John Sunderland

published: 04 Feb 2013 in Personality profiles

A decision to remain in Australia after his first visit more than 20 years ago has proven the right one for Irishman John Sunderland and, thanks to the support of “wonderful people” in the thoroughbred industry who have helped him along the way, he is now the general manager of Darley’s Woodlands Stud operation at Denman.

JOHN Sunderland first set foot on Australian soil in January 1990 when he accompanied horses bound for the Gold Coast Magic Millions Yearling Sale across the Tasman from Field House Stud at Matamata in NZ. He was only 21 and that trip proved a pivotal point in his life because, during his days at the Magic Millions, he came to visualise a future in Australia’s thoroughbred industry.
  So instead of returning home to Ireland for what would have been a third breeding season at Coolmore in County Tipperary, John decided to stay “down under” and begin working with the late David Bath at Bhima Stud at Scone. His time at Bhima was followed by a couple of years in Queensland and seven years with the Mitchell family at Yarraman Park.
  At the beginning of 2003 he joined Darley as stud manager at Kelvinside, at Aberdeen, before moving to Woodlands, at Denman, where he is general manager. During the period from his time at Bhima, John, a happily married father of two, has become a well-known and highly respected personality in the business and he is eternally grateful for the opportunities he has received since gambling on his future more than 20 years ago.
  “I believe I’ve been very lucky, very fortunate the way my life has evolved in Australia,” he said. “I’ve been looked after by some wonderful people and now I really feel strongly about trying to give something back. “For the past few years I’ve been on the committee of the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and I’m passionate about trying to help and educate the young people coming through. We’ve been developing programs for educating people about the thoroughbred industry and encouraging them to become involved. I think that is vitally important, because it is much harder now to encourage boys and girls off the land to come and work in the industry than it was when I started out.
  “It’s even harder in the Hunter Valley because we are having to contend with the mining, which besides competing against us for workers, is presenting a serious on-going threat to our industry. However there is strength in numbers and if we can all work together, as we have been, then we can overcome the obstacles confronting the industry as we go forward.”
  Like most others deeply immersed in the world of the thoroughbred and possessing a concern for what lies ahead, John’s association with horses began at a young age. Born in Wexford in the southeast corner of Ireland, an area bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on another by the Irish Sea, his father John played a significant role in his early development. Although his father and mother Joan were publicans, John senior had grown up working with horses.
  “In his era horses were used to work the land. My father would work the horses during the week and then take them hunting at the weekend. He was always very encouraging, and from the time I was around nine or ten I had ponies and I’d go show jumping and compete in cross country events most weekends.”
  With his interest blossoming, he started going to the stables of renowned national hunt trainer Paddy Mullins on weekends and during his school holidays from St Peters College. John remembers “sneaking out from class” to watch on television, as the Mullins-trained Dawn Run won jumps racing’s most prestigious race, the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, in March 1986. “I’d been up at the stables at Christmas time when Dawn Run was just beginning to hit her straps. One of my earliest thrills was riding her from the stables to the gallops one morning, but I was quickly taken off when the real track work began. 
I just knew she was going to be hard to beat in the Gold Cup . . . I really wanted to see how she went, but my little escapade cost me a couple of days detention.”
  That early experience led to John beginning to work for Mullins, who was based at Goresbridge in County Kilkenny, once he finished his schooling. At that stage he had aspirations to become a national hunt jockey, but soon realised that was a pipe dream when he found the riders he came across were much shorter and much lighter than he was.
  “While jumps racing was their business they bred some horses at Gorsebridge and that’s when I began to gravitate to that side of things,” he said. After spending about 15 months with Paddy Mullins, John’s interest in breeding was further piqued in 1988 when he secured a position at Coolmore as a general hand on the stud and at the broodmare sales. “It was around the time Lomond was the Leading First Season Sire and Caerleon was second to him. Sadler’s Wells was the young stallion just beginning his career.”
  Once his first breeding season at Coolmore was over John ventured down to Field House Stud at Matamata where Ray Knight was manager and the likes of Grosvenor, Guns of Navarone and Golden Slipper winner Full On Aces were standing. Following another season at Coolmore when he looked after the broodmares and foalings John returned to Field House.
  “It was when the public companies had been buying up stud farms throughout Australasia, but it was an era that was coming to an end. I went to the Magic Millions yearling sales at the Gold Coast with Field House and there were horses in the draft from Bhima Stud. The connection had come about because David Bath had quite a few of the Bhima horses at Field House.
