Grahame Begg

published: 14 Jul 2014 in Personality profiles

Following his father Neville around his Randwick stables as a youngster before graduating to the role of travelling foreman, proved great grounding for Grahame Begg who took over the reins of the stable at 29 and soon proved his talent as a trainer. With a relatively small team he’s had a steady stream of good horses since Eye of the Sky became his first Gr.1 winner in 1990.

GRAHAME BEGG, like his father Neville, can be described as a trainer’s trainer. It is nearly half a century ago since, as a little nipper, he began watching his father handling the horses in his Baramul Lodge stables at Randwick and it was not that much later when Grahame began his immersion into what is his life’s work.

During the past 20-odd years, with a boutique team of “20 to 30”, he has proven his ability, time and again, with horses such as Whisked, Mahaya, Fraternity, Monopolize, Telesto, Bonanova, All Silent, Our Egyptian Raine and Secret Admirer. “I like to keep it nice and neat, so everything clicks along smoothly,” he said. However he readily agrees with a view shared by many that the face of the industry is entering a new era. 

“It is pretty evident racing is changing quite a lot. When you look at what happened at this year’s Magic Millions and Australian Easter yearling sales you can see a lot of international money is coming into the Australian thoroughbred industry.

“This is squeezing the local buyers out of the market. That in turn is making it a lot tougher for the smaller stables, while the big trainers just seem to be becoming bigger and bigger.”

Nonetheless, Grahame and Neville are accustomed to succeeding against the odds. When Neville went out on his own, after spending 20 years with the legendary Maurice McCarten, he had only four horses to work on. Yet he was soon able to become one of the most respected trainers in the business with the likes of Divide and Rule, Golden Slipper Stakes winner Dark Eclipse, November Rain, Dalmacia, Veloso and Horse of the Year Emancipation going through his hands.

It was a similar story for Grahame when he was thrust into the mainstream at 29 when his father accepted a retainer offered by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. With years and years of tutorial behind him he needed only a matter of months to make his presence felt. “I suppose what Neville taught me more than anything else was patience, because if a horse is not ready you can’t force the issue,” he said. “He also taught me to try and place horses to the best possible advantage and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

“These days he still pops his head into the stable a couple of times a week and we bounce things off each other. I appreciate that because two heads are better than one.” This is the type of team spirit Grahame learned as one of six children born to Neville and Yvonne. He has an elder brother Neale, a younger brother Martin and sisters Linda, who married Wayne Harris, as well as twins Caroline and Carmel who is married to leading HK trainer John Size. 

While going through his education at the prestigious St. Andrews College Grahame played, with considerable enthusiasm, representative rugby for 15 years initially for the school and later with Randwick. However, there was never any question that one day he would be a horse trainer. He can remember as a child, of “four or five”, he would watch his father lunging horses and by “12 or 13” he was helping in the stables.

The 1969 AJC Derby winner Divide and Rule and 1970 QTC Queensland Oaks winner Affectionate, both sired by Alcimedes (GB), had been through the Begg establishment by then and before long the Minor Portion (IRE) filly Sufficient, winner of the VATC 1000 Guineas-Gr.1 in the spring of 1974 and the Oaks at Randwick the following autumn had come along. Neville, who had worked with stars such as Todman, Noholme and Wenona Girl during his years with Maurice McCarten, had started at the bottom of the ladder when he secured a training licence in 1967. His numbers soon began growing as did his rate of success, which was accompanied by Grahame’s ever-increasing involvement.

“My first trip away with horses was during the school holidays when I was 15,” he said. “I went to Brisbane with a couple of fillies Dad had in the Queensland Oaks.” That was the forerunner to his subsequent appointment as travelling foreman. They were particularly exciting times, with Neville reaching a career milestone when Kevin Moses piloted the Baguette filly Dark Eclipse to win the STC Golden Slipper Stakes-Gr.1 in 1980. Later in the same year, Grahame had the honour of accompanying horses such as 1980 BTC Doomben 10,000 winner Hit It Benny and that year’s VRC Oaks heroine November Rain on their journeys.

A daughter of Lindsay Park stallion Estaminet (GB), November Rain went on to capture the AJC Oaks and the Queensland Oaks only to be retired after finishing out of the money in the QTC Queensland Derby (2400m). “It was a pity she was retired at that stage because we thought she was the type of mare who could have won a Melbourne Cup,” Grahame said.

High class performers such as Dalmacia, Palaban and Veloso had kept everything bubbling until a cranky grey filly by Bletchingly from the Gunsynd mare Ammo Girl joined the team. That, of course, was Emancipation, who was looked after by Grahame during her racing career. After being given every opportunity to develop and mature at three she won 10 races featuring the AJC Doncaster Handicap-Gr.1 and the STC George Ryder Stakes-Gr.1 with Ron Quinton aboard.

