Bobby Zen

It is just over a month since Dermot Cantillon and Meta Osborne were inducted into the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association Hall Of Fame at a memorable awards ceremony at the Heritage Hotel.

Described as a “power couple” in the awards booklet, rarely are the Tinnakill House Stud owners seen without each other. After an hour spent in their company at their home near Forenaghts Stud in County Kildare, it is easy to see why Meta and Dermot have risen to many of the challenges that life, and the industry, presents.

“I’m a disruptor and Meta is status quo,” Dermot jokes, although there is a certain element of truth to the statement. You won’t hear Meta and Dermot sitting around telling each other how great they are. Instead, they challenge each other’s way of thinking. 

Despite having no background in racing, Dermot managed Forenaghts Stud for the Smurfit family at a time when their colours were carried to not one but two Melbourne Cup victories thanks to Vintage Crop and Media Puzzle. 

He has also chaired ITM, the Tote, been on many committees and boards, including Goffs, the ITBA and that of his current baby, Naas racecourse. 

Meta is no shrinking violet. A well-respected equine veterinary surgeon, she specialises in mare reproduction. She also became Senior Steward of the Turf Club in 2016, the first woman to hold such a position, and last year completed a Masters in Animal Welfare at the University of Edinburgh.

The couple’s achievements at Tinnakill House Stud are not bad either. Casamento, Alexander Goldrun, Red Evie and State Of Rest are graduates of the County Laois farm. 

Needless to say, Meta and Dermot were thoroughly deserving winners of their Hall Of Fame award. A power couple, indeed.

Dermot and Meta were added to the ITBA Hall Of Fame | Tattersalls Ireland

Brian: A nice light-hearted one to start; I am sure you saw Johnny Murtagh’s comments about prize-money not being good enough in the TDN last week. Given your position at Naas racecourse, Dermot, you might be best qualified to comment on that.

Dermot: He definitely has a point. We need to be getting more money out of the bookmakers. I know they have done deals in Australia where they give back a higher percentage and I think there is leakage in how the money comes back to racing in Ireland and England especially, where dividends go back to big corporations. The biggest worry for me is that we are losing our audience. The crowds are falling away. Now, we do have a new audience, which is a digital audience. We were on holidays in South Africa recently, for example, and we were able to watch Irish racing on television down there. That’s all driven by betting and betting is basically driving what is happening in Britain and Ireland. You can see that yourself through the fixture list. There has been a big increase in the fixture list over time and that reduces quality, gives us more fixtures and creates more money for the bookmakers. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Do you think the racecourses should be putting more money into prize-money? That’s a question we have asked ourselves at Naas racecourse but we have never paid a dividend, which means the money we have made up until now has gone back into the track in other ways. Up until now, we haven’t put any of our resources back into prize-money. There is a huge upkeep into running a racecourse and making constant improvements.

Meta: Part of the issue is that some of the racetracks have legacy debt which they haven’t been able to service and you are always worried that, if this becomes the model, it will always be the model. 

Dermot: One of my biggest issues with Irish racing at the moment is the structure. I mean, it’s totally laid down in stone. In soccer, you have a tiered system-the Championship and the Premier League-, whereas in Irish racing you have certain racecourses that get the big races every single year. There is no incentive to get better because this is your position and you cannot progress.

Brian: I thought Naas showed itself in a great light when it stepped in to stage a number of big races while the Curragh was going through its redevelopment. What would your one big wish be for the track?

Dermot: If HRI asked us to take a Classic if we put €50,000 into it, or offered us a Group 1 if we could go out and get a Group 1 sponsor, but we’re never asked those questions.

Brian: What Group 1 would be best suited to Naas?

Dermot: I think we could easily take the Phoenix Stakes, which has moved around over the years. We’ve 13 Group 1s in Ireland and the Curragh has 11 of those. Leopardstown has the other two. It could be better spread out, like it is in England for example. 

 

Brian: It’s clear that the two of you have very different philosophies; do you think that is a benefit in that you can bounce things off each other and get a different perspective?

Meta: Oh, yes. A better outcome comes from a broader discussion. But sometimes Dermot can get a bit frustrated with my views on things!

Dermot: Meta comes from a Turf Club background–need we say any more?! You can quote me on that!

Meta: I don’t think I subscribed totally to everything the Turf Club stood for, I knew some things needed to change. 

Dermot: You led them for two years!

Meta: I did and we got the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board out of that, which is something I am very proud of. 

 

Dermot: One thing I feel strongly about is that people who lead organisations in racing should come up through the ranks organically but we have gotten away from that in recent times. People who lead should have passion. Passion is not something that you can bring in from the side, it comes from down below.

Brian: Would you agree with that, Meta?

Meta: I would. Passion is the lifeblood, but, again, I can see why that has happened because people are concerned that the funding of the sport will dry up unless we can show that we have people appointed who understand business and finance and corporate governance. 

Dermot: There are plenty of people in the industry who understand business and finance. If you look at the GAA, one of the most magnificent organisations in the world, they have more people playing Gaelic Games outside of Ireland now than they do in the country. But could you imagine the GAA president coming from outside? It would never happen. 

