HomeCoverBelieve in the Unimaginable – Al Noor Miralena

Believe in the Unimaginable – Al Noor Miralena

At the Arabian Breeders’ World Cup in March, all eyes were on one yearling filly. One of the youngest horses in the show, not yet a full year in age, Al Noor Miralena represented the hopes and dreams of her breeder, Sherry Conrads. Leaving the show with two titles to her name – including that of unanimous Emirates Global Cup Supreme Filly Champion – it was clear a superstar had been born.

Sherry’s story is one full of hopes and dreams coming true. Now 74 years of age, the breeding of, and subsequent success of, Al Noor Miralena results from her friendship with two icons in the Arabian breeding world – the late Sheila Varian from Varian Arabians, and the owner of Om El Arab, Janina Merz, daughter of the late Sigi Siller. Without these two women, plus the legacy of Sigi herself, and without Sherry’s vision, Al Noor Miralena would not exist.

Al Noor Miralena Sherry Conrads The Arabian Magazine
Al Noor Miralena (Om El Maximus x Balajka V). Credit Kelly Campbell

Every breeding story begins with the mare, and for Sherry, that is Breathless V, bred by Sheila. This is a mare with a rich heritage, going back to the immortal Balalajka (Amurath Sahib x Iwonka III) from Poland’s iconic ‘B’ line and dam of the legendary Bask (by Witraz). Breathless V is out of Bint Balalinka V (Huckleberry Bey x Balalinka), a line that includes Varian greats from Sheila’s coveted stallion line such as Huckleberry Bey, son of Bay el Bay by Bay-Abi (Errabi x Angyl; this is a damline infused with richness. Breathless V herself is sired by Sheila’s last great stallion, Jullyen el Jamaal (by Ali Jamaal) out of the revered Jullye el Ludjin (Ludjin el Jamaal x NV Justa Dream); it is noteworthy to add here that Ludjin el Jamaal’s dam, Lydira el Shaklan (El Shaklan x Lydia) was bred by Sigi.

Balajka V with Al Noor Miralena. Credit Kelly Campbell

Looking to the sireline, we come to the stallion for the future, Om el Maximus. He is a son of the straight Egyptian sired Magic Magnifique (True Colours x Magic Mon Amour), and out of one of the most special damlines at Om El Arab, being out of Om El Bint Beneera, daughter of Estopa’s last foal, Om El Beneera, a mare who appears on both sides of Al Noor Miralena’s pedigree. Om El Bint Beneera is by Om El Shahlimar (Sanadik El Shaklan x Om El Shaina), while Om El Beneera is by Sharem El Sheikh, the result of the Golden Cross of this Egyptian stallion over the Spanish mare Estopa, who founded the Om el Arab dynasty.

Om El Maximus Om El Arab The Arabian Magazine
Om El Maximus. Credit April Visel

What makes Al Noor Miralena so incredible is that she came from not only Om El Maximus’ first foal crop, but from his very first collection. Many breeders and stallion owners wait a lifetime for such a foal, but Om El Maximus hit the spot from the off and has done ever since; Miralena has a younger maternal half-brother, the black colt Al Noor Suleiman waiting in the wings. More of him later…

A lifelong dream
Sherry tells me that her passion for Arabian horses began when she was 10 years old. “My father bought my sister a beautiful half-Arabian/half-Morgan coal black Arabian gelding named Dan. Good for me, Dan was too much for her to handle, so I traded my saddlebred gelding for her beautiful black half-Arabian. That was how I got started with Arabians. While Dan was registered with the AHA, they didn’t list his sire or dam, so I don’t know his breeding. He was one of the most beautiful half-Arabians, or Arabians, I have ever seen, and I adored him.”

Sherry’s family then moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Cypress, Texas, where they were close to the famed Gleannloch Farms. “My dad would take me to look at Surf (Sureyn x Jubilema), a Crabbet-bred stallion,” Sherry recalls. “Surf lived out in the pasture with his band of mares, and he was the most beautiful dapple-grey Arabian stallion. To this day, I am a little in awe of the memory of this stallion running in the field with his mares.

“It was also here that I got my first experience with Egyptian stallions, as I was there when Morafic (Nazeer x Mabrouka) arrived. Mr Marshall, owner of Gleannloch, brought in these horses from the Egyptian Agriculture Organization (EAO) in Egypt, including some amazing fleabitten mares. They were so dry, and I could just imagine them coming out of the desert. It was awe-inspiring.”

Sherry’s dad bought the sisters two registered quarter horses, who they bred to Surf, although neither conceived. “So, that was first – and last – attempt at breeding an Arabian for many years!” laughs Sherry. “When I was 19, if anyone had told me I would have a life without Arabian horses, I would have told them they were crazy – there was just no way! I was one of those horse-crazy girls that never got over it and, at 74, I am still not over it! I passionately love the Arabian horse. But I met something that I loved even more and that was my husband, Bob. We married at 20 and I spent the next seven years supporting our family while he completed his graduate studies at Georgia Tech and at Harvard.”

