From the lush green grass of Northern Ireland through the Dubai desert and high rises of Hong Kong, Saul McHugh has packed a lifetime of horse training knowledge into his 35 years.
McHugh had a solid head start: he is the product of several generations of accomplished horsepeople, was riding horses at age three and competing in flat and hurdle races before his 16th birthday. He was well on his way to a big career in his early 20s when a bad fall left him with a broken neck and no chance to ride races again.
That is when McHugh set off to travel the world, pursuing his dream of not just riding Thoroughbreds, but schooling and preparing them for a successful racing life. McHugh has brought all that insight to Canada now and in the fall of 2015, opened Global Equine Limited, a training centre that operates out of the impressive Kelynack Stable in Milton, ON.
“It is humbling to have such a quality of support for the business and it’s happened pretty quickly,” said McHugh. “Glenn Harvey [owner of Kelynack] made it possible and you wouldn’t believe the team of people who work with me, it’s a great team.”
One of the first things you notice when you meet McHugh, 35, is that he has a strong grasp of the details related to training, feeding and prepping racehorses. That quality likely came from his horseman and grandfather Felix O’Neil, an early teacher. He remembers the name of the first horse he galloped, Andromeda Gardens, when he was just eight-years-old, and he quickly became a successful show-jumping rider before pursuing his race-riding career.
It was soon after the biggest win of his career, the Walwan Challenge Trophy at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival riding Royal Predica, trained by the legendary Martin Pipe, when McHugh suffered the fall that broke his neck.
He had ridden some 500 races and won 182 and now had to find something else to do.
“That’s when I started travelling the world,” said McHugh. “I had an opportunity to work for the Maktoum family in Dubai for three years, came back to Ireland briefly and went to Hong Kong.”
McHugh worked for the Hong Kong Jockey Club as a work rider, steward and caretaker of Hong Kong horses that traveled for races in Australia. It was in Hong Kong where he met his future wife, Juliana Agostino, a teacher from Toronto.
When it came time for Agostino to return to her career in Toronto, McHugh made his first ever trip to Canada, first for a holiday and then, in the fall of 2013, to set up a home and look for work.
“I was given permission to walk around the Woodbine backstretch and the first person I met was trainer Phil Gracey. I started exercising horses for him and then Josie Carroll.”
It did not take long for McHugh to put together his own small breaking and training business, Global Equine Limited, and during the winter of 2015, worked with more than a dozen horses to work with at a client’s farm in Kettleby, ON.
He continued to work at Woodbine in the summer of 2015 when he heard about Kelynack Stables through trainer Ricky Griffith. The farm, an immaculate, 200-acre spread complete with a 5/8-mile track and state-of the-art barns, had very few horses in residence and Harvey was looking for someone to fill it up.
“I first got there and looked around and thought there was no way I was going to be able to afford setting up shop there,” said McHugh.
Harvey and McHugh worked out an agreement and at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s Canadian yearling sale in September, McHugh went in search of some clients. He ended up with almost 40 horses of various ages to break, train and rehabilitate.
One of the first team members on the scene for McHugh to prepare the large stable for big business again was Lee Small, a member of the successful Maryland family of horsemen that includes the late Richard Small.
Small was signed on as manager and son John Small plus Ryan Gaskin and Katy Morrison run the various barns on the property. Agostino is also an integral part of the business even with her own career as she works on banking and billing.
“It’s hard work for everyone,” said McHugh. “The farm life is much different than that at the track. It’s less hectic but can be a long day.”
On a recent January day at Global Equine, newly-turned two year old were being ridden under tack around an indoor oval which has a large equisizer in the middle. Older racehorses had been out for a romp in the snow or a light walk and jog around the expansive property and more than a half dozen yearlings were interested in the visitors.
When the majority of the horses of racing age leave McHugh’s care when Woodbine racetrack opens its backstretch for the 2016 season, McHugh is hoping to maintain a horse population to allow him to continue business throughout the summer.
The best advertisement for McHugh’s Global Equine, and what he works hard to accomplish, is healthy, happy and ready racehorses who thrive at the track.
“The best thing would be to see all out graduates go out and do well, perform with distinction,” said McHugh. “Then my great staff can give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.”