Russian Camelot winning the underwood stakes

Russian Camelot destined to be King of the Castle

By Michael Lynch

 Danny O'Brien has trained the winners of the Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup, so he knows a good horse when he sees one.

That trio -  Shamus Award, who made history when winning the Cox Plate as a maiden - Master O'Reilly, who triumphed in the Caulfield Cup  and last year's Flemington hero Vow and Declare - are all now indelibly etched in the record books as victors in Australia's greatest races.

But O'Brien believes that one horse in his care right now, Russian Camelot, can eclipse them all.

The northern hemisphere bred son of Camelot has already scored twice at Group 1 level in just seven starts (in the SA Derby and the Underwood Stakes) and he is now aiming to pull off the Cox Plate - Melbourne Cup double last achieved by the great Makybe Diva in 2005.

O'Brien made his view of the current Ladbrokes Cox Plate favourite's talents crystal clear late last month after the Underwood triumph.

''I think he’s the best horse I’ve had anything to do with, particularly to do so much so early in his career,” O’Brien said.

“He’s a magnificent colt and we’re thrilled that he’s got this done.

“It’s really exciting to see him produce performances like this so early in his career.

''There’s been a lot of hype around him, people are expecting things like this so it’s really exciting to see him go out there and get it done.”

What makes Russian Camelot's achievements even more special is his age.

He will be described as a four-year-old in the racebook at The Valley when he contests the Cox Plate.

But the reality is that he is six months younger than his Australasian counterparts because he was bred and initially raised in the northern hemisphere, meaning that up to now he has been racing his own age cohort at level weights when he was significantly younger.

So how did he come to be in this country at all? How did the son of Camelot, who won the English 2000 Guineas and Irish and English Derbies during his own three-year-old career, wind up with O'Brien at his Barwon Heads base rather than with someone like John Gosden or Roger Varian at Newmarket?

Step forward owner John Wheeler, an adventurous 70-year-old retired businessman who likes to dream big and is not afraid to think outside the square.

He had owned horses for the past 25 years and enjoyed some success but was not sure that the tried and tested recipe employed by most Australian owners looking for Cup horses these days was the right way to go.

''I have owned horses for a long time, and in that period I bought two tried stayers from overseas. Both won races, but both broke down for different reasons.

''They were already halfway or more through their racing life, usually aged about five before they get here, so there is a limited period in which you can see them run and hope for them to perform for you.

''I have a couple of trainers (O'Brien and Jason Warren at Mornington) and I spoke to each of them, just sounded them out and said there has to be a better way than this.

''Danny O'Brien was the one who said he had been thinking about it - going to Europe to source horses at a younger age - as well. The staying stock in Australia and NZ is not as good as it used to be, or perhaps putting it slightly more diplomatically, the competition is better because we have these imports.

''Another important consideration was that the tried horses were getting dearer. The Europeans were not stupid and realised they were in good demand in Australia if they were not top class in Europe.

''Danny said to me why don't we go to Newmarket and see if we can't get staying types but bring them straight out as yearlings.''

The plot was hatched, and UK bloodstock agent Jeremy Brummitt was also seconded to be part of the raiding party.

''I underwrote Danny's idea for 200,000 guineas and said we either buy one horse or two.

''We bought two. One was by Camelot, another was by Champs Elysees. It turned out that one can gallop and the other can't.

''I wouldn't be making any claim to being extra smart. In fact, our agent Jeremy Brummitt selected the horses for us.''

Not that it is as straightforward as it sounds.

''In selecting horses, you always face the same dilemma. They can all look good - they wouldn't be at the premium sale if they didn't have that potential.

''Jeremy has a good eye. We told him two things; he had the budget, we said it's not 207,000 guineas, it's anything up to 200,000, that's the limit.

''He recommended three, two of which we bid up and bought, one of which we bid on but didn't get because it went for significantly more than the budget.

''Danny is a very disciplined buyer. He buys many horses which are in price brackets for different types of buyers.

''The trainers have to have that discipline, and it doesn't do me any harm because I tend to be a little bit undisciplined. My hand starts to get St Vitus Dance.

''It was relatively straightforward. Jeremy bid on both, he had them wind tested, they lunge them and give them a good wind test beside doing all the usual vet things, then they are on a plane, land, into quarantine and into the stable.

''Russian Camelot has turned out to be exceptional, and pretty much from the time Danny did anything with him he said this is a really, really good horse. ''

Wheeler says that while it is cheaper to buy yearlings instead of well credentialled tried horses, it is still an expensive enough proposition.

''We saved a bit of money (compared to buying a well performed older horse) but it costs $30,000 for the air ticket and you have a bit of cost beforehand with GST and quarantine at both ends.

''He's landed at 120,000 guineas, which sounds okay when you kick off, but by the time you land him here he costs $305,000 (with all the extras added on) as he is walking into the stable.

''In the normal run of things that's not regarded as a cheap horse in Australia.''

Wheeler has been back to Europe again, repeating the exercise, while other Australians have picked up on the idea in a bid to get good stock to race here at an earlier age and at cheaper prices.

''What I like about it is that the horses acclimatise when they are younger.

''Almost all the imported horses take at least a season if not a year to acclimatise.

''So if you are buying them as tried horses you are maybe sacrificing two to three years of their racing careers and most horses do most of their money earning in their two and three year old years. Not all, but most.

''Our view was that if we got them as yearlings they could develop bone and everything that suits Australian conditions, and they could learn to race the Australian way, which is not the same as the European racing style.

''And crucially, the trainer will know the horse earlier and get them into their training system.

''It didn't stop me buying horses here of course... I bought more here in Australia and NZ than I did in the UK, but I still like to look for stayers there.

''The Europeans by weight of evidence deliver more winners than what we do locally.''

However, if things go according to plan, Russian Camelot could be making the journey back one day: if he can prove himself the champion Wheeler and O'Brien think and hope he is, a European campaign could be on the cards in future years.

But first, there is the matter of the Cox Plate...and wouldn’t it be fitting in this, the 100th running of the legendary race.

Michael Lynch is a senior sportswriter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald