‘We Back Them Up To The Hilt’: The O’Callaghans on Making Stallions

It is not exactly a state secret that the team at Tally-Ho Stud, to use that old phrase, prefer their horses to do the talking. This could be misconstrued as a lack of friendliness but if you talk to other members of the bloodstock community about Tony and Anne O’Callaghan and their sons Roger and Henry, you will almost certainly hear variations of the phrase “lovely people”.

Indeed, within the family kitchen at the stone farmhouse just a short stretch up from the stallion yard a warm welcome is issued from all four members of the immediate family. Anne has a stroganoff ready for lunch and takes her place at the head of the table as if to referee the debate. But there’s no need for that. 

“Well done for getting into the engine room,” she says with a laugh. In a week or so, the covering shed, with its full schedule of mares visiting the farm’s seven stallions, could perhaps be judged to be the engine room, but the Tally-Ho kitchen, fittingly bedecked with hunting scenes, is clearly where all the important decisions are made.

As Tony talks, directly behind him sit two large monitors with grids of images showing CCTV footage of the foaling boxes and the farm. Twenty-five foals were on the ground by January 27, almost one a day, and that rate will only pick up as the season progresses. 

To an extent, Tally-Ho Stud is known now as a commercially successful stallion operation. But that is only one facet of the place. The O’Callaghans’ sizeable broodmare band of course plays an important part in supporting those stallions, and the two combined have been responsible in creating some notable names, with the farm having been on a particular roll in recent years. 

Group 1 winners Campanelle (Ire), Fairyland (Ire), The Platinum Queen (Ire), Perfect Power (Ire) and Ebro River (Ire) are backed up by Malavath (Ire), Knight (Ire), Kessaar (Ire), Ardad (Ire), Lusail (Ire), and Caturra (Ire). All bar one of those named are by the Tally-Ho stallions Kodiac (GB), Mehmas (Ire), Cotai Glory (GB), and Galileo Gold (GB), though the latter has just moved to Haras de Bouquetot for this season. The exception in the list is Perfect Power, who is by Overbury Stud’s Ardad, but as his sire was bred at Tally-Ho, the bragging rights remain strong.

You won’t hear a lot of bragging in this corner of Co Westmeath, however. As the conversation begins, naturally the first subject is Kodiac, the de facto king of Tally-Ho. Of his arrival at the stud some 17 years ago, Tony reflects, “I’d say we’ve been lucky. Then we kind of followed Danehill big time. And I suppose that was a result of Kodiac coming in.”

While Roger adds sagely, “And we’ve learned from our mistakes.”

Their selection of stallions, Tony says, is “A gut feeling as much as anything. We always like the two-year-olds. The two-year-olds only have to compete against themselves, which makes it easier.”

Recruiting the non-stakes winning but well-bred Kodiac in the year his half-brother Invincible Spirit made a lighting start with his first two-year-old runners, was, in hindsight, an easy decision.

“When he came out the door, we liked him straight away. I’ll always remember that,” says Roger, recalling a visit to John Dunlop’s Arundel stable.

“Big arse on him, and square,” adds Tony. 

“He’d shown nice form. He was competing in very good races. He’d only been beaten two lengths in a Group 1 [Prix Maurice de Gheest]. We paid what they asked for him on the day. We didn’t haggle one bit; we just said we’d take him. And John Dunlop was very disappointed at the time because he wanted another year to compete in Group 1s.”

There follows a brief debate as to the number of two-year-old winners Kodiac had in one year when setting a new world record. The answer is 61, in 2017, seven more than Deep Impact (Jpn) notched in that same year. Kodiac’s reputation has been hewn by his tendency to produce precocious offspring, and Anne points to another important factor.

“His temperament,” she says. “And the fact that the trainers hooked onto him very early on, and the breeze-up boys. [His stock] were so biddable, and winning, and wanted to give that extra inch.”

Presently, at least ten sons of Kodiac are at stud around the world, one as far afield as Maryland, USA, another right on the doorstep in the homebred Kessaar, who is now up to 25 winners as his first crop of runners turn three. 

Kodiac has had an emphatic influence on Tally-Ho Stud. “He built most of this,” says Roger, wafting his arms around the yard during an earlier stallion parade. At 22, he is the venerable veteran of the team, with another upwardly mobile stallion now snapping at his heels. It has been hard to ignore Mehmas (Ire), who set his own record when becoming the most prolific European first-season sire with 55 winners in 2020, a tally that puts him only behind Kodiac as the most successful sire of juveniles. 

“Incredible,” is how Tony describes the son of Acclamation (GB), a graduate of the breeze-up system which plays such an important role in spruiking young stallions, and sometimes the opposite.

“The breeze-up boys do all the promoting,” says Anne. “And the jungle drums do most of the talking for you. I mean, if the Chinese whispers are good, you don’t need to say any more.”

Her husband is quick to remind us that for every successful stallion, there are plenty that don’t work out. “They hated Bushranger,” he states. “And we suffered for it. His career ended by 15 April. Ten of them had run, eight of them had started favourite, and not one finished in the first three. He covered mares for the rest of the season and he didn’t get one the following year. Not one mare. It’s like you turned off the tap.”

We back the stock in the sales, too. We go and look at them often. If we like them any bit at all, we try and buy them. Sometimes too much. But the heart is stupid

As one who has been around horses all his life, he takes a fatalistic view to the inevitability that not every stallion that walks through the gate will end up being held in the same regard as Kodiac. Plenty will end up quietly moving on. Some, sadly, such as Danetime (Ire), Red Clubs (Ire) and Society Rock (Ire), will die young. 

