It’s only 16 years since John Camilleri raced his first horse, but his record as an owner and breeder, with a current stable of 14 racehorses and a band of around 25 mares, is already outstanding.
The Canonbury & Widden Stakes double by Vancouver (Medaglia d’Oro-Skates by Danehill) and Fireworks (Snitzel-Calvinia by Varick) at Rosehill last Saturday extended an impressive list of achievements by John & his wife Deborah’s Fairway Thoroughbreds.
The name of their bloodstock operation is a big clue to the dream start John’s first racing experience gave him, as he explains.
“My first racehorse, in a partnership of five, was Fairway, purchased in 1998 from the late Harry Lawton. The transaction happened over lunch organised by Anthony Gow-Gates at Kingsley’s Steakhouse in Sydney.
“Harry turned up with photos of two yearlings he had purchased from the Karaka sale, a Danzero and a Sir Tristram and we chose the Danzero. Total novices, but what an incredible entree into thoroughbred racing.”
Indeed it was. The Sir Tristram colt was named Noble House and never won a race. Fairway, bought from Curraghmore Stud for $40,000, won ten of his 23 starts, three of them at Group 1 level, and $2.6 million.
“Fairway, unquestionably, was a major cause of my current addiction to the thoroughbred industry along with some terrific people I have met over the last 15 years, some of whom have become very close friends.”
Most significant among those people is Peter O’Brien, General Manager of Segenhoe Stud where the Fairway Thoroughbreds horses are based.
John says, “I don’t think I would have such an interest or investment in breeding and racing if Peter wasn’t around. His care for all of the mares, foals and yearlings and the interest he shows in the racehorses is just fantastic.
“We speak constantly about the mares and foals, I know that their welfare is paramount in Peter’s mind and I receive nothing but honest feedback. We discuss everything from matings to yearling sales, trainers – you name it.
“Peter and I often do the matings separately and then compare notes. Typically, we would agree on around 70% of them and argue about the rest.”
John’s thoughtful, pragmatic and flexible approach to breeding and selling horses is hardly surprising given his success in the business world. He is the former Managing Director and now Chairman of the Baiada Group (the principal brands being Steggles & Lilydale), which was founded by his grandparents and has defied the trend of many family businesses to flourish into a third generation. John has also recently completed a term as an independent Director of the Australian Turf Club.
He says, “As a breeder, you certainly need your fair share of luck and there really isn’t one single factor that governs how we choose which stallions the mares go to, or which horses are retained and which are sold.
“Peter and I place a lot of emphasis on the best physical matings for the mares and rarely deviate far from that. I don’t own any stallions, or shares in stallions, so I’m not compelled to send my mares to a specific stallion that may not be a good physical match-up.
“As for the decision to retain or sell, this is always difficult and the one that we discuss over and over before the catalogue cut-off dates. Importantly, the funds have to come in to pay service fees and all other expenses so most of the progeny needs to be sold.
“As a general rule, most of the fillies from the families with great depth of pedigree are retained, with exceptions where I already have two or three fillies from the mare.
“A good example, currently, is a Foxwedge filly out of Procrastinate which will be offered at this year’s Easter Sale because I’m retaining the mare’s So You Think filly foal and also A Time For Julia (Redoute’s Choice-Procrastinate), who will go to the breeding barn this year. I could also wake up between now and Easter and decide to retain the Foxwedge filly, as it is such a special family.
“As for the colts, most of these are sold, though occasionally we’ll weaken and retain one or two.”
When it comes to mating decisions, John’s clear preference is for stallions with runs on the board.
“For the mares with the better pedigrees, more often than not the mare will go to a proven stallion – there is just a little more safety with this approach.
“I also have compatibility ratings done on each mare by Brain and use this as a guide, but will never allow a rating to get in the way of a good physical and commercial mating.”
However, that doesn’t stop John from occasionally using unproven stallions, especially locally bred horses.
“I very much like using colonial stallions, especially where they were standout racetrack performers that had brilliant speed. Hopefully, some of the new boys on the block like Sepoy, Pierro, Foxwedge and Smart Missile can produce the goods and become commercial propositions for the breeding industry.”
Equal attention is paid to the other side of the coin, broodmare selection and culling.
“We look for it all, but rarely do we compromise on buying a really good physical. I love fillies and mares with nice, deep pedigrees, even if their race performance has been sub-standard or not at stakes-winning level.
