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Peter Doyle

Peter Doyle first met Richard Hannon at Deauville, almost 20 years ago now. Doyle remembers it well. Before he went to Deauville that year, his dad, the legendary Jack Doyle, told him to be sure to meet up with Richard Hannon.

There was nothing new in Peter Doyle going to Deauville. Doyle is a Deauville pilgrim, a perennial in the fashionable French town that plays host to some of the best racing in Europe in August every year and a yearling sale that is a fixture on the annual bloodstock sales calendar. Actually, France has always been a happy hunting ground for Doyle, his relationship with the de Moussac family of Haras du Mezeray fame stretching back decades and copper-bottomed with the success that horses like Group 1 winners Homme De Loi and Pigeon Voyageur bring.

Richard Hannon was busy establishing himself among the top echelons of his profession back then. He had trained Shalford, a prolific sprinter who had won the Diadem Stakes and the Duke of York Stakes, and for whom Jack Doyle had brokered the deal that would see him stand as a stallion. Lyric Fantasy and Mr Brooks and Niche were other horses who were flying the Hannon flag at the time, as well as Celebration Mile winner Swing Low and Assessor, winner of the Group 1 Prix du Cadran.

Doyle saw Hannon coming out of the races, and introduced himself.

“Are you going to the sales?” he asked.

“I am,” said Hannon, “but I’m buying no horses. I’m only buying drink.”

“I’ve been through every horse in the sale,” protested Doyle. “There are some nice horses here.”

“I don’t care,” said Hannon. “I’m going to the bar.”

Doyle managed to get the trainer out of the bar for a little while, they bought two yearlings, and so the partnership began. Little acorns.


We are sitting in the offices of Peter Doyle Bloodstock, just outside the village of Kilcoole in County Wicklow, Peter on one side of the table, Ross on the other. Ross Doyle is the younger of Peter and Anna’s two sons, horses mad. Always was. The racing gene seems to have skipped over his elder brother Craig, a technology whizz, and nestled comfortably in Ross’s makeup. That’s the difference between nature and nurture, two brothers, same upbringing, same exposures, one completely indifferent to something that is absolutely core to the other, one brother’s ying to the other’s yang.

Peter is recounting the early days. He trained to be a chartered accountant, but as a son of Jack Doyle, the doyen of bloodstock agents, it was always likely that his future would be in horses.

“The accountancy lasted 18 months,” he recalls. “The pound a week and bring your own umbrella didn’t suit me. I went selling addressing machines for my brother-in-law for a while, but I was helping my father in my spare time. He was buying for John Sutcliffe and Ryan Price, people like that, I was picking people up at the airport for him, spending half the day looking after him while I was supposed to be selling addressing machines. So I just said to him one day, ‘Look, I’m going to have to stop working for you, or else work for you full-time. Which is it to be?’ ‘Well, you’d better work for me full-time then,’ he said.”

So began Peter’s real schooling. More little acorns. The knowledge and experience that he gained from going around the sales with his dad and Captain Ryan Price was invaluable.

“Ryan Price was an amazing man,” says Peter. “Going around the sales with him and my dad was the greatest experience I ever had. They bought horses the way that Richard and I buy horses. All those good horses, Ginevra, who won the 1972 Oaks, Bruni, won the St Leger in 1975. They bought a lot of great horses, and I was lucky enough to be going around on their coat tails, learning about the game.”

Peter teamed up with Liam Browne shortly after going out on his own in the late 1970s. In just his second year, he bought Dara Monarch, winner of the Irish Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes in 1982. Shortly after that, Mr de Moussac asked him to work for him, and gradually he was beginning to build a viable business.

Step forward one generation, similar scenario. Ross was on the cusp of going professional as a rugby player a couple of years ago, it was tempting, professionalism was coming into the game and it was a real option for Ross, but it would have effectively meant giving up horses. He deliberated long and hard over the decision, but once he chose to follow his dad into this business of horses, he immersed himself in it, no looking back.

The rapport between father and son is obvious. Peter recalls the early days and defers to Ross on some contemporary issues, Ross calls Peter Peter, never Dad, it’s a professional relationship and together they tell the stories. They talk about their relationship with the Hannons, Peter with Richard, Ross with Richard Jnr, like two separate partnerships within the two operations.

“Myself and Richard Jnr,” says Ross, “we are lucky, we’ve built up a good base of clients ourselves, but it’s through working with the lads, with Peter and Richard.”

Underlying all of it is a reverence for the Hannon training operation, and the manner in which they look after their many horses and owners, over 200 horses and a kaleidoscope of silks.

“Some people say to me that it must be difficult for the Hannons to manage all their owners,” says Ross. “But it isn’t. They love it. You go into their house on a Sunday morning, and it’s like a bus station, full of owners. You go into the owners’ and trainers’ bar at the races and you will see the two Richards in there with their owners, having a laugh.”

