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Limerick Lane is Gerry Ryan's slice of paradise

Take a look inside the private thoroughbred farm that is the home-away-from-home of Puissance De Lune.

CHALPAT SONTI December 13, 2012 11:16am

Troy Schlink at Limerick Lane with the horse the racing world can't stop talking about, the 2013 Melbourne Cup favourite Puissance De Lune.


The overwhelming sense to be felt at Limerick Lane is serenity.

Tucked away in behind the hill at the junction of Goulburn River and Hughes Creek, the 160ha (400acre) property is probably best known as the base for owner Gerry Ryan’s thoroughbred operation.

Gallery: See more photos of Limerick Lane here.

But it’s a lot more besides. Before he bought Mitchelton Winery, it was (and still is) where Mr Ryan grew about 4ha (10acres) of shiraz grapes — for wine that property manager Troy Schlink describes as ‘‘pretty good standard’’ for private use.

Then there’s about 60 Black Angus cattle — ‘‘they sort of pay the rates for us,’’ Mr Schlink says — and plenty of lucerne, grown in ideal conditions for use on the property.

And of course, there’s the horses. There’s up to 70 of those at various stages agisting and spelling during the year, largely mares and foals, yearlings and racehorses all wholly-owned or majority-owned by Mr Ryan.

There’s also a racetrack, once used to break in and pre-train young horses, but little-used now.

Then there’s the buildings. They’re all in the same style as that stone wall that greets you at Limerick Lane’s entrance — from the impressive residence where Mr Ryan stays during his visits to an equally-impressive ‘‘garage’’ next door, and the manager’s residence and the stabling and office area.

It’s all run by a staff of five, headed by Mr Schlink; two others work with the horses, and there’s a maintenance man and a full-time gardener.

The sense of peace at Limerick Lane might be heightened now that an incredible run of success on the racetrack has the blue-and-white checks and green sleeves that make up Limerick Lane’s colours greeting the judge more often than usual, but it wasn’t always this easy.

What you see at the property has stemmed from a lot of hard work — despite a seemingly perfect natural environment.

‘‘Pretty much when we started we had seven years of drought,’’ Mr Schlink said.

‘‘Trying to get stuff to grow was nearly impossible. Our water rights were getting cut in half and we were just trying to keep stuff alive.

‘‘The last couple of years we’ve had some decent rain and it looks a lot better.’’

The whole-farm operation is vital.

‘‘The cattle are a bit like a maintenance tool, we put them through the horses’ paddocks to tidy them up, and they do a great job,’’ Mr Schlink said.

‘‘Not only do they clean up the weeds, they save a lot of manpower. They’ve got quite a few different assets and are so easy to look after.’’

The same goes for the lucerne, probably the best hay for racehorses and a crop that loves the wet feet it gets near the water.

‘‘We got our first cut six weeks earlier than most, and in the paddocks as soon as you cut them certain spots come up green straight away.’’

Of course, it’s all made possible by the Goulburn River.

‘‘We’ve got a lot of different soil types here and also Hughes Creek. Probably 200 years ago this whole property might’ve been under water, and generally the farm stays a lot greener than others. It’s natural pastures, they’re all good and healthy, they regenerate well and give the horses the best start.

‘‘I’m a great believer that stock develops if you get that pasture into them.

‘‘But a lot of it is to do with management. You don’t trash the farm and we don’t overpopulate with horses.’’

Athletes galore

But when all said and done, Limerick Lane is largely about the horses — and Mr Ryan does things differently from many big owners.

For a start, despite it seeming like he’ll buy horses whenever and wherever, he runs his thoroughbred operations on business lines.

He spreads the team out among many different trainers: Darren Weir, Peter Moody, Robbie Griffiths, John Hawkes and Robert Kingston among others.

Perhaps most unusual of all, he breeds to sell. When he started out, the idea was to keep the fillies, hopefully building up a band of broodmares, and sell the colts. It’s what keeps many smaller breeders going and was also the case with Limerick Lane.

‘‘He’s not afraid to sell,’’ Mr Schlink said.

‘‘It’s a hard thing to do when you also race them, people think you’re keeping the good ones, selling the crap, but we probably dodged that by selling the colts and keeping the fillies.’’

Early on the operation sold Group Three winner Count To Zero and it has gone on from there.

‘‘Once people saw we were selling good ones it became a bit easier,’’ Mr Schlink said.

Group Three winner Shrewd Rhythm (placed in a Blue Diamond Stakes), Werribee Cup winner Apprehend, and Aurie’s Star Handicap winner Elusive Touch are some of the good ones, but there are the other types of sales.

‘‘If we’re racing them and we don’t think they’re city class we move them on, but it is before they bottom out so someone else can get something out of them,’’ Mr Schlink said.

An example was Arrived, out of Mr Ryan’s handy juvenile Firenza, which promptly won three in a row for its new connections.

Mr Ryan has built up a fine band of broodmares, including a personal favourite Shelbourne Lass. There’s Virage, the mother of flying fillies Avenue and Virage De Fortune, out of which yearlings have been sold. Hilfa, the mother of Walk With Attitude, which completed a unique family double by winning the same stakes race as her dam at Flemington for Mr Ryan on Melbourne Cup Day.

