Australian horse racing is more than just the Melbourne Cup. At the Gold Coast in Queensland, you can experience racing in an environment that at first glance looks more suited for beach life. Here Surfers Paradise is not only a term, it’s the actual name of a town. Although we feel that it could just as well be called Turfers Paradise. Home to one of the 10 highest-paid race meetings in the world.
Horse racing is big in Australia. Really big! We’re not only talking ”240,000 people-in-the-industry” big, but big in the sense that it’s present everywhere. Taxi drivers talk about horses to passengers in the back, jockeys are stars who make the front page of newspapers, and new breeders actually have business plans.
Queensland, with just 5 million inhabitants, might not be as well known in the international racing world as Victoria (Melbourne) or New South Wales (Sydney), but things are changing rapidly. With some 2,400 Thoroughbred foals born every year, Queensland alone produces more race horses than any state in the United States except Kentucky.
Racing takes place at more than 130 race clubs across the state, ranging from metropolitan Group 1 race meetings to once-a-year picnic meetings in its remotest corners. That is roughly one race club per 38,000 people, and some Saturdays you can choose between racing at 12 different courses.
”It’s in our DNA,” says our cab driver as we drive by his favourite surfing spots along the Gold Coast. ”We’re a young country, and we just moved into the cities a few decades ago. If we don’t have a personal relationship to horses, our parents or grandparents sure had.”
”We’re very serious when it comes to racing, but also very serious when it comes to having a good time.”
In Australia, racing is an industry in ways that are very different from many other places in the world. Some 240,000 people work part or full time in racing, and in Queensland alone, there are more than 1,000 trainers and 200 jockeys.
”In many countries racing and breeding is a hobby for the rich, but here it’s an integral part of agriculture,” says a breeder we met at the Magic Millions races on the Gold Coast.
”Me and my wife left our regular jobs and set up a breeding operation at her parents’ farm. We invest in mares in the $600,000 (AUD) region and plan to keep them for three foals before we sell them. That way we hope to be able to sell excitement and hope in the yearlings, while still be able to have a secondhand value in the mare.”
Queensland sits on the north eastern and warmest corner of Australia. From the northern tip of the state, you are less than 100 miles from Papau New Guinea. Like everything in Australia, it’s vast! It is about three times the size of France or the combined size of Texas, California, Montana and New Mexico.
Take the sunshine, surfing and relaxed lifestyle of California, add some British heritage, a pinch of Florida’s hotels and waterways, flavor it with Texas-like pickup-truck/ranch culture and a dose of Scandinavian welfare, then put that in a tropical jungle setting, and you get an idea of what to expect.
The epicenter of racing in Queensland from an international perspective is the Magic Millions Carnival each January in the southern part of the Gold Coast. Although the Gold Coast was originally a nickname invented by real estate developers, since 1958 it’s been the official name of what is today Australia’s sixth largest city with about 600,000 inhabitants.
The city consists of about 70 km (43 mi) of coastline dotted with some of the best beaches and surfing spots in Australia.
Combined with 850 km (560 mi) of waterways, it’s no surprise to find a beach life and surfing museum. Shorts and flip-flops equal the outfit here, but you see relatively few people sunbathing on beaches. Aussies have respect for the sun, and the national skin-cancer awareness campaigns seem to have worked well.
Surfers Paradise is probably the most well known part of the Gold Coast. Here you find Florida-style beach-front skyscrapers and waterways that would make people from Miami feel at home. This is also where the Magic Millions Carnival starts every year, when the draw for the stalls (or barriers as they are known in Oz) for the big Saturday races is made literally on the beach.
The Magic Millions was originally just one single million. In 1985, Carl Waugh came up with a brand new idea: to host a yearling sale at the Gold Coast where all sold horses—and only those—would be eligible to race for $1 million in prize money in a 2-year-old race the following year.
At the first sale, 200 horses went through the ring, and one of them was later to be named Snippets. The next year he became the inaugural winner in the first ”closed” race restricted to sales graduates to be run anywhere in the world. Snippets would go on to win three Group 1 races and become one of the most important stallions in Australia.
