Judith Ann Brannigan (“Judy please, the only person who uses my full name is my mom and then only if she is angry”) is the Pedigree Database Manager at Darley, his Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s global thoroughbred breeding operation. But underneath the big job and big title, is a horse mad girl who is realising her dream of owning and breeding Thoroughbreds, seems to be doing extremely well and can’t quite believe it.
Judy quite simply is all about horses and breeding, but goes about it with a combination of studied objectivity and wide-eyed wonder that makes spending time with her an absolute joy. Judy made headlines in 2013 when she sold Maria Theresa for a handsome sum on the 2013 Cape Premier Sale. She landed another blow for small breeders this past weekend, being the proud name behind the first two horses past the post in Sunday’s Highland Night Cup – Alexander and Gothic.
Who is Judy Brannigan?
Judy was born in Kent in 1960 and her parents emigrated to SA in 1964. After settling in PE, the family relocated to the Cape – first to Cape Town and later to Somerset West. Judy is desperately allergic to horses but “I’ve been passionate about horses since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. There was no money for riding lessons, so I used to take the racing section of Dad’s daily Cape Times newspaper and I started my own little stud book. I noted down the sire and dam and collated the results for every runner.”
So it seems a career in horses and in pedigree analysis was always in the stars.
“After school, I was determined to find a job in the racing industry, but didn’t have any luck locally, so I took out an ad in Newmarket – “position wanted, no experience but hugely enthusiastic”. Woodditton Stud took me on as their stud secretary and I was there for about two years. Then Darley were looking for an assistant to their pedigree manager.” They’d heard about Judy and her enthusiasm for pedigrees, invited her for an interview and hired her on the spot. “It will be 27 years this September”, she says proudly.
Tell us about your job and the Darley database?
“I work on a database of around 1,5 million horses which is a full database including everything we’ve ever owned, bred, sold on, every mare that’s ever visited our stallions, every progeny out of those mares by our stallions and also every single black type mare that I can find worldwide. Every day I’m requested to put on new mares that are visiting our stallions. I put on a 5 generation tree and then I’m also responsible for the on-line pedigree portfolio for Sheikh Mohammed and all of his nominees and this is for any horse owned by the family world-wide. It changes every day as horses die, get sold, born, gelded, etc. We use the database in lots of different ways, but I have to make sure everything gets entered correctly, because everything gets generated from that system – cover dates, projected foaling dates, accounts, etc. It’s also used for evaluating pedigrees, identifying affinities and planning matings. Because I look at results worldwide, it gives me a good overall impression of horses and families and how the pedigrees are doing all over the world. I can look at a stallion and judge the feeling he gives me – whether his progeny are taking off or being a bit disappointing. That’s where I get my gut feel for the sort of horses I want and the horses I end up buying.”
Other people’s horses are all good and well, but there’s nothing like having your own.
I always wanted to be a breeder, but never thought it would happen. In around 2003, a friend gave up breeding. She had a Mtoto mare named Rehaab that she was going to put down. It seemed a way to combine my love for SA with my love for breeding, so I took a loan from the bank and shipped Rehaab to my friend Pippa Mickleburgh at Avontuur. Rehaab bred 4 little winners for me.”
The operation has expanded a little since then. What kind of mare do you look for?
“I look at a mare and get an overall impression of the family. Did she win? Did she win at 2? Where did she win? I don’t like black type too far down. She must be at least a half-sister to something that’s done something. Otherwise you won’t get her progeny on a decent sale. But you can put the best to the best and end up with the worst, so it’s not just about the pedigree page. I believe you’ve got to have passion and I buy on gut. When I go to a sale and ask for a horse to be pulled out for me – if my stomach rolls, then I know they’re special. Misty (Mysterious Land, dam of Gothic) and Scent (Scent From Above – dam of Alexander) both did the same to me. I bought Misty at a small sale at Kenilworth Racecourse in 2005 and Scent at the Mare & Weanling sale in 2008. They came out and I went ‘I gotta have her’. That’s how I like to buy. They’ve got to clutch at my heart. Both these mares are doing really well for me.”
And sometimes the gut overrides the pedigree page.
