In great company with Ciaron Maher and Dave Eustace
Ciaron Maher, along with training partner Dave Eustace, are not only some of the most successful trainers in Australia, but they are also now Lexus Melbourne Cup winners. Maher credits his strong team for helping him get there.
To borrow a phrase from Australian rock legends AC/DC, and fittingly so given the subject’s famously wild locks of the past, it’s been a long way to the top for Victoria’s leading trainer, and Melbourne Cup winner, Ciaron Maher.
Not that Maher looks back down that road too often though. He is the laid back, laconic head of one of Australia’s most powerful stables, immediately likeable, a country lad at heart. But there is a sharper focus to Maher that has allowed him to achieve new benchmarks of success at enviable speed.
As a young man Maher had designs on a career in the saddle. As a jumps jockey he had skill in the saddle and a fiery will to compete, but ultimately, he grew too big to pursue life as a jockey.
Initial disappointment turned to opportunity, and it was as a trainer that Maher made a near immediate impact, introducing himself to the world in the best possible way as a fresh faced 26-year-old as $101 shot Tears I Cry won the 2007 Group 1 Cantala Stakes.
With just a handful of horses in work on the family dairy property at Winslow near Warrnambool, many would have written the result off as a fluke and few racing fans could have predicted Maher’s meteoric rise to the top.
“It doesn’t seem that long ago, I don’t really look back too much to be honest,” said Maher.
“I’m too busy looking forward I guess. Always thinking about a way to get more efficient or a way to improve what we do. That keeps me moving forward.”
With his star on the rise, Maher was the pin-up boy of Victorian racing, flat or jumps, it didn’t matter, Maher seemed to have a good horse worthy of a headline. He took a hit in 2017 when he made the headlines for the wrong reason and was suspended for six months when Racing Victoria stewards deemed he should have known about the bona fides of the ownership of five horses in his care, including star mare Azkadellia.
Maher stepped out to do his time while an old mate from Warrnambool Aaron Purcell stepped in to steer the ship. Instead of wallowing, Maher took the suspension as a learning experience, one that ultimately helped to change the course of his business.
“When I had my ‘holiday’ I was able to travel and see how other stables ran, to see how farms were run all over the world. It really opened my eyes. You start thinking about things you can bring home, things you can do better that might improve your own business, ” he said.
“It wasn’t long after I came home and got going again that the chance to buy Darren Weir’s Dowling Forest stables came up and I decided to go for it. That was the big leap, but it was a leap we had to make. We had doubled twice in the years before that and I wanted to grow again.”
Big decisions and big investment don’t come without contemplation and Maher had the good fortune to call on two exceedingly successful businessmen for advice.
“Colin McKenna is the one most people know about, he’s known me basically all my life and has been a great friend and supporter throughout my career,” said Maher.
McKenna made his fortune in farming and the meat game. His business The Midfield Group is proudly rooted in Warrnambool and McKenna and Maher have shared racetrack success with Caulfield Cup winner Jameka to Grand National Hurdle winner Wil John and everything in between.
Gold Coast-based businessman Jonathan Crisp is another key advisor and acts as chairman of Maher’s board. Crisp has owned and managed sports teams, stadiums and businesses around the world, and he sent Maher horses when the young trainer was building his string at Warrnambool.
“Jonathan has been a fantastic support from those early days and he was the one who kept on me to put a board structure in place for the business. I’ve been so lucky to have people like Colin and Jonathan for advice when I’ve needed it.”
With the physical growth of the business came the need for day-to-day support and with training partnerships gaining momentum in Australia it made sense to Maher to follow that path. The perfect partner was right under his nose.
British-born David Eustace, the son of successful Newmarket trainer James Eustace had worked for Maher as an assistant for two years following stints with Peter Moody and Peter Snowden before he was offered the opportunity to go into partnership.
“I like developing people, it’s really satisfying to see someone grow and improve in their role,” said Maher.
“I saw that Dave could be a great partner and it’s worked out that way. We’re very rarely in the same place at the same time, you cover more ground and get more done.”
With five properties – Cranbourne, Ballarat, Warwick Farm, Balnarring and Fingal – and “around 300” horses on the books, training is indeed a job for two, with a strong support team including assistant trainers, pre-trainers, racing managers, bloodstock and finance experts and a chief executive officer helping to spread the load.
“I’m a big believer in sticking to what you’re good at, I’m a horseman, I’m good at training horses and looking at horses. I’m across what’s going on in the business, but I employ people who are experts in those areas to do the job,” Maher explained.
“I’m not a micromanager. When we employ staff I rely on them to show initiative, they know what they need to do and largely I leave them to it. I put a lot of faith in my staff.”
Maher and Eustace have always had their eyes set on bettering their business, season after season. Their Cup win has shown that with the right structure and a bit of luck, there’s no limit to what the duo can achieve.