Behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that have shaped the field for the world’s richest turf race

Redzel and Kerrin McEvoy winning The Everest last year for trainers Peter and Paul Snowden. The 6-year-old is among the favourites for the second edition of the race on Saturday. Photo: Grimm

Jockeys will make split-second decisions on the track, but the tactical battle for the huge prize on offer in The Everest at Randwick on Saturday began long before the 12 runners vie for A$13 million in prize money in the richest race in the Southern Hemisphere, and the third richest in the world this year (behind two dirt races, the Pegasus and the Dubai World Cup).

Of course, the set-up of The Everest sounds familiar. Racing New South Wales ‘borrowed’ the concept from the Pegasus World Cup, which was run in the U.S. for the first time in 2017. Owners bought a ‘slot’ and either raced their own horses or struck a deal for other horses to run on their behalf with a split of the prize money.

The 12 slot holders committed to paying A$600,000 a year for three years to buy into The Everest idea, and the jockeying for runners began in earnest, adding a huge talking point through the Australian winter, where racing fights a losing battle against the major football codes for space in the sports pages.

Redzel claimed the winner’s share of the A$10 million (US$7.1m) in stakes in the inaugural running of The Everest 12 months ago, providing $5.8 million to split between the sprinter’s owners - Triple Crown Syndicate, Walfam No 2 Et Al (Redzel) - and The Everest slot holder, bloodstock agent James Harron.

The success of the first edition of The Everest prompted Racing NSW to boost the prize chest with the cash injection sending the total on offer to $13 million (US$9.2m), dwarfing the Melbourne Cup’s $7 million (US$5m) stakes tally.

The unprecedented cash bonanza on offer also spurred the slot-holders into action with announcements of deals struck between slot-holders and owners emerging in April, soon after the conclusion of Sydney racing’s other flagship initiative, The Championships.

Queensland-based breeder Aquis Farm announced an agreement to have the recent All Aged Stakes winner, Trapeze Artist, run on its behalf in The Everest in late April. That announcement followed soon after pari-mutuel operator TAB declaring The Galaxy winner In Her Time would represent the organisation in The Everest. The deals were done almost six months before the race.

Waller and Weir align

Yulong Investments announced it had beaten off the competition to secure Redzel as its runner in early May before The Star casino proclaimed it would give multiple G1 winner Shoals an opportunity to chase the big money in the Australian spring.

Australia’s leading two stables then aligned when Chris Waller Racing announced the Darren Weir-trained Brave Smash, third last year, would be its representative. Between them, Waller and Weir won 829 races between them across Australia last season, while their runners earned more than $65 million in stakes in 2017/18.

Weir and Waller (world-ranked #6 and #8 respectively) have contrasting public personas. Waller is the methodical analytical conditioner, while Weir uses the knowledge gained in the bush to get the best out of his horses. Waller viewed the opportunity to combine with a Weir-trained runner as a source of pride.

“I don’t know how Darren feels, but I couldn’t be happier, whether it’s Darren Weir or another top ten trainer,” Waller said.

“A top-ten trainer is a top trainer for a reason, so you know you’re going into the race with a well-prepared horse and it will be a lot easier watching Brave Smash running for $13 million than it was watching Winx today [in the Turnbull Stakes last Saturday].”

Weir preferred to worry about the condition of his horses rather than the wheeling and dealing of The Everest.

“It doesn’t worry me much. I didn’t organise the slot, I just train the horse,” Weir said.

“I let the others worry about that sort of thing, but I know that the horse is going great and he’ll give Chris and the owners a great run for their money at Randwick.”

A positive of locking in The Everest runners early is the fact that it gives trainers certainty to map out the spring preparations of their horses, but doing a deal well before the race hasn’t been smooth for everyone.

