For a long time in the racing and breeding game, the conversation about education and recruitment has been ongoing. It’s one of the urgent issues within the modern sport, particularly the crises around entry-level staff at racing stables and across breeding farms.
In recent years, plenty of workshops and conferences have tackled the issue, hoping to get an edge on how best to bring people into the industry and how to keep them, but also how best to educate them.
Surprisingly, there are very few initiatives in place in Australia that result in formal, industry-recognised qualifications. There are equine science degrees at a tertiary level and agricultural certificates through TAFE, while Lindy Maurice’s Thoroughbred Industry Careers (TIC) champions recruitment across the industry.
But the flagship program across much of world racing remains, after 18 years, the Godolphin Flying Start course.
The genesis of Flying Start
Godolphin Flying Start was the brainchild of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and founder of the Godolphin operation. In 2003, he recognised the need for industry leadership and, specifically, a program that could coach young people into those positions of leadership.
The Flying Start course would welcome 12 trainees each year across a two-year curriculum, with the first class opened to applications in 2003. The course would weave its way geographically through the racing and breeding industries of England, Ireland, the United States (US), Dubai and Australia, and the physical placements around the world would coincide with classroom learning.
Almost every whim and need of each trainee would be catered for, including a scholarship that covered course fees, accommodation, transport, health insurance and allowance, and all with the specific purpose of training and developing students into senior management careers within the thoroughbred industry.
In that first year, the program received just under 100 applications from around the world, filtering them down to the inaugural 12.
“The Flying Start program was set up to solve a wider industry challenge around leadership as a whole,” said Clodagh Kavanagh, who has been the Irish-based Executive Director of Godolphin Flying Start since its inception in 2003.
“When this program started, it was evident that this industry was going to need plenty of strong leadership and talent to keep up with how quickly the world was changing, and Sheikh Mohammed saw that happening through getting the best talent from around the world and giving them a great education, great training and a network, and then putting them back out in the industry.”
“The Flying Start program was set up to solve a wider industry challenge around leadership as a whole.” – Clodagh Kavanagh
Sheikh Mohammed’s motivation wasn’t to internally recruit for Godolphin. His vision was more far-sighted than that, and Kavanagh said that less than one graduate each year has moved into the Godolphin operation since 2003.
This makes the financial commitment by Sheikh Mohammed a significant gesture because, on average, the program costs £1 million (AU$1.85 million) each year to run.
With a graduating class each year, the two-year Godolphin Flying Start scholarship has graduated 201 students to date.
They’ve currently based in Australia (39), the US (61), the United Kingdom (40), Ireland (24), South Africa (2), France (15) and New Zealand (2), plus Japan (2), Singapore (3), India (1), Dubai (2) and others.
In total, the course’s trainees have matriculated into 20 different racing nations.
“Of those 201 graduates, 89 per cent are retained within the thoroughbred industry,” Kavanagh said. “That’s one of the things we recruit for, evidence of long-term commitment to the industry because they’re very precious scholarships. We want to make sure that our trainees are achieving the vision of the program, which is to produce committed thoroughbred leaders.”
“… they’re very precious scholarships. We want to make sure that our trainees are achieving the vision of the program, which is to produce committed thoroughbred leaders.” – Clodagh Kavanagh
So far, the course is widely nailing its brief. Kavanagh said that of that 89 per cent, exactly half of the graduates are in the industry as either business founders or senior management.
“The vision is to provide industry leaders, and it’s a big vision, a big ask,” Kavanagh said. “I think everyone who has done the course has leadership potential and heaps of talent, but it’s a matter of what they want to do with that talent and the education they get from the program.
“Some of our graduates are more understated and quiet leaders who are satisfied with a low-key position within a smaller organisation or being self-employed, while others out there are very evident, either at the top of a corporation or running a fast-paced business, like the Henry Fields of Newgate or the Adrian Botts at Randwick.”
Field of dreams
Henry Field is among the 39 Australia-based graduates of the Flying Start program, and he’s in good company.
Craig Rounsefell is there, as are fellow bloodstock agents Andrew Williams, James Clarke and Stephen O’Connor. Trainers Adrian Bott, Will Freedman and Liam Howley went through the course, as did Magic Millions’ Dane Robinson and Arrowfield’s Anna Power.
TDN AusNZ’s owners Gary King and Vicky Leonard graduated from the program a year apart, in 2010 and 2011. Flying Start graduates are at Newgate Farm, Coolmore, Twin Hills Stud and Annabel Neasham Racing.
It’s a list of high achievers that demonstrates the effectiveness of the program since its earliest days.
“I was part of the inaugural graduating class, the very first year of the course,” Henry Field said. “We were the guinea pigs and it was a fantastic experience for all of us, but especially for me because I was so young.”
Field was just 18 when he applied for a place in Flying Start, and he is one of the only candidates to be admitted without a tertiary degree. He saw the program advertised in the Monday morning edition of The Australian newspaper, which was long before dedicated online industry-dailies.
“I’d finished school at the time, and I’d given my parents the guarantee that I would go and study tertiary education,” Field said. “In the year that I took off to go and work for Gai Waterhouse, I saw the program advertised and I thought it was the greatest student course I’d ever seen engineered.”
Across two years, Field joined Stuart Boman, Kate Grimwade and Ed Sackville on the Flying Start curriculum, along with nine other trainees. They graduated in 2005, and it remains one of the outstanding experiences of Field’s professional life.
“In the year that I took off to go and work for Gai Waterhouse, I saw the program advertised and I thought it was the greatest student course I’d ever seen engineered.” – Henry Field
Since then, he has forged a top-shelf career as the managing director of Newgate Farm, and he has quickly become one of the preeminent studmasters in Australian bloodstock.
