Darren Thomas

published: 10 Dec 2013 in Personality profiles

Cornerstone Stud is building on the wonderful legacy of Lindsay Park and South Australian businessman Darren Thomas is at the heart of this revival, backing Sam Hayes in a partnership that could return the stud to the glory days experienced under the stewardship of Sam’s grandfather, legendary trainer and stud master Colin Hayes.

SIX years ago, with his family’s business humming along, Darren Thomas decided to seriously escalate his investment in the thoroughbred industry. The chief executive officer of Thomas Foods International, Darren until then had little experience of the horse business although he had been dabbling on the fringes as an owner and a client of Lindsay Park’s racing stables at Angaston in the Barossa Valley.

At that stage David Hayes was still in Hong Kong, Tony McEvoy was the group’s designated trainer, and Mark Pilkington was a valued advisor. However, it was a friendship forged with Sam Hayes, who was running the breeding side of Lindsay Park’s operation, that became the catalyst for Darren.

A grandson of the legendary trainer and Lindsay Park founder Colin Hayes, Sam was seeking a partner and had turned to Darren for advice. After considering the matter Darren decided a partnership with Sam presented an exciting opportunity and an agreement was finalised.

Darren had some doubts about his move when the world’s financial system collapsed, but after negotiating some difficult times the stud, now named Cornerstone, is on its way back to the glory days. During the 2013 season Cornerstone stood eight stallions including the Aga Khan’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Dalakhani, a move Darren sees as a stamp of approval. “I think it is a positive that the Aga Khan, who is one of the world’s foremost thoroughbred breeders, entrusted a horse like Dalakhani to us,” he said. “The response to Dalakhani was fantastic and that has shown us that breeders from other states will send their horses to South Australia, if we have the right stallions. We were also very pleased when Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Australia agreed to stand such a well performed horse as Ambidexter under our banner.”

Along the way, by accepting the advice of Mark Pilkington and others, Darren has been making some astute purchases in his own right. These buys include securing the dams of MRC Sir Rupert Clarke Stakes-Gr.1 (1400m) winner Moment of Change and ATC The Galaxy-Gr.1 (1100m) winner Bel Sprinter.

“We know the property has a history of breeding some very good horses and we feel that we can replicate that by building a sustainable band of broodmares. We are certainly not going to be the biggest stud in Australia but we feel we can become an important player by standing quality stallions, having quality broodmares and providing high quality service for our clients.”

Although he admits he is “far from an expert” Darren says he found adapting to dealing with thoroughbred bloodstock after working with livestock “fairly easy”. “I’ve always felt I had the best of both worlds growing up through my father’s work in the livestock industry,” says Darren, who was born in Adelaide. “When I was young I spent a lot of time in the rural parts of Australia with my father who was a livestock buyer.”

After doing his early schooling in the Adelaide hills where the Thomas’s had the family home, he underwent his secondary education at the Westminster School in the southwest Adelaide suburb of Marion. From there Darren went to the University of South Australia where he completed an accounting degree and then he went on to secure his Masters of Business Administration at Adelaide University.

“I’d worked for my father prior to finishing school and then, during my university years, I worked pretty much in the business. I started from the ground up, working in our processing facilities at a place called Jeff’s Crossing and at Norlunga.”

It was almost always a given that he would follow his father Chris into the company, which was then known as T&R Pastoral, so once he finished his university degree he became a livestock buyer.

“I was based in the south-east of the South Australia, in the Naracoorte, Mt Gambier region. I remember one Monday morning I was told to pack my bags because I was off to Naracoorte that following day. I was there for seven or eight years buying livestock, because that’s what our business was about at that stage. We were buying stock all over Australia and it was one of the regions where we could buy quality livestock and we needed more coverage in the area.”

However, with Naracoorte being 338km from Adelaide the transfer did not help a promising football career as a halfback or an on-baller. At first he played for South Adelaide, where he had started as a junior, in the South Australian Football League and then later he transferred to Sturt.

“I was driving back and forth from Naracoorte to Adelaide trying to manage playing football and buying livestock. There were a lot of early mornings and a lot of kilometres driven, trying to combine them both. “Eventually I had to retire from playing with Sturt, in about 1995 or 1996, because my work commitments and the kilometres I was driving just weren’t sustainable. After that I played for a few years with University Blacks, which was slightly different and I had a wonderful time.”

