Bargain buy ... Cox Plate hopeful, Happy Trails. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
BETWEEN them, three of today's Cox Plate runners - Happy Trails, Shoot Out and Sincero - cost less than the price of a new Commodore. Money undoubtedly talks in racing, but winning is a much richer experience when it comes at a price that average folk can fathom.
''There's so much luck in this game, you can't go around patting yourself on the back because the next horse you buy will be slower than you,'' says Linda Huddy, rebuffing the notion that bringing down the likes of Black Caviar's little brother, All Too Hard - yearling price: $1,025,000 - with a $15,000 gelding like Shoot Out, would be the ultimate in ownership satisfaction.
Huddy and husband Graham are Shoot Out's sole owners and they know luck's fickle hand well. The six-year-old was one of four horses the Mount Isa couple bought in 2008. The most expensive, a son of sought-after stallion Exceed And Excel, cost $260,000. Shoot Out has won four group 1s and close to $3 million. Succeed And Exceed retired with earnings of $500.
As the head of an audio-visual company that fits out Sydney's pubs, clubs and the Star casino, Greg De Vries has the means to play a high-stakes hand in the horseflesh lottery. Yet his path to a one-sixth share in Sincero is by no means paved with gold.
A hastily written $1000 cheque got him a share in a filly called Aquabelle, which won her first start. With the owners' bonus money, De Vries and his mates bought her half-brother, Aquatic King, which also won his debut at Randwick.
''It was the last ride Chris Munce had in Sydney before they locked him up in Hong Kong,'' De Vries says, recalling that the horse had drifted to $71. Happily, his wife, Monica, threw $100 at those juicy odds.
A nice little pile building, he paid $833 for a 12th share in ''a tough little bugger'' called Ourbillydakid, which is where his journey intersected with Wyong trainer Stephen ''Crusher'' Farley. Three years later Rob Poot, part of the Ourbillydakid crew, suggested they have a crack at the little brother of a horse called Zarzeus, which he had bought for $4000.
A group of half a dozen (which has since grown to 10) agreed to pay up to $15,000, and landed Sincero for $8000 plus GST. ''We called it 10 grand. Figured that would get him to Farley's on a float, pay the noms and have a couple of hundred in the kitty,'' De Vries says. ''So the next day I wrote a cheque for $1667 - my 16.67 per cent of Sincero.''
He jokes that, of late, he's been spending more than that on Melbourne flights and accommodation. From Aquabelle to Sincero, four horses have cost De Vries roughly $3500. Factoring in $5000 a year in fees, he figures the Cox Plate 30-1 shot - a group 1 winner in Sydney and Brisbane - has tipped ''more than 280 grand into the bank account in the space of three years''.
Erica Dickmann caught the ownership bug when a couple of girlfriends talked her into joining them in a horse called Valiant Bid. He won a few races, and there were smiles all round. Yet the grim, dark side of the game was just around the bend.
The most she has paid for a horse is $30,000, on a filly named Flaxen Fury. ''She was lovely,'' Dickmann says, ''but we all know the story of what happened there.''
Nine years ago at Cheltenham, Flaxen Fury was pushed through the running rail, snapped a foreleg and had to be put down. Her jockey, Cheree Buchiw, was thrown into the broken fence; her leg had to be amputated below the knee. ''Cheree lost her leg and I lost my horse,'' Dickmann says. Paul Beshara trains all of Erica and Peter Dickmann's horses. He remembers another, Hurricane Force, being ''very astute'', hitting the front 200 from the post in his first race, charging for home. A leg came down the wrong way, snapped, and his short career and life were over.
''We'll quit and give someone the horses,'' Peter Dickmann told his shattered wife. That's fine if they're in a paddock, Erica replied, but she couldn't stand the thought of them racing for someone who didn't look after them. ''That's why we're with Paul; I know he's very hands-on and caring with the horses.''
Beshara has steered Happy Trails to four wins, including a group 2 last month, for earnings that dwarf an $11,000 outlay. The trainer says he should have cost more, but nobody else bothered to bid. ''Erica loved the horse. Put it this way: he was going out of the ring her horse.''
The trio of Cox Plate ''cheapies'' flies in the face of racing's fixation with bloodlines. Sincero reminds Farley that horses don't know what they're worth. ''Their mother or father can't help them once they get out on the track, you know?'' De Vries adds: ''Cathy Freeman's sister probably can't run real quick.''
Farley says spending $20,000 to $30,000 on a horse ''means you can get people in, and if it's no good, you can move it on and they'll go again''. If each individual outlay is that much alone, failure ends many a burgeoning ownership career. ''I find them a lot more genuine to deal with, too, they'll stick by you,'' Farley says of owners.
At the Inglis Classic sales, the Sincero crowd are now part of the pitch.
''There's all our photos, celebrating, on the wall,'' De Vries says. ''They're saying, 'Look at these blokes - they only paid eight grand for this! You should put your hand up and buy one, too!'''