 

Brian: That’s enough of the heavy stuff–let’s lighten the mood! I’ll read out a quote Dermot said at the ITBA Awards. It read, ‘the night I met Meta in Kentucky was the best night of my life.’

Meta: Would you believe, that is 40 years this year…

Dermot: We have our debates and we challenge each other but we do push forward in a united front. We complement each other, for sure.

Brian: What did the award mean and has it sunk in?

Dermot: I was delighted that it was a joint award because that’s the way we have always been perceived within the industry. We have received a lot of positive feedback from people within the industry following the awards. In many ways, we’re not your normal industry people. We’re not as hands on as others. We’ve had success, but we’ve done it in a very balanced way. 

Brian: From the outside looking in, it seems as though there is always an occasion or an event.

Dermot: Yes, and we make no apology for that, we work to live. 

Brian: But do ye switch off or are ye like this, rowing over prize-money, etc on holiday?

Meta: [Laughs]

Dermot: We don’t switch off, we bring it with us, but we know there are other things. 

Meta: We’re going to France next week. We’ve mares boarding over there so we’re looking forward to going over and seeing them.

Dermot: That’s one of the things we love about the industry. We’ve made friends all over the world and we get a good welcome in Australia, America or wherever we go. I used to be very envious of Meta’s Dad when I met him first because he knew people all over the world. It’s funny, now we have replicated that and are proud to say we have friends all over the world in this industry. That’s a great attraction of our industry. But, I have to say, I am worried about the future of the sport.

 

Brian: What’s your biggest worry?

Dermot: It doesn’t have the same gravitas that it used to. At one time, you would have been very proud to be from our industry. Now, you’d want to be picking your audience. That’s a worry. 

Brian: It’s funny you say that because I have been at a lot of weddings recently and, invariably you get talking to people you don’t know and, when it comes to explaining what you do for a living, a lot of the time I’m met with ignorant or sometimes even negative reactions. 

Dermot: When I was your age, people would have been, ‘wow, that is some industry to work in.’ 

Brian: I find myself defending the sport a lot. 

Dermot: That’s the point I’m making. And that’s the worry. Racing in California and other jurisdictions is under threat and what would happen if that went? We have a big trade on fillies especially in Ireland to go specifically to California. If that went, it would have a huge knock-on effect. There are some huge threats out there. Our mindset should be to support the industry as a whole. We shouldn’t view other jurisdictions as rivals. We should all be supporting this industry together. Maybe we should look at having some form of a promotional body worldwide. 

Meta: Vicky Leonard is doing great work with Kick Up For Racing.

 

Brian: I’m going to veer off topic slightly here and bring up the AIB advert that Dermot did in 2008. The premise of the ad was that AIB was backing brave and, in hindsight, they picked a very fitting man to star in the advert.

Dermot: Why, because the guy looks so good in it?!

Brian: More so because you are brave! Ye are never afraid to take a chance on an old mare or whatever it may be. Also, Jack is a chip off the old block. Is it something that you instill in each other?

Meta: Dermot is a gambler at heart. His interest in racing started through the dogs, didn’t it Dermot?

Dermot: Basically, my Dad was a GP in County Waterford. There is a good tradition of point-to-point yards around the area but I didn’t grow up around horses whatsoever. I did agricultural science in college and, I can remember somebody asking me what area I was most interested in, and I couldn’t think of any. That summer, I was working in construction in New York and my brother-in-law had been working as an exchange student over there and, by complete accident, ended up on a stud farm in Kentucky. He knew I liked horses and told me I should visit Kentucky. I did, and I ended up going to graduate school in Kentucky and I ended up managing a stud farm out there. That was despite the fact that, when I first went to Kentucky, I didn’t know whether they bedded the horses on hay or straw! That was my background. Because of that, I suppose I look at things a little bit differently than to those who were brought up with horses. 

Meta: I was going to say on the night of the ITBA Awards that we got Dermot in to bring a bit of hybrid vigour around the place! That’s the running joke we have here. 

Dermot: I was attracted by the risk element of this industry, without question. But the Smurfit family were very good to me from the outset and provided me with a lot of encouragement and also gave me the scope to go and develop my own farm, so I was lucky in that sense. 

 

Brian: While you both are not hands-on at the farm, there’s no doubt that you both work very hard.

Dermot: We do things differently. It might not be the traditional way but it works for us.

Meta: We have top-class staff on the farm and Ian Thompson is a brilliant manager. t’s funny, when he rings us, the first thing he will say is, ‘there are no problems, I’m just ringing because..’ He has equity in plenty of mares so he is invested in the farm. We’d be lost without him. On a personal level, and I think I have gotten this from my father, but I would have a very strong ethos of giving back and spreading knowledge. I’d never be the one for saying ‘well, we know about that trick, so we won’t tell anyone,’ I’d tell the world. There’s so much knowledge out there and my latest project is starting a podcast with an Aussie friend, Karen Luke. It’s called Changing Rein and it’s about human interaction with horses. There is a huge amount of research and information out there so we are looking forward to putting it together for people to consume. Watch this space!

