Pulling the strings in the spring: Racing Victoria's international agent Leigh Jordon

Leigh Jordon with trainer Johnny Murtagh and Mutual Regard at Werribee last spring. Photo: Darren McNamara.

At the junction of spring and autumn racing in Australia, it’s January, and Leigh Jordon is taking a rest. In the coming months, he’ll begin again the almost year-long process of recruiting international racehorses for Melbourne’s spring carnival. Officially, he is Racing Victoria’s international agent, charged with scouting top Thoroughbreds overseas and luring them to the rich spring events late in the year. It is said that he’s a little too good at his job these days - the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup, and Cox Plate all went to international raiders in 2014.

Jordon is 53 years old, a family man, and Melbourne resident. He was born on Christmas Day. Anyone else might find that annoying, but this man is pragmatic. He says that no one forgets his birthday. He has a degree in economics, and worked in finance before entering the payroll at the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) in 1987. He moved to Racing Victoria when it emerged in 2001, and until 2010 he was its manager, later its general manager, of racing operations.

He is now a freelancer. In addition to his scouting work, Jordon manages the Global Sprint Challenge involving six countries and AUD$10 million of incentives, and he consults on quarantine matters internationally. But in Australia, he is the face of the foreign invasion every spring.

Jordon won’t admit this fame. He is a team player, and has a well-oiled squad behind him that makes his job easier – international coordinator Jane Fitzgerald, along with Racing Victoria's Paul Bloodworth and Greg Carpenter. But Jordon thinks the right way for his job. He is a proud Australian but a fervent internationalist. He gets racing, and he gets the handicap scale. He believes the Melbourne Cup is infinitely better these days for international interest. He says it’s like grand slam tennis: not much point without the world’s greatest players.

Racing is getting smaller. Prizes are richer. Horses are travelling. We thought it would be a good idea to talk to the man that choreographs much of the movement into Melbourne each spring. Jessica Owers caught up with Leigh Jordon on Dec.18, 2014.


You had a background in economics. What was the connection to racing that got you your job at the VRC in 1987?

"I didn’t really have a connection. I came from a punting family, but other than that, I was just a normal, run-of-the-mill person when I started working for the VRC."

Do you have shares in racehorses?

"At the moment I’m in between owning, but I’ve had horses all the way through. My best success was with a group of horses that all had “Mad” in their names – Mad Barry, Mad Larry. Mad Shavril won the Swettenham Stud Stakes [now the Sportingbet Classic] a while back [1996]. I think it’s good to own horses, because you get a good feel for all sides of the industry." 

Do you consider yourself a good judge of Thoroughbred?

"I’m not. I wouldn’t consider myself a good judge of conformation. You wouldn’t be taking me to the yearling sales. In my current role, it’s all about form, picking the horses that can get a run in the races we’re targeting them for, and that are suited to Australian conditions." 

When did you begin this role of scouting international horses for Racing Victoria?

"It would have been back in 2006, the year the Japanese [Delta Blues and Pop Rock] got the quinella in the Melbourne Cup. That was really the first year I was in charge of everything, but I’d had on and off involvement over the years in my other roles within Racing Victoria."

When you took over in 2006, what sort of condition was the spring carnival in re international interest?

"It was pretty good. The Japanese had won the Cup for the first time ever, but we took a hit thereafter when equine influenza (EI) broke out, not just in Australia, but also in Japan. We’d got all this momentum going with the Japanese, and suddenly they couldn’t come back for another four years. Up until then, we’d had the first international winner in Vintage Crop in 1993, and a steady flow had come after that. In the 2000s, the numbers really picked up. I think, though, there were still a few frontiers left, a few boxes still to tick off. We needed to develop interest in the Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup, and other races in the carnival."

Approaching the big spring races, you spend almost every day at the Werribee quarantine facility, liaising with owners and trainers, translating, running interference. But what about the rest of the year? What is your travelling schedule, and how many months are you away from home?

"There are about five trips a year: Dubai, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Europe, and maybe various small trips in between. All up, I’m away about two to three months of the year, sometimes more. I obviously try to target some of the major carnivals, although I never go to Royal Ascot. That one is not the time to be trying to get trainers to think about going overseas at the end of the year, so I go to the July Cup meeting instead. Because it’s at Newmarket, the July Cup is ideal for me because all the trainers are up there and they’re starting to think about the second half of the season." 

It seems like a glamorous job on the surface, but you’re away a lot. What are some of the difficulties in your role as international scout?

"I’m not complaining. I love the job, and I love what I’m doing. It’s fantastic to be involved in developing spring carnival, to be getting horses to the big races down here, and trying to grow the carnival to get horses for the other group races too. Travel is part of the job, and it’s part of a lot of people’s jobs. I’ve got no problem with it."

When, in terms of recruiting during the year, is your job done?

"When they’ve all arrived at Werribee. This year in particular [2014] was crazy. Right up until they were due to go into quarantine, they were chopping and changing. More than any other year, this one was very chaotic, but I suppose it had something to do with the nature of the horses that were coming, and connections trying to make decisions about what the right options were." 

Admire Rakti’s fate during this season’s carnival is well documented. You were pivotal in getting that horse to Australia. Did you feel responsible, or personally compromised, after what happened to him?

