Entering the gates of Woodlands is a breathtaking experience.
As you wind your way past paddocks full of happy horses and arrive at the life-sized statue of Octagonal NZ (Zabeel), the equine king who once graced this famed farm, there’s a certain feeling that washes over you.
It’s a bit like being awestruck and starstruck all at the same time. You feel totally inspired to set foot on this hallowed ground that has been producing champion racehorses since it was established in the 1800s.
Watch: Jo McKinnon takes a tour of Woodlands
In 2008, a momentous take-over of this Thoroughbred territory took place. The Ingham family sold Woodlands, 1,000 horses, two horse studs, a pre-training farm and racing stables in Sydney and Melbourne to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum for more than $460 million. It was the end of an extraordinary era in Australian racing but also marked the beginning of an exciting new chapter.
A new chapter
Woodlands, situated in Denman NSW, is now home to some of global racing and breeding giant Godolphin’s most prized stock and this extraordinary environment and its facilities forms a vital cog in the wheel of its Australian operation.
Oft referred to these days as the “Blue Army”, Godolphin is currently the most dominant force on racetracks across the nation.
Under the leadership of trainer James Cummings and Managing Director Vin Cox, they have won just about every major race on the calendar this season. And since January their success with two-year-olds has been phenomenal with a clean sweep of the big three winning the $2 million Magic Millions 2YO Classic (1200m) with Exhilarates (Snitzel), the Group 1 Blue Diamond Stakes (1200m) with Lyre (Lonhro) and the recent Group 1 Golden Slipper (1200m) with Kiamichi (Sidestep).
From 152 juveniles in training this season they have had 108 runners for 25 winners including 13 at Stakes level.
This snapshot of their success with 2YOs in particular (compiled at the time of writing this article), is ominous for their opposition not just now but into the future as many of these highly talented horses will be sticking around for a while yet.
The Blue Army’s arsenal is the strongest it has ever been thanks to years of meticulous planning, heavy investment and second to none racing and breeding operations led by highly skilled, professional and passionate personnel.
One of those people is John Sunderland, the General Manager of Woodlands. The Irishman was handpicked to run the farm shortly after the Inghams handed Godolphin the keys in 2008. Since then he has been instrumental in shaping the infrastructure and unique systems that now play a significant role in the development of superior racehorses.
“It’s a bit like the Australian Institute of Sport and, as crude as that can be to say when you are dealing with animals, I talk about it in that terminology because what we are trying to do is fine tune them as athletes for the track. They are all animals but have different requirements so having that mentality helps you achieve those goals,” said Sunderland.
An eye for detail
John is deeply passionate about Woodlands, his role there and the dedicated team he has in place. His attention on the horses is bordering on, by his own admission, obsessive. Not much escapes his astute eye.
“I probably do get into trouble for it sometimes because I will pull up on the road and be watching the horses for a long time and all of a sudden you have lawn mowers and tractors banked up behind waiting to get through.”
"Our system is aimed to give every horse the best opportunity to be what they can be.” - John Sunderland
Jokes aside, he believes early paddock behaviour can sometimes be an indicator of what’s to come down the track.
“There is no logic and until they hit the racetrack we don’t know but our system is aimed to give every horse the best opportunity to be what they can be.”
“You see them playing in the paddocks and some will always catch you eye. Some horses stand out and then there are some that don’t do much at that stage and become top racehorses.”
A certain chestnut colt by the name of Sepoy (Elusive Quality) is a prime example of one of those surprise packets.
“When he came up (from Northwood Park, Victoria) for a year he was on a diet the day he arrived and didn’t do much in the paddock. He was relaxed and I guess that’s why he could be trained to win a Blue Diamond and a Golden Slipper.”
Diet is very carefully monitored and managed at Woodlands and many believe this gives Godolphin horses a definite edge in competition. Weanlings are placed into individual feeding pens for 15-minutes each day. This allows feeds to be adjusted according to specific needs if required.
"Each horse is an individual so it’s important to treat them like that." - John Sunderland
“If one needs extra, or less, we can adopt to that and some are slower eaters than others. Each horse is an individual so it’s important to treat them like that. At feed time individuals can still be horses in the paddock. The key factor with this is that they get nutrients but also camaraderie where they are grazing and wandering all day as a group.”
This system also has other benefits.
“In paddocks there is a definite pecking order that comes through and a lot of that is based around food. In this case they work out that they are going to get fed so why fight about it and this gives them confidence which is a big thing. They don’t get stressed about anything and they also get confident with the people handling them and realise they are not going to hurt them or stress them out. They also get used to being in a confined space which is what they face later on when they enter the racing environment.”
Throughout the day young horses are strategically placed in paddocks.
“Depending on their feed and exercise requirements they are put in either paddocks with lush feed or undulating areas. Some go into what we call Jenny Craig paddocks if they are horses that do a bit well in themselves.”
“We are very spoilt we have beautiful flats and undulating hills and paddocks in extreme cases for good doing horses. They can look after themselves without us interfering too much.”
“We are very spoilt we have beautiful flats and undulating hills and paddocks in extreme cases for good doing horses." - John Sunderland
The behaviour and development of every horse on the farm is a huge priority for John and his dedicated team.
“We bring it back to human terms, it’s like the AIS where every athlete has its requirements and our focus is to produce every horse to the best it can be. We have great facilities to work with and a great team work of people. All those things are the small parts that produce an article for the racetrack.”
The next phase
At 18 months of age horses are sent to Godolphin, Kelvinside, a 40-minute drive away, to begin the four-week long breaking in process. The Woodlands team like to have their precious babies as prepared as possible for this important next phase of their development.
“They have a mini-prep for a week to get accustomed as possible to things like leading, being rugged and wash bays.”
“We hand them a fit, athletic well-behaved horse and it’s rewarding to see the racing team weave their magic and have the luck to win a race." - John Sunderland
“They stay in the racing program from there and we don’t see them back here and we focus on the group for the next year.”
Whilst the young horses might have left Woodlands’ care and gone on to the big wide racing world, they are far from forgotten. John follows them closely and gets enormous joy out of seeing them perform.
“Usually I go with the intention of being calm and not too excited but adrenaline and a rush of blood all comes together and I get a bit excited. It’s important to appreciate if you get success because a plan doesn't always come together. I’m happy for us that we are all on the same journey together and it’s very rewarding to be involved.”
Lately John’s had plenty to get excited about with Godolphin enjoying unprecedented success.
“We hand them a fit, athletic well-behaved horse and it’s rewarding to see the racing team weave their magic and have the luck to win a race,” Sunderland says proudly.