“I was young and they took a chance on me,” Field said. “I’m very glad that I was able to complete the course and be a good advocate for where it can get you in the industry. Every single moment of every day I spent in it was enjoyable, and it will be an incredible legacy for Sheikh Mohammed.”
As an alumni of Godolphin Flying Start, Field has remained connected to the program, but he also recognises it now from the other end – as a recruiter. At Newgate, he had Stephen O’Connor for a time straight out of the program, and he now has Niamh O’Brien, who graduated from the course just this year and took up employment on the farm in September.
As an alumni of Godolphin Flying Start, Field has remained connected to the program, but he also recognises it now from the other end – as a recruiter.
Kavanagh said Field remains one of the youngest, if not the youngest, to graduate from the Flying Start program. She said they’ve learned a lot over the years about the ideal age for trainees, and these days the average is between 22 and 29 years old.
“In the last five or 10 years, the typical age of students on the program is 24 or 25,” Kavanagh said. “That mid-twenties age seems to be a great point to do it because they’ve had a couple of years out in the working world and they’re aware of the value of the opportunity. At 19 or 20, they might not be able to appreciate that.”
Field agrees with this.
“I wish I’d had a few more years of experience under my belt, travelling or working in different places before I started the course,” the studmaster said. “But it was too good an opportunity to miss out on, and certainly the group of us in that first year has been quite extraordinary in terms of the achievements of many of the other students.”
Stuart Boman emerged as one of the deftest bloodstock agents through Blandford Bloodstock in the UK, and likewise Ed Sackville, for whom Field mustered all his affection when describing Sackville as the “naughtiest bloke he’d ever met”.
Trainers Michael Dilger in America and Tan Kah Soon in Singapore also emerged from this class, while Kate Grimwade, at one time an assistant trainer to James Cummings, is now the General Manager for Newmarket trainer Roger Varian.
The importance of accreditation
Many things have stayed the same across 18 years of the Godolphin Flying Start program, in particular the two-year structure of the course, the number of intakes each year and the graduate successes. Any changes have been carefully implemented around these.
About a decade ago, the program achieved accreditation from the business school of University College Dublin (UCD), which gives the Flying Start curriculum a fourth-level qualification.
“This is quite important to a lot of people doing the course,” Kavanagh said. “It’s important that it doesn’t just have an industry tag on it, or a Godolphin tag on it. It now has the leading university in Ireland approving it as a Level 9 Graduate Certificate in Management.”
The program also has accreditation with the University of Kentucky, Macquarie University Graduate School of Management here in Australia, the University of Arizona and the Kentucky Horseshoeing School. In the UK, Godolphin Flying Start is recognised as a short-course provider by the British Accreditation Council.
“It’s important that it (Godolphin Flying Start) doesn’t just have an industry tag on it, or a Godolphin tag on it.” – Clodagh Kavanagh
The UCD accreditation provides students with a module in an Irish vet school studying equine physiology and reproduction, plus a module in the UCD business school in entrepreneurship. At Macquarie, there’s a module in management and leadership, and at Kentucky there’s another in equine nutrition.
“UCD collaborates with those other two universities to package those four modules into a Level 9 Graduate Certificate in Management, which is basically a Masters-level qualification but without the bulk of a Masters,” Kavanagh said.
She added that this extra tier of accreditation has maintained the healthy level of interest in Godolphin Flying Start when it comes to applicants.
“Eighteen years ago, a number of our applicants wouldn’t have had degrees, and very few would have had a Masters,” Kavangh said. “Now, most of them have degrees and very many of them are interested in furthering their education as part of their career development, so the type of candidate has changed and we’ve made sure we’ve changed to keep attracting them and fulfilling them with what they need and deserve for the level of program they’re doing.”
“Eighteen years ago, a number of our applicants wouldn’t have had degrees, and very few would have had a Masters, now, most of them have degrees and very many of them are interested in furthering their education.” – Clodagh Kavanagh
After 18 years, Kavanagh’s job satisfaction is still sky high, and she’s proud of what Flying Start has achieved. It’s a peerless international tool within the modern industry.
“When it started, no one knew if it would be successful, and if people would apply and it would keep going,” she said. “So just to exist over 18 years is fantastic, but I’m particularly proud of the graduates.
“When you go to a sale or to a raceday, or any industry event, and you see the number of Flying Starters there operating at all different levels, but particularly at the best level, it’s quite phenomenal that the quality of person and the quality of their training is having an impact on the industry.”
“When you go to a sale or to a raceday, or any industry event, and you see the number of Flying Starters there operating at all different levels, but particularly at the best level, it’s quite phenomenal…” – Clodagh Kavanagh
Kavanagh said it was like buying 12 of the best yearlings in the world, that a lot of individual success comes down to personal ambition and genetics. However, Godolphin Flying Start is the world-leading facilitator to industry success right now, and even Sheikh Mohammed is proud of it.
“He makes every effort to meet the trainees when they’re in Dubai, and that shows his continued interest and commitment, and probably his pride in the program as well,” Kavanagh said.
“The vision of Flying Start was always to produce committed industry leaders and we’ve worked hard to make sure it’s still a very useful program for the industry, and to people within the industry.”
The course has a lot more focus on technology, creativity and innovation in these later years, and also on welfare, which Kavanagh said could not be ignored in the sport’s current climate. All of these things come carefully together as the students learn across their two years.
“We don’t want Flying Start to be like a standalone college sitting outside of the industry,” she said. “Flying Start is part of the industry and our students are part of the industry, as is the program.
“We will always try to stay at the cutting edge of the industry, and we will always hope that we can continue to attract the calibre of graduates we’ve had since our very first year.”
By Jessica Owers Australian New Zealand TDN