The couple moved to California, where they had their two sons, Jim and Ted, before moving to Connecticut. Sherry tells me: “Long story short, I devoted myself to my children, completed my education, and kept very busy with a steady stream of volunteer activities, including managing two Olympic campaigns and taking my son, a gifted sailboat racer, and his crew/ friends to Australia, Belgium and Germany, and all over the USA to sail. So, my life went by without horses.”

This all changed when Sherry was turning 60 and she met Sheila Varian at the Scottsdale Show, where they went for dinner together. “I explained I knew all about Bey-Abi and her ranch in Arroyo Grande, and Sheila said to me: ‘you need a horse!’ She invited us to her farm and showed us geldings. I told Sheila that all my life, I had dreamed of breeding Arabian horses, so if I ever got a horse, it would be a mare.”

On Sherry and Bob’s third visit to Varian Arabians, Sheila said: “You know, I’ve got you figured out. You don’t want to start down low and work your way up.” Sherry replied: “Sheila, look at me! I don’t have time to work my way up. I want up!” With that, Sheila told Sherry that she had three three-year-old fillies, all of equal quality and price, and that she would sell Sherry one of them.

“I walked down to the barn by myself and there was Breathless V,” smiles Sherry. “She was like a dream come true! Bob bought her for me for my 60th birthday present. She is now retired, at Diane Brown’s Antheia Arabians, enjoying the beautiful green pastures with Diane’s retired gelding. Breathless has brought me nothing but 14 years of joy.

Bob and Sherry with Breathless V. Credit Conrads Archives

“When Sheila was passing, and I was with her when she passed, she suggested that the very best place for me to continue my breeding programme was at Om El Arab. She and I went down to meet Sigi and Janina, and together we chose Om El Bellissimo to breed to Breathless. After Sheila passed, I moved to Santa Ynez and bought a little ranch house and started working with Janina to breed Breathless and another mare I purchased from Varian, the 2014 Siri V (Hariry al Shaqab x Santa Barbara Juell V). With those two mares, plus foals from surrogate mares with embryos I bought from Janina, I have built up a small collection of what I believe to be very high quality fillies, soon to be breeding mares, at Om El Arab.

The resulting foal for Breathless was Balajka V, with Sherry adding the V at Sheila’s invitation. “I chose Bellissimo because he was linebred and he was very typey for the characteristics I needed for Breathless. When Balajka was born, I was dumbfounded as all those things I wanted to improve with Breathless happened – length of neck, beautiful head, big, black, beautiful soft eyes, a very good dock and high tail carriage, plus added length of leg. When I got Balajka, I was sold on my idea of crossing the Varian Kuhaylan-type horse with the very typey Saqlawi-type of beautiful Arabian that Sigi and Janina were breeding. That was part of my decision to move my programme to Om El Arab, although I would have continued breeding to Janina’s stallions, anyway.”

“When it was time for Balajka to breed her first foal, it was pure chance that Om El Maximus was available,” recalls Sherry. “She was to be bred with a $3,000 breeding I had purchased from the UAE, but Janina called the morning to say that she had collected Om El Maximus for the first time. I replied, ‘throw that other semen down the drain, let’s go with Maximus!’

“I first spotted Maximus when he was a weanling and I watched him grow up. I felt he had those attributes that would enhance Balajka. He is an extraordinarily beautiful, compact stallion with an exquisite head, elegant neck, and a good tail carriage, and I just thought that he would complement Balajka in a way that no other stallion I had seen would. My instinct was that Maximus would be a good cross – and he is!”

World Cup glory
Taking Sherry back to that night in early May when Miralena was born, Sherry recalls how thrilled everyone was. “Janina was especially happy, partly because this was Maximus’ first foal. She looked at me and said, ‘Sherry, do you know what we’ve got?’ It was a special moment. I sat in the stall with Balajka and Miralena for hours each day. Miralena would nuzzle with me, and we bonded in a beautiful way.”

Al Noor Miralena as a foal
Al Noor Miralena. Credit Kelly Campbell

It was the quality of Miralena that gave Sherry the impetus to give her breeding programme a name, rather than just using the ‘SC’ suffix. “I decided to name my programme Al Noor Arabians, which means the shining light,” Sherry explains. “Miralena definitely is the shining light.”

Sherry had already shown a filly she bred at Varian, Blissful Juell V (Audacious PS x Breathless V). “I showed her at Scottsdale,” Sherry recalls. “She did very well, and I sold her to Ronai White, a wonderful friend, who also purchased her full sister, Balinka V. I just found out that Blissful is in foal to Om El Maximus. I really encouraged Ronai to breed to Maximus because of my success, and I am truly excited for her.