“If they haven’t enough mobility, you have to accept it,” says Tony. “You just have to agree, and then you have to look at the next three years’ work out in the field. You go to the sales and people just walk past the door. We had it with Morpheus and with Bushranger. That’s the hardest part.”

He adds, “But we like to back them. Oh, we back them up to the hilt until they…”

“Kick us in the arse,” interjects Roger.

Tony continues, “We back the stock in the sales, too. We go and look at them often. If we like them any bit at all, we try and buy them. Sometimes too much. But the heart is stupid.”

Often enough, the O’Callaghans will find themselves in competition either at the sales or in the running to buy a stallion with members of their own family. Tony’s brother Gay and his wife Annette run another highly successful stallion business at Yeomanstown Stud with their sons David and Robert, with two more sons, Peter and Guy, at the helm, respectively, of Woods Edge Farm in Kentucky and Ireland’s Grangemore Stud. Another two of Tony’s brothers, Noel and Pat, are also successful breeders. 

Anne, meanwhile, brings a classy distaff lineage to the operation. Her late father Tom Magnier owned Grange Stud, home to the great National Hunt sire Cottage (Ire), and her mother Evie Stockwell was a committed breeder in her own right until her passing last September. Most readers of this publication will be aware of the significant role Anne’s brother John Magnier has played within the business for many years.

“We go into the sales and we bid away,” says Tony in his matter-of-fact manner. “We could be bidding against brothers. There’s no doubt about it, in-laws and brothers are always sure to be the opposition.”

The commercial feel of the stallion roster, which also includes the promising Cotai Glory, Inns Of Court (Ire), who is about to have his first runners, Starman (GB) with first foals, and new arrival Persian Force (Ire), is largely matched by the profile of the broodmare band.

Tony explains the necessity of this situation. “Look, the Classics are all basically between Coolmore, Juddmonte, Darley, Shadwell, the Aga Khan, and a few others. It’s very hard to compete. We just step outside that and work away grand.”

He adds of his farm, which was the birthplace of the 1972 Prix du Jockey Club winner Hard To Beat (Ire) among others, “The Classic winners were bred in Tally-Ho before we got it. There could’ve been 60 mares here back in the ’50s or ’60s. There was, I think, three or four Leger winners bred here, Guineas winners, 1,000, 2,000. I don’t know if there was the Derby winner, but there was a whole heap of good horses bred here.”

It is a situation that persists.

“We just keep reinvesting in mares, trying to get better mares. That’s all there is. Some work, and some don’t,” says Anne modestly. She is considered to have a sixth sense when it comes to the mares being about to foal and is, like her husband and sons, fully immersed in every aspect of the business.

“It’s all hands to the pump, should it be needed,” she adds. 

Roger illustrates the point with a recent anecdote. He says, “A mare foaled the night before last, and the foal was coming backwards. So there was Mum, Dad, Henry, myself, my wife, and the night girl, and the vet. We were all there. We got it out, but we were all involved.”

His mother continues, “It’s all about a team, it’s not just one person. It’s a team effort and we try and weave our way through.”

Henry, widely known as ‘the quiet one’ but very much worth listening to, temporarily escaped that team. Depending on which of his parents you listen to, he did and didn’t enjoy his seven-year stint in the world of banking and insolvency. 

“He didn’t like it one bit,” says Tony, while Anne counters, “It was interesting,” and Roger chimes in with, “He keeps an eye on us now.”

Henry himself says, “Ah, sure, I didn’t mind it either.” But it is easy to see that he is happy to be back among the fold. 

The team ethos referenced by Anne starts with the matings.

“There’d be a debate at the stocks for about ten seconds,” Roger says.

Insinct, it would seem, rules over scholarly research, but then information gleaned from decades of working hands-on with the stock leads to its own special brand of knowledge; the kind which can’t be read in books.

“We try and match what we think would be right,” notes Tony. “But we wouldn’t spend two days discussing it now.”

Anne, as intuitive as any member of the team, adds, “It’s like when you see a horse coming out of the stable, it’s your first impression really. And if it doesn’t float your boat…And it’s the same with the coverings, they make up their mind that they’re going to cover it with X.”

Roger admits that from time to time disagreements can occur, but one senses they are quickly dissipated. 

His mother, in her calm way, adds, “When you still have to work together, and we’re so involved, it’s up to all of us to give a little bit, take a little bit.”

And Henry agrees. “Ultimately, we only want what’s best and we treat every horse like it’s our own, so it’s only coming from a good place.”

They all admit that the horse business – from mares, to foals, yearlings, breezers, and stallions – is their sole focus. 

“It’s all we do,” says Tony. 

Fortunately, they do it rather well. Last year Anne joined her brother in the ITBA Hall of Fame when she was inducted alongside her husband. It was an award widely applauded by those who do business with Tally-Ho Stud, year in, and year out.

“Well, we like breeding winners, sure, we like that,” says Tony, still looking a little embarrassed at such public recognition. 

Anne adds, “It was most unexpected. It was a good feeling, and it makes you realise that the effort you put in has been worth it. To get a proper winner, or even the award. But as I said it was most unexpected. It’s nice to be acknowledged by your peers, though, isn’t it?”

It is almost certainly not the last time that the name Tally-Ho Stud will be listed among award winners, especially with a burgeoning roster of young stallions to complement the older guard, along with well-stocked fields of mares. However successful Mehmas or any of those following through become though, it will be hard to topple Kodiac in the family’s affections.

“He’ll always be king,” says Tony. “He would be our king, anyway. We’ll be forever grateful.”

The post ‘We Back Them Up To The Hilt’: The O’Callaghans on Making Stallions appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.