“Once they know you are coming,” says Peter, “they can’t do enough for you. Richard’s wife Jo will put on the sausages and the rashers, there’ll be a whole pile of them just sitting on the aga there for whoever wants them. And there’s a pub at the end of their gallops, which is very handy. I remember my dad ringing me on a Sunday morning from Hannons’, after seeing the horses, walking down the gallops on his way to the pub, telling me that I really should be over there, that it was difficult to beat a Sunday morning at the Hannons’.”

But it’s not all about relaxing on a Sunday morning, indulging in Jo’s full English and going to the pub afterwards to wash it all down with a couple of pints of ale. The work ethic here is strong. Every sale has to be attended, every horse has to be seen in order to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks. Pedigree, of course, is important, but you pay for pedigree at public auction, and Doyle is much more interested in conformation, the individual.

When you are buying horses for less than €75,000 or €80,000, you have to live with the fact that you will not be able to buy the top pedigrees, but you can ensure that you are in there to pick up the nice-looking horses who may have passed the top end of the market by because his pedigree falls short of blue-blooded. However, in order to do that, you have to give every horse a chance.

“Between us we see every single horse,” says Peter. “Anna, Ross and myself would be the core of it. Then we have Carol Tinkler, Andrew’s mother, and Mick Flanagan, who has come off the Darley Flying Start programme. We divide up the catalogue four or five ways, so we could see 140 or 150 horses each in two days. It’s all down to teamwork. We have a great team here, in the office as well as at the sales, and we all work well together.”

They bought 70 yearlings at the sales in 2008, so before the sales started in earnest last year, Richard told Peter that they were not buying as many this time, no way. Towards the end of the sales in October, Richard and Peter sat down to have a coffee.

“How many horses have we bought now?” asked Richard.

“Seventy-four,” said Peter.

“Ah really?” exclaimed Richard. “I told you we weren’t buying as many this year!”

Sip of coffee.

“Isn’t there a sale going on this evening?”

“There is,” said Peter.

“Well we’d better get in there then in case there is something nice that we need to buy!”

The policy works, the results tell you as much. Richard Hannon currently lies second to Sir Michael Stoute in the British trainers’ championship in terms of prize money, and second to Mark Johnston in terms of number-of-winners. If you had had €1 on every runner that Hannon had in the UK this year, you would be showing a profit of over €32. Last year he finished fourth in the trainers’ championship behind Michael Stoute, Mark Johnston and Aidan O’Brien, ahead of Saeed Bin Suroor, John Gosden, Barry Hills, and everybody else. He has finished in the top six in the trainers’ championship every year for the last decade and, in 2008, he finished second to Aidan O’Brien. He won more prize money in the UK that year than any other British-based trainer. There’s the quality as well as the quantity.

What sets the Hannon/Doyle operation apart, however, is the fact that these results are being achieved with relatively cheap horses. Ross has the list in front of him. They bought Paco Boy for 30 grand, Canford Cliffs for 50, Dick Turpin cost 28 grand, Strong Suit cost 40 grand, Lucky General, winner of the Goffs Million Sprint last year, cost €50,000.

“If they seem to be making too much, we put the brakes on,” says Peter. “There is a limit. People ask these days what we are doing differently, why has the quality gone up all of a sudden, but it hasn’t. We are doing the same things that we have always done, and the quality has always been there. If you look back over the years, Sergeyev, our second year together, he won the Jersey Stakes, Indian Ink won the Coronation Stakes, Reel Buddy, 23,000gns at Doncaster, won the Sussex Stakes.”

The quality will be in evidence at Royal Ascot next week. Tuesday is their big day. Paco Boy against wonderfilly Goldikova and Rip Van Winkle in the Queen Anne is probably the most eagerly anticipated race of the meeting. Strong Suit in the Coventry, Casual Glimpse in the Windsor Castle and, of course, Canford Cliffs in the St James’s Palace Stakes. He has almost two lengths to make up on Makfi on their running in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, but he looked mighty good at The Curragh and he is favourite in all lists to exact his revenge on the French-trained horse. Dick Turpin perhaps in the St James’s Palace Stakes as well, although he may wait for the Jersey Stakes on Wednesday.

“Richard thought that Canford had come on a lot from Newmarket,” says Ross, “which is probably an unusual thing to hear about a horse who has finished third in a Guineas. But if he has, he has every chance of beating the French horse. It’s going to be tough though.”

“Richard thinks that Canford Cliffs is possibly the best horse he’s had,” says Peter. “He said Paco was the one before, but some of Canford’s work at home has apparently been phenomenal. The day he’s on song. Scary. You saw him in the Coventry last year. He has learned to settle now as well. He was great in the Irish Guineas. You’d love to see him back it up now and win it.”

Throw Shamwari Lodge and King Torus and a host of others into the mix, and you have as strong a team going to Royal Ascot as you could possibly have imagined. Mighty oaks.

© The Irish Field, 12th June 2010