It is the call no trainer wants to make. The one no owner wants to receive.
“He told me she had torn her chest muscle and the Golden Slipper was out, but not to worry because she would win plenty of races if we could get her right,” recalled owner Neil Werrett.
“That was hard to hear because the Golden Slipper is probably the race I want to win the most in Sydney.”
Werrett relived the phone call that came just before Christmas 2008 from trainer Peter Moody about Black Caviar.
There is still a tinge of what might have been, even after her unbeaten career.
It is just one illustration of how hard it is to get a runner in the Longines Golden Slipper, let alone the winner. Even possibly the best horse seen in Australia this century did not stand up to the pressure.
The Slipper is not just about having the right horse. It is about the right timing. The right luck.
Werrett has learned that the hard way.
“With Snitzerland I thought we had it at the 200 metres, even at the 100m, but then Pierro came over the top of her,” he said.
Nearly, almost, perhaps Werrett’s luck will change via Performer or Sandbar on Saturday.
“I went into these syndicates to try to win this race,” Werrett said. “Sandbar got there [qualified for the Slipper] last week and with Performer we have been looking forward to this for a while.”
Werrett is joined by Peter Tighe and a myriad of other high-profile owners dreaming of the ultimate two-year-old success in the Harras group. To have a Performer running for the world’s richest two-year-old prize was the reason it was put together.
Tighe also knows what it is like to have a champion. He is living it with Winx at the moment. But she will be a supporting act chasing her third George Ryder Stakes on Saturday.
“We have a lot of family and friends coming in for Saturday. Winx is pretty important but it is Golden Slipper day,” Tighe said. “To have a runner in it is what you are aiming for when you go to yearling sales – secretly. No matter what people say, this is the dream race.
“This is what this Harras group was about, to have a runner in a Magic Millions or Golden Slipper. You get one crack at it. They can’t run in it next year.
“So much has to go right and let’s face it, it didn’t, last start for Performer.”
The Execed And Excel colt was one of six purchased by the syndicate and has been the one to get it right until the Todman Stakes where he parted company with Hugh Bowman at the 150m.
He had won the Breeders’ Plate in spring, like Golden Slipper winners of the recent past Capitalist, Vancouver and Pierro. His Canonbury Stakes victory raised the hopes of champion trainer Chris
Waller and jockey Bowman that they finally had a shot at Sydney’s signature race.
That is how tough Golden Slippers are to win; the premier trainer and jockey have not been close to winning it. Waller has had one runner before this year. Bowman, who has been riding in Sydney for nearly 20 years, has never had a serious contender.
“These chances don’t come along that often,” Bowman said. “My best effort was third on Meurice in 2007 for Gai Waterhouse.”
Bowman rode Solar Charged, the dam of this year’s favourite Sunlight, into sixth place in 2010.
“But I haven’t had a Golden Slipper ride that I have really thought, ‘Gee I can win this,” he said. “You always try to convince yourself you are a chance but realistically I haven’t had the right horse yet.
“This bloke from his first trial was something special and he is right up there with the best two-year-olds I have ridden. Until the other day I was very confident.”
While Bowman can reflect on the talent Performer showed on the track, the planning for this day started more than 18 months ago, when Waller’s racing manager Liam Prior went to owners with the idea of spending a couple of million dollars on colts at the Magic Millions sale.
The Waller model depends on syndicates and it had worked with European stayers and New Zealand classic horses, but this was a new frontier: the precocious two-year-olds. It required the faith of eight owners.
“I had been in the first European syndicate and we got [multiple group 1 winner] Foreteller and the first New Zealand one, which gave us a Victoria Derby in Preferment, so when Liam asked about this I was in,” Frank Cook said.
“You don’t want miss out on an opportunity like this, especially with Guy [Mulcaster] and Chris picking out the horses because their track record is so good.
“I think most of the owners in the Harras group dreamt of owning a colt that would become a stallion and winning races like the Golden Slipper. But it is not cheap to do that and usually you can only take a share in one or two.
“This way we had six and we got Performer as the star, so far.”
Prior came up with the Harras name as it is defined as a group of stud horses. He put together the group to target a void within the Waller stable. It has never really had early two-year-olds.
It was the main focus Mulcaster, the bloodstock agent who found Winx, Sacred Falls and Kermadec, had in mind at the Magic Millions last year.
Precocious bloodlines with the looks to match and horses that would have value on and off the track.
“We had a plan. We knew the stallions that work to get those early types and Exceed And Excel is one of them. We were also lucky that we knew a bit about Zoustar as well,” Mulcaster said. “We were looking for big athletes and that is what you see on Saturday.
“Then it was up to Chris to mould them, I was just a part of the team.”
Waller acknowledges there is a difference in preparing two-year-olds but in many ways he stuck to his winning formula, just adding a bit more pressure to find out the ones that would handle it.
“In many ways Performer was still a very immature colt with ability when he won the Breeders’ Plate. We didn’t really push him that hard to be there, he did it himself,” Waller said. “It is the way I train.
“When you looked at this project we realised that we were giving up about 10 per cent of racing because we didn’t have early two-year-old types. It was something where we could improve because we were being left behind.”
Waller has always been the master of preparation and once he had a Golden Slipper horse he wanted to use the path that has worked in the past. Hence Performer returned in the Canonbury Stakes before a final lead-up in the Todman Stakes two weeks ago.
“He has had the right preparation, other than the hiccup in the Todman,” Waller said. “I think we have a 1400m horse that is going to be very strong in the testing conditions on the weekend.
“Whether he is good enough we will find out but I’m proud of the team because we found the right horse.”
Another member of the Harras group, Noel Greenhalgh, probably summed up the experience best.
“It is not luck we are here. Chris and his team work hard to get the right horse and have him ready.
We just need the luck on the day now,” he said. – By Chris Roots, Sydney Morning Herald