“I’ve just bought a Sinndar mare that I think I could improve. She is by a promising broodmare sire and is probably older than I would have liked, but I’ll have a go anyway. It’s a long story, but she’s from a very good Aga Khan family and is a half-sister to the dam of Linngari. I suspect she’s possibly not had the best of opportunities, so I decided to take a chance. I took her to Pathfork and she got in foal on the first jump.”
Judy bought A Star For Maria straight off the track, sent her to Dynasty and sold the resulting filly for R1,2million at the CTS Book 1 Sale in 2013.
I still have A Star For Maria. She produced a half-sister to Maria Theresa which I took to the same sale this year, but the buyers decided she wasn’t tall enough and there was no interest. She’s grown into a lovely filly now, but I’ve learnt that the Cape sale is a very specific one and you have to have the right horse. Still, the height issue amazes me. Horses don’t know what they look like. Northern Dancer was only 15’1 and he’s one of many small top class horses!”
Big sale prices are exciting, but they usually have to go a long way.
I’m basically a small, hobby breeder, so I have to sell to cover my costs. If I don’t, I have to downsize or stop. My other half backs me up and is my partner in my horses. He’s an accountant, so we have everything on spreadsheets. I can tell you that before last year’s sale, we were behind and Maria Theresa was make or break. She helped balance the books. Before that we lost 3 horses in 2 years. That’s soul-destroying, not to mention the expense. I’m not sure people realise the time, money, effort and emotion that goes into breeding. You’re in for a substantial amount of keep before a mare can be covered. Then you have to fork out a cover fee, and in your country a lot of stud farms want that up front. Then there’s another year’s keep till the foal arrives, vet bills, sale entry fees, travel, etc. and then you have to hope and pray that your stallion is still in vogue. It used to be more economical to keep mares in South Africa. It still is on the current exchange rate, but it’s gone up significantly in the last few years, because the price of everything has gone up – feed, transport, vet bills – and it’s gone up fast. If you’re trying to be commercial and send your mare to a decent stallion, it costs around R200k to get a yearling to a sale these days. And then a lot of buyers are sticky about settling and you can sit without any return on your foal for months. Unfortunately our costs don’t stop just because the buyer has decided to wait. Tattersalls works similarly to the CTS. The vendor gets paid on an agreed date and it’s up to the sale company to recover their money. But one needs the right horse for the CTS sale. I had Gothic and Alexander at CTS. Both were long, lean, leggy horses. I made my R200k reserve on Gothic. Alexander didn’t get a bid, but we managed to sell him privately. But those are just the realities. It’s the same for every breeder, but it probably affects the small breeder more, because we don’t have the numbers to absorb heavy losses.
As a smaller breeder, how do you choose a stallion?
It’s a difficult decision. The choices are to either play safe with a commercial prospect, or take a chance on new stallions and risk people not liking them. But at least with first season sires, the progeny get interest, even if they don’t attract the big prices the way they do in other countries. I have to go commercial, because everything rides being able to cover my costs, so I try and look for horses that have good pedigrees and were good on the race track and I go on my gut. I’ve got to hope that my skills in choosing who I go to and a bit of luck will come into play. The last two years I’ve had to pinch myself to believe what I’ve achieved.
People can get too caught up on big farms and big names. There are two or three stallions in South Africa that don’t get a look in and if they got half the mares some of the commercial boys got, they’d be flying. I believe in Horse Chestnut. Another is Querari – Oasis Dream is a good sire of sires and it’s a good family. Unfortunately Scent was barren the year I sent her to him, but I will go back to him at some point. I think Bezrin is one of the most underrated stallions in SA. He has 2 half-sisters at opposite ends of the world who had runners in Gr1’s in the last couple of weeks. Al Thakhira, a filly out of his half-sister Dahama, ran in the French 1000 Guineas last weekend. She got the no 8 draw and Frankie Dettori said she had no chance from there. She finished 8th, but she’ll be back. He’s throwing winner after winner and he’s not exactly getting top rate mares. People shouldn’t get so hung up on perceptions. Horses don’t. Look at California Chrome who just won Kentucky Derby. He’s off a small farm, out of a cheap mare and from a cheap cover. A horse doesn’t know how it’s bred. It’s what inside the horse that counts, whether it’s got the heart and will to run. You can’t always breed that. You increase your chances with a good stallion, but some of the best bred horses in the world can’t put one hoof in front of another.