The success of the idea was a fact, and in 2015 some 900 horses were sold for a total of $103 million. In 2016, Magic Millions Gold Coast Raceday will be the richest in Australia and among the Top 10 in the world. Offering a total of $10 million in prize money over a nine-race program, it will feature seven races worth $1 million or more.
Magic Millions is now a nationwide company with sales and races all over Australia. The main event, however, is still the sale and race in January that has developed into a full-fledged carnival. It is a week full of parties, Oz-style.
”Australia is not like Europe or America,” says Vin Cox, Magic Millions’ managing director. ”We’re very serious when it comes to racing, but also very serious when it comes to having a good time.”
The Magic Millions Carnival is present everywhere on the Gold Coast during that week. It all kicks off with the draw for the Saturday races on the beach in Surfers Paradise on Tuesday morning. The draw itself is a major event with dozens of TV-stations and celebrities and—as tradition has it—started by Thoroughbreds racing down the beach and creating the image that has become synonymous with the carnival: Race-horses, sun, sea, beach and hotels.
All through the week, a total of 26 Magic Millions events take their turn in making sure nobody ever gets bored. From dinner parties and luncheons to fashion shows and seminars, there is something for everybody.
”The Australian racing culture has progressed at a lightning pace, developing to such a high standard that it now competes on a worldwide stage,” says Cox. ”People who love racing also have other interests. They want to be able to travel with spouses and children and have fun. That’s what makes the Magic Millions Carnival and the Gold Coast an ideal vacation plan.
There is an endless supply of activities for a wide range of interests. The attractions are all within close proximity, there isn’t any traffic to waste time in, and the weather is perfect!”
The fact the carnival lasts for a full week also makes it a favourite meeting spot for people in the industry; the
atmosphere is informal and there is a lot of time to meet and chat.
”It’s a bit like summer camp or Spring break for grown ups,” says John Moynihan, an American bloodstock agent who often buys for Stonestreet Farms. ”You go to the beach or an attraction in the morning, spend some time at the sales in the afternoon, and then you have fun with new or old friends in the evening. You really have time to let it all sink in and allow yourself to just enjoy the trip.”
The sale takes place in an open plan barn next to the race course, filled with dining tables where hundreds of people can relax, have a meal with friends, and bid on the auction. Spotters shout while waiters walk around balancing trays full of beer and wine bottles.
The atmosphere is completely unlike that of the traditional sales in Europe or the U.S., but the quality of the horses is just as high—all lots on offer have been carefully selected by Magic Millions Bloodstock Consultants for their conformation and pedigrees. More and more international buyers come here in order to become part of Australian racing or to bring home Australian bloodlines, and today close to 20 percent of all purchases are made by foreigners.
”In Australia, partnerships are a common way to own a horse,” says Cox. ”Popular trainers and bloodstock agents offer shares within stock to form an ownership syndicate; this brings racing back to the people. We actually have several major owners from abroad who buy a share in a horse in Australia, just to come here and feel what it’s like to have the ’man on the street’ knowing about your horse.”
Another thing that makes the Magic Millions Carnival feel revolutionary is the demographic range. Attendees and participants are younger than average, and there are more women in place than at most other major racing events.
”Women are strong in Australian racing, and they are getting stronger by the day,” says Christiane Head-Maarek, the conditioner of Treve and a leading female trainer known the world over.
Encouraging female participation in the sport is a priority for Magic Millions. The $2 million Jeep Magic Millions 2YO Classic includes an additional $500,000 Racing Women’s Bonus that is distributed to the first four all-female owned or leased horses in finishing order.
”We have made a key point of making racing attractive for a young and new audience of both genders,” says Katie Harvey, part owner of Magic Millions.
”We want the industry to move past being a closed club that’s dominated by elderly men. Both in the sale ring and at the track, Magic Millions strives for an event that appeals to the masses, a party that inspires all ages, and a sport that awes even the most athletic.”
And a party it is. Mark the beginning of january for Queensland and Magic Millions.