Declan Rix

In this week's column, Declan Rix discusses the tale of Russian Camelot overcoming significant barriers to become a history maker in Australia and the ramifications it may have on the breeding and racing industry Down Under.

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The victory of Russian Camelot in last weekend’s (May 9th) Group 1 South Australian Derby at Morphettville racecourse is likely to have skipped the attention of many racing fans in Britain and Ireland.

In some ways, it was reminiscent of what we are used to seeing in Europe, an O’Brien winning another Derby, but this time it wasn’t Aidan or Joseph, it was Danny, a conditioner based at the 13th Beach Training Facility in Victoria, Australia, a 160-acre private complex.

The soundings of home didn’t stop there as I tried to find out more about Danny O’Brien and his career, as once entering his website I was greeted with a feature on the training facilities. The background music? Irish band U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name”.

Having won last year’s Melbourne Cup with Vow And Declare, O’Brien is now maybe as famous Down Under as Bono is in Ireland, but while winning the “Race That Stops The Nation” is the highest privilege a trainer can have in Australia, it may well be the ramifications of last weekend’s South Australian Derby victory have an even greater long-term effect on Australian racing? I of course put this question to the floor, once having gone into further detail below.

So what’s the big deal with a horse winning a Group 1 Derby in Australia? There are numerous takeaways, but bloodstock is the key theme.

For a start, as you may have guessed, Russian Camelot is a son of Coolmore sire Camelot, a stallion based in County Tipperary, Ireland and the 2000 Guineas and Derby winner of 2012. A 120,000 Guineas purchase from Camas Park Stud at the Tattersalls Book 1 Yearling sale of 2018, Jeremy Brummitt is the man who sourced Russian Camelot for the now owners of J R Wheeler, G L McRostie Et Al.

That’s right, the winner of this year’s South Australian Derby was bred, foaled and sold in Europe; which respectively goes Tipperary (bred), Tipperary (bred) and Newmarket (sold). Now, horses with GB, IRE, FR and GER suffixes running and winning Down Under is hardly a new occurrence, or indeed those horses that carry USA beside their names - a swift look at the most recent winners of the Melbourne Cup will tell you that – but Russian Camelot’s success last week was a little bit extraordinary.

For a start, Russian Camelot’s South Australian Derby victory sees him as the first ever northern hemisphere-bred horse to win a Derby in Australia. He actually may have been the first to try it. That may mean little on the face of it to European racing fans, as I am sure instinctively, some will believe Euro breeding and racing stock over 12 furlongs is comfortably better than what Australia has to offer.

They would be right of course – I think that is fair, and in no way a dig at Australia’s middle-distance breeding and racing – but in being a horse foaled in the northern hemisphere, Russian Camelot gave up the bones of six months maturation competing against the field in the Southern Australia Derby, but yet still manged to win.

To put it in layman’s terms, here are the foaling dates of the first three horses home in the South Australian Derby:

1st Russian Camelot (IRE) – March 29th 2017

2nd Dalasan (AUS) – October 8th 2016

3rd Warning (AUS) – September 30th 2016

As you can see, both Dalasan and Warning were born into this world earlier than Russian Camelot, meaning they would be open to not just a physical advantage but maybe also a mental edge. In sticking with the former, it is reckoned in terms of maturity, both the runner-up and third would have had a circa 10lb advantage. That is significant, and over the 12f trip they competed against each other, 10lb roughly equates to five lengths.

I suppose you could look at it like Russian Camelot giving his field a five-length head start, but still winning. The performance of the horse gets even better once you assess the race from a visual and ratings perspective. Starting with the visuals, Russian Camelot put up a pleasing-to-eye performance, especially in the context of the race not falling perfectly for the bay colt.

Having jumped a touch steady, the opening skirmishes of the race weren’t kind, as he was pushed wide early. Soon after, he took a bump which appeared to light him up. He was now racing three-wide, with no cover and was keen at the back of the field. He stayed in that position for much of the race, and swinging for home, he must have been six-wide under jockey John Allen, but his poor early trip and late wide excursion, on top of the physical disadvantages, weren’t enough to stop him winning by a ready 1¾ lengths.

