Million dollar babies
How do young horses arrive at the sales and how do those who have cared for them up until they are sold, feel about letting them go?
It’s a long way from Musk Creek Farm at Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula to the Magic Millions sales complex on the Gold Coast; 1808 kilometers to be exact and a lazy 18 hours and 41 minutes on the road according to Google Maps.
To some people, such a journey is the stuff of road trip dreams, but for a yearling thoroughbred it is the daunting first step as they graduate from playful foal to racehorses.
Scott Williamson manages Musk Creek on behalf of owners David Kobritz and Teresa Poon and has sold yearlings to a very healthy $600,000 at the Magic Millions. He knows all too well the time and work that goes into preparing and caring for yearlings on the long trip north to the sales.
“They’re only babies so it’s a pretty long trip, you’ve got to take it slow and do everything you can along the way to give them the rest they need,” he said.
The average yearling preparation for public auction takes around eight to ten weeks, during which time the young thoroughbreds are checked regularly by vets. About a week before the Musk Creek team loads the truck for Magic Millions, the veterinary team pay particular care to the young travellers with temperature checks a vital sign of any brewing illness.
“A lot of it is in the preparation and the planning, especially in the days before we leave. They get a full health check before they get on the truck and in the week before we have a little trick with their water to make sure they keep drinking,” Williamson explained.
Human travellers know that water can taste different from state to state, so to avoid the yearlings turning up their noses at the drinking trough Williamson and the Musk Creek team add small amounts of red cordial to the water at home on the farm and continue again at the Magic Millions.
“It’s just enough to lightly flavour the water so when they arrive at the sales they associate the same flavour to home. It really does help keep them drinking and hydrated,” he said.
Few people would attempt the 1808-kilometer haul in one hit and horses are certainly not asked to endure such a stint on the road.
Because of the heat and the time of year with plenty of holidaymakers on the east coast highways, most Victorian farms sending yearlings to the Gold Coast request that travel is done during the cool of the night; Musk Creek is no different.
You’ve got to avoid the heat, it really is crucial. - Scott Williamson
“We stop regularly along the way too. This year we stopped at Wyong at a beautiful property for 36 hours. The horses had fans in the stables and a big walker. It gives them the chance to really stretch their legs and rest from the first half of the trip. Every time we stop, the vet checks them all again to make sure they are in perfect health.”
Once the Musk Creek yearlings arrive at the Magic Millions complex, Williamson gives his horses two full days rest before buyers are allowed to inspect them. Vets continue to monitor each horse and stable staff feed, water and groom them each day as they await their turn in the auction ring.
Melbourne-based syndicator Joe O’Neill of Prime Thoroughbreds took a shine to one particular Musk Creek lot on the Gold Coast and spent $100,000 on Lot 148, a filly by Sebring from the Elusive Quality mare Brandish.
Once sold, the Musk Creek team wait for the instructions of the new owner and continue to care for the horse before they are picked up to start life as a racehorse.
“I kept the filly (Sebring x Brandish) at the sales for a couple of days to parade for some clients then she was taken down to Ascot Park in Hawkesbury for a good paddock spell for about five weeks,” said O’Neill.
While his new horse is having that break, O’Neill makes regular trips to inspect their condition and general health before making a call on whether each horse is ready to be broken in ahead of joining their new trainer; in the case of the Sebring filly, trainer Patrick Payne.
You’ve got to look after them, they're only babies when we buy them. The farms do such a great job and we continue that on. Racehorses are very well cared for on the whole and that starts well before they go to the races. - Joe O’Neill
For Williamson and the Musk Creek team, there are mixed feelings when a crop of yearlings leaves their care, but a real sense of excitement as the young thoroughbreds begin the next chapter of their lives.
“We spend a lot of time with them and you do get attached to them, but at the end of it you just want them to go on and succeed,” he said.
No matter the size of the farm, that sentiment is the same. Coolmore Australia took a draft of 47 yearlings to the Gold Coast and sold 45 of them, and from the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer onwards the Irish-owned thoroughbred giant will track the progress of those horses.
“We track any horse raised and grazed at Coolmore throughout its racing career, we follow them daily and we really share that pride when they perform,” said Paddy Oman, part of Coolmore’s nominations and sales team.
The journey to the Gold Coast is not as long for yearlings born and raised at the Coolmore Jerrys Plains base in the Hunter Valley, but the process is very similar to that overseen by Musk Creek. Coolmore yearlings also travel at night and are given breaks to stretch the legs along the way as well as a day off before inspections, but the financial risks might mean that technology plays a part in monitoring the travellers.
“We have cameras installed in all of our trucks so the drivers and staff can keep a direct eye on the yearlings and if there’s room, we will put a staff member back in the truck with the horses to give them that extra care along the way,” said Oman.
“People see the Coolmore brand and they expect a high level of service and quality and we’re very proud of that. We want our yearlings in one hundred percent condition when inspections begin, and we send them to their new homes in the same condition after the sale.
I don’t think it matters how big the farm is, everyone wants their horses to go and do the best they can for their new owners and to do everyone proud.”
First published in Melbourne Cup Carnival Magazine 2019
(Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)