Meet the Coolmore stallion man who led Sadler's Wells and Galileo to greatness
James Thomas speaks to Noel Stapleton about a lifetime spent with champions
This article was first published in the Racing Post on February 17, 2021
Sadler's Wells and his most influential son Galileo have been the dominant forces among the stallion ranks over the last 30 years. Between them they have sired 162 top-flight winners, amassed 26 champion sire crowns and set all manner of records.
Somewhat remarkably, the same person has been on the end of the lead rein as both sires have shaped the very fabric of the modern thoroughbred, Coolmore stallion man Noel Stapleton.
Now halfway through his fourth decade at Coolmore, Stapleton, who recently turned 60, took his first steps into the equine world when working with the Irish draught mares that his uncle kept to breed half-breds.
In 1984 he took up a position working at a foaling barn run by Demi O'Byrne, a renowned vet who tended to champions such as Alleged, El Gran Senor, Storm Bird and Nijinsky during his time working for Vincent O'Brien at Ballydoyle. O'Byrne also became a key figure in the Coolmore buying team, purchasing the likes of Camelot, Dr Devious and Montjeu, and it was under his tutelage that Stapleton first honed skills.
"Demi is a legend himself, with the horses he's bought and as a veterinary practitioner," says Stapleton. "I got a good education there before I came to Coolmore. It was actually Demi who put me forward for the job here."
In 1986 Stapleton made the switch to Coolmore and around two years later became part of the stallion team, the year that Sadler's Wells' first two-year-olds reached the racetrack.
The dark bay with a distinctive white face was an almost instant success, with his initial juvenile crop containing Prince Of Dance and Scenic, who advertised their sire's talents by dead-heating in the Dewhurst Stakes. They were soon joined by other first-crop Group 1 winners in Braashee, French Glory, In The Wings and Old Vic, while the sire's second and third crops contained Salsabil, Opera House, Runyon and Saddlers' Hall.
As Sadler's Wells' journey towards greatness was being played out, Coolmore assigned Stapleton to care for the son of Northern Dancer on a permanent basis.
"As Sadler's Wells started to get more important they were looking for someone to go with him more or less all the time and I just happened to be put with him," says Stapleton.
"That was just when he started to hit the heights. They wanted someone who'd be responsible for him. That way, if anything was going to happen, you'd pick up on it quickly because you're used to the horse and how he behaves."
However, even after that promising start, no-one, Stapleton included, could have foreseen the epoch-making trajectory that Sadler's Wells' breeding career would take.
"He had the makings of a really good stallion and was getting a lot of good winners but nobody knew the legacy he was going to leave behind," says his former handler. "He just went from strength to strength. He was a phenomenal horse."
While under Stapleton's care, Sadler's Wells reached a tally of 73 individual Group/Grade 1 winners, with his progeny not only imbued with inherent class but courage and genuineness as well. Stapleton says those same qualities were on show day in, day out during his time at Coolmore.
"He was so easy to work with because he had such a good temperament," says Stapleton. "He was anxious to please and would do anything for you. He stamped all his stock as well, you could pass a field full of foals or yearlings and pick out all the Sadler's Wells [offspring] because he put so much of himself into his stock.
"He passed that on to Galileo, they both have this great way about them. That temperament is key; racehorses need that temperament to stand up to training and doing the same thing repetitively every day.
"The big thing with both of them is their routine. They both like everything exactly the same way as it was the day before, from the way they were exercised, the time they were exercised, and the time they were fed."
In 2002 Galileo joined the Coolmore stallion roster and spent six full seasons standing beside his sire before Sadler's Wells was retired from covering duty in mid-May 2008. Stapleton has been among the team responsible for Galileo since his arrival.
"Galileo is just like his father was," says Stapleton. "He's so intelligent, he may be even more intelligent. You know what he's going to do at all times, he's never any fuss. When you take him to the breeding shed he does exactly what you want him to do.
"That's something he breeds into his stock too, they have that temperament and constitution to do the same thing repetitively, going racing or going up the gallops, without ever getting stressed out."
Galileo, who has sired a world record 89 Group/Grade 1 winners, officially turned 23 on January 1 and has just commenced his 20th consecutive covering season. Stapleton reports the 12-time champion sire to be in fine fettle ahead of what can be an intense part of the year.
"He's in good form and hopefully he'll have another good covering season this year," says Stapleton. "His normal exercise routine is he'd go out for an hour in the morning, then at 11.30am he goes out for some hand grazing in the paddock, then in the afternoon he'd exercise again at about two, followed by some more grass. Basically we just need to get him fit enough to cover the mares, but he's an easy horse to do that with because he's still such an athlete."
Given the magnitude of their achievements, it would be easy for the responsibility of caring for the likes of Sadler's Wells and Galileo to weigh heavy on the shoulders of those working with them. Stapleton is plainly well used to the responsibility, but says the reactions of others often serve as a reminder of the scale of his duty.
"They're amazing horses and they're so valuable and you always keep that on your mind," he says. "But when it really hits home is when people come to visit the horses; when you hear them talking about the horses and see how excited they are to see them. We're privileged enough to look at them every day but for some people it's a once in a lifetime thing."
As well as handling Sadler's Wells and Galileo, Stapleton has seen first hand how the sireline has taken root, with Galileo having already produced 20 sons who have sired Group 1 winners of their own.
Among the Coolmore ranks alone there is the proven Group 1 sire Australia, as well as younger up and comers like Churchill, Gleneagles and Highland Reel waiting in the wings.
"The farm has been so lucky with the horses that they've had, there's been Danehill, Montjeu and Caerleon, who were all prolific sires," says Stapleton.
"After the heights Sadler's hit you imagine that things can't get any better and then along comes Galileo. It's hard to believe that the legacy has just kept going like it has, but we have so many sons here now that were all fantastic racehorses that we're hoping it'll continue."
This season sees Circus Maximus, the three-time Group 1-winning miler, join his sire Galileo on the Coolmore roster. Stapleton says of the new recruit: "They're very excited about Circus Maximus here because he was so tough and genuine. He's a good-looker with a big walk and a Group 1 winner from a great family to go with it.
"All the ingredients are there so we're very hopeful about him. All of Galileo's sons are the same way, they all have this temperament and are such tough, genuine horses."
Although Stapleton has enjoyed an especially close association with Sadler's Wells, Galileo and his sons, he stresses that caring for the Coolmore stallions is very much a group effort.
"It takes a lot of us to look after all the horses here and I'm lucky to work with such a good bunch of fellas," he says. "There's a wealth of experience in this yard and everyone has their own niche. Paul Gleeson has been here even longer than me, he must have been here 40 years or more. There's not much Paul hasn't seen!"
Stapleton emphasises that the nature of the role - encompassing as it does a degree of risk and a demanding, physical schedule - makes a strong team spirit essential.
"You have to be able to trust the lads you're working with," he continues. "Horses are unpredictable, especially stallions, so you need experience and people who are calm. The lads here now, not much would faze them. That said, you're always learning in this job and every day you pick up something new.
"The horses have to be looked after seven days a week, that means Saturdays and Sundays, exercising horses on Christmas Day and St Stephen's Day, and being out in all weathers. But if you like what you're doing there's no better job. If you don't, you won't last too long at it.
"It's a physical job and you have to keep yourself fit as horses are extremely strong so you need to be capable of handling them. It's probably not for everyone but I like the outdoors and I like horses - I probably wouldn't have lasted this long if I didn't!"
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