“The King”, as he is often known, has had more influence on the development of the Irish Sport Horse and the Irish Draught breed than any other stallion in the last fifty years. The enormous number of claimed descendants (versus actual, which is still a very great number) is a testament to the desirability of having his name appear in an ISH pedigree, and many a horse advertised in the sales columns of the equestrian press is described as “believed to be a grandson/daughter of King of Diamonds”.
King of Diamonds was bred by the O’Neills at their Slyguff Stud in Co Carlow, Ireland, and was born in 1962. He was a bright chestnut, standing at almost 17hh, and is often described as having a “quirky” temperament - something that he may have passed down the generations, as many King of Diamonds’ descendants are noted not only for their talent and their jumping ability but also for their occasional bouts of “bloody-mindedness”. Loftus O’Neill described him as “impressive looking, he was always very proud and kept himself looking over the heads of everything else. You can see this even in the last photo taken of him less than a year before his death, while his body and topline is gone, he’s still a big proud horse. And he was a big man too at almost 17hh. But what made him special was that he passed this character on to his offspring”.
King of Diamonds was produced by John and Mary Hutchinson of Kilkenny and became a Grade A showjumper before returning to Slyguff Stud to take up his breeding career. The importance of tradition and family dynasties in the Irish horse breeding world is demonstrated by the fact that the O’Neills bred King of Diamond’s dam Ruby, whose sire, True Boy, was in turn bred by their cousin Jack O’Neill of Kilkenny from an old point-to-point mare, Biddens.
Above: King of Diamonds, less than a year before his death
Judging from the only two generally available photographs of him, “If he were to be presented at a stallion grading today, would he ever gain approval? I can certainly spot some fairly glaring conformation faults!” a well-known breeder and stud owner commented recently.
This question aside, the reality is that by the time of his death at the age of 29, King of Diamonds was the leading sire of showjumpers in Ireland.
He was ranked 7th in the world breeding rankings as a sire of show jumpers between 1990 and 1995, and dominated the Irish Studbook over many years, with more than 40 stallion sons or grandsons, bred either directly in the sire line or through his daughters.
Apparently it was rumoured that the inspectors were so overwhelmed by his reputation and the number of his supposed offspring presented for inclusion in the stud book, that they became a little lax in some that they passed!
His record is even more outstanding, as although he covered an average of 100 mares a year until he was twenty, many of the Draught and native mares brought to him would have been of mediocre or poor quality. In spite of this he managed not only to sire many offspring who went on to have careers in the international arena, but also to continue to influence the quality of the Irish Sport Horse two and three generations removed.
Although King of Diamonds was registered as a full Irish Draught, his pedigree contains a strong dash of thoroughbred through his dam Ruby. Ruby was bred by Loftus’ father Tom O’Neill and her sire True Boy was a half-bred horse who traced back to Kildare, a well-known ID who also appears on the topline of King of Diamonds’ pedigree. Her dam Biddens was a full thoroughbred, “which gave him quality” as Loftus O’Neill put it.
His sire, the Irish Draught stallion Errigal, only bred a small number of foals, but taking that into account, his legacy was probably quite as striking as his son’s.
Through his sire Silvermines, his pedigree contains the classic names in ID pedigrees – Galty Boy, Young JP, Young Sir Henry to name but a few. His daughter Warrington Lass bred Carroll’s Flight, an international showjumper, and Touch of Luck, who was exported to Sweden, and bred six foals all of whom went on to be successful at intermediate levels and above in dressage and showjumping.
Another Errigal son, New Chieftain, sired Gowran Betty, whose breedings to King of Diamonds produced the GP showjumper Flagmount King, and Flagmount Diamond, the sire of Nick Skelton’s Olympic horse Hopes are High, so doubling up on Errigal was obviously a good strategy!
Amongst “The King’s” best-known offspring is Special Envoy, who was successfully competed as a novice in Ireland by Marion Hughes, and then sold by her father Seamus Hughes to the Brazilian showjumper Nelson Pessoa. With Nelson he was second in the FEI World Cup Final in Göteberg in 1991 to John Whitaker on Milton, and then went on to compete under Nelson’s son Rodrigo, being placed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the 1994 WEG, was a member of the gold medal team at the 1995 Pan American Games and was 4th in the World Cup Final in Geneva in 1996.
Diamond Lad, another approved stallion son of King of Diamonds, was a successful sire in his own right, and his daughters are especially sought after in Ireland. He sired Heather Blaze, Diamonds Are Trumps, Kildalton Gold and Kildalton King. Mill Pearl, by King of Diamonds out of an ISH mare, was competed by Joe Fargis for the US, and was part of the Silver Medal team at the 1988 Olympics. Millstreet Ruby was an international showjumping daughter and multiple winner who bred a foal by Lux Z late in her life. Carroll’s Royal Lion, by King of Diamonds out of an unknown mare, was ridden by Eddie Macken, and the pair won many Puissance classes, setting an Irish record of 7’3” at the Royal Dublin Show in 1983.
The list of King of Diamonds’ offspring and their achievements goes on and on; his popularity as a sire is underlined by a 2005 RDS report with an analysis of mean kinship values revealing that 98% of the (then) current Irish mare population and 96% of the actively standing stallions were related to King of Diamonds and Pride of Shaunlara, both of whom descend from Galty Boy. (A narrowing of the gene pool which creates its own problems, of course). King of Diamonds has been described as the saviour of the Irish Draught as a breed, as a result of his prepotent jumping ability. He must certainly be one of the very few horses whose fame led to his being featured on a national postage stamp!
Above: Nick Skelton on Hopes are High
Above: Rodrigo Pessoa on Special Envoy