Now, looking back, Darren says playing football taught him valuable lessons. “I learned a lot about the way teams are managed and how team work is so important,” he said. “Also, it taught me everyone is different and each player or person needs to be treated differently to get the best out of them. It’s experience I have drawn on during my working career.”

During those livestock buying and football playing days Darren was developing an interest in the horse industry. “I suppose when I was about 16 I had a friend whose father was a keen follower of the races from a punting point of view,” he said. “Also I had developed a love of the horse through the Rowe family, who were our partners in those days. They were heavily involved in the horses, but more so on the equestrian side of things.

“In his younger days, when he had been 18 or 19, Chris (Thomas) had auctioned yearlings at Wayville for Coles Bros under David Coles. Although Chris didn’t have any great passion for racing he had been a partner with friends in a racehorse or two. I think I developed an appreciation of the animal and as I grew older I became more involved and had a horse or two myself.”

The first of these was the Blazing Saddles gelding Target who was trained by Russell Cameron. It was an encouraging beginning with Target winning six races in Adelaide including five in the 1994-95 season. “Steven Arnold was apprenticed to Russell and Target helped Steven get on his way to becoming a successful jockey. We also had a half-brother to the multiple Gr.1 winner Mummify who was absolutely hopeless, but it was a thrill knowing we had a half-brother to such a good horse.”

Then around the time of his marriage, he and wife Michelle now have three children Jack, 12, Chloe, 10, and Ned, eight, Darren moved back to the city. “Obviously my situation and the company’s situation has changed as the years have gone on and that has required a different level of involvement,” Darren said. “I started becoming more involved in the running of the business and doing a lot more international travel.

“These days you can name a country and I will have been there, but predominantly I travelled to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the United States and into Japan and China. I’ve got a saying that I’ve been everywhere and seen nothing because I am always in and out in a very restricted time frame.”

His total commitment led through his appointment as chief executive officer of T&R Pastoral in 2002. His father, who had founded the firm with Bob Rowe in 1988, continued on as managing director and is still an active participant these days in his role as chairman of what has become Thomas Foods International from March 2013 and is Australia’s third largest red meat processor (the Thomas family assumed outright ownership of the business in 2008). The company, which has its headquarters at Murray Bridge 80km south east of Adelaide, generates its revenue from meat production, and exports to more than 80 countries.

Although around 2500 people are employed throughout its operations, which places ever-increasing demands on Darren, he has found, particularly in more recent years, that he has been able to expand his involvement in the thoroughbred industry. It was an extension which began when he became a client of Lindsay Park in the opening years of the century, while David Hayes was still training in Hong Kong.

“I’d been introduced to Mark Pilkington who has been very good to me, and Pilko is now a very good friend. I met Tony McEvoy through a mutual friend and later I met Sam Haye who was fulfilling a marketing role for Lindsay Park. Anyway Sam and I, who are around the same age, hit it off straight away and everything has gone on from there.”

Darren’s enthusiasm for the thoroughbred industry was further tweaked when he had two notable successes with early purchases. These were with Husson Lightning, by Hussonet (USA) a sire who was later to join the Cornerstone Stud roster, and Sistine Angel, who is a daughter of Peintre Celebre (USA).

A $160,000 buy through Mark Pilkington Bloodstock at the 2006 Gold Coast Magic Millions Sale, Husson Lightning won the VRC Maribyrnong Plate-Gr.3 (1000m) at Flemington at his first outing. He went on to finish a very close second to Mimi Lebrock in the 2007 Magic Millions Two Year-Old Classic-RL (1200m) as well as running second to Shaft in the STC Silver Slipper Stakes-Gr.2 (1100m).

Sistine Angel, who this year dropped a colt foal by So You Think, was bought for $60,000 in the name of her trainer Andrew Noblet. She went on to prove herself a high class performer with her wins featuring the VRC Edward Manifold Stakes-Gr.2 (1600m) and the MRC McNeil Stakes-Gr.3 (1200m) in 2010. Sistine Angel’s other efforts included a second to Black Caviar in the SAJC Robert Sangster Stakes-Gr.1 (1200m) at Morphettville.

