TDN Interview: Kavanagh Giving Wings To Flying Start

Clodagh Kavanagh collects islands. Of the 26 inhabited ones around the coast of Ireland, she has visited 25. It isn’t hard to see why she should savour the peace, the remoteness, the detachment from a lifestyle that has given her a chronic aversion to airports. But you recall what the poet said: no man is an island entire of itself; every man is part of the continent. And there are 165 young people out there who can testify that this infectiously dynamic woman is the embodiment, not of isolation, but of integration.

As course manager at Godolphin Flying Start since its inception, 15 years ago, she has fostered the personal and professional development of a generation of leaders-in-waiting. But if the course serves to fill the empty strands of potential with a royal blue tide of opportunity, buoying trainees to one eye-opening new horizon after another, its success does not depend merely on personal attributes–whether their own, or those of their leader. There has to be ethos that transcends both.

That the trainees have talent is a given; likewise, the honing of that talent into something that will profit the industry. Kavanagh’s priority, beyond all that, is to inculcate a deeper identity; a collective sense of what holds the whole programme together.

“It is a bubble, this beautiful life for two years,” Kavanagh says. “But I try to keep the values and ethics of a commercial entity. I tell them: ‘You’re privileged, you’re ambitious, you’re going to aim for the stars. But keep your feet on the ground. You may have all these talents, and done all this travel, but without the work ethic to back it up you won’t progress and you won’t be fulfilled.’”

With privilege comes responsibility. Those who have grafted their way through the industry without such a fabulous leg-up must never be given the excuse to resent any kind of “gilded youth” entitlement.

“It’s like going out with a huge budget and buying the top 12 yearlings in the sale,” Kavanagh explains. “You buy them because they look good, they’ve great pedigrees, they walk well, and seem to have great temperaments. But what’s in here?” She taps her temple. “So we have a very thorough process for trying to determine the right people. We get 100 applications every year, and the CVs can look pretty much the same: they will have a good academic background, they will have worked for some good people, they’ll have all the stuff we look for. It’s character that’s important. That’s really what we are testing for, or observing, in those interviews; the character we feel can not only thrive on the programme, but also thrive and do well in the Thoroughbred business. So we’re not just looking for straight As.”

Because, paradoxically, the strongest type of character is often disclosed by a willingness to expose some inner weakness or doubt. That is seldom easy, when you are constantly being told how fortunate you are; or when you feel the unremitting gaze of the sport’s global village on your eligibility.

“I think there’s often a weight on their shoulders,” Kavanagh says. “This sense that you are the chosen ones. Those 12 people definitely feel they are in a bit of a fishbowl. And it can be very difficult to learn if you feel you have to be perfect the whole time. To learn, you have to be able to make mistakes.”

“So I’d be a big proponent of saying to them: ‘Look, you are incredibly privileged-and not just because of Flying Start. Look at you: you’re healthy, you’ve had a good education, you’re bright, you have a passion in life. How many people at 23 or 24 can say they have all of that?’ But they also need to know that this is a safe place to express themselves, to make mistakes, to test out things.”

“Because if you want to be a leader in the long term, which is what we’re looking for, you need to have that confidence to make a mistake; admit it, apologise, show your vulnerabilities. When you look at some of these CVs, there’s talent all through it. They’re not just good academically: they’ve been good sportspeople, they’re musicians, they’re good at anything they turn their hand to. And people like that can find it hardest to learn. Because everything’s been easy. They don’t actually want to admit something’s hard, don’t want to struggle. So I often find, the first three months of my regime, there’s a lot of home truths.”

Kavanagh wants trainees to understand that it’s okay to get a ‘C’ in, say, lungeing a horse. Because it they stick at it, work up to a ‘B’, the confidence gained from overcoming unfamiliar adversity runs far deeper than any they can derive from slick use of innate gifts.

“There is another school of thought that if you keep getting things right, keep being successful, you’ll get confident,” Kavanagh says. “And you will–outwardly. But inwardly there’ll always be that doubt: what if the brick wall comes along? I want someone who knows that they can get over it, if something happens.”