“Nowadays, yearling buyers are very focussed on buying well-conformed animals that are good athletic types so, as breeders, we need to be thinking harder about the types of mares we breed from and their matings in order to try and produce that for the market. As all breeders know, you always have your fingers crossed for a good foal and then there are the X-Rays which can bring any good plan undone.
“Selling mares is always tough, particularly those you become attached to. No real formula or theory here, except to say that once age starts to creep up on them there is a point where mares drop sharply in value through a combination of age, or being a non-producer, or not producing well- conformed progeny, so it is a matter of picking the time and then letting them go.
“I currently have around 25 broodmares and I endeavour to hover around this mark, depending on how many mares are being sold or retired from stud duties and how many race fillies are retiring to stud at any point in time. This is just a good number which allows me to maintain quality that I aim for.”
Fireworks, now spelling while trainer Gerald Ryan maps out a plan for her, is the fourth stakeswinner from Calvinia, purchased in 2007 for good reasons that allowed John to overlook her age.
“It is a very good, deep pedigree which allowed me to mate her with virtually any Danehill-line stallion, and also at the age of 12 she qualified as a tax mare.
“Peter and I thought Snitzel was a good physical mating for her – the Snitzels just run, we know that he can get a good racehorse and he is by a champion sire. He’s also been fairly priced so that a breeder could go to him with a good chance of making a return.”
As so often happens in horse breeding, the immediate result wasn’t quite what John expected, but has now provided one of the highlights of his career as a breeder.
“Fireworks was a very small foal and yearling, so we felt there was no point even sending her to a sale. As anyone can see, she still isn’t big, but more than makes up for it in heart and an amazing turn of foot.”
Fairway Thoroughbreds’ 2015 Inglis Easter Sale offering includes Calvinia’s colt by Sepoy, and a More Than Ready filly from her Redoute’s Choice daughter, Stellar Vinia.
John ranks breeding the Widden and Canonbury winners on the same program as a very close second on his list of highlights, just behind winning Group races in Sydney
and Melbourne with the grand sprinting mare A Time For Julia, named after his daughter.
Like Fireworks, A Time For Julia has also given John, Deborah and their children Julia, Alana & Andrew, special pleasure as owners. Unearthly’s 2003 Flight Stakes victory and two performances by Fairway, his 2000 Australian Derby win and his defeat of Sunline in the same year’s Turnbull Stakes, also stand out in John’s memory.
He nominates the 2013 Karaka sale-topper, the $1.975 million Fastnet Rock-Celebria colt, as Fairway Thoroughbreds’ major sale-ring achievement. That colt, named Eastern Cape, showed promise in his maiden win last Spring, but sadly died recently.
Fairway Thoroughbreds has notched up remarkable success with Redoute’s Choice, breeding not only dual Group 3 winner A Time For Julia by him, but also Queensland Derby G1 winner Dariana (ex Beldarian by Last Tycoon), Group 2 winner Girl Gone Rockin’ (ex Sorrento by Just A Dancer), Group 3 winner Florentina (from the Peintre Celebre mare Celebria, also dam of Group 1 winner Gathering) & Listed stakeswinner Grand Jardin (ex Liberty Rose by Royal Academy).
John says, “There isn’t much I can say about Redoute’s Choice that hasn’t already been published over the years. I have had a good run with the mares that I’ve bred to him, and he’s imparted different traits with all of them, producing fillies with great speed (A Time For Julia & Florentina), as well as Dariana, who was well-performed over middle distances.”
A Time For Julia will have a chance to extend her record this Autumn in John & Deborah’s familiar white, green and yellow checked colours, along with stakeswinner Quayside (Street Cry-Quays) and promising 3YOs Armada (Fastnet Rock-Procrastinate), Abbey Road (Street Cry-Private Steer) and Pattini (High Chaparral-Skates).
The Autumn prospects of Fairway-breds Winx (Street Cry-Vegas Showgirl), Betsy (Redoute’s Choice-Quays) and, in South Africa, Akii Bua (Encosta de Lago-Procrastinate) look equally bright.
With an emotional satisfaction from his horses that surpasses his major financial commitment, John can look back on that fateful Sydney lunch in 1998 without a skerrick of regret. “I am just very grateful that I’m part of such an exciting and ever-changing industry.”