"That’s an interesting question, but no. What happened to that horse was very unfortunate, but it was just one of those things. He could have had that heart attack going for a stayers championship, or the Japan Cup. At the end of the day, yes, we chase horses, but it’s the decision of the connections to come here. Admire Rakti’s win in the Caulfield Cup was very significant in Japan, and I think the general feeling there is that we’ll get more horses coming down. That horse’s connections are in good spirits, and they’re talking about looking for another horse that can do what he did this year [win the Caulfield Cup]."

Staying with spring carnival, were you ready for the controversy around Slade Power’s barrier tactics for the Darley Classic?

"That will probably end up being one of the highlight races of the spring. It got all the publicity knocking up to the Melbourne Cup, which surprised [trainer] Ed Lynam. After being here for 10 days, I remember him wondering if anyone was going to actually ask him how Slade Power was going, and not about the barrier antics. 

"When we approached Ed about coming, in many of the discussions we had, the issue about the horse going in late to the barriers was raised. It wasn’t highlighted then in the dramatic fashion it ended up being down here, and Ed admitted he probably didn’t portray it to me as a game changer. Conversely, I probably didn’t pursue it, and I think it’s a lesson learned. Ed thought that, as happens all around the world with a horse that has a well-documented history of barrier trouble, he would just go in late. That happens everywhere else.

"To be honest with you, it should be the same here. I don’t know what Racing Victoria are doing about this, but I think it [loading in order of barrier number] is a rule that should be reviewed. This is not to give a horse a quick start, or an advantage. The issue is horse welfare, and jockey welfare, and we should be following what’s going on around the world. There are a lot of conferences every year that talk about harmonization of racing rules. On this one, we should be in line with everyone all around the world." 

Do you believe Melbourne’s spring carnival is better in the last five to 10 years for the heavy involvement of the rest of the world?

"If we want to be the best, we need to take on the best. Therefore we need to have the best come down here. The Caulfield Cup, the Melbourne Cup – these are open races, meaning anyone can run in them provided they meet the conditions and can get a start. I’ve heard these things about restricting international horses and leveling the playing field to help the locals, but it’s like every sport, the Australian Open tennis or golf that we have here. We want to attract the best, so why shouldn’t we be trying to do that in horse racing?"

Adelaide’s Cox Plate win was a game changer for the future of that race. Was his arrival to Australia the product of an ambition to bring attention to the other big races during the carnival?

"When I started in this role, one of the main aims was to get horses to run in other races. The economic impact of, and the media interest in, having these international horses here is fantastic. There’s a bloodstock impact, and a wagering impact, so there are a lot of spin-offs.

"In the case of the Cox Plate, Moonee Valley is to be congratulated. They’d struggled to get foreign interest for a long time, so they implemented an invitation system, which they issue just before Royal Ascot. I think they’ve got the formula right. It goes out five months before the Cox Plate when there’s a little bit of a lull before Ascot. It gets good media coverage around the world, and it gets the people who were invited thinking about that race in the back of their mind. It’s worked. They got Side Glance, Mull Of Killough, Guest Of Honour, and Adelaide. I said to them if they’re going to try a strategy, stick to it, and you’ve got to persevere with it.

"But that 2,000 metre weight-for-age has got so much competition. There’s a small pool of world-class 2,000 metre weight-for-age horses, probably only eight or 10, so we’re competing for those horses while they’re being asked to run in the Irish Champion, the Arc, the Breeders’ Cup. It’s always going to be hard."

You have developed a real loyalty program with certain people – Dermot Weld, Ed Dunlop, and Luca Cumani, for example. Have the people become an important part of your role?

"Yes, it’s all about relationship building and providing a service. Each year I’m wondering how we can up the bar, raise the level of what we’re offering. There is huge competition now for international horses around the world, so it is all about the relationships."

As an international scout, what is your greatest achievement to date?

"The Japanese, I’d say. That quinella in 2006, and Admire Rakti this season in the Caulfield Cup: both of those were just so satisfying. In 2006, Japan was still something of a frontier for us. We hadn’t had any of their horses before, as we’d had from England and Ireland. And then when they won, it was so frustrating not to be able to get them back because of EI for so long. For that reason, Admire Rakti’s Caulfield Cup was pretty special."

If you could scout any horse in history for a Melbourne spring carnival, what horse would it be, and for which race?

"You’ve got me on that one. History isn’t one of my strong points. I’d probably say something like the Godolphin Barb."  

What about the United States? Are there any American horses, or any American races that produce certain horses, that might attract your attention as potential targets for an Australian spring?

"I’m glad you’ve raised the U.S.A., because it is one of the last frontiers for us. This is my chance to make a big plea: We don’t have a quarantine facility there that will allow horses to stay in training. We have facilities all around the world – Ireland, England, France, all over Asia – but we don’t have one in the U.S. We just can’t find one. 

"Australia’s quarantine rules are probably the strictest in the world. In the U.S., we’ve got to find a barn, which isn’t so much of a problem, but it’s got to have a track attached to it. Our current rules say you need to have 50 metres separation between quarantine and non-quarantine horses, and that applies to horses on the track too. It’s just proving very difficult to find, and we haven’t just been looking for the last couple of years. We’ve been feeling looking for 10 years."


Coming next week: Jessica Owers explores the roadblocks that for more than a decade have prevented the securing of a U.S. quarantine facility for potential Australian runners.

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