In terms of ratings, using Timeform, and Australian writer Adam Blencowe’s recap, Russian Camelot ran to 122. In doing so, Danny O’Brien’s inmate recorded the highest rating in South Australian Derby history, and by some way, 5lb clear of the next best, 2003 winner Mummify, all this despite missing his intended prep race through a setback. With all of the above now digested, you can’t but be impressed with what Russian Camelot has achieved.

He’s clearly a talented horse and to be fair to connections, they knew well before his latest success. After he was beaten in a Listed race at Flemington last November, there was talk of Russian Camelot being brought back to Europe to run in The Derby at Epsom, and so, compete fairly against his own age group. Subsequent world-wide events relating to Covid-19 put an end to that possible adventure, but in winning the South Australian Derby, connections still manged to bag a Group 1 contest.

A Russian catalyst?

The question I now ask myself, is could Russian Camelot’s historic South Australian Derby victory be the catalyst in persuading more Aussie owners and trainers to buy European middle-distance stock, despite knowing the horses they buy won’t compete on a level playing field? If so, in years to come, could this improve Australia’s breeding and racing over middle-distance and staying trips?

To be fair, Russian Camelot is not the first of his type to have such success with the same profile in Australia, although I think he would now be the most high-profile. Fifty Stars  and Furrion (both owned by Gerry Ryan), now five-year-olds and by Sea The Stars and Camelot, respectively, have had done well Down Under, especially Fifty Stars.

Both were purchased by John Foote Bloodstock in Europe at Tattersalls Book 2 in 2016, Fifty Stars for 110,000 Guineas and Furrion for 60,000 Guineas. As per Emma Berry’s excellent TDN article covering the Russian Camelot story on May 5th, Foote is considered one of the “trailblazers” in bringing European middle-distance and staying-bred stock to Australia.

Some Euro stallions of course do shuttle Down Under, and although Camelot did one season there, trainer Danny O’Brien clearly feels it is still hard to get those quality middle-distance genes, saying to Berry;

“There is a good deal of shuttling that goes on but none of those stallions are available in Australia (having referenced stallions Australia, Camelot, Champs Elysees (now deceased), Le Harve, Sea The Stars and Teofilo) and, likewise, the pedigrees that we are buying are good and strong. They’re not all from Tatts Book 1 but some of them are, and on a dollar-for-dollar basis, I think they are terrific value next to horses that you buy either at Inglis Easter or Gold Coast Magic Millions. We are landing them back in Australia for between 200,000 and 400,000 Australian [dollars] and they are top-class horses by world-class stallions out of the best sales in Europe”.

I can’t confess to know much about Australian racing and Danny O’Brien as a trainer, but he is a well-established, multiple Group 1-winning handler and a Melbourne Cup winner, so, my ears are pricked that he still feels he is getting value for money in buying European stock for between 200,000 and 400,000 Australian Dollars, even with them at a disadvantage in terms of maturity.

Buying such young horses for this kind of money is always a risk, but then again, buying proven form is far more expensive. For example, in 2016 SackvilleDonald and Astute Bloodstock bought former Andre Fabre inmate and former Juddmonte Farms-owned Harlem, a son of Champs Elysees, for 520,000 Guineas at a Tattersalls horses-in-training sale. Under the guidance of training partnership David A & B Hayes & Tom Dabernig, he won two Group 1 races, both of which paid on or over half-a-million to the winner.

With prize money in Europe so poor, in particular in Britain, in comparison, it makes me wonder - and I ask the question again - will the likes of agents John Foote and Jeremy Brummitt (Australian owner Gerry Ryan is another name in this conversation) inspire other Aussie owners and bloodstock agents into taking similar gambles going forward?

Should more quality yearling stock flock to Australia, will they strengthen, in comparison to European standards, their middle-distance and staying breeding and racing programs? Will this be another nail in the Champion Hurdle picture returning to its glory years?

With a trainer of O’Brien’s calibre finding the age differential facing Euro stock going south “not a big issue” so far, I am intrigued to see how this pans out. Is better breeding a type of leveler against horses who are physically behind? All that said, I am obviously aware this is an easy story to tell on the back of what Russian Camelot has done, as he may well be a type of outlier - and just a very good horse - although Fifty Stars and Furrion give a little bit more substance to the quest.

With all the breaking and training handled by Danny O’Brien and his team in Australia concerning Russian Camelot, as a man once said, it can be done.

Declan Rix
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