She was again a supremely dominant force in the 1983-84 season with her nine wins featuring four victories at the elite level, which earned her selection as Horse of the Year. Emancipation’s competitive spirit on the racecourse came at a cost though, because she was a handful at home.

“She was a wonderful, wonderful racemare but she had a mind of her own,” Grahame said of Emancipation. “She was very aggressive both on and off the racecourse. She was hard to deal with and I had plenty of war wounds from bites and kicks by the time she retired. Fortunately they weren’t too serious.”

Over the ensuing years fillies continued to play an important part in guaranteeing the stable’s fortunes with Tristram Rose (NZ) and Travel Light (NZ) winning the Queensland Oaks, and Sandy’s Pleasure with Jim Cassidy up, taking the VRC Oaks in 1987. That was a momentous year with Grahame and Sue who had ridden trackwork for Neville, being married. Over the time since, Sue has become an integral part of the operation looking after the office and helping with the race day duties as well as “training the trainer”. Both are comfortable with the fact that their children, Casey, 24, and Oliver, 22, will not maintain the Begg training dynasty. 

“They are pursuing careers in other areas,” Graham said. “Casey works in a management company in the hotel industry and Oly is into photography and only has a social interest in racing.”

Over the three years after their marriage Grahame was kept busy in his role as travelling foreman until, at nearly 60, his father decided to accept the offer from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. “It was a bit of a surprise when Dad decided to go to Hong Kong, but fortunately I had a lot of experience. I was away up to five or six months a year going to the interstate carnivals, which was invaluable because I got to see all the best horses and was able to watch the best trainers and best jockeys in action. It was great to see the tracks and to see how the carnivals worked away from Sydney.”

So with Neville’s move Grahame, at age 29, was granted his training licence by the Australian Jockey Club and took over at Baramul Lodge. “At that point some horses left, some horses stayed. We had some good horses, but one I was upset about losing was Bureaucracy. We’d had him from a young age but he was transferred to Jack Denham and went on to win a George Ryder.”

Realising he had to “move on” Grahame’s spirits rose when on May 7, 1990, his first runner Polishing won the AJC Golden Rhapsody Handicap. A matter of five weeks later he registered his first black type success when Larry Olsen brought the eight year-old Eye of the Sky home to a convincing victory in the QTC Castlemaine Perkins Handicap-LR at Eagle Farm.

Eye of the Sky had carried only 54.5kg on that occasion and with the Doomben Fourex Cup-Gr.1 12 days later being run at weight-for-age, for the first time Olsen opted for Brisbane Cup winner Shuzohra. Although Grahame was confident of Eye of the Sky’s chances he was turned down by Darren Gauci, Michael Clarke, Darren Beadman, Malcolm Johnston and Robert Thomson before Gavan Duffy accepted the ride.

Eye of the Sky was sent out as a 25/1 chance but Duffy virtually clinched the race when he burst to the lead about 600m out. In the end, to Grahame and Sue’s delight, Eye of the Sky held on to score by a half-neck from Solar Circle with Rough Habit two lengths further away third. That did wonders for his confidence and influenced Grahame to go against his father’s advice by running the Long Row gelding in the following week’s QTC Tattersalls Cup-Gr.3 at Eagle Farm.

“Dad thought it would be best not to run him again so quickly after the Fourex Cup. I knew he hadn’t taken any harm from the race and that he’d originally been sent for the Tattersalls Cup.” Again his judgment proved accurate when Eye of the Sky, with Duffy again in the saddle, cruised to the post 2.5 lengths clear of Go Timmy.

Duffy’s loyalty was further rewarded when he secured the mount on the Whiskey Road (USA) filly Whisked in the new season. Racing in the red, white cap of Sandy Tait and his sister Jill Nivison, Whisked scored a convincing win over Triscay in the STC Tea Rose Stakes-Gr.2 (1500m) at Rosehill at the third outing in her spring campaign. A muddling pace brought about her undoing in the AJC Flight Stakes-Gr.1 on her way to a courageous win over Triscay and Lycra in the VATC The 1000 Guineas-Gr.1 at Caulfield.

“Whisked had a little bit of temperament, but after Emancipation I thought that was a good trait for a filly,” Grahame said. She ended that preparation with a second to Weekend Delight in the VRC Oaks, with Triscay third, before adding the AJC Light Fingers Stakes-Gr.3 to her record in the autumn. Whisked, who was from the Kaoru Star mare That is a Shame, went on to secure a place in racing history by producing the outstanding performer Tie the Knot, another Tait-Nivison horse, to a mating with Nassipour (USA).