  “I felt the prospects were good in Australia and after the Magic Millions sales in January 1990 I began working at Bhima, rather than going back to Ireland. 
I am eternally grateful for the opportunity David gave me. He was the one responsible for sponsoring my visa and for me gaining permanent residency in Australia, so he really set me on my way.”
  In 1992 when Vatana Farm was established at Wyreema near Toowoomba on Queensland’s Darling Downs, John left Bhima to join the operation as stud manager. The farm was standing the Adraan horse Bataan who had been co-Champion Australian Two Year-Old Colt of 1986, and the Caulfield Guineas winner Beechcraft who had coincidentally previously been at Field House Stud.
  “It was a nice property and we developed it into a going concern,” he said. “My brother Myles did a brief stint in Queensland before going down to work at Yarraman Park. In just one generation my whole family has become involved in the thoroughbred industry. Myles is now a trainer in Ireland, another brother Simon owns a number of horses, my sisters are now avid racegoers and my mother, who had no real interest in horses, spends a lot of time washing and ironing racing colours as well as going to the races as often as she can.”
  On leaving Vatana Farm John was appointed stud manager at Yarraman Park, which had been founded by champion jockey George Moore in 1958. It had been taken over 10 years later by the Mitchell family and they stood Bureaucracy (NZ), Desert Style (IRE), Forest Glow (USA) and Monongahela (USA) when John signed up. Spectrum (IRE) was later added to the roster and the stud scored quite a coup in 2000 when the Mitchell family clinched a deal to stand the Danehill (USA) horse Catbird, who had won the Golden Slipper a year earlier. In 2002 the brilliant multiple stakeswinning Zeditave horse Magic Albert was secured to stand at Yarraman Park, but by then John had gone back to Ireland.
  “All the while I was there Arthur, his wife Kirsty, Harry and his wife Georgie and the Major were very good to work with, and they treated me like family. The Mitchells are very much hands-on people and working at Yarraman gave me a great insight into how things are done in Australia, so I learned a lot while 
I was there.
  “Importantly, Yarraman Park was entering a new progressive era and was on the upward spiral that has made it into the successful farm that it is today. Arthur and Harry had not long taken over the reins of the farm and were keen on building its reputation. It was a great learning curve being part of that, with the diversity of standing both local and shuttle stallions, going to yearling sales, trading mares, and developing and maintaining a client base.”
  John says another interesting element at Yarraman was the spelling and pre-training, which was done for Arthur and Harry’s brother Bill and later on for prominent owner Alan Bell. “Among the top flight horses that came through the system were Kenwood Melody, Dignity Dancer and Grand Armee, but one of the most memorable for me was a filly called Snippets’ Lass, who had chronic feet issues. Despite that she still won the Sapphire Stakes before going on to become the dam of Snitzel, Viennese who was later bought and raced by Darley, and Hinchinbrook who is now standing at Yarraman Park.”
  Other benefits included the valuable information about the health and wellbeing of horses that John learned from the stud’s veterinarian Peter Gorman as well as the instruction on administration and the running of an office he received from Jilly Henderson. “I was there for seven fantastic years but, still being a single man, I decided I wanted to rediscover my homeland and to see something of the rest of the world,” he said. “After travelling around Ireland I went across to the Keeneland September sales where I spent time inspecting and short-listing yearlings for prominent American agent Peter Bradley. That was an amazing experience.”
  About eight months after leaving Yarraman Park, Georgie Mitchell rang John to tell him the position of stud manager for Darley at Kelvinside was open. Following a conversation with the then general manager Oliver Tait, John arrived back in Australia at the beginning of 2003 with the task of overseeing the development of the newly acquired property at Aberdeen. Originally part of the extensive Segenhoe Estate, Kelvinside had been used primarily for cattle and cropping, but over the years had been gradually reduced in size before being bought by former jockey Hilton Cope and his wife Marilyn in 1974. Following their purchase of the property, which had fallen into disrepair, the Copes restored Kelvinside to immaculate condition leading up to the takeover by Darley.
  “It is a wonderful piece of land and I was very fortunate to be in a position to be involved right at the beginning, with someone like Sheikh Mohammed supporting the project. I doubt if everything could have been ready for the season without Sheikh Mohammed’s backing and vision. We only started building in January and we needed to have everything ready by August when the stallions arrived, and everything was finished in time.”
