Aussies Abroad - Q&A with Ben Henley

7 min read
TDN Aus NZ's Bren O'Brien recently caught up with Australian Ben Henley, who has been working in the American thoroughbred heartland of Kentucky for over a decade.

Not even 40 yet, Ben holds the position as General Manager at the historic Airdrie Stud.

B O'B: Ben, you are coming up on ten years at Airdrie Stud and ten years in Kentucky. What’s been the biggest change you have noticed in that time?

Ben Henley: I think the game has become so much more global now. Elite racing at an international level is what a lot of the big stables are aiming to do. It is so common now to see trainers shipping all over the world competing at these big carnivals. It wasn’t that long ago that Dermot Weld and Paul Perry were pioneering the way and showing people you could ship across the globe and not only compete but win at the highest level.

Partnership and syndicates have become very popular recently here in the states. As Cot Campbell foresaw up here, they are a great way to introduce people to racing and get their feet wet in the business. There are a lot of individual owners that got started in a syndicate before going out on their own.

B O'B: Working as General Manager for a busy stud, what does your typical day look like?

BH: Mornings are spent out on the farm meeting with our terrific managers about various projects and any issues with the horses. We currently have about 400 horses on the farm so there is always something going on. Afternoons are spent in the office.

Ben Henley at the Keeneland Sales

B O'B: To have achieved as much as you have having not even reached 40 yet, you must have had some great mentors along the way? Talk us through the two or three people who have shaped your career most.

BH: Brereton Jones has been a huge influence on my career. I arrived in the USA in 2006 as a stallion groom who really did not have much of a grasp of the business side of the industry. He has taught me a ton about the business side of running a farm like Airdrie. As someone who did not go to University to learn these things, I really needed to find some great mentors who would take me under their wing and give me that opportunity to learn the necessary skills to succeed in our business.

Ben says Brereton Jones has been one of the biggest influences on his career

Anne Raymond (Sledmere Stud) was my first boss. She taught me about hard work and some great animal husbandry skills. Anne used to mix her own feeds back in the day. Just about every horse had an individually hand-crafted meal each day. This kind of attention to detail is a great trait to carry with you.

Peter Orton is still a close friend. Not only is he one of the greatest horsemen I have been around, he was a lot of fun to work with. He has always been great at keeping my ego in check!

B O'B: What was it that Governor and Mrs Jones saw in you do you think to give you the opportunity to run such an important asset for them?

BH: I’m still scratching my head trying to figure that one out! I think that there is a lot of trust in our relationship. They were very quick to make me feel like I was part of the family, which was a great confidence builder. I also have a close relationship with their son Bret who is fully involved with running the farm. I think they saw how well Bret and I worked together and thought we could make a pretty good team to take the farm forward.

B O'B: What do you feel the major difference is between how the industry works in Kentucky and what goes on back here in Australia?

BH: From a farming point of view, the climate is a lot different, we have very harsh winters in KY (down to -20 C) and very high rainfall (50 inches a year). To cope with the winters, you need to have a lot more infrastructure to house the horses when the weather is bad. We also need a lot more staff to take care of the horses. Finding great staff that want to work 6 days a week in extreme conditions is the biggest challenge the industry is facing right now.

B O'B: Are there many Aussies in the local breeding industry over there?

BH: We actually have three fabulous Aussies here at Airdrie that predate my arrival. Mark Cunningham has been our Farm Manager for 30 years, (he is from Adelaide). One of our broodmare managers Charlie Osborne (Kurri Kurri) has been here 20 years and Belinda Locke (Gold Coast) our assistant yearling manager has been here for 15 years.

Byron Rogers is also well known at home through his days at Arrowfield Stud, he has True Nicks and Performance Genetics up here. Jamie Frost has his own broodmare operation here in Lexington. Craig Brogden runs Machmer Hall with his lovely wife Carrie. They bred and raised a filly called Tepin who, as you know a few years ago, went on to win at Royal Ascot. I know that was a very proud moment for Craig and a great achievement for a young fella from Australia.

Keeneland Sales

B O'B: For those back in Australia who follow the American industry closely, who are the stallions at Airdrie you are most excited about at the moment?

BH: Creative Cause is the current 2018 leading third crop sire in America, he seems to able to do it all, siring dirt, turf, sprinting and staying stakes winners. He was probably outside the top 5 in terms of mare quality and book size when this group went to stud so its very exciting seeing him outperforming his more fancied rivals.

Cairo Prince is currently second on the first crop list. His progeny would not be expected to be doing too much early in the season. They are bred and look more like the classic distances will be their strength. He has already had seven winners and is starting to really heat up. He is coming off a phenomenal first crop yearling year where he had 75 yearlings average $150,000 off a $10,000 stud fee. So the expectations are high but we feel he is placed to be a really important sire down the road.

B O'B: What's next for you? Are there longer-term goals?

BH: My focus at the moment is to keep Airdrie Stud moving forward and build of the wonderful foundation laid by Mr. & Mrs. Jones and our recently retired General Manager Tim Thornton. We need to be continually reinvesting in bloodstock and our infrastructure here on the farm.

B O'B: It’s a long time to be away from Australia. What do you miss most about home?

BH: That’s easy, firstly my family and friends. Everyone is having kids now so it's tough not being around them and watching them grow up. A close second would be Aussie racing. It’s hard to keep up properly with the industry when you only watch replays on a Saturday morning.

B O'B: Finally, you have been lucky enough to turn your passion for thoroughbreds into a successful career which has taken you across the world. What advice would you give a 16-year-old these days trying to get a start in the industry?

BH: Get as much experience as you can in all aspects of the industry and meet as many people as you can. Don’t get to caught up initially in specializing in one area. Once you have spent 6 or 7 years getting this experience, you can then move on into managerial roles, you will be stronger later on if you have that experience to draw from.

Ben believes continually reinvesting in bloodstock to keep the stud moving forward