“As for Miralena, I didn’t want to show her as a yearling as I knew she would be one of the youngest, if not the youngest, filly in the Arabian Breeders’ World Cup, and I felt that was a disadvantage. I also felt that she was perhaps too young to be away from her birth farm. But I also felt that I owed it to Janina to show the world what Maximus had produced.

Al Noor Miralena
Al Noor Miralena. Credit Kelly Campbell

“When I found out that trainer Andy Sellman of Orrion Farms was willing, indeed enthusiastic, to take Miralena, I decided to show her. And any fears about her being away from her birth home were unfounded, as Andy and his crew treated her as we would have at home, if not better.”

In March, at the Scottsdale Polo Grounds, Al Noor Miralena made her show-ring debut at the Arabian Breeders’ World Cup. The third youngest filly at the show, Miralena’s quality was undeniable. Sherry notes: “One of the most gratifying things that happened at the show, something Bob noticed, was that total strangers were cheering for Miralena and her quality. For me, that was so gratifying, since it demonstrated the camaraderie of the Arabian horse community within the United States. It really touched my heart.”

Having made it through to the championships, Miralena was named Silver Arabian Breeders’ World Cup Supreme Champion Yearling Filly. “I was thrilled to death!” laugh Sherry. “My heart was racing, and I was completely overjoyed because I didn’t expect her to win. There were some beautiful, beautiful fillies in that class. The one that won [Marlayna PCF (Martino PCF x Layna Leona PCF)] was five months older and is an absolutely gorgeous filly. When they called Miralena’s name, I was a little surprised, but completely overjoyed! I am still on cloud nine, truth be told…

Avalon Photography Al Noor Miralena
Al Noor Miralena. Credit Avalon Photography

“Then, she was named unanimous Gold Emirates Global Cup Filly Champion… Well – talk about a dream come true! That was over the top. I remember hugging you, Samantha, and walking out with you to the award ceremony, and feeling that – oh my God, I’m an overnight sensation after 14 years of dedication and trying to create something wonderful! It was fulfilling. I was just completely joyful. And once again, a little out of it, as I was truly on cloud nine.

“The icing on the cake was when Miralena was awarded the Best Head Award across the whole show. That was the highlight of the show for me. That, my little filly, not yet 12 months old, was chosen as having the most beautiful head of all the entries at the show… It blew my mind.”

The future
Sherry currently owns 10 Arabian horses, with the arrival of Miralena’s full sister, Al Noor Mahira on 29 April who, Sherry and Janina say, is the same quality as Maximus’ first foal. Sherry also has the colt foal Al Noor Suleiman, born in late February, and who made his debut at the Om El Arab Open House after the World Cup. “Suleiman has a beautiful white star and snip on his head, but other than that, he is coal black,” explains Sherry. “Sired by Om El Maximus, he is out of Om El Sultanah (WH Justice x Om El Sofia). Janina, who is a very generous and unselfish mentor, allowed me to buy an embryo from this special mare and we have created, I believe, a very special colt. I will show him next year at the Arabian Breeders’ World Cup. Sulieman really has solidified in my mind the excellence of Om el Maximus as a breeding sire as he, I think, improved Om El Sultanah, which is saying a lot since she is one of Janina’s top-producing mares! I am thrilled with him.”

Om El Sultanah
Om El Sultanah, sire of Al Noor Sulieman. Credit Stuart Vesty
Al Noor Suleiman
Al Noor Suleiman. Credit Kelly Campbell

All of Sherry’s other horses are female. “Siri will be bred to Om El Maximus this year, as will Balajka once she has foaled in the hope to produce equal or better quality to Miralena. We have the imminent foal to compare her with, and then I will breed to Maximus a third time. This is something Sheila taught me – you have to see three foals before you can evaluate a cross. As for Siri, I feel she is a beautiful mare, although not as typey as I would like, so I’m hoping Maximus will create an elegant foal with a beautiful head, elegant neck, and balance – a three-circle horse, as Sheila used to say.

“I also have three yearling fillies and two two-year old fillies who am retaining to see how they mature. I hope to add some, or all, of them to my breeding programme. These include Bibi SC (Om El Sinon x Breathless V) and Badiah SC (Magic Magnifique x Om El Bellona), Al Noor Jia (Dominic M x Om El Justadorable), and Al Noor Sabiah (Om El Benicio x Siri V).”

