In the tower

6 December 2021 Written by Michael Sharkie

Flemington trainers may be rivals come race day, but inside the trainers’ towers every morning they are colleagues.

In the dark of an early Melbourne morning in a dimly lit hut perched on stilts in the middle of Flemington, the first of many coffee cups are starting to accumulate on a narrow timber bench. Stopwatches click, notes are scribbled, and directions are shouted out of a window to riders looking up from the ground below as horses are ridden out onto the training track.

“It’s pretty serious, it’s our workplace and it’s the busiest time of the day,” said Flemington trainer Troy Corstens.

“There are stories of the banter and whatnot in trainers’ towers, but most of the time everyone is focused on their own horses, focused on their work. There’s time for conversation and banter, but in those first few hours every morning it’s very busy and you’ve got your game face on.”

Corstens trains in partnership with his father Leon, and their Malua Racing brand hangs outside one of the 17 racing stables that call Flemington home.

The bulk of the stables are nestled in laneways in the south-east corner of the track, joined by pathways that feed into a central tunnel that eventually spills into the centre of the track. From there, horses and riders disperse onto one of the many training tracks every morning for exercise.

The trainers watch on and direct the flow of traffic from towers dotted around the infield. Corstens takes his position alongside Ben and Will Hayes of Lindsay Park, Steve Adams from Freedman Racing and Andrew Angelone from Snowden Racing.

“It’s a bit boring at the moment to be honest, there’s not many stories to tell lately – maybe that’s because I’m the one doing the talking,” Corstens jokes.

Already a veteran of the tower in his early 40s, Corstens has grown up at Flemington working alongside his father and some of the biggest names in Australian racing.

“I do feel a little old with this group. It used to be David Hayes, Tony McEvoy, Lee and Anthony Freedman and they were all older than me, but they’ve since moved on and I’ve never really worked alongside anyone my own age. I guess I’m like a big brother figure now. Let’s go with that anyway.”

Life in the tower is unique, working at close quarters with colleagues who become rivals later each day at the races; it is an unusual working environment and there isn’t much room for secrets or for a clash of personalities.

"If the walls of the Flemington towers could talk, they could probably spill the secrets to the art of training a champion."

“Think about it, I’m spending more time with these blokes day to day than I am with my wife and kids. That’s how much time we’re cooped up together – it is literally every day,” said Corstens.

“Over the years, I’ve worked with different trainers and everyone is unique. I’ve worked alongside the Freedmans for many years, and it would take Anthony about two hours every morning to warm up enough to say hello. Some people probably couldn’t handle that every day. I never had a problem though. Anthony and I are good friends and I’ve got some great memories of those mornings at Flemington.

“You find like-minded people who you can work alongside, you find a tower and a space that works for you.”

In the middle tower is Mike Moroney, Reg Fleming from Godolphin and Wayne Hawkes. In another is Matt Ellerton, Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien. New Flemington trainer Nick Ryan spends most of his time in the saddle riding his own work. Meanwhile, Ellerton’s training partner Simon Zahra sits alone in the last tower.

“I like it better on my own to be honest ... I’d rather just be in and out of the stables, clock the horses and leave the other boys to themselves – Matt (Ellerton) can do all the talking for me,” joked Zahra of his famously understated training partner.

Clocking horses in the dark isn’t easy by the way, especially with hundreds of horses working each morning, so Flemington trainers turn to a simple solution to shine a light on the task at hand.

“The riders wear a little light on their helmets so we can follow the horses through the dark,” Corstens explained.

“Each stable has its own colour. Ours are green at the moment. It’s a pretty good system but sometimes you get a rogue trackwork rider that forgets to change colours and next minute you’re working out why your light is going round when it shouldn’t be.”

No one knows who came up with the light idea; most likely it started with one trainer asking another for advice one morning.

“I’ve spent my whole life in this sport asking questions and thankfully the guys that I’ve worked alongside and dealt with were always willing to help,” said Corstens.

“You might have a horse that you just can’t work out, or that isn’t eating right or may not be working as well as he can and you discuss what you can change. Someone might make a suggestion or a different approach to try. It can be a really cooperative environment.”

And it’s a chain of knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation. If the walls of the Flemington towers could talk, they could probably spill the secrets to the art of training a champion.

Corstens is still searching for that secret, but he’s only too willing to share what he has learned with his young roommates, and learn a thing or two from them in the process.

“I’m in a position now where I’m giving advice too, which is great, but the young people I’m working alongside now, they’re all very accomplished in their own right and they’ve learned from some of the best we’ve had in this country, so the knowledge goes both ways.”

In 2020 Corstens found himself learning from a very different mentor. When AFL premiership coach Denis Pagan told him that he harboured a desire to train his own horses, Corstens and his father welcomed Pagan into their stable and into the tower. The invitation changed Corstens’ life, and ultimately Pagan’s when Johnny Get Angry won the 2020 Victoria Derby.

“You get journalists and owners visiting the tower now and then, but having Denis there was amazing. Sure, he was there to learn how to train horses, but he brought with him a wealth of knowledge from a world he was the doyen of. He brought a lot of his common-sense approach to training to the tower.

He’s turned out to be our life coach really. He’s so approachable and with Denis it’s more about giving back than it is about receiving.”

Part of sport of course is winning, and in trainers’ towers around Australia there are certain rules and appropriate celebrations following a Group 1 win.

For some it’s a prawn and champagne breakfast, for others it's after-work beers, all put on by the lucky winning trainer of course. At Flemington it was a longer-running competition, a race to the top that ended in a feast for all.

“In our tower we used to have an end-of-season lunch where the winner of the most Group 1 races across the season would pay the bill,” said Corstens.

“Let’s just say that Anthony (Freedman) still might have one owing to the group, he’s not too good on paying the bill old Anthony, we might have to invite him back for a square up.”

If the diners are lucky, Freedman might even have a few pearls of wisdom to share over lunch, assuming of course that he has a couple of hours to warm up.

(Image: Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)