In the end, after all, many of the challenges to be overcome are elementary, human ones, typical of any maturing personality exposed to a new environment. Kavanagh came to Flying Start after impressing in a similar role at RACE, the apprentice school on The Curragh. On the face of it, it was a huge change of culture. Previously resources had been so threadbare that decision-making tended to demand half toughness, half improvisation. Every victory was hard won, and her charges sometimes had to overcome extremely challenging social backgrounds. In her new role, Kavanagh was dealing with highfliers who might very well succeed even without this extra lift-off.

“But after two or three years I sat back and thought about it and realised that the two were not that different really,” she says. “They’re coming to me here for the same mentor discussions, the same coaching or career direction, exactly the same doubts and concerns and worries.”

There will, inevitably, be personal issues: family, relationships, mental or emotional health. Kavanagh is comfortable with all that, and hopes that any trainee would come to her with any problem. But there can sometimes be a different kind of temperament failure. In the history of the programme, there have been three dismissals.

“It’s very clear there are negotiables and non-negotiables,” Kavanagh says. “That’s the toughest thing you have to do, because it’s going to be incredibly hard for them and their family and for the rest of the team that’s losing them. We choose people because we want them to be happy and fulfilled.”

Some level of maturity is guaranteed by almost invariably insisting on some experience of living away from home, ideally in another country. Typically recruits will be in their mid-twenties. A grounding of that kind has other benefits, besides knocking off a few immature edges: with luck, graduates will not have to retreat all the way back to square one for their first jobs. Even so, they will inevitably have to wait for the kind of leadership opportunities they have been trained for.

“I think that depends on the individual and what they want to end up doing,” Kavanagh says. “If you go and work for a trainer, for instance, there’ll be the trainer and a head lad and an assistant and everyone else; and you have to be ‘everyone else.’ I think they understand that. They want to progress quickly but won’t be afraid of hard work. I hope they all have the humility and work ethic and practical understanding to accept they may have to start at the bottom.”

None will be left in any doubt as to their essential good fortune. Kavanagh herself belongs to a generation that had to improvise their own apprenticeships. She has loved horses since given a first pony at 10. (“We didn’t realise but it turned out he was a racing pony. I was always at the front of the hunt–and he wasn’t a great jumper!”) During an agricultural science degree at University College Dublin, she did a summer internship in Kentucky with the Eaton-Williams sales agency and helped to sell a Danzig yearling who became dual Group 1 winner Shaadi. After that Kavanagh continued to broaden her horizons, and rode Better Loosen Up (Aus)–winner of the Japan Cup the following year–every day when working for the Hayes family in Melbourne. She also worked on a variety of leading farms in Australasia and back in Ireland.

“I did what you should do, I suppose,” she shrugs. “I surrounded myself with great people and listened to them. But it wasn’t strategic. It was just lucky. I tell my trainees to be strategic because you might not always be lucky. You might end up with the wrong people, learning the wrong things, and end up in the wrong place.”

Somehow that doesn’t seem terribly likely, so long as they have Kavanagh to assist navigation. If ever she feels her race is run at Flying Start, of course, its success would qualify her as a walking nerve centre of global industry pacemakers for a generation to come. For now, however, she is enjoying the evolution of her role along with that of the course overall.

“Flying Start is very well structured, I have a very good assistant and co-ordinators, there’s a lot of momentum really,” she says. “My role is more maintaining contact with industry people, seeing what’s needed, and making sure our people are coming out ready to fill the kind of gaps–be it in technology, creativity, whatever–we can expect in five or 10 years’ time.”

Kavanagh stresses her gratitude to the trustees who put their shoulders to the Flying Start wheel; and is especially indebted to the guidance and support of Joe Osborne. But the benign presence behind them all is, of course, Sheikh Mohammed.

In meeting high achievers from other walks of life–she is currently making time to pursue a Masters in leadership and business, back at UCD–Kavanagh has been struck by their astonishment on learning about the genesis and funding of Flying Start.

“Without the support and resources of Sheikh Mohammed, this would never have happened or continue,” she emphasises. “It’s an amazing commitment. On my Masters programme nobody can believe that this man has been pumping money into Flying Start for 15 years and that hardly any of them work for him. ‘What’s he getting out of it?’ they ask.”

“These people are at the top of their industries and it appears that no other industry has a leader doing something as significant as this. Yes, they may be doing charitable works. But I am amazed it hasn’t been replicated in other industries: a scholarship to find the best, train them and send them back out into those industries and really lead change. And a lot of people do say that this will be his greatest legacy.”