Travellers often come to New Zealand for the landscape and lifestyle but it was opportunity that brought Curraghmore’s Gordon Cunningham down under.
Irish-born Cunningham has spent more than two decades in his adopted homeland and was recently honoured for his achievements in the thoroughbred industry with the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association (ITBA) Wild Geese Trophy, sponsored by The Aga Khan.
The annual award recognises an Irish horseperson who has represented their home country on the world stage with distinction, an accolade that Cunningham is extremely humbled by.
“It is a very special recognition,” he said. “I’m extremely humbled in way I have never felt before. I have had so many messages and acknowledgments from people near and far.
“Friends, family and all the people that have supported us over the years.
“This recognition is as much about New Zealand as it is about me. I’m just very fortunate I am here.
“There was never any decision as such to stay. Just one thing led to another and here I am.”
A grandson of the legendary Irish trainer Michael Collins, Cunningham’s overseas adventure began when he was working for Coolmore Stud in Ireland.
During the off season he was given the chance to travel to New Zealand and took up a position at Field House Stud with David Benjamin.
“Coolmore, like every farm, are quieter in the off season and they have always been focussed on growing their young people and finding them opportunities when it is not so busy on the farm,” Cunningham said.
“I was given the opportunity to work at Field House Stud for David Benjamin when they stood four stallions including the high-profile Sir Tristram horse Grosvenor.
“In my first season here I enjoyed the busyness of the work and I learnt an awful lot.
“I was lucky enough to be invited back the following year as broodmare manager which furthered my development.
“I have always been fortunate wherever I went. The Benjamin family and Colin Thompson who was our vet at Fieldhouse were always great to me.
“John Thompson and I developed a great friendship and the Thompson family, like the Benjamins, were so homely and welcoming.”
Following a third season at Coolmore and time in Kentucky, Cunningham returned to New Zealand and spent seven years from 1987 at the famed Waikato Stud in the capacity of Farm Manager.
“That’s a time that is very precious to me,” he said. “I basically had a free rein of a magnificent farm with a hot sire of his time in Pompeii Court. I was very young, it was a steep learning curve but we had a great team and the experience I gained advanced me greatly.”
When Waikato Stud changed ownership to the Chittick family 1994, his next step was to begin his own business.
“More and more New Zealand had become a big part of my life,” Cunningham said. “So this was a very natural progression to set up Curraghmore.”
Curraghmore was established in 1994, with its name derived from Curraghmore House and Gardens in Port Law, Co. Waterford in Ireland, and the operation was centralised to the current Te Awamutu-based farm in 2016.
Cunningham and the farm have developed a reputation for breeding, rearing and selling quality horses that perform at the highest level. The honour board boasts the likes of Melbourne Cup winner Efficient, and 19 Group One winners including Fairway, Unforgotten, Fanatic and Tofane and most recently Kahma Lass.
“There are a lot of people that have contributed to the development of Curraghmore and where it sits in the industry now,” Cunningham said.
New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association CEO Justine Sclater was delighted to see Cunningham recognised with the esteemed award.
“We were approached by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association to help collate the virtual award and do not think there could be a more deserving recipient than Gordon,” Sclater said.
“Gordon became an honorary member of our family (the Thompsons). Dad brought him home for dinner one night and it went on from there. Gordon was a big influence on myself and John and our decision to travel overseas.
“I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Cunningham is quick to downplay his achievements but admits he gets great satisfaction from not only the horses that have been a part of the Curraghmore system, but also the staff.
As one who has developed his career by making the most of the opportunities presented to him, it was instinctual for him to give young people the opportunity and support in the manner he’d been given.
A look at the list of New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association scholarship recipients attests to his commitment to developing young talent with several Curraghmore alumni on the honour roll.
Hannah Airey, Lisa Richards and Kyla Robb have all been a part of Cunningham’s team, as has Darley Flying Start recipient Emma Coleman and successful young industry participants Scott Calder, Todd Pollard and Chrissy Bambry.
“You can’t beat exposure to different ways of working with horses and processes,” Cunningham said. “Being prepared to work hard and put in is important but most importantly, to me, it is about wanting to learn and understand the horse.
“You can look anywhere in the world of horses and the most successful are usually those who are first and foremost are true horsemen.
“Over the years we have had so many young people work at Curraghmore that have made a great contribution and I get a great sense of fulfilment seeing my sons Patrick and Liam becoming more involved and learning in the same way.
“I get a great sense of satisfaction seeing all these young people in our industry progress, that is our future.”
It was opportunity that brought Cunningham to New Zealand but it has been his hard work and attention to detail that has seen him and his business thrive.
“I think I have been fortunate that I love what I do and I love the way we can breed horses here in New Zealand,” he said. “We can breed with confidence that we are going to get good horses.
“I’m very proud that Curraghmore has established itself as a good producing farm and we’re looking forward to raising our next top horse- that’s always our goal.” -Amie Best, NZTBA