  Signalling the influence the Sheikh and Darley were to have on the Australian thoroughbred industry, that first season’s roster featured Carnegie (IRE), Elusive Quality (USA) and Street Cry (IRE). “The first night they were all in the barn was a great thrill,” John said. “We’d spent eight months building it and to have the horses of the quality who had arrived all settled in and happy when we walked through the barn was a brilliant feeling.”
  As Kelvinside’s place in Sheikh Mohammed’s vast empire was evolving, John met Melanie Hill who was deputy keeper of the Australian Stud Book, and a romance flourished. They were married in 2005 and now have two children, Darcy, 5, and Ineke, 4. “We’ve gone back home to Ireland as a family but we‘re very happy and settled here,” John said.
  In 2006 Darley’s operations spread into Victoria when Northwood Park at Seymour was bought from racing identity Barrie Griffiths and his wife Midge. Situated on the Goulburn River, Northwood Park had been established as a thoroughbred breeding ground back in 1902, and among the notable horses bred there was the 1925 Melbourne Cup winner Windbag. Then in 2008, in what was as a surprise to most industry aficionados, Sheikh Mohammed expanded his holdings in dramatic fashion by buying out the Ingham family’s massive Woodlands Stud Syndicate. The portfolio included stallions, headlined by Lonhro and Commands, broodmares, racehorses and young stock as well as studs at Denman and Cootamundra.
  Another property with a long history, the Woodlands base at Denman in the Hunter Valley was set up as a breeding ground as far back as 1824 and had previously included a number of illustrious owners such as George Ryder, who was primarily responsible for the inauguration of the Golden Slipper Stakes. When Peter Flynn who had been running Woodlands retired, John was appointed as the property’s general manager. In that capacity it is his responsibility to run the Denman farm’s 2428ha (6000 acres) and the hundreds of broodmares and young stock gracing its undulating paddocks.
  “We foal down the mares at Woodlands and then walk them in to the stallions at Kelvinside during the season. Woodlands is also the primary home for Darley’s young stock in NSW, and it’s all working very well.” This, in turn, has translated into success on the racetrack. A notable illustration of this came in 2011 when Sepoy’s wins in the Blue Diamond and the Golden Slipper were followed by Helmet’s victories in the AJC Sires’ and Champagne Stakes at Randwick and Benfica’s win in the T.J. Smith in Brisbane.
  “It was quite a feat for Peter Snowden to win the five Gr.1 events for two year-olds with three different horses. Then of course, we raised Pierro and sold him as a weanling, so in some ways it was bittersweet to see him win the Golden Slipper and complete the Sydney Triple Crown. It’s always a great thrill when the horses Darley has bred, or who are carrying Sheikh Mohammed’s colours, are first past the post in the Gr.1 events.”
  As John points out the purchase of the Woodlands operation meant a significant change in direction for Darley. “Previously we were a stallion farm with approximately 150 mares, and their progeny were bred primary to sell at auction; although we were, at that time, keeping a small number to race. Then, suddenly, we had a huge increase in mare numbers and were breeding to race as opposed to breeding to sell, and that meant having a large number of horses in training. 
  “It was, and still is, an exciting and challenging time for us but we have had to reassess our numbers, which involved selling a number of mares and weanlings. We now have our numbers at a satisfactory level and we are fortunate and really spoiled with the amount of land and the facilities we have at our disposal. The process also involved a restructure of the way we use our stud farms and we are now using all farms, including Cootamundra, in a way that best suits the facility and the horses.”
 John says this procedure was clearly demonstrated through Sepoy, who was foaled at Northwood Park, was weaned and raised at Woodlands, broken-in at Kelvinside and spelled there as well as at Northwood Park before taking up stud duties at Aberdeen. While this development was going on John and Mel bought a small property of their own in Aberdeen and had the satisfaction of breeding the multiple Gr.1 winner of $1.2m Secret Admirer, who followed up her AJC Flight Stakes success at three with her victory in the ATC Epsom Handicap at four. She is by Dubawi (IRE)  from the Secret Savings (USA) mare Secret Illusion and after being foaled at Scott and Cathy Irwin’s Rothwell Park, Secret Admirer was sold as a weanling for $38,000 to Jon Freyer acting on behalf of John Muir.
  “Her win in the Epsom was something special. 
John Muir was very generous in letting Mel and myself help lead her in. We’re always trading in mares and we bought Dol, the mother of Mirjulisa Lass, before Mirjulisa Lass won the Gr.1 Storm Queen. 
Now we have a nice two year-old filly by California Dane from Dol, who we are going to race, so hopefully that’s going to be some fun.” n