'Kayf Tara has carried the business and paid for a lot of my stupid mistakes!'
James Thomas speaks to Simon Sweeting about the Overbury Stud stalwart
Rewind the clock to 2001 and you would find Tony Blair is the prime minister, Britain and Ireland in the midst of the foot and mouth crisis and Kayf Tara would be just a few weeks into his first season at Overbury Stud.
The son of Sadler's Wells had plenty going for him as a dual winner of the Gold Cup hailing from a sublime Meon Valley Stud family, boasting Irish Oaks heroine Colorspin as his dam and fellow Group 1 winners Opera House and Zee Zee Top as siblings. But even with such cast-iron credentials few could have foreseen the soaring heights he would go on to scale.
Fast forward to the present day and Kayf Tara now has a record featuring ten Grade 1 winners, including the recently retired Thistlecrack, swashbuckling two-mile chaser Special Tiara, the hardy Edwulf and the promising Thyme Hill. Having been crowned champion British National Hunt sire on 11 occasions he undoubtedly ranks as one of the best jumps stallions to have ever stood in the country.
Kayf Tara's arrival coincided with Simon Sweeting leasing the stud from the Holland Martin family and setting up the Overbury Stallions business that now has a five-strong roster. He was launched at a fee of £3,000 and duly covered a book of 167 mares.
"It was our first year at Overbury and I was completely naive," Sweeting recalls of the 2001 covering season. "If I'd known how little chance we had of being successful with Kayf Tara I'd have probably never taken on the lease of the farm and started the whole enterprise.
"I didn't know what to expect - and maybe didn't know what I was doing - but he was extremely popular from the word go and the only shock we had was trying to get through all the mares. We were very lucky that he was able to cope with the numbers and still get them in foal. There are plenty of stallions who wouldn't.
"He sold himself and pretty much did everything for us. I'm not saying it wasn't hard work, but it certainly wasn't difficult - and with hindsight it was as straightforward as it can be. We didn't know that at the time of course, we were just doing what we were doing. We've been extraordinarily lucky for him to have largely carried us for the first 20 years in business, especially the first five years or so."
Sweeting continues: "He has carried the business through the difficult times and I always say he's paid for a lot of my stupid mistakes! Somehow the business has always been profitable and that's in no small part thanks to Kayf Tara being so popular from year one. There are 14 members of staff here and it's Kayf Tara who's provided a livelihood for those people."
Although something of a slow-burner on the racecourse, Kayf Tara proved an almost instant success at stud. In 2005, when his first crop were just three, he dropped the first big hint that he would prove something out of the ordinary when Ruby Wine provided her sire with his very first winner against esteemed company in the Listed Ballymacoll Stud Stakes.
"A three-year-old winning a Listed race isn't what we - or the market - were expecting, but it was an indication he could produce racehorses," says Sweeting. "That was the first indication he was going to be a decent stallion."
Those early crops also made their mark over obstacles in due course, with horses such as Slaney Novice Hurdle scorer Venalmar and Carruthers, who saw off Kayf Tara's Grade 1 winner Planet Of Sound in the Hennessy Gold Cup, soon capturing breeders' imaginations.
"There were some good horses bred from not fashionable, not expensive nor obvious mares," Sweeting says of those early years. "The one I always remember is Kayf Aramis - they were small breeders and hugely enthusiastic. They bred him and raced him themselves and he was Kayf Tara's first Cheltenham Festival winner. She wasn't a smart mare but it's great he gave everybody a chance to breed a good one."
Better books of mares, in terms of numbers and quality, soon followed on the back of those early exploits, and the big winners continued to flow with clockwork regularity. As well as his ten Grade 1 scorers, Kayf Tara can also lay claim to six winners at the Cheltenham Festival, three of which came during a stellar 2016 meeting when Thistlecrack landed the World Hurdle, Blaklion claimed the RSA Chase and Ballyandy struck in the Champion Bumper.
"It's so hard to have winners at Cheltenham that any success there is very special," says Sweeting. "You've got to enjoy those things when they happen. Seeing the top-class horses running week in, week out is the reward for all the hard work, and they're all special in their own way."
There will be the opportunity for Kayf Tara to add to his Cheltenham roll of honour in two weeks' time when the likes of Ballyandy, Master Tommytucker, No Comment, Southfield Harvest and Thyme Hill head for their respective targets at Prestbury Park.
Although declining fertility brought Kayf Tara's stud career to an end last year, Sweeting reports the 27-year-old in rude health and enjoying his well-earned retirement at the Gloucestershire farm.
"He's extremely well," says Sweeting. "He's out during the day and in at night and basically spends his days being spoiled. I think he's aware we've started covering again but it's not changing the way he behaves. He's softened a bit with age but his personality is absolutely the same."
Kayf Tara's progeny tended to possess a multitude of qualities, not least class, soundness, stamina and a zest for jumping. He also instilled a toughness into his sons and daughters that Sweeting says was in evidence from the horse himself on a day to day basis.
"He was always very territorial, in the stable he wanted you to know who the boss was," says Sweeting. "His paddock is behind our house and our children wouldn't go in there without me if he was there. We've seen him chase foxes out of there and kill our chickens when they've wandered in.
"He was lucky because Dan Matty looked after him pretty much from the time he arrived, and that's a really important relationship between the stallion and the person looking after him day to day."
While Kayf Tara may have put the horsemanship of those who worked with him to the test, Sweeting says that in the place that mattered most, the breeding shed, he was the consummate professional.
Although Kayf Tara's time on active duty may have come to an end, the nature of National Hunt breeding means we will still be able to enjoy seeing his runners for many years to come, not least as he covered 274 mares across the three seasons he stood at £10,000 between 2017 and 2019.
His broodmare daughters are also starting to come to the fore too, and those residing at Overbury are helping the farm's other National Hunt stallions to pick up the baton from Kayf Tara.
Sweeting says: "We've got Schiaparelli, who keeps on producing lovely horses like Indefatigable and Ronald Pump, and Frontiersman is coming along well too.
"Obviously we have Jack Hobbs too; he's in his fourth season now and we're really excited about the mares he's covered and the stock he's produced so far. We're not going to know for another couple of years whether they're any good or not, but everything is pointing in the right direction for him at the moment. Making these stallions is a slow process but we're happy with how things are going."
Overbury is also home to two Flat sires in Cityscape, source of 22 stakes performers and a snip at just £4,000 for 2021, and promising first-crop sire Ardad, who has around 90 juveniles to run for him later this year.
"His two-year-olds are exciting and the trainers and breeze-up vendors are very happy with what they've got at the moment," says Sweeting on Ardad's debut crop.
"They've got to do it on the racecourse now, and with a horse like that you'd expect them to do it fairly early on in the season. He's got some nice horses with trainers like Richard Hannon, Archie Watson, Clive Cox, Richard Fahey and Kevin Ryan, so they're in the right places.
"Mick Easterby has got four two-year-olds by him and is sending four mares to him this year, so that's a good vote of confidence!"
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