you find them, and horses the same.”

Nor is it as though a particular disposition, for good or ill, denotes any kind of genetic potency.

“Otherwise we’d all be breeding for a certain type of temperament,” Barry notes. “As it is, you had Halo, a renowned bad actor and a very successful stallion. And you have others without a mean bone in their body. Munnings, nobody expected him to turn into what he has, he’s as quiet as a lamb. Giant’s Causeway was okay. He was tough, not a horse that liked to be messed with: a ‘manly’ horse, that’s the word. Though he hated the needle, absolutely despised it!”

Given the vivid theater of the breeding shed, and the inferences available from human experience, there is one aspect of a stallion’s temperament guaranteed to invite curiosity: libido.

Barry witnessed the notorious celibate tendencies of Seattle Slew when he took boarding mares from Murty Farm to Spendthrift. “I was in the shed one day with him and three other mares and the teaser, and we all went home without getting bred,” he says. “It was a nightmare. And yes, you do get your horses that are slow to breed, absolutely. Sometimes I send them up to the broodmare barn and let them live with the mares a couple of weeks, it can just get them going. They all have their trigger. Ninety percent of them, though, once they figure out what you want them to do, they’re good to go. Especially when they’re young, they’re like teenagers, there’s no stopping them once they get into it: they forget about racetrack and everything else.”

So come on then, tell us: who was the most ardent lover of them all?

“Shanghai Bobby jumps to mind,” Barry replies. “You’d open the doors and through he came, and you’d better have that the mare ready. He went straight to that mare and bred her and was walking out before you had the chance to close the doors after him. He’d keel over before he’d refuse a mare. He’s the only horse I’ve ever been around that got so excited that he forgot to ejaculate! But a lovely horse.”

But if there are many moments of humor, Barry and his team never lose sight of the fact that things can go badly wrong if you drop your guard.

“Yes, and very quickly,” he says. “So we all look out for each other. Horses can get tired, and men too. You have to trust the guy next to you. There are three of us here who’ve been together for years, and the young fellers just switch in and out. And with time we will each of us get like ‘that’ with particular horses.”

He entwines his fingers to show the tightness of that bond.

“It’s all training,” he emphasizes. “If you can start a horse, it’s constant training until they don’t know any different. All those stallions up there, we’ve had since they were 4-year-olds, or backend 3-year-olds. They know they’re supposed to do what they’re told, and that’s it, there’s no grey area. It’s attitude. And it’s the same with the guys, over the years I’ve trained most of them up. The guy that’s running the place now was a kid when he came in here. And all that makes me feel lucky in the job I have. Office work and all that, they can keep. I do what I do. I like hands on a horse.”

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