Why Shaun Dwyer deserves to win a Golden Slipper.

April 6, 2013

If he’d been wearing a cap, the trainer would have looked like a limo driver.

Shaun Dwyer was standing beside his car at Toowoomba airport, with door open. He was there to pick up a journo. Someone he’d never met. Or heard of.

Still, he welcomed me as if I was an old friend. He talked freely on the way to the stables. There was a warmth, often found with those who ply their trade away from the bright lights.

I was doing a story about a small trainer going up against a giant of the game. Shaun V Gai. The first lady of racing had the favourites in the Magic Millions. The bloke from the Darling Downs had an outsider.

We had a cuppa, and he told me a bit about his background. Learning from the likes of Bart and TJ. Little things. A lifetime, getting better at his craft.

He showed me his pride and joy. Regimental Gal. She looked a million bucks. While we were there, the trainer never took his eyes off her.

On the ride back to the airport, Shaun told me he thought she could win. He didn’t say it in a boastful way. More matter-of-fact. He’d done everything he could, and she was ready.

On race day, she did exactly that. Won like a good thing. He was swamped in the ring post-race. But still found time to thank me, for my support. A bloke he’d met once. Who’d done one story on him.

I’ve been thinking about that encounter, in the lead up to today’s Golden Slipper. The similarities are striking.

Shaun now operates out of Bendigo. Still keeping out of the city. He’s up against Gai again. Of course, she has the heavily backed favourite.

He’s been putting all his efforts into one horse. Villa Verde. I’ve never been to Bendigo, but I’d bet my last on the trainer only having eyes for one horse in that stable.

Everyone has dropped off, after Overreach did a job on her last start. Barrier 17 won’t help either. And Gai’s horse does look a star in the making.

But there’ll be no better prepared starter this afternoon than Shaun’s grey. Trust me, she’ll look a million bucks.

I’m going to have something on her. Slippers are funny races. The first 200 metres can be like herding cats. I’m hoping that she can avoid any trouble inside, and get the cash.

If she wins, keep an eye on Shaun after the race. He’ll thank everyone who’s had anything to do with her. And a few others who haven’t.

There would be no more deserving Slipper winner. I’m hoping Shaun Dwyer gets to ride in someone else’s limo tonight.

Track too wet. Race too short. He finished second last. So why are the owners still smiling?

April 21, 2012

Do a headcount at a city meeting midweek. Any week. If you’ve counted above three figures, you’re obviously including trainers and jockeys.

This week, it didn’t matter. Our horse was running. Finally, his first start.

Want to meet an optimist? Let me introduce you to a racehorse owner. We’re a special breed. We only think positives. Tell us we can’t win, and we’ll cover our ears.

It’s taken forever to get our bloke to this stage. He’s a giant of a thing. We had to be patient, and let him develop. He got bigger, as our wallets got smaller. Growing in the paddock. Day after day. But we’re a happy bunch.

He had colic as a youngster. Nearly died. They told us his recovery was ‘remarkable’. And some other medical stuff. But that’s the word we remembered.

After what seemed like an eternity, he made it into Rob Heathcote’s stable. Queensland’s top trainer liked him. ‘Could be anything’, he said. And some other training stuff. But they’re the words we remembered.

The strappers raved about him. Trackwork riders gave glowing reports. ‘Does it easy’, they’d say. And some other jockey stuff. But that’s the phrase we remembered.

Then he got shin sore. Off to the paddock. I felt his pain. He returned, and gradually got back into work. The wraps continued. Then he went shin sore again. I couldn’t walk for a week.

Good owners ooze patience. We have to. We look forward, and dream, and ignore negatives. We live for any signs of hope.

He came back into work again. We told each other the time away was actually a good thing. Just what he needed. Fully grown now, and no damage done. Positives.

And so here we were, on a Wednesday at Eagle Farm, men and women, chattering away like schoolkids getting ready for camp.

Like so many others, we’re part of a syndicate. People from all walks of life, joined by a love of the game. Some, we met for the first time. Just like that, we’re brothers and sisters.

He was led out by the strapper, and looked amazing. Bigger than the rest. Majestic. Our pre-race talk was all professional, but deep down, we just wanted to hug him.

Damian Browne came out with our colours on. I wanted to hug him too. One of Australia’s best, a Group One winner, riding our horse. What a thrill.

The trainer gathered us around. We felt important. Rob told us his plan for the race. A gentle jibe at his mate, the jockey. We laughed on cue. Nervously.

There was a warning about how hard it is for a horse to win on debut. Especially on a wet track. But he’d shown plenty on the training track, this bloke. That was enough for us. Bets on please.

We took our seats in the stand. Owners from other syndicates were all around. Only one of us could win, but everyone had that feeling. Positive. Optimistic. THIS will be our day.

The race was a blur. Over in a flash. We jumped awkwardly. Floundered in the going. Bloody wet track. Our giant lad was never a hope. He needs more distance. Just as we thought.

We listened to Damian and Rob post-race. Don’t despair, they said. Doesn’t handle the wet. And then, what we’d been hanging out for. “He needs it dry. He’ll be so much better for the run”. And some other soothing stuff. But that’s the message we remembered.

There’s no feeling like it. Whether it’s Race 4 on a Wednesday, or the Doncaster at Randwick, owners feel the same. Positive, and full of hope. That’s how we are.

They’ve promised we’ll have a dry track in a few weeks. And a bit more distance. Our plan is coming together beautifully. We’re owners, and we’re optimists. And there’s always next time.

I’m raising a glass to Gai. Her winning Slipper performance, before they even jump.

April 7, 2012

Imagine three members of the same family lining up at the Olympics, to contest the final of the 100 metres dash.