Jadeskye Bloodstock boss Damion Flower announced the Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott-trained mare English as his runner in The Everest for 2018 in June, a few weeks after her victory in the G1 Doomben 10,000 in May. However, the 6-year-old was found to be lame after a below-par barrier trial on October 1, forcing Flower to restart his search for a representative. Fortunately for Flower, he was able to lock in a deal with the owners of Viddora days after her win in the G1 Moir Stakes (1000m) at Moonee Valley.

Max Whitby and Neil Werrett were also forced to find a replacement after their initial runner, Menari, was sent off to stud after sustaining a tendon injury less than two weeks after he was announced as their Everest runner in July. The duo decided to take their time before settling on the 3-year-old colt Graff as their runner despite his defeat as the favourite in the G Golden Rose (1400m) on September 22.

Chautauqua up to his old tricks

The Australian Turf Club was another slot-holder consigned to a second chase for a representative in The Everest after the organisation’s initial choice, exciting sprinter Nature Strip, was sent to the spelling paddock after he struggled behind Viddora in the Moir. It took the ATC three weeks to sift through the possible contenders before going with the imported Godolphin sprinter Home Of The Brave, who impressed with his win in the G2 Theo Marks Stakes (1300m) at Rosehill on September 8 before the gelding ran a close fourth in the G1 Sir Rupert Clarke Stakes (1400m) at Caulfield.

The grand grey sprinter Chautauqua did his bit for The Everest narrative with his new trick of refusing to jump in barrier trials. The issue of Chautauqua being the subject of a late entrance into The Everest picture was always in the background until the five-time G1 winner ran out of chances for reinstatement with his latest refusal to move in a barrier trial at Moonee Valley.

The Everest merry-go-round begs the question, were some slot-holders too quick to jump into their respective runners? Australian Racing Hall of Fame trainer David Hayes thinks so.

Hayes trains last year’s runner-up, Vega Magic, in partnership with is son Ben and nephew Tom Dabernig at the Lindsay Park operation in Victoria. Vega Magic was picked up early by the Australian Turf Club in 2017, but James Harron snapped him up in late July after the powerful gelding returned an easy winner in the G3 Bletchingly Stakes (1200m) at Caulfield.

Genuine winning threat

A paddock accident, which forced Vega Magic to miss the big Melbourne sprints in the autumn, left a deal for The Everest in jeopardy but Hayes was thrilled with the outcome in the end.

“Some have gone off far too early and done their deals. You needed to wait to see how the horses came back in August,” Hayes said.

“I can understand while people waited until they saw how Vega Magic came back because he had a horrific injury.

“He had 200 stitches in his hock, was on penicillin for six months and the bombed out in the Goodwood [in Adelaide in May] so people might have thought he was gone.

“He had to show everyone that he’s not gone.”

Hayes said he and Vega Magic’s owners had an advantage in the dealings as the exciting sprinter was always going to be considered a genuine winning threat in The Everest once he showed had overcome his injury.

Weather worries

He noted some the connections of some runners would have less favourable deals because they are outsiders in The Everest calculations.

“Basically, if you’ve got a horse that is under 8/1, if you’ve got the horse and they’ve got the slot, you go halves and the main discussion is about the colours and the trophy,” Hayes observed.

“If you’ve got a horse that’s over 10/1, you might pay half of the slot fee and split the prizemoney 50/50.

“People don’t want to put their own horse in at 100/1 if they can have David Hayes’ horse at 6/1.”

But Mother Nature could have the last say on The Everest. More than two inches (50mm) of rain fell in Sydney last week and up to another inch (25mm) is possible for Sydney in the days leading up to The Everest, which is likely to leave the Randwick track heavy for the race.

The negotiations won’t mean a thing on Saturday afternoon, however. Only a Thoroughbred’s will to win will matter.

  • More rain could be a problem for Coolmore’s runner, the Aidan O’Brien-trained July Cup winner U.S. Navy Flag, who will be the first international runner in The Everest. “The rain could be a problem for us. If there’s more rain I’m going to be worried,” Coolmore Australia principal Tom Magnier told Full story here.
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