Living legends and celebrity stallion welcome visitors again

living-legends-and-celebrity-stallion-welcome-visitors-again

Different things make us excited these days. If you had said, 14 months ago, that a visit to a heritage garden and the prospect of looking at newborn foals would be the social highlight of my April thus far, I’d have thought my life was a bit sad. But a visit to the Irish National Stud and Gardens was a delight – to be out and seeing something new.

After a long period of lockdown, some outdoor facilities finally began to reopen this week. The Taoiseach turned up at Dublin Zoo to offer his support, and a fine opportunity for press photographers to monkey around. In Cork, Fota Wildlife Park also reopened. Golf courses opened. So too did tennis clubs. The Office of Public Works (OPW) reopened an additional number of parks and heritage sites around the country, although all of their buildings remain closed and there are no tours, even outdoor ones.

The Irish National Stud and Gardens, in Tully, Co Kildare, was one of the places that reopened to the public on Monday (although the grounds had remained accessible throughout lockdown to about 1,400 season membership holders).

“We had our best ever year in 2019 and had great plans for 2020,” says Ellen Mitchell, the organisation’s marketing executive. In 2019 they took in 140,000 visitors. More than half that number were international tourists on coach tours; a cohort who won’t be visiting Ireland in any significant numbers for some months yet.

It’s a gloriously sunny day and people are arriving with picnics and with small children bursting with energy. The car park is close to full. The cherry blossoms are beginning to drift their pink snow. The Japanese Gardens, laid out over a century ago by Tassa Eida, are pristine. Most of the 40-plus full-time staff here remained working throughout the latest lockdown: gardens still need to be maintained, horses fed and foals helped into the world.

“We never knew when things might open up again, so we had to keep operating on the grounds that we were ready to go at short notice,” Mitchell says. With the site occupying 800 acres, there’s a lot of maintenance.

The restaurant is closed for indoor dining but there is a short takeaway menu for an ad-hoc picnic outside. No sushi on offer despite the Japanese-themed garden, but there are local Newbridge sausages and skinny fries for €5.50.

In addition to the gardens, with its original bonsais, maples and stonework imported from Japan a century ago, there is also St Fiachra’s extensive wild garden. But at its core the place is all about horses.

Whether it’s retired racehorses, stallions for hire for breeding, or the hundreds of foals born each year, there are reminders everywhere of the country’s international horse-racing profile. On the day I visit, 243 foals have been born here this year. Last year, 265 were born.

The stud has a field that is home to what they call Living Legends – retired racehorses with many gongs between them. Kicking King, Rite of Passage, Hardy Eustace are all peacefully grazing in the sunlight as we walk past. Even I, with my sparse knowledge of horses, recognise the name Beef or Salmon; possibly the most Irish in-joke of equine names. “Americans get very confused about the name,” Mitchell laughs.

Irish Racehorse Experience

Last year was to be a landmark year for the National Stud, as they were ready to open a new attraction on site: the Irish Racehorse Experience. It was completed just as the country went into the first lockdown. Not a single tourist has yet passed through its doors, though it now features on the organisation’s promotional leaflet. It will open only when restrictions lift to allow access to indoor activities.

Although they have yet to launch the Irish Racehorse Experience, Mitchell walks me through it. A combination of interactive technology and hands-on experiences, it explains with entertaining clarity the varied elements associated with breeding, training and racing a successful horse. The physicality of the noble beast is showcased too, with a life-sized equine heart you can actually hold, to demonstrate the powerful way it pumps blood around the body.

Then there’s the process of buying a horse, with a virtual auction ring, while betting is covered from two angles: a bet by a punter that went very wrong and another that went a lot better.

You can even race your own horse at the end. That part combines technology with an actual physical experience so comedic that I predict it will make everyone who participates enjoy one of their best post-lockdown laughs.

The fields are filled with mares and with foals lanky as giraffes. These are the possible winners of tomorrow, in racecourses with famous names. See the Stars wobbled around these fields as a colt. He went on to win the Epsom Derby, the 2,000 Guineas and the International Stakes, among many other races.

The newest foals are still in their stables, less than a day old. “For some reason, most of them are born at night,” Mitchell says. “Every mare is checked every 20 minutes at night in her stable. During the day, when they are out in the fields, someone has to go round the field on a bike every 20 minutes to keep a watch out.”

Celebrity stallion

The National Stud’s most valuable asset is the celebrity stallion Invincible Spirit, who looks at us from behind the safety of two fences. If he was a person he’d probably be wearing designer gear and crazily expensive trainers and enjoy a rock-star lifestyle.

Being a horse, he’s not bothered with clothes of any kind or knocking back champagne. But he does earn €80,000 for his shareholders every time he “covers” a mare, which is polite language for horse sex. In season, he does a lot of covers. “The fee was €100,000 last year, but we dropped our prices due to the pandemic,” Mitchell says.

Walking back to the entrance, she greets a couple who are wandering around, with the look of people slightly dazed to be looking at a garden not their own. “It’s great to be welcoming people back,” she says, with an enthusiasm no doubt echoing everywhere people are currently reopening their recreational activities.

Other places around the country that are open to visitors – but only their grounds – include Malahide Castle and Newbridge House and Farm. This week, the OPW announced a list of 48 parks and heritage sites with outdoor spaces that will open this weekend. They include Kells Priory, Trim Castle, Nenagh Castle, the gardens of Doneraile Court and Garnish Island. Visitor centres remain closed at all locations, as do all indoor locations, such as Kilkenny Castle, Glebe Gallery, Farmleigh House, Emo Court and Derrynane House. Newgrange remains closed completely. Cafes are open for takeaway.

For a full list of OPW partially-opened sites, see heritageireland.ie.

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