John Brocklebank

published: 09 Jul 2013 in Personality profiles

John Brocklebank had the chance at a professional footballing career in the US but he chose to forego it and follow his life long passion for horses, firstly in the world of the quarter horse and then pinhooking thoroughbreds. BC3 Thoroughbreds made headlines this year when paying a record $5m for a yearling half-brother to Black Caviar, and the company he co-founded is now a major player in Australia and US and looking at further expansion.

JOHN Brocklebank’s unique approach to developing racehorses was introduced into Australia more than five years ago. BC3 Thoroughbreds, which he had founded in partnership with Shane Chipman, had become a major player in the field of yearling to two year-old pinhooking in the United States when John’s skills and the reputation surrounding him came to the attention of David Chester in his then role as managing director of Magic Millions.

“We had heard that John had a great eye and was a genius in selecting horses,” David said. “We also knew that he had started out in quarter horses and then gone into thoroughbreds. With all that we decided to invite him out from America as our guest for the Gold Coast Yearling Sale in January 2008.

“We thought it would be a good move to invite him down to have a look at the Australian product and to see whether he had any fresh ideas that could help the sale along. Since then he has been coming to all our sales and he goes to most of the major sales in Australia. He has put together a really, really good track record and he is very highly respected right around the country.”

However, by his own admission John’s road to acceptance in this part of the world was not easy. “We decided to take our format to Australia after Melbourne businessman Bill Vlahos offered to buy BC3,” he said. “At the time we considered the Australian market offered opportunities for our pinhooking style of operation.

“From what we could see the yearling-to-juvenile market was underused here, but we found some initial resistance from the more conservative Australian owners. I can say though, that with nearly 60 per cent of our runners through five years being successful, those concerns have since been quieted and I am really excited about the future.”

That excitement has been fuelled by BC3 soaring to another level with a more aggressive attitude in the past two years. This change in approach was exemplified with the group’s purchase of the Redoute’s Choice-Helsinge half-sister to Black Caviar and All Too Hard for $2.6m last year and then the Redoute’s Choice-Helsinge colt for a record $5m at this year’s Inglis Australian Easter yearling sale.

“Obviously, to duplicate what their siblings have done on the racetrack is going to be a tough, tough feat,” says John, who remains responsible for overseeing the buying and the preparation of the yearlings purchased. “I can say, right now, I like their possibilities because they have aced two of my most important tests for a potential star racehorse . . . conformation and attitude.” While he can speak with the authority of a lifetime around horses, it is quite ironic that John should enter the world of racing from his hometown of Salt Lake City in Utah. The city, between Nevada and Colorado in America’s southwest, became the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Mormon leader Brigham Young in 1847. With the accent of the area very much centred on religion, Salt Lake City does not have a racetrack or allow parimutuel betting. This has forced John and Shane to make do with stables and a circuit at one of the city’s recreation reserves.

“I was born in Salt Lake City and I’ve lived there most of my life. It’s a great place to live and I’m very comfortable there,” John said. While horse racing and gambling tend to be frowned upon in Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 2002, the residents are enthusiastic about their sports. “Being raised in such an environment when I was a kid, like the other kids, I played basketball, baseball and football. Although I participated in all the sports I had a real love for the horses, right from the beginning.

“The only shows you could watch when I was growing up were Ponderosa or Flicker or stuff like that, and I kinda got hooked. I think you either get hooked on horses or you don’t and I had a severe fever for the horses, which has stayed with me my whole life.”

John says he was able to “feed the fever” through the kindness of some neighbours. “We didn’t live on a farm but my neighbours took me under their wing and that enabled me to do quite a lot of horsemanship in my early years. I’d go mow lawns so when I was old enough, probably about 16, I was able to buy myself a quarter horse.”

A talented player, John was, around that time, offered football scholarships by a number of high profile out-of-state colleges but elected to remain in Utah so he could continue to develop his horse interests, which were a “work in progress”. “I go to practice in the mornings then go to the horses, and after practice in the afternoon I’d go back to the horses. It eventually reached a point where I had to devote my time to the football or horses and the horses won out.

“My interest in the equine world ran right away with it. I really dove into them after that and devoted every waking minute to them . . . and maybe some sleepless nights. My first real success was with a mare named Miss Ponju, which I’d bought down in Caliente in Mexico. She was the one who started my racing career. “I took her down to La Boyse Park in Boiysie, Idaho, in 1977 and she won five races for me. I’d bought her for $1300 and I sold her for $6000 at the end of the summer. It kinda started my pinhooking and I realised that’s what I wanted to do.

“It was two years after that I bought a little colt, for $5000, as a yearling. He was named Polpack and ended up being the World Champion Quarter Horse, and the guy I bought him for sold half of him for $2,250,000. 

I got a small portion of that, so I dove deeper into the quarter horses. Another really good horse we had early on was Jumpin’ Tack Flash. “I played the quarter horses for about 20 years, and by the time we were finished we had been able to acquire and sell three world champions. We won the triple crown and pretty well every futurity in the inner mountain region.”