In the autumn of 1993 the stable had a third Gr.1 triumph in the AJC Oaks with the Arrowfield Group bred and raced Mahaya. That win was not without its drama, however, with a corn flaring after she had worked on the Tuesday prior to the event. “The days leading up to the Oaks were hell,” Grahame said. It was fortunate he had the support of master farrier Albert O’Cass who carved away portion of the hoof, and stable foreman Frank Williams who constantly bathed the troublesome area. Their efforts were rewarded when, after being sent to the lead over the rise by Mick Dittman, Mahaya scored an easy victory over Slight Chance and Lady Agnes.

Less than six months later Fraternity (NZ), raced by Mr and Mrs Dominic Beirne, Mr and Mrs Colin Tidy and Neville Begg and Partners Syndicate (manager: Miss Carmel Begg), added to the tally in the AJC Spring Champion Stakes (2000m). With Brian York up, Fraternity edged out Zaremba by a short head with Constant Flight 1.75 lengths further away third. In the autumn of 1994 it was the turn of Telesto (NZ), who being by Star Way (GB) from the Bletchingly mare St. Klaire (AUS), was a brother to Fraternity and had been bred by the Beirnes, the Tidys and the Beggs.

At his second run back he defeated Clearly Chosen and Burst in the AJC Chipping Norton Stakes-Gr.1 and followed up by taking the George Ryder. A fortnight later he was beaten, a nose and a nose, by Pharoah and Kingston Bay in the AJC Doncaster Handicap-Gr.1 (1600m) at Randwick after striking interference on the home turn.

“Right from the time he made his race debut I knew we had something special, and that’s how it turned out,” Grahame said of Telesto. International glory came next, when in consultation with Neville, he decided to tackle the Hong Kong Bowl (1400m) at Sha Tin in 1995 with the Rubiton gelding Monopolize, racing in the stable’s traditional black, white armbands, red cap. With Wayne Harris in the saddle he scored comfortably in course record time of 1:21.50 and he was triumphant again in 1996 when ridden by Darren Beadman.

“It was the first time a horse had won a Hong Kong International Race back-to-back, which was quite a feat. The Bowl wasn’t a Gr.1 then but it is now. Monopolize was bought for only $24,000 as a yearling and won $1.8 million back in the nineties.”

On the final day of the 1999 VRC Spring Carnival the remarkable achievements of the Star Way-St. Klaire-Bletchingly bloodlines soared even higher when Bonanova, a sister to Fraternity and Telesto, outgunned her rivals in the VRC Emirates Stakes-Gr.1. “That was my seventh Gr.1 since I’d begun training and incredibly four of those were with full siblings.”

After going through a stretch without a Gr.1 winner the Baramul Lodge operation was severely hurt in 2005 when the stable was caught up in the Written Bloodstock debacle. The 30 horses the company had with Grahame were sold off. “It was extremely draining but it was made easier by being surrounded by family.”

Grahame was back on top of his game by the spring of 2008 when he saddled up three runners for three winners at the Melbourne Cup Carnival. After winning a Gr.3 over 1400m on Derby Day All Silent went on to defeat his rivals in the Emirates Stakes on the final day, and Palacio de Cristal won the VRC The Moet & Chandon Stakes (1700m) on Oaks Day.

All Silent returned 12 months later to win the VRC Gilgai Stakes-Gr.2 and the Patinack Stakes-Gr.1, while Palacio De Cristal’s subsequent victories featured the AJC Villiers Stakes-Gr.2 and VRC Rose of Kingston Stakes-Gr.2.

“Grahame has had a lot of success in Victoria,” Sue said. “Besides her Emirates win Bonanova won what is now the Myer Classic and a Tristarc Stakes. She also won two runnings of the Winter Stakes which is now the Tatts Tiara. Our Egyptian Raine won the Moir at Moonee Valley and the Emirates Classic, which is the old Linlithgow and a Tristarc Stakes, as well as recording eight Gr.1 seconds during her career.

“We won the Edward Manifold at Flemington with Twiglet, who went on to become the dam of champion Hong Kong sprinter Fairy King Prawn. Mahaya won a Geelong Oaks Trial and Antiquity won a Carbine Club on Derby Day, which has all been great for the stable.”

Following on from All Silent, the Dubawi (IRE) filly Secret Admirer and Ilovethiscity were making their presence felt. A winner of the Flight Stakes, Secret Admirer proved triumphant in the ATC Epsom Handicap-Gr.1 at four while notching up eight Gr.1 placings, including two in the Emirates Stakes, along the way.

Ilovethiscity, purchased as a yearling for $40,000, also competed at the highest level successfully winning the ATC Randwick Guineas-Gr.1 and twice being placed in Gr.1 events. A striking chestnut by Magic Albert from the Kenfair mare Kensington Rose (NZ), who is closely related to Dalmacia, he was retired to Larneuk Stud at Euroa, in 2012. 

“We bought him as a yearling and we have retained an interest in him,” Grahame said. “We breed a few mares to him each year and we’ll just see where that goes.”