Dermot: On a different note, slightly, but, one of the biggest changes we have noticed since we have come into the game is the rise of the major stallion stud farms. When we first got into the game, there were an awful amount of stud farms with one or two stallions. Most of those farms have gone out of business and now you have a couple of mega farms that dominate the whole thing. A lot of people are being squeezed out and it’s becoming more and more difficult to run what you would have called a traditional stud farm. The people who are really doing well are the ones who have access to the commercial stallions. If you are trying to compete with them, it’s very difficult, and I fear we will see a big contraction within the industry in the next five years. The amount of money that is being generated within the industry is going into fewer hands. That’s the bottom line. If we didn’t come up with Repose (Quiet American) [dam of State Of Rest] and then sell her so well, we’d be under pressure. Going forward, you need to keep repeating the dose. It’s difficult. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind a sizeable interest in an established stallion-it’s like a small goldmine with a seam lasting 15 to 20 years.

 

Brian: The landscape of the breeding game has changed a lot even in the past few years. Polarised was the buzzword last year. Have you adapted your approach to what stallions you use as a result of the selectivity of the market?

Dermot: If you want to go to a commercial stallion now, you are paying €50,000 or €60,000, so that’s a huge gamble. It’s become more high risk because of the fact everybody wants to use the same stallions.

Meta: We have a lot of stallion shares and that’s what we have tried to do down through the years. We try to use those first and they can be a help.

Brian: Ye have been lucky with some of your stallion shares down through the years. 

Dermot: Oh, we have. Some of them have worked out great. When my father passed away, he left me some money, and there was a second share that became available on Invincible Spirit (Ire). I took that up on the basis of the money I was left in the will. Every time I got a dividend, I used to look up to the sky and say, ‘thanks Dad.’ Invincible Spirit put the kids through college!

 

Brian: For all the ups in this game, and ye have enjoyed many of those, how do ye deal with the downs? It’s not always rosy in the garden in this game.

Dermot: As I said earlier on, if you don’t find some really nice foals or yearlings in your crop, you are in trouble. One year, it might be okay, but two years in a row and you could be in serious trouble. It can keep you awake at night, breeding horses. 

Meta: I’m probably more level. I don’t get as stressed or upset about it. I prefer to trust the process.

Dermot: If you look at the make-up of racing, the whole emphasis is on producing a really good horse, but in today’s world where we have more racing than ever before, sound horses who can run in ordinary races are a necessity for the industry. But that doesn’t seem to get much of a premium. If you produce a nice horse and bring it to the sales but he’s not by the right sire you might not get a whole pile of money but there is an absolute need for those horses to keep the show on the road. We’ve just completed the Naas Centenary book and, as I go through the pages, it shows me that racing used to be a social event and sport with a small industry attached. Now, 100 years later, it has completely changed. The social element is very small, the sporting element is becoming less and less and the big industry attached to it, which is gambling, is dictating terms. That is a massive change.

 

Brian: Could you ever sell up Tinnakill and sail off into the sunset?

Dermot: Jack [son] has a huge interest in it all so it would be difficult but I have always been tempted by cash! 

Meta: We need to sell €1 million worth of horses every year. That’s the reality.

Brian: I don’t think they would stage the mares sales without you both being there.

Dermot: Well, we have been there for 30-something years. It’s funny, though, if I wasn’t at the sales and I was looking down through the list of results and without seeing who bought what, I would be able to tell you exactly what Jack bought. That has happened time and time again. He thinks exactly the same way as I do. I had a physiotherapy appointment last year and had to leave the sales for a couple of hours. There was a mare sold cheaply in foal to Sea The Stars (Ire) and, I said to myself when I saw what it made, ‘God, I hope Jack bought that,’ and he did. We hadn’t even discussed it beforehand. We’ve four kids and we’re very proud of them all. Jack is making his way in the industry and he’s a huge resource to us. He’s a fountain of information and he’s not afraid to take a chance. He has gotten involved in a number of stallions and maybe it will work out for him but it’s a very difficult area. He puts his neck out there and I am very proud of that. It can be easy to criticise but there are a lot of people who would never put themselves out there like he does. He’s a qualified lawyer in America, the UK and Ireland and it’s amazing that he is not pursuing that career, but he is happy doing what he is doing. 

 

Brian: It was Jack who first told me about the award and how excited you both were to be receiving it. 

Dermot: We were, because it’s your peers recognising you and, like I said, we’re not the normal stud farm owners. We’ve done it our own way and have contributed to various other bodies and put our energies into other things as well as our farm. That has been very rewarding for us. 

Meta: It’s not just about the buying and the selling of the horses; it’s about the networking and the relationships you forge with people. We have made some wonderful friendships in the industry down through the years and it has afforded us a fantastic way of life and great craic along the way.

The post At Home With Meta And Dermot: Q&A With The ITBA Award Winners  appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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