At 5:30am, when most of us are slumbering contentedly under our doonas, out at Agnes Banks on the Hawkesbury River 84 magnificent thoroughbred horses are being saddled ready for morning trackwork.
The pre-dawn air hums with the calming voices of the stable hands, the steady clip-clop of hooves and the whinnies and snorts of these highly strung equine athletes. Down bridle paths they come at a steady pace, to a 1,400-metre track where for the next few hours they will walk, canter and gallop, practise leaping out of starting gates, and be critically and clinically assessed by the expert eyes of the training team.
Even at this ungodly hour, there is palpable excitement from both the stable staff and the horses. The day’s fun is about to begin!
Nestled into a curve in the river, with the Blue Mountains so close you feel you could reach out and touch them, this farmland has been in use since the earliest days of the colony. Today it is akin to a luxury resort for many of the most notable racehorses in the country.
This is Godolphin’s prestigious Osborne Park, part of Australia’s largest racing team, and one of the best equipped training facilities in the country. The property is part of Godolphin, founded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and ruler of Dubai.
Osborne Park is the centrepiece of the Sheikh’s Australian racing operations, which also include Crown Lodge Stables at Warwick Farm in Sydney, Carbine Lodge at Flemington in Melbourne, and stud farms in the Hunter Valley, with over 800 horses in total.
Excellence is everywhere at Osborne Park
When you look around this 51-hectare farm, it seems there is not a blade of grass out of place. There are four barns each housing 20 or so horses in spacious stalls, and three concentric riding tracks — a sand track, a turf track and a Pro-Ride track which has excellent drainage for all-weather training.
There are also spelling paddocks, where the horses have a chance to rest and graze outdoors while taking a break from racing, plus a half-million dollar aquaciser — a hydrotherapy pool for horses to recover from the intense training.
But this exceptional facility has something more than just barns and racetracks. It is a placed filled with passionate love for the horses. Whoever you speak to, the story is the same, and it is not all about prize money.
“Excellence is the standard for care of the horses, nothing less, and it’s for everyone on the team to assist each of the thoroughbreds in accomplishing their full potential in competition, like athletes in any sport,” said Godolphin Osborne Park operations manager, Craig Nolan.
The values which come down straight from Sheikh Mohammed are that even when excellence is achieved, there is still more that can be done to improve. One of the Sheikh’s many sayings is, “The race for excellence has no finish line”.
“The mission is to be number one and to realise the results for Sheikh Mohammed,” Craig said. “But it is the passion for the horses and the teamwork that is truly inspiring, and with that comes excellence on and off the track.”
The formula for training a winning racehorse
Asked how you train a horse, new Godolphin Australia head trainer James Cummings, grandson of legendary trainer Bart Cummings, phrased his answer in two words: “Common sense! My grandfather taught me that,” he said with a chuckle.
Assistant trainer Paul Reid agrees wholeheartedly. “That’s the right thing. Trainers are all different in their views, but that’s the right way to describe it,” he said.
“Thoroughbred horses are extremely intelligent animals, and they are treated as individuals according to all their little traits and temperaments,” added Craig Nolan.
This is where experience and expertise in training winners is crucial. Every morning after trackwork the training team talks about the performance and condition of each horse. As head trainer, James decides the regime for the following day. Paul puts those instructions into the roster for the foremen in each barn, and those directives are then meticulously followed by the stable staff. A team of highly qualified veterinarians stands by to deal with any swellings, injuries or other issues.
Although James had only been working at the property for less than a month when we spoke, he said the procedures and the facilities at Osborne Park have put him in a perfect place to bring his expertise to the training.
“The most important thing is having everyone on the same page,” he said. “The racing team and the racing operations were already moving in the one direction. There was not a lot that needed adjusting, and it’s a really successful operation — they won a record $19.3 million in prize money in the season just ended.”
That common sense they speak of when treating each horse as an individual is not that simple. It comes with years of experience. All four members of the team I spoke with were born into families with strong racing backgrounds and a love of racehorses, and the thrill of competition is embedded deep in their DNA.
Paul Reid, whose father also trained horses, is adamant about the intricacy of the process.
“The horse makes everyone look good. It doesn’t matter what you do with a good horse they just seem to be able to run,” he said. “You have to manage them. We don’t make it too complicated — just feed them well and don’t work them too hard. All our horses are well bred. We’re about keeping them fit and happy.”
Beyond the racing operation
As well as excellence in racing, the Godolphin ethos is to be an integral part of the communities where it operates, and Osborne Park is committed to the local Hawkesbury district.
The team’s community service extends far and wide, through donations and practical support for causes ranging from the local rural fire brigade and many of the district’s health services, to schools and childcare centres and other deserving local organisations.
Staff are valued highly
At 33, Jason Walsh is Godolphin’s Racing and Blood Stock manager. As part of this team of professionals, Jason has general oversight of the thoroughbreds in training, the brood mares, the stallions and the young stock. He is also a trained vet.
“I’m lucky enough to be involved in seeing the foal hit the ground and to follow it through into its racing career. We have a great team of people, and it’s very satisfying to see how that horse develops,” he said.
“The facilities around the world and here at Osborne Park, the quality of the horses, the expertise of the staff, is all an illustration of Sheikh Mohammed‘s vision and his ability to inspire people to buy into that vision,” Jason said.
Paul Reid puts it another way. “If you were any racehorse in Australia you’d like to spend your days out here.”