To mark this month’s National Racing Week, Barbara Young talks to Ben Atkins, stud director at Fairfield Stud, which opened in Willoughton earlier this year.
The elegance, intelligence and majesty of Thoroughbreds has long held a fascination for Ben Atkins, whose forward-thinking vision has created a centre of equine excellence at the historic Fairfield Stud, near Gainsborough.
Originally built in the 1950s, when it was known as Limestone Stud, it became one of the most prominent British breeding operations in the 20th century.
It was put on the horseracing world map by renowned sheep and cattle breeder Clifford Nicholson, founder of the Injured Jockeys’ Fund.
A keen racehorse owner, Clifford Nicholson bought thousands of acres of land in Lincolnshire at knockdown prices during the 1930s and ’40s and the stud went on to stand a number of famous stallions, including 1960 Gold Cup winner Sheshoon – the sire of Sassafras, who beat Nijinsky to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The farm changed hands following Nicholson’s death in 1972 and ceased standing stallions in the 1990s. Today it is owned by Graham Rowles Nicholson and has been leased to 34-year-old Ben Atkins, who is keen to share his passion for the Thoroughbred and promote this esteemed breed.
This summer Ben took over the reins and rebranded the business, relaunching it as a mixed Flat and National Hunt operation, boarding and foaling mares and rearing young stock, as well as providing expert sales preparation.
Operational since July, Fairfield Stud is a stunning facility with exceptional grazing on limestone enriched land, with 65 brick built stables and all the facilities you would expect of a top Thoroughbred stud and pre-training yard.
Ben, who was born in Nettleham and has a successful background in event management, admits that although he doesn’t come from a horsey background and only started riding later in life, this hasn’t stopped him from formulating a plan to deliver his dream.
“Fairfield Stud was built some time ago and operated very successfully as Limestone Stud. At the beginning of this year, the opportunity presented itself to lease the yard from the estate and build the business in what is a fantastic yard in a lovely corner of Lincolnshire,” explains Ben.
“The facilities were all in place when we relaunched and rebranded, but we have spruced things up and re-worked how some of the buildings are used, adding an office and a tack room among other improvements.
“Lincolnshire is a great place to live and to do business – if nothing else, the access to most of the country from our base at Willoughton is fantastic.”
Passion for racing
Ben’s respect for the blue-blooded equine kings of the turf shines through when he discusses how the idea for the reborn stud came about.
“I love Thoroughbreds for their natural elegance and their willingness to learn. My experience of riding and training Thoroughbreds is limited due to the stage at which I came to them, but what I lack in experience I make up for in passion for the game,” he explains.
“I have run syndicate, bought and sold horses of all types and had horses in training – both with point-to-point trainers and trainers operating under Rules.
“I’ve been managing a good number of horses across a few yards for a number of years, so it felt very natural to consolidate that and have a base from which to run my own bloodstock endeavours, and to take strides towards being a fully functioning stud so that we can help others fulfil their ambitions with horses of all kinds.”
Although Ben and his team offer a number of professional services, he says the focus always remains on every equine in their care being treated as an individual, with each having their specific requirements met during training.
There are currently four yard staff, three freelance riders and Ben, who all share the day-to-day running and training operation at the stud.
“I also have an assistant who is keeping a keen eye on the logistics of the yard and ensuring the wheels are well oiled,” explains Ben.
“Communication is at the centre of a good business. That starts with the team, but is even more important where clients are concerned. We always operate as a team and look after each other – safety is not an afterthought.
“Essentially, we are in the entertainment business, therefore all clients must be made to feel extremely welcome, well informed and entertained.
“We also have an end goal in mind for every horse, which informs our daily decision-making process. This could be winning the Gold Cup, or a happy retirement, but it must be identified and kept in mind, every day.”
Ben has lived in many places during his career, “but nearly exclusively under the flight path of the Red Arrows in West Lindsey”. He has no regrets about taking the decision to follow his heart and focus on his racing interests.
“I have run an events company since the age of 17, in and around Lincoln and as a freelance with events nationwide and as a consultant which I’m still involved with.
“Fundamentally, I love horses, love racing and love most things about the industry so it feels very natural. I am involved in other businesses but I just felt it was time to formalise the equestrian side of my life.”
It comes as no surprise that the eight strong team at Fairfield Stud share the same ethos to provide excellent bloodstock services for external clients.
“We currently have 25 horses on site, but this fluctuates. With 65 stables available, this leaves enough free to allow rotation, which allows us to be diligent in terms of bio-security and generally good housekeeping.”
Ben says the team is passionate about every facet of life with horses, but racing in particular.
“We want to help facilitate breeding, support racing and focus on aftercare and retraining in an industry where traceability and transparency is becoming a key focus.
“We run a boutique breeding, pin hooking [buying Thoroughbred foals aged between six and eight months old and selling them as yearlings] and racing operation under our own brand.
“Pre-training is about getting horses used to being in work, or back into work and comfortable with the routine of the yard; being in and out of stables and around other horses for example.
“For some trainers, they need horses to gain or lose weight to arrive in the right condition, but we can get a lot of fitness work done at the stud before the horses enter full training.
“The focus is always on the horse and we are all clear about and guided by our shared core principles.”
Looking ahead, Ben and the Fairfield Stud team are set on maximising the potential of the venue, as well as its extensive facilities.
“We are in love with this incredibly well thought through and fantastically built yard, with excellent grazing.
We plan to maximise its potential through creative use of the venue, and offer ancillary services and transport hire.
“The ambition is to develop a sustainable, healthy stud business that engages with the horse industry nationally and local equine community and is excellent in all that we do.
“Horses are a great leveller and a fantastic way to make sure your feet remain on the ground. Being able to deal with situations the same on good days and bad days is the key.
“There is some amazing work being done industry wide, and some exciting initiatives in the pipeline to ensure racehorses have the best possible care during and after their careers.”
For more information visit www.fairfieldstud.co.uk
Photographs: Longotano Photography