And then there is Al Noor Miralena, whom Sherry describes as “the sweetest, gentlest, most engaging filly you can imagine. She was just a beautiful newborn filly, and she has retained that beauty, but she is even more beautiful on the inside. Miralena is not for sale. She is the next step in our breeding programme, although the great challenge, of course, will be finding the right stallion for her. I say our programme as Janina is integral with every decision I make, and she has facilitated everything I try to do. I don’t consider Miralena my horse, I consider her our horse, Janina’s and mine.”

Sherry Conrads Al Noor Miralena
Sherry with Al Noor Miralena. Credit Evie Sweeney

“If there’s one thing I’ve done right in my life, it was to choose mentors with knowledge and experience, and also talented, generous, friends – Sheila Varian and Janina Merz,” smiles Sherry. “I consider myself absolutely blessed to have had Sheila mentor me for seven years. We became dear friends. She generously taught me and made me an integral part of her farm. She was a true mentor and I love her and appreciate her genius and generosity.

“When Sheila passed, I moved to Om El and there was Janina. She has been like a daughter to me. She has been incredibly generous to sell me embryos from her very best mares, to share her stallions, to be encouraging, and to give me the advantage of her 47 years of experience and knowledge. Through Janina, I consider her mother, Sigi Siller, a mentor because I hear Sigi’s voice so much when Janina and I are discussing breeding decisions. My mentors – Sheila, Sigi, Janina – are why I have been successful, certainly with Miralena and Sulieman, and I hope also with Balajka’s 2024 foal.”

 Al Noor Miralena
Al Noor Miralena. Credit Kelly Campbell

Sherry smiles before continuing: “I am incredibly blessed to be married to Bob Conrads, who tried to be a horseman, but he kept falling off! He eventually said ‘I’m never going to be a cowboy’, but he loves the fact that I am incredibly passionate about the Arabian horse. Bob has been so supportive, but Miralena qualifying for the World Cup finals was a real eye-opener for him. He felt the camaraderie, and he felt the joy. Since then, he has been more engaged with the horses and with me than in the past 14 years – an added benefit to the trophies and accolades is that is has made Bob realise how important and gratifying it is to breed Arabian horses. I have even been told that he is showing photographs of his filly at the gym!”

Sherry also acknowledges Angela Alvaraz, Sheila’s farm manager, who ensured that Sherry was there when her foals were born. “She made sure that the first person they saw was me: what a gift. Angela is a true soul sister to me. And, I must mention Yvonne Van Stiphout-Williams, her equivalent at Om El Arab, a truly gifted horsewoman. I honestly don’t know of anyone who works harder than Yvonne. She saved Siri’s life last year when she was suffering from dystocia, also saving her foal, Al Noor Sabiah. I owe so much to Yvonne – she makes it possible for me to just enjoy every moment of my horses.

“Evie Sweeney and I met in 2016 when we produced V: The Legacy of Sheila Varian about Sheila before she died. We thought it would be a 20 minute testimonial, but it ended up being a two-hour feature film. Both Evie and I felt it was important for Sheila to truly understand what she meant to the Arabian horse community, and we wanted to give Sheila a voice before she passed. We worked closely for months to create the film, and our friendship has continued. When I founded Al Noor, I asked Evie to put together a website and social media, and she hit the ground running. She has created a wonderful social media presence for Al Noor, and I thank her for that.”

Sherry mentions her other mentors, including those who have written books and articles, and have run clinics. “Cindy Reich, Allison Mehta, Judith Forbis – I have read her books over and over – and Lady Anne Blunt’s diaries and accounts of travelling in the Middle East. All those people who have generously shared their knowledge of the Arabian horse world.

“To anyone getting started in the world of the Arabian horse, I would say read. Read and read, then read some more. Read the historic account of how our Arabian breed has evolved in Poland, Russia, England, US, Australia. There is a wealth of literature to absorb the knowledge of breeders, past and present.”

Al Noor Miralena
Al Noor Miralena. Credit Kelly Campbell

As Sherry reflects on the unimaginable coming true, she recalls the first purebred Arabian she ever saw. “I was 10 and my best friend, Lesley O’Grady, had a purebred, fleabitten Arabian mare named Blue. I don’t know her breeding – where Dan and Blue came from is a mystery. But Blue took my breath away. She was a beautiful Arabian mare. Lesley and I rode her bareback, and she was a dream. I think my passion for Arabian horses came not only from Dan but also from Blue. When I look at Om El Sultanah today, that’s what I remember Blue being – a magnificent fleabitten mare.”

With a smile and a contented sigh, Sherry concludes by saying: “Don’t give up on your dream. Never give up on your dream. Do your reading, do your studying, live vicariously through people lucky enough to be breeding horses right now. But never give up. I’m now 74 years old, I’ve never been more passionate or rewarded than I am right now, breeding my Arabian horses. I feel like I’ve been reborn these past 14 years. But don’t waste time! Do your homework and then, hopefully, you too will have your priceless Al Noor Miralena!”

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