02/08/2013 10:31AM

Darley Flying Start program shapes new generation of industry leaders

Trevor Jones
Natalie Heitz and Camilla Whishaw, first-year trainees in the Darley Flying Start Program, walk through the stables.

The Darley Flying Start program is one of the most unusual programs in racing, and 2013 marks its 10th anniversary, having produced almost 100 graduates employed in the horse industry internationally. The two-year program combines course instruction, visiting lectures, hands-on experience, and an abundance of networking opportunities to its trainees, and graduates from the program during its early years are beginning to make an impact in a myriad of professions for some of Thoroughbred racing’s most prominent and successful breeding, racing, and sales operations.

As with every other initiative started by Darley founder and owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum during his long and influential involvement in Thoroughbred racing, the emphasis of the Flying Start program is global. Current trainees and alumni agree that one of the program’s most beneficial elements is the access each participant has to Darley’s vast resources via its divisions in Ireland, England, Kentucky, Australia, and, of course, Dubai.

“The amount of international trade of racehorses, mares, and stallions has really grown in the last 10 years and will only continue to do so, and Flying Start allows you to get right in the middle of every major breeding and racing industry in the world,” said Conor Foley, who was a trainee from 2005-07 and then worked for Darley’s Jonabell Farm before starting his own business, Oracle Bloodstock, in 2012. “As an American, one of the greatest benefits of the course was living, working, and studying with other highly motivated people from all over the world. [Flying Start] truly covers the entire spectrum, everything about a horse down to a molecular level to classes on corporate law.”

Sheikh Mohammed started Darley Flying Start in 2003 and appointed Clodagh Kavanagh, an industry veteran with a background in education, as the program coordinator. Twelve trainees per year are selected through a demanding application process that, in addition to the standard educational transcript and letters of recommendation, requires demonstrated proof of horsemanship skills. The application process for the 2013-15 training class ends Feb. 15.

The program’s two-year itinerary, which begins in August, offers a full immersion into the Thoroughbred world. Starting at Darley’s Kildangan Stud — where Flying Start is headquartered — trainees spend their first autumn in Ireland and attend the Goffs yearling sale, and then go to Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket during the Tattersalls yearling auctions. They relocate for the following spring to Kentucky and experience an entire breeding season before attending the Triple Crown races. The second year begins in August and finds the trainees at Darley’s Kelvinside Stud in Australia, culminating with the Melbourne Cup in November. The final spring semester comes at Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubai home base and provides trainees the opportunity to experience the World Cup and supporting races before they travel back to Ireland to finish the course.

Despite the globe-trotting allure of the schedule, the daily work regimen is rigorous and adheres to the early-to-rise industry norm. Several of the 2011 and 2012 trainees praised the cross-disciplinary aspect of Flying Start’s curriculum for filling in gaps of knowledge and experience that they lacked entering the program. The program is designed to provide a comprehensive knowledge and an entry level into many different areas of racing, enabling trainees who enter the program with hands-on experience in the breeding shed and/or on the racetrack to learn accounting and entrepreneurial skills, and giving those coming from a more academic background the opportunity to work with horses extensively.

“Before [Flying Start], I had worked primarily on the racetrack with a breeding background from my equine science degree,” said Leah Clark, a 2012 graduate and an assistant trainer with Graham Motion. “I did not have an in-depth understanding of pedigrees, sales, and valuing Thoroughbreds at varying stages of development. The courses filled in these gaps in my understanding of the industry and taught me how each facet of the industry uniquely relates to others.”

Flying Start is accredited with the Michael Smurfit Business School at University College Dublin for a graduate certificate in management. Trainees also study at the University of Kentucky and the University of Sydney and complete a stewards’ accreditation program from the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. In addition, each trainee undertakes a four- to six-week placement, usually with an entity outside the Darley network, which allows for intensive study in a particular area of expertise relevant to their individual career goals. These placements may lead to job offers — as did Clark’s with Motion — and it should come as no surprise that several of the program’s graduates have also gone on to work for Darley.

Charlie Boden, who oversees stallion sales at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., has employed eight Darley Flying Start graduates since 2006.

“From my standpoint, Flying Start has been a tremendous source of energetic, young, hungry people that have done a superb job of helping market the stallions we stand here,” Boden said. “They help to manage the accounts of the breeders who patronize our roster on a yearly basis by becoming familiar with their broodmares and seeing foals, and judging progeny of the stallions that we price them to breed to. They are great advocates for the breeder, and they are great advocates for Sheikh Mohammed and the worldwide aspect that Darley represents.”

Boden acknowledges that having the trainees learn through working at Darley’s elite Thoroughbred operations benefits Sheikh Mohammed and the organization by developing a growing pool of talent with each passing year. Learning the business via the Darley imprimatur also means that many of the trainees will still lack much of the hard-earned, bottom-up experience that comes from working in a volatile and competitive industry even after they complete the program.

“But their knowledge of the industry [after completing Flying Start] puts them leaps and bounds ahead of their peers in the prospective employee pool,” Boden said. “This program, in essence, puts us in a great position to hire some of the best young talent in the business.”

Other successful businesses and individuals also have drawn from the Flying Start talent pool over the past half-decade: A short list includes WinStar Farm, Besilu Stable, Arrowfield Stud in Australia, and Thoroughbred Daily News. Other graduates such as Foley have started their own businesses. Current trainees due to complete the program this spring and in 2014 aspire to a variety of career objectives, with several planning to direct their abilities toward strengthening the horse industry in their home countries.

All of the current trainees interviewed intend to join the growing alumni network after graduating as they work toward achieving leadership positions in the industry. Ultimately, it is this leadership aspect of Darley Flying Start that best reflects Sheikh Mohammed’s mission for the educational program and augers well for the future of Thoroughbred racing and breeding on an international scale.