ACT News


Terry Snow's $100 million horse park a place of dreams

 Terry Snow's wandering along the sand at Bawley Point. His wife Ginette's been coming to this sleepy seaside village for close to 60 years - a curve of beach flanked by rocks on one side and the gantry on the other, children jumping into the water which is several shades of blue.

Snow, who has an estimated fortune of $1.3 billion and is ranked among the 50 richest people in Australia, is in a daggy pair of boardshorts and a T-shirt, looking like any other half-retired old bloke at the beach.

"I love it when I go down to the beach," Snow says. "I get to talk in an anonymous way with the people down there.

"The old fellas come out of the caravan park and I have a chat with them, they don't know it's me, and they'll go 'That stuff up on the hill, I think it's pretty fantastic … I've never been to a horse show in my life, but I loved it'."

That "stuff up on the hill" is Snow's latest passion, the world-class equestrian centre Willinga Park. Work started about five years ago, the cost has been estimated at $100 million, but in every pocket of the 800 hectares there's still something going on. New arenas are being built, more accommodation for horses and people, a swimming pool, more gardens.

"I never had a masterplan when we started this," Snow says. "The vision's been evolving as we've gone along.


"I'm prepared to put the investment in to make sure it works properly so there's no end point."

The Canberra Times has been invited for a look around on the morning before an informal open day to which more than 700 tickets were presold.

For this tour Snow, myself and photographer Sitthixay Ditthavong squeeze into the front of an all-terrain golf cart. Snow's dogs, China and Evie, leap up into the back and nestle among the photographic gear. They start barking, eager to get on the road. Snow turns and gives them a terse command.

"Shut up you lot, no barking." The dogs quieten down and next thing we're off, Snow at the wheel, sometimes on paved roads, other times cross country across the grass. One time he spins the wheels on the dirt. He loves it, pointing out stables and campdrafting facilities, talking about how water is recycled, how there's kilometres of fibre cable, about breeding programs and sculptures, about the difference between warmbloods and thoroughbreds and stockhorses.

His pride in the place is obvious.

"This will be my legacy," he says, "not the airport", as we stop the cart atop a rise that looks down over Willinga.

"People come and go through airports and pay little attention.

"To be here, to see the young people with such a passion, to see the horses, the competition, it's just an amazing feeling.

"Horses are beautiful animals, to watch people ride them well ... [And his voice falters] is a very, very moving thing for me.

"We have the dressage events, we have the best riders come here to ride the beautiful big warmbloods, it's like poetry.

"I'm besotted by horses."

It's a strange thing for a billionaire of 74 to admit to. He remembers the first time he rode a horse, a young man of 22, helping a mate muster cattle out the back of Bredbo. He enjoyed it immensely, he said, but the demands of getting ahead and making his way in the world left little time for it.

As a student of Canberra Grammar School Snow briefly considered a life on the land. His father suggested going to work out past Michaelago as a farmer. Snow gave it some good thought, he says, but couldn't imagine the isolation and "just swinging an axe".

So he headed off to university in Melbourne to study accountancy "and soon became disenchanted with that as a career option" and took on real estate. He bought Canberra Airport in 1998 for $65 million. The terminal precinct redevelopment has cost close to $500 million and has boosted Snow's portfolio to that billion dollar mark.

"Now the airport has settled down - and Stephen's doing a fantastic job running that," he says of his son Stephen Byron, now managing director of the Canberra Airport Group. "I decided to get out of his hair and come down here.

"I decided to scratch that little itch inside me and take on horses.

"I bought some stock horses, I started doing the Bicentennial National Trail [a 5330km route that runs from Cooktown in Queensland to Healesville in Victoria], I've done quite a bit of that, I'll probably never finish it now.

"But I had these beautiful horses and I thought I'd like to breed them. To breed them is one thing but to breed them well and get the top horses you've got to work them, I knew I didn't have the skills to do that."

You get the sense that when Snow recognises his own shortcomings he has the talent to find the right people to help him.

From architects, to engineers, to landscapers, to veterinarians, to world-class horse people, to the 22 full-time Bawley locals on his staff, Snow has built a team that shares in his vision for Willinga Park.

The latest acquisition is Grand Prix dressage champion Brett Parberry who will soon relocate with his wife and family, 11 horses and his staff to Willinga Park. Parberry, who also has a background in campdrafting, polocrosse and even rodeo, will help create a high-performance hub for several equestrian sports.

Don't believe for a minute that Snow's content to wander his property just taking in the scenery. He's a competitive man. He wants Willinga Park to help take Australian equestrian sports to the next level, whether that be by helping breed champion horses or champion riders, preferably both.

"What I'd really like to see is Willinga Park become a centre of excellence for horsemanship," he says.

"I'd like to think that we can make a contribution to Australia's competitiveness in dressage and eventing and to a lesser degree showjumping.

"By having the facilities here, being able to give support, get the world's best international riders and horses and judges, it can only help us improve.

"And hopefully I've put together a nice block of land we can do this on."

On Snow's desk in the administration building, tucked in room with three others, a whiteboard outlining things to do, catering for the open day, staff leave dates, is a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.

Terry Snow is a man who dares to dream.