“It was a bit crazy,” Darragh Kenny laughs. We meet with him in Weert, Netherlands where the Irish rider is currently renting stables as he has moved more or less his entire business and team from the US to Europe for the summer. Kenny is not speaking about the mad logistics of this trip though, which counted thirty something horses going over, with students and staff alongside. No, he is telling us about how he started up his own business back in 2012 when he left Missy Clark and John Brennan’s North Run Farm – leaving the safety all behind, with nothing but his car and what was in it.
“I had no horses, no tack, no nothing – just a bit of money on my account that I had saved,” Darragh smiles. Kenny’s risks paid off though. Three years later, he runs one of the most successful competition stables in the US – Oakland Ventures. He has a hugely successful string of horses, is rank 37 in the world, is a sought-after rider and trainer – and has the 2015 Europeans in Aachen on his mind after finishing 12th individually at the World Championships in Normandy last year.
As for most, a lot of hard work is what got Darragh to where he is today. A good portion of talent also helped the now 27 year old rider. After doing two junior Europeans and a young rider Europeans, Darragh packed his stuff and went to America. “When I was sixteen I had a bursary to go to a trainer in America, so I went – but fell of a golf cart and ruptured my spline and could not ride for three months so I didn’t get to do the training. Two and a half years later I wanted to return, so my father called Missy Clark and asked if I could go back there to train and she said yes. I went there for two weeks, and after the first she asked if I wanted to stay for three months – so I did. Then I came back the next year for another three months, and then I was offered to stay full time and I decided that was a good idea,” Darragh tells.
That was the beginning of a very successful partnership. Two of the horses that was given Kenny to develop turned out to be the perfect match; Obelix and Gael Force. “Missy did so much for my career,” Darragh says – clearly grateful. “I ended up riding the 2010 World Cup Final in Geneva, and Nations Cup events in La Baule, Rome and St. Gallen on Obelix. I helped Missy and John with their clients’ horses, whether they were jumpers, hunters or for equitation. In return Missy pushed on for my career to develop, and she always tried to have some good horses for me. I was very lucky for four years, she put a lot of effort into my career!”
Darragh wanted to move himself even further forwards though. “I thought it was time to do something on my own. Missy and John taught me so much, and I was at a stage where I could take a bit of risk. I also knew I had the support of my parents, which really helped me a lot in making the decision to leave North Run behind,” he says looking back.
With the support from his family and the help of his friend Courtney de Hechavarria, Darragh started up on his own. “I also got a lot of help from our first employee Mavis Spencer. She worked extremely hard and really helped us a lot. We were doing all the horses together at the start – just the two of us, and went from scratch with working to find sponsors and getting everything we needed from buckets to bridles for the stables. I also had a good friend in Don Stewart, who is a trainer in America, and he helped us to have one or two clients to train – and from there on it developed,” Darragh says of the early days of Oakland Ventures that he now runs with his business partner Courtney.
“Mostly luck”. That is how Darragh sums up what happened next. Almost straight away, he teamed up with Sans Soucis Z – a horse that would turn out to be a super star. “The stable manager at the barn where Sans Soucis was at, asked if I could come help to ride some horses. I rode Sans Soucis once or twice, and then did two or three shows with him and he jumped fantastic – so his owner Caroline Loyd asked me to ride him. I am very lucky to have him,” Darragh smiles.
And Lady Luck had more in store for Darragh. “Craig, the manager from Hyperion Stud, asked me to ride a few horses for them. Imothep was not included at that time as Candice King was riding him. But, she had a bad fall from another horse and broke her collarbone. In her absence, I was asked to ride Imothep a few times just to keep him going. He went really well and I was lucky enough to keep him,” Kenny continues about the stunning stallion that was his partner at the World Championships last year.
Picking Picolo as the first purchase was also a good call made by Kenny. “Picolo was the first horse we bought after starting Oakland, and that was a very good decision. I called a good friend of mine in France – Alex Lireche. We do a lot of business with him and said ‘I want something really careful that can win a lot’. He told me about Picolo, I went to try him and loved the horse straight away. We bought him, and he has been non-stop winning since!”
“Without these horses, I think my career would have looked very different,” Darragh says.
The next winter season in Florida turned out to be a very good one for Kenny, and with his success Oakland Ventures started growing. Today it is a huge business, and the Irish rider is occupied with multi-tasking on a daily basis. “In addition to riding we do a lot of buying and selling horses, and I also do a lot of training together with two other trainers that work for Oakland; Stephen Moore and Tom Davidson. Courtney – my business partner – also helps to train when she is not running the rest of the business. For sure I want to concentrate on my career to try to get as far as I can, but I really like helping students to achieve what they want and I really like working with different horses.”
With such a full program, it’s hard to believe that a day can have enough hours for Kenny. He does not mind the whirlwind schedule though – not even the non-stop travelling. Last year Kenny had something like sixteen transatlantic flights between January and December. “I like to be doing something. I am very into the business, our clients, and the horses – so I like to keep doing stuff to make that better,” he smiles.
With so much travelling, Darragh finds that he is very lucky to have such a good team around him. "Delphine and the team run the stable here in Europe, keeping an eye on everything and making sure it all keeps going. They all work very hard to keep the horses looking and feeling good. They are very much a huge part of my success and how the business is running,” he says. “I think we all feel very much involved and pulling together in the same direction. We have a good friendship more than anything.”
Darragh now plans to stay most of the summers in Europe, and then spend the winter in Florida. “I think I am in a very lucky position now to have such a good group of horses and owners, and I have the opportunity to really push my career – and for sure Europe is the place to jump the best shows and I would like to do that,” he says about his return from the States. “It’s nice to be back. I love Europe and the focus there is on the sport here.”
With horses like Imothep, Sans Souci, Picollo, Chin Quidam, Gatsby, Belle Rock, Cohiba, Alpha, Valencia and younger talents like Idea and Dirocco coming up behind it does not look like the future can be anything but bright for Kenny. “They all have different qualities; I have the bigger and slower types like Imothep, Sans Souci and Cohiba that have all the scope in the world – and then I have the smaller, bloody and faster ones like Picolo, Belle Rock and Chin Quidam. So a good horse for me does not have to be a certain type; I go for the ones that jump clear rounds – preferably really fast,” he laughs.
“I have to say I have been very lucky with the people and the horses in my life,” Darragh smiles. “And, if you don’t have them – well then you have nothing.”
Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson / text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2015.
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