sunny spring weather and the chance to see some of the best stallions in the
world made the Hunter Valley a very special place to visit last weekend.
With the covering season set to commence this Saturday on September 1, there is almost an air of 'calm before the storm' found at studs around Australia.
The major farms seize this brief window of opportunity between when the shuttle stallions arrive and when they actually start work to showcase their farms and sires to the public with a series of open days and stallion parades aimed at fostering good relations with the many broodmare owners whose favour they need to survive.
My tour around the Hunter started last Friday with a visit to Widden Stud, the oldest family owned and run thoroughbred stud in the world.
Seven generations of Thompson's have done a remarkable job in creating a world renowned business, but at the same time preserving all that is unique in this pristine environment of the Widden Valley.
Antony and Katie Thompson host a series of parades and lunches each year that set a high standard for all those that follow and this year was no different.
The stallion roster is strong on colonial speed and toughness with Golden Slipper winner Stratum the headliner, while Sebring and Northern Meteor are poised to be soon nipping at his heels.
The two young guns had large numbers of yearlings sell for big money earlier this year and reports from the track would indicate the pair may well fight out the battle to be Champion First Season Sire for 2012/2013.
It's an exciting time and even more so for John and Anne McDonnell, who were in the ownership of Sebring and were at Widden Stud last Friday.
The McDonnell's retained shares in Sebring, have bought several of his yearlings and also have a new foal (pictured) born this spring by him that they bred themselves.
"It's been the most amazing experience and it's still going," said Anne McDonnell.
"I've just been up to see the new foal, she's gorgeous! We had her mother with Gai, Dream 'n' Believe, but she wasn't really doing what we had hoped and when Gai rang and said 'I think she wants to be a mother' it was the obvious thing for us to send her to Sebring."
From the oldest stud to the newest, Henry Field's Newgate Farm, was the first port of call on Saturday morning with a visit to inspect their foundation sire Foxwedge(pictured).
A brilliant Group I winning son of champion sire Fastnet Rock, Foxwedge has lost none of the good looks that made him a $925,000 Inglis Easter yearling and was calm and confident in his new surrounds.
"He has the best temperament as you can see," said Henry Field.
"He'd be more likely to lick you than bite you!"
The Vinery Stud breakfast is a highlight of any Hunter Valley tour and they have some super stallions as well, so it's always a must to attend.
On the morning of our visit, two of their stallions in Testa Rossa and Congrats (USA) had just posted Group I victories in the Northern Hemisphere overnight courtesy of Ortensia and Turbulent Descent, so there was a definite buzz in the crowd.
The parade was bookended by the newcomer Pluck (USA) (pictured) and his famous father More Than Ready (USA), so if you can't afford the latter at a fee of $121,000, then the former at a fee of $11,000 is well worth a look.
From Vinery it was on to Arrowfield and while we missed the full parade this year, we think we may have found something better.
Arrowfield adopted a more informal approach this year with an 'open house' policy designed to allow visitors to come at times that suit them and look at the stallions they want to see up close and personal.
The new boys Smart Missile (pictured below) and Gio Ponti (USA) were obviously being kept busy and with good cause as they are physically impressive horses with much to offer, while the opportunity to have a pat and a cuddle with Redoute's Choice and his sire sons Snitzel and Not a Single Doubt is something my children will remember for a long time.
"We think it's worked really well for us this year," said Stud Manager, Sam Fairgray.
"We have the stallions in the boxes in the morning and then put them out in the paddocks in the afternoon and we still take people down there to see them while they are out.
"They seem a lot calmer and we've had a lot of very positive feedback."
At age 16, Redoute's Choice is in top form with a stakes double at Warwick Farm last Saturday courtesy of Dystopia and Albrecht, who was one of three Darley bred and owned stakes-winners on the day joining the evergreen Pinwheel.
Darley of course, was the next stud on our tour, and when they say the gates open at 12.30pm, they mean it!
A long line of cars snaked along the road in both directions from the Darley main gates as we waited patiently for the men in blue to let us through, but any anxiety was quickly eased by a glass of French champagne on arrival.
A Darley stallion parade is a mix of 'Hollywood and horses', the grass is super-green, the horses super-shiny and the TV screen showing their big race wins is super-sized.
The parade moves quickly from one champion sire or racehorse to another, the workmanlike Commands, the regal English Derby winner Authorized (IRE), the raw power of Street Cry (IRE), the rock star persona of Medaglia D'Oro (USA), the drop dead glamour of Lonhro and finally Darley's homebred champion Sepoy (pictured) .
Even a person that has no interest in thoroughbreds, could not help but enjoy a Darley stallion parade and the audience covered a wide cross section of people including Victorian owner breeder Joan Walker, who sat next to me.
Mrs Walker bred and raced the great stayer Reckless, who was trained by the late Tommy Woodcock and won the Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide Cups as well as finishing second to Gold and Black in a Melbourne Cup.
"I have one mare Jaywalk and I haven't decided just yet what she'll go to," Mrs Walker said.
"I was really keen on New Approach, but I've left it too late and now he's booked out, but I'm still looking forward to seeing him at the Darley parade in Victoria on Sunday."
Another perfect morning on Sunday made for a memorable trip to Coolmore where there was always going to be only one star of the show.
So You Think (pictured) is the best racehorse to come out of this country in a very long time and while we know he was bred in New Zealand, I think we all consider him to be one of us.
The 10-time Group I winner closed a star studded parade that also featured reigning champion sire Fastnet Rock, past champion sire Encosta de Lago and his own sire High Chaparral (IRE), not to mention Champion US 2YO Uncle Mo (USA) on his first visit to our shores.
There is a great deal of affection out there for So You Think and there probably has not been a horse since Lonhro that has gone to stud carrying such a heavy weight of public expectation and anticipation.
Respected bloodstock identity James Bester hosts the Coolmore parade every year and while we are used to his dulcet tones extolling the virtues of this champion and that, with So You Think we all actually stopped to listen and admire a horse that has done us proud at every turn.
"Bart Cummings believes this is the finest thoroughbred he has ever seen or trained," Bester declares… and in that moment we believe it too.