Damien's journey from newbie to horseman

Not growing up surrounded by horses has been no barrier for Arrowfield employee Damien Fitton, whose passion and enthusiasm for the thoroughbred industry has allowed him to establish a rewarding career. He recently returned home to Arrowfield having completed the Irish National Stud Breeding Course as a scholar sponsored by the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Damien was first introduced to the world of horse racing at a young age when he attended races on the weekend with his dad and brother. Attracted to the athleticism and energy of the horses, Damien found it wasn’t long until he was hooked and yearning to learn more.

As fate would have it, one day at the races Damien met trainer Gai Waterhouse and her then-Racing Manager, Bruce Slade. With enthusiasm and confidence on his side Damien spoke about his passion for the sport and his lack of experience with horses.

It was quickly organised that Damien would join the Waterhouse Stable to complete his Year 10 work experience and gain an insight to the industry. He’d never touched a horse before joining the Stable, but with the encouragement and kindness of Mark Newnham and a gentle mare by the name of Kontiki Dane, Damien was soon handling thoroughbreds with confidence.

At the end of his work experience Damien was even more passionate about the industry and planned to drop out of school to continue working. However, a stern word from Gai convinced him that finishing his education was important, and he commenced a school-based apprenticeship which saw him at school for four days a week with one day spent at the stables learning about the industry. In his school holidays Damien would pack up and head to the stables to pursue his practical education. After finishing school, Damien continued working with Gai and was promoted to  Foreman just after his 18th birthday.

Damien joined the Arrowfield team in 2016 to gain a more holistic view of the industry. “I joined Arrowfield because I wanted to learn about the other half of the industry. I was lucky to join a stud where I was able to participate in the full operation of serving, foaling and sales.”

Fellow workers who were graduates of the Irish National Stud breeding course told him about the program and Paul Messara encouraged him to apply. Paul nominated Damien for the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association Irish National Stud Scholarship and within a week of his interview Damien received the news that he was the recipient of the 2017 Scholarship.

Pictured:  HTBA Irish National Stud scholar Damien with Champion Sire Galileo at Coolmore Ireland. 

Life on the breeding program involved daily stud work as well as evening lectures and classes. Students were involved in assisting with daily vet work as well as night watch and foaling. A particular highlight of the course was when Damien foaled down one of the best National Hunt mares in Europe, Quevega, who gave birth with no complications to a healthy colt by Walk In The Park. In the classroom Damien particularly enjoyed John Osborne’s lectures on purchasing stallions, as well as lectures by veterinarians which provided him with a more technical understanding of the breeding process.

Damien has returned to Arrowfield with a new skill set and increased ability. “My horsemanship skills have definitely increased, and I am far more capable and experienced in all aspects of my job. In particular, I have a grounded understanding of the entire breeding process and I’m able to evaluate all situations with more depth having learnt the European ways of doing things and comparing those methods to those used back here.”

Damien also credits course co-ordinator Sally Carroll for encouraging him to step outside his comfort zone and increase his communication skills. “Whenever visitors were on a tour of the stud Sally would encourage me to explain processes to them. I had no previous experience speaking in front of large groups, but doing this really gave me a lot of confidence to talk to people and teach them about the industry.”

So far Damien’s Arrowfield highlight is being a part of the 2017 Magic Millions sales team, and seeing Dundeel become the Leading First Crop Sire by sale average. As for the future, Damien hopes to “continue learning and progressing within the industry. My long-term goal is to become a bloodstock agent.

“I am also very passionate about encouraging younger people to become involved with the industry. Coming from a background where I didn’t grow up with horses, I feel so lucky to now be involved with such a dynamic industry and I would love to encourage other young people to pursue this path too.”

When asked what the experience meant to him, Damien replied with a smile, “The Irish National Stud Breeding program allowed me to develop not only as a horseman, but as an employee and as a person. I will forever be grateful to the Hunter Thoroughbred Breeders Association for believing in me and for sponsoring me on this learning trip.

“I would also like to thank Gai Waterhouse for giving me such a good start, and John and Paul Messara for recommending me for the Scholarship and for encouraging all employees at Arrowfield to achieve their personal best. And finally to my family and friends – thank you for backing me always.”

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