Picture four brothers wearing the green and gold for Australia in a Davis Cup battle.

How hard would the applause be poolside, if you saw half the field in the classic 1500 metres final bearing the same surname?

Impossible, right? Unless your name happens to be Waterhouse.

Check the form guide today, and run your eyes over the Golden Slipper field. The world’s richest race for two-year olds. A highlight of the Australian turf.

It’s no mis-print. You’ll see Gai Waterhouse mentioned five times. Five runners, in a field of sixteen flying juveniles.

It’s a phenomenal training performance. And four of them are genuine chances.

Unbelievably, it’s not the first time. She pulled the same trick in 2001. The year she produced the trifecta, with Ha Ha having the last laugh.

Anyone who’s ever raced a horse knows what an incredible training feat this is. It verges on the ridiculous.

Most of us battle just to get one to the track. I have friends who’ve won big races. And others who haven’t. Lots of them.

We have a three-year old, who is still to hear the thrill of a race day crowd. He’s had enough health problems to make the local vet seriously wealthy.

Don’t feel sorry for us. He’ll be winning next year’s Cox Plate. Get your bets on now. But my point here, and I do have one, is that it’s so bloody hard just to get them to the races.

It makes Gai’s effort so much more amazing. The niggles and varied dramas that strike young horses, all over the land. And the First Lady of racing manages to get five of them ready for Sydney’s biggest day.

Sometimes I wonder whether she gets the credit she deserves. Such an easy target. Her own blood lines, and that theatrical bent. All these years on, all those Group Ones, and a few clowns still manage to find fault with her. Behind her back, of course.

I’ve written about the grand dame before on these pages. I barely know her, and she wouldn’t have a clue who I am.

I interviewed her at Magic Millions many years ago. On the run. She was happy to talk. Just not standing still. Too much to do, you see.

There we were, chatting away into the camera, at a pace that would have done one of her stayers proud. Her giving me detailed answers, and me wondering how her hat wasn’t falling off.

I’m like all punters who’ve won a quid from her over the years. By backing horses that are the fittest they can be. With the best jockeys on top.

She knows how important owners are, and treats them like friends. Not fools. A walking promotion for our great sport, even if it’s at a quicker clip than everyone around her.

So today, this wonderful trainer will have the job of cheering all five in running.

And here’s a tip. As impartial as she is, I reckon she’ll be watching out for one in particular. The strapping colt with the number one saddlecloth, Pierro.

Such a typical Gai horse. Trained to the minute. Set for this six months ago. With Australia’s top hoop doing the steering.

I’ll take the Gai factor over Blue Diamond form every time. Today will be her day, again. Actually, it already is. Applaud her this afternoon, regardless of the result. We might never see such dominance again.

Group One glory for a Group One bloke. Why a trainer’s first big win is always the sweetest.

March 3, 2012

We all have our favourite sporting moments. Those spine-tingling events that the grandchildren will hear about one day.

Remember those times that made you punch the air. Special feats that gave you goose bumps.

If they really mean something, you shouldn’t have to think too hard. The memories will be locked away, in a place easy to access.

The Shane Warne ball that Mike Gatting still has nightmares about. Steve Waugh’s ton against the Poms at the SCG, against all the odds, and the experts.

I can remember cheering Jeff Fenech twenty-five years ago. Like it was yesterday. He battered Thai champ Samart Payakarun to win a world title. The leagues club erupted.

Big Mal Meninga’s try for the Kangaroos in 1980 at Old Trafford. An SAS unit wouldn’t have stopped him that day. A wrecking machine in green and gold.

We racing folk have so many great memories. The sport is littered with golden moments.

Kingston Town’s Cox plate. Any one of them. Makybe Diva’s Melbourne Cup. Any one of them.

How did Belle de Jour win the 2000 Golden Slipper? Even now, I can’t work out how she made that run. But I still love watching it.

Now, I have another. A memory that I’ll keep forever, and bore people with whenever they get stuck in a corner with me.

Last weekend, Rob Heathcote claimed his first Group One victory. The 2012 Oakleigh Plate. When the mighty Woorim swooped from a seemingly impossible position, it seemed all of Queensland cheered.

Even better, Damian Browne was in the saddle. The jockey has so much metal in his crook leg he sets off airport alarms just getting out of the car.

Such a reward, for Brisbane’s Premier trainer. Years of ridiculous alarm clocks and early morning cold, now don’t seem too bad.

It’s easy for punters to forget just how hard these people work. The trainers, and the jockeys. Stablehands and strappers. Sure, you might hear them complain every now and then. But they love the game.

Heathcote trains hundreds of winners every year. On tracks all over the land. You’d think such a successful operator would have nothing to prove.

But champions need to climb the highest peaks. Grand Finals, and Grand Slams. Gold medals and world records.

Trainers, rightly or wrongly, are judged on Group Ones. And not just because such a win attracts more business, and extra publicity. They’re just so hard to win. Unless your first name is Bart.

Blokes like Rob want to beat the best. It’s taken a while. And now he has.

For those who know him, it’s even more satisfying, because he’s such a bloody good bloke. Hard, and demanding, and ultra competitive. But just a great fella.

He’s part of the new breed of trainers. Communication is the key. Owners big and small feel like they’re part of the stable. It’s a genuine connection. Go out early on any given day, and you won’t want to leave. Everyone involved in the team lives and breathes racing.

Now that he has his first, the Group Ones will keep coming. It’s funny how these things happen. No excuse not to be on.

He’ll end up with plenty more. Trust me on that.

But nothing will compare to Woorim’s breathtaking victory last weekend. A lucky few will never forget that orange cap flashing home. Another favourite sporting moment. I can’t wait to tell the grandkids.