During the years all this had been happening, John had supplemented his passion by working as a deliveryman. He would go to the stables at 4.30 in the morning, do his deliveries, then go back to the horses in the afternoon and stay with them until about nine o’clock at night.

“I did that for 10 years until a gentleman by the name of David Payne, who I had bought Polpac for, hired me fulltime and I stayed with him for five years. Then I went out on my own pinhooking.” Along the way he had talked to as many experienced trainers as he could as he put together his theories for the most beneficial way of conditioning young horses. “I also studied how human athletes trained,” he said. “Even if a guy is running only over 60 yards he will train three hours a day. I kinda followed that pattern by building up the work of the horses every day.

“I have always been mindful that a horse is a herd animal so as you are conditioning them you want to instil in them a desire to be the top dog, but you have to appreciate that each and every one has its own recipe. The secret is, once you’ve asked them to stretch themselves you have to allow them the time to put everything back together again. You have to watch and work out exactly how to do that.

“I also expose them to speed very early on, as soon as they are comfortable after they’ve been broken in, but again you have to be careful. You don’t want them to surrender or become cowards so I try every day to ensure they feel like they are a tiger on the track.

That way they keep wanting to do more . . . it’s a kind of an art.”

This formula evolved through hours and hours of attention to the movements and the psyche of horses in his care as well as a reflection on what “old timers” had told him as he worked through his quarter horse days into the thoroughbreds. “By the time we’d done pretty much all we could with the quarter horses I’d started taking an interest in thoroughbreds,” he said. “I noticed that the juvenile market was really steaming along and so I decided that’s where I should be headed.”

He and Shane, who continued working out of Salt Lake City, co-opted the services of John’s fiancée Tari Anderson. “Tari goes every step of the way with me at the sales, filing reports, making the short list and being an invaluable help.”

The combination’s expert judgement and ability to produce a fully educated, sound and fast product was welcomed within the industry. Luminaries such as D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert bought their graduates with success and BC3’s stocks rose even higher through the development of horses, such as Brother Derek, into stars. By Benchmark (Alydar) from the Siyah Kalem (Mr. Prospector) mare Miss Soft Sell, Brother Derek was bought by John for $US150,000 at Keeneland in September 2004 and sold on for $US250,000 at the Barretts sale in March the following year. With his wins featuring the Hollywood Park Futurity-Gr.1 (8.5f) at two and the Santa Anita Derby-Gr.1 (9f) at three, he amassed more than $US2.1m in prizemoney before going into retirement.

“In 2007 we actually led the nation in selling the highest per cent of stakes winners,” John said. “We were also the highest profit company in the business.

It was the best of both worlds because we always felt it was vitally important for the next guy to do well out of his purchases. That made us kinda popular, but as we were growing the global financial crisis hit, which made it harder to keep the wheels on the wagon while we were dealing with a lot of horses.”

Then fate played a winning hand for him when John was invited to the Gold Coast by the Magic Millions and met Bill Vlahos. It was a meeting of like minds with Bill immediately appreciating the skills John possessed. “Bill understood I had developed a way of ensuring purchases were ready to perform at their best by the time they were passed on. I think I’ve always had an acute eye for an athletic type and I’ve always believed in treating horses with the type of care and attention you’d give an Olympic athlete.

“I’ve also been a long time proponent of developing superior fitness in young horses. As far as training goes, I’ve always taken the view that I think you can make a coward out of a young horse if he is not prepared to handle what you want him to do. Because of that I’ve always looked at it as kind of cruel to not have a young horse properly trained and fit.

“I know some people are opposed to training young horses but you know the younger a horse is, the more bone density you can apply to him and there is only a certain window of opportunity to do that. It’s the philosophy I’ve followed all my life and it’s a philosophy Bill Vlahos also adopts, so it was all great.”

Following the appointment in March this year of the highly credentialled Craig Cameron as chief executive officer, a position he previously occupied, Bill fills the role of chairman. As a result of this recruitment John feels BC3 is about to springboard to new heights.

“As well as being absolutely solid and very dependable Craig is a get up and go type of person. He is exploring the possibility of supplying horses to China, Singapore and places like that. We are getting back into pinhooking in the US and that’s something I am very bullish about because the market there for juveniles is really picking up. In fact we are looking to buy and sell everywhere and Bill has submitted an application for a racing licence in Japan, so we can get our product out there.”

Although the quality of yearlings BC3 is buying has risen dramatically in recent times, as the purchase of the siblings to Black Caviar and All Too Hard illustrates, the horses are still being put under the same program of development. “There is a different concept now though, because these horses are being raced by BC3 rather than being sold on. That means we don’t have to move along at the same hectic pace as I did in the States,” John said.

“When I was pinhooking at home I needed to have the horses ready by a certain date, but with BC3 racing these horses we have time on our side. Now, if they hit a speed hump, we can allow them time to catch their breath before we press on, which is obviously beneficial. Everything has been put into place so we can prepare our horses in what I consider is a high quality, scientific program based on the individual needs of the horses we have, and, hopefully the proof will be in the pudding in the years ahead.”