Any favourite stallions?
My all-time favourite would be In The Wings. He wasn’t very big, but he was all there. As a 2yo he was in the paddock outside my office and I used to sit on the fence and share my lunch with him, He was the most gentle, kind horse, but very masculine. Right now, a stallion that rocked my boat because I met him last year is Galileo. He has charisma in spades. I’ve never met a stallion like this. He’s so gentle and kind with this massive presence. I can’t explain it to you. My stomach was doing a washing machine! He’s a fantastic horse. Darley has some wonderful stallions as well. Over the years I’ve liked Polish Precedent – he was tough and a real man, but I loved his attitude. Dubawi of course is a cracker and a real character. In South Africa, I met Jet Master at Highlands before he had any runners and my gut rolled. After that, what can I say about Var? He is just special and an old soul.
Would you recommend breeding and getting involved with the industry to other people?
I’m doing it because it’s always been my dream. And if I’ve done it, other people can do it, so yes, I’d say have a go. Start with one mare and find a farm that you trust implicitly. People that will allow you to go see your horse whenever you want, that you can call whenever you want and who will call you whenever they want / need to. I want my horses to be cared for as I would care for them. I initially had my horses with Netherfield and they did a wonderful job (Gothic and Alexander were both raised there), but I’ve subsequently moved to Winterbach as it’s closer and I can go and stay on the farm and get up in the morning and go and hang over the fence and think “I have horses!” That’s what it’s about for me.
Judy is a huge fan of our local industry and promotes it at every opportunity.
I’m breeding in SA because it’s better value for money for me and because if my horses were in England, I’d never sell the foals because I’d get so attached. I love my mares to bits, but I can’t get too attached to my foals, because I have to sell them to keep the dream going. I’m lucky and have a lot of friends here and once you know people, it’s great. But to get people in, we need to make South African racing more accessible for people to watch. When I watched my two on Sunday, it was unbelievable – I was shouting my lungs out! But I had to watch it on one of the betting sites here. At least I did get to see it though, otherwise it would be a waste of time my even breeding horses. We used to get Tellytrack and the RA live feed, but now all of a sudden we can’t. I’m always encouraging people to buy and race in South Africa, because if their horses are good enough, they can always bring them out. But if you want people to invest in the local market, they need to be able to see their horses run. There are people in other parts of the world that have to watch in a tote! If you want people to buy in, you’ve got to make it more accessible.
What about AHS and our perception to the outside world?
I think Variety Club is going to be a game changer. Since he’s come out in Hong Kong, taken on the best milers in the world and slaughtered them, people are starting to realise that these horses can really run. Dubai is fine, but we need to go other places. I’d love to see him on the English stage at Ascot. I know he needs a break and that the money isn’t great, but a lot of people would see him. People are really looking at us now. I am just hoping they can sort the quarantine issue out. I know there has to be quarantine and that it has to be done properly, but it’s been overkill. Mike (de Kock) has been fantastic and it must be so frustrating for him and everyone else involved. It’s so expensive and you lose so much of your horse’s career. But when people in England tell me they’ve got the best in the world, I tell them you can’t say you’ve got the best when you’re not running against the rest of the world. South Africa has some of the top stallions in the world and it’s so sad that we’re not getting the chance to see these horses. It’s a shame, because the rest of the world is missing out.
What’s to come?
Mysterious Land has a beautiful Var weanling called Shanna and she’s due to Oratorio. Scent From Above has a really nice Pathfork colt called Starpath and is due to Oratorio. A Star For Maria has a lovely Silvano colt called Navarro and is due to Var and the Sinndar mare, Liza Bella hasn’t got anything at foot, but is currently due to Pathfork. I’m blessed with the horses I’ve got. I’m very lucky with the fact that I have a fabulous job and I’m living my dream. I keep pinching myself. I can’t wait for September, because they’re all due and I am nervous.
Your horses have good, strong names.
I try to name mine well – I’ve noticed that the best ones have a one word name. The two names don’t seem to do as well. I go looking for names that touch my heart. I like these strong names.
We all look at horses in different ways. If we didn’t we’d all be going to the same sales and buying the same horses. This is what makes breeding fun. You never know what you’re going to get. And I love the challenge.