Avenue was recently sold but Mr Ryan has her first foal, a Street Cry filly.

It doesn’t stop there — others are Balcanny, the dam of Shrewd Rhythm and multiple stakes performer Dancescape, and Napa Sky, a royally-bred stakes performer and dam of Daybreak, one of the few homebred colts Mr Ryan has raced.

While best known as the part-owner of Melbourne Cup winner Americain, the horse that launched many raids by Australian owners on the entrants of staying races in Europe, Mr Ryan has also looked north for broodmares. An early foray resulted in Southern Bound, dam of stakes-performed Cash Bound.

But he’s still active at yearling sales, if sometimes indirectly. Greenedge, named after his cycling team, and the talented filly Le Societe, which broke down recently, are horses that have been brought ‘‘on spec’’ by trainers.

‘‘We might ring up a trainer and say ‘have you got anything that you might not have owners for’ if we want to get our numbers in work up — and it sometimes works out quite well,’’ Mr Schlink said.

The decision on which foals to mate and to what stallions is a team effort.

‘‘Gerry and I go through them, we use a computer program, Bloodhound, and have a few other people with a bit of input,’’ Mr Schlink said.

‘‘We gather all the information and decipher it. There are a lot of things — not only is it a good mating for the mare but is she the sort of mare that will sell next year — and my major part is the matching up of mares with stallions looking at the types the mare throws.’’

Mares are also sold when the time comes.

Solchow, a game Statue of Liberty mare which won almost $400000 on the track, was sold to Rick Jamieson, up the road at Gilgai Farm, last year. Others are sent to the Gold Coast in June.

‘‘We mate them to stallions that are doing well and sell them on if they don’t fit with what we’re doing,’’ Mr Schlink said.

 

The budding champ

At first glance, it’s hard to believe this little grey horse is the talk of the thoroughbred racing world — but take a closer a look.

Puissance De Lune has probably the ultimate build for a horse that is the favourite for the 2013 Melbourne Cup. Not for this Irish-bred son of Sharmadal the heavy shoulders and muscularity of a Black Caviar or any other top-class sprinter. No, rather than looking like the human equivalent of a 100m runner, he’s more akin to a Kenyan long-distance champion.

When the Telegraph saw him, a couple of weeks into a well-deserved spell at Limerick Lane following breathtaking wins in the Bendigo Cup and especially the Queen Elizabeth Stakes on the last day of the Melbourne Cup carnival, the stallion wasn’t sporting any more fat. Rather, he was still as lean as a rake, looking like he could go around Flemington again.

It’s easy to see where he gets the ability to — as jockey Glen Boss put it after the Queen Elizabeth — ‘‘let go like a Newmarket Handicap (sprinter)’’ at the end of a long race. Just think of those remorseless Kenyans, churning out the same sectionals at the start and end of a marathon.

But it’s not as easy, in the tranquil setting that is Limerick Lane, to see where his reputation for being a bit rowdy comes from.

Puissance De Lune — the name means ‘‘power to the moon’’ — might be a lad in the stratosphere of a big raceday, but he is down-to-earth in the spelling paddock.

Mr Schlink has him in a paddock by himself, and the only horse he can see is a young gelding in the next paddock.

But the youngster has probably got closer to the new wonder stayer than any of his rivals on the track in recent times.

‘‘He was brought to win a Bendigo Cup (Mr Ryan has always wanted to win his hometown race, which he sponsors), but fingers crossed he might do the Melbourne Cup as well,’’ Mr Schlink said.

 

A key to success

While Mr Ryan might be the public face of Limerick Lane, he’d be the first to admit the huge part Mr Schlink has played in its success.

Mr Schlink came to the region in October 2001, about 11 months after Mr Ryan bought the property. He had been managing an arm of the Newhaven Park stud in NSW but started out in South Australia.

He is the son of Adelaide trainer John Schlink, the perennial runner-up in the South Australian premiership when Colin Hayes was at his peak. The elder Schlink raced plenty of good horses, such as Our Sacrosanct, Apollo King, Casino Miss, Chapel Street and Windy Minx.

Troy Schlink has enjoyed managing Limerick Lane for most of its existence, and treasures the memories. A particularly poignant one was Americain’s 2010 Melbourne Cup win.

‘‘Dad used to dream of being part of the Melbourne Cup somehow and when Gerry had his private box for Americain’s win and we were there, I don’t think you can top that.

‘‘Then we did a bit of a tour of the pubs Gerry’s got in Melbourne after the win, with the Cup. People were gobsmacked. We had (the Cup) in the house for three days afterwards; it was a hell of an experience — just the celebrations, being in the industry you don’t realise just how much of a big deal it is everywhere else.

‘‘Sometimes you’ve got to pinch yourself in the morning. The people we’ve met (Melbourne Storm rugby league star Billy Slater is a regular visitor for the fishing, and country music diva Tanya Kernaghan was a recent guest), the expereiences we’ve had, it’s just unbelievable.’’

But the time has come to move on. Family reasons mean Mr Schlink will leave Limerick Lane next year, headed for a warmer climate. His replacement has a hard act to follow, but there are bound to be plenty of takers for the job.

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