“That’s a story in itself,” Darren said. “Andrew is the brother of an old mate of mine and I remember meeting him when he was working for Leon Macdonald. Andrew’s ambition was to become a trainer and I told him that one day I’d be more than happy to give him a horse. I was only in my teens at the time but we remained friends and some years later I was able to fulfil that commitment and our first horse together was Sistine Angel.”

His winning streak is continuing with the import Le Roi (GER) and the Not a Single Doubt two year-old Risen From Doubt, who carry Tony McEvoy’s stable colours, and the three year-old Gregers who is with David Hayes. Le Roi showed his ability by winning last December’s ATC Summer Cup-Gr.3 (2400m), while Risen From Doubt, who was bought for $140,000 by Hancock Quality Bloodstock, easily won the VRC Maribyrnong Trial-LR (1000m) at his debut.

A daughter of Commands who was knocked down to Lindsay Park Racing for $130,000, Gregers scored her fourth win in the MRC Tranquil Star Stakes-Gr.2 (1400m) before finishing third behind Guelph and May’s Dream in the MRC 1000 Guineas-Gr.1 (1600m). There are others waiting in the wings including a colt by Redoute’s Choice bought for $1.2m at this year’s Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale. He is from the multiple Group-winning mare Scandinavia, who besides being the mother of Magnus and Wilander is the second dam of Black Caviar and All Too Hard.

It had been about 12 months after Husson Lightning’s Magic Millions that David Hayes expressed his intention of concentrating on training rather than continuing in the breeding side of Lindsay Park’s activities and Sam had begun looking around for a partner.

“I started working through that with him,” Darren said. “As time went on I’d developed a further passion for the industry and I eventually asked Sam how it would be if I went into the stud with him. I obviously had enough commitments in my day-to-day job but I was certain I could add something to the business. It was literally just a couple of months before the global financial crisis, so the first years were very, very tough, but that’s how it all came about. I was mentoring Sam and in the end it became apparent it was a great opportunity and I felt I was up to the challenge.”

As Darren says the property has a long and distinguished history but it was evident that some reinvigoration was needed. Since then, as the majority shareholder, he has been working closely with Sam and his right-hand man David Burke. “I make the time for the stud and I am heavily involved,” Darren said. “I’d speak to Sam or David two or three times a day.”

The plans for the stud were soon put in place and a strategy outlining the company’s goals, which revolved around maintaining a national presence while fostering growth within South Australia, was put in place. The new parameters also acknowledged the importance of attracting mares from interstate as well as the need to encourage local breeders to upgrade their mares and to encourage new breeders into the industry.

As this plan was coming to fruition the directors decided in May of 2011 to change the name of the operation from Lindsay Park Stud to Cornerstone Stud. “The letters of the stud are, unintentionally, quite a mark of respect for Colin Hayes as he was universally known as C.S.,” Darren said. “We believe that we are heading in the right direction and that the change of name signalled the start of a new era for the property.”

Then in June this year Darren bought the 151ha (375 acres) of Lindsay Park, the stud also leases another 121ha (300 acres) nearby, on which Cornerstone is based. “Now that we’ve bought this land we are virtually the masters of our own destiny. It is about the right size for us and now we will continue to look to grow the business organically.

“Also there is a lot of history, with the property being part of the early township of Angaston. Many of the stables, which have either been converted into stallion barns or day boxes are actually some of the buildings constructed in the mid-1800s, so there is quite a bit of history there.”

The purchase provided a confidence-booster for the 2013 breeding season with the stud standing Hussonet, Dalakhani, Good Journey, Reann, Ambidexter, Barely a Moment, De Beers, Super Kid and Shrewd Rhythm. “We feel it has been a further tick of approval for the stud with the Aga Khan agreeing to send Dalakhani to Cornerstone and Sheikh Mohammed sending Ambidexter,” Darren said.

“We realise its not easy to compete against the big international studs, but we have a small very dedicated team at Cornerstone and that enables us to look towards the future with confidence. We are all pretty passionate about what we do and while we had a couple of tough years early on we are pretty proud of where we have reached in a relatively short time.” n