Murray Tillett

published: 15 Oct 2013 in Personality profiles

Being taken to the races as a special treat gave a young Murray Tillett a love for horses that has led to a career in the industry, mainly with auction houses, but lately as bloodstock manager for the revitalised Woodside Park operation in Victoria. The stud is now home to boom young sire Written Tycoon.

FOR most of his working life Murray Tillett was an auction house man, based in Perth. However, a few years ago Murray and his wife Anne decided on a change of direction and moved across the Nullarbor Plain. The couple settled in Melbourne, putting them closer to their son Matthew who is employed as the nominations manager at Darley Victoria, while their daughter Katie lives in Canada.

The move east led to Murray becoming bloodstock manager at the Rowsthorn family’s Woodside Park Stud near the small country town of Tylden, about 80km north west of Melbourne. Murray’s appointment came at a time when the clock was ticking for the operation. After being established, along with the adjacent Wadham Park training stables, by Peter Rowsthorn, the stud was struggling to maintain a significant presence in the Victorian thoroughbred industry.

Although as enthusiastic as ever, an aging Peter Rowsthorn subsequently decided to step down as principal and to hand over the control of the business to his successful son Mark. Applying the fiscal discipline that has made him one of Australia’s richest people Mark has, with Murray’s assistance, been restructuring the way the farm works. As an integral part of the revitalisation project horses are no longer being trained under the Wadham Park banner and the 75ha (180 acre) Wadham Park property has been brought under the umbrella of Woodside Park Stud, which covers an additional 145ha (360 acres).

“Both properties, which are incredible, unbelievable, are now operating as Woodside Park,” Murray said. “It is part of a complete change of focus that Mark has brought in. Also, under Mark’s direction, we are now operating with a whole new set of budget requirements and reporting systems.

“His aim is to improve the business over a period of time, by going the right way about developing what will be a viable business for years to come. My responsibilities include the running and the administration of the farm along the lines of the model Mark has designed. It is an exciting project and one that I am very fortunate to be associated with.”

It is also a role that Murray is ideally suited to because before being drawn to the buying and selling of horses he had secured a Bachelor of Business Degree from Curtin University in Western Australia. By the time he graduated from Curtin he had also received an informal education in racing. This began while he was growing up in the Perth ocean side suburb of Cottesloe as Murray recalls being taken to the races by a grandmother as a “special treat”. He can vividly remember being at Ascot when racegoers staged a demonstration after a protest by Kilrickle against La Trice was upheld following the 1970 Railway Stakes. 

“The margin was massive and the crowd threw bottles, race books and other things into the presentation area when the placings were reversed.” Murray can also remember horses such as the 1970 Western Australian Guineas winner Heliolight and Ride Easy, who won the WA Derby in 1971 carrying Sir Ernest Lee Steere’s all red colours to victory.

On completing his secondary education at Swanbourne High School Murray undertook a part-time accountancy degree at Curtin University. “Then I went full-time for the last couple of years. Among my fellow students doing the business degree were Terry and Trevor Delroy. Trevor later bred the Australian Derby winner Ethiopia and the Queensland Oaks winner Gondokoro.

“There were times when the Delroys and I decided that racing in country Western Australia was more interesting than the classes we were taking. We often thought the races at Northam, Pinjarra or York were a better proposition than our lectures so off we’d go together.

“Another person in the same year was Paul Smythe, who later on became a partner of mine in Goodwood Bloodstock as well as a leading trainer in Kalgoorlie. It’s interesting that the four of us came through the same Bachelor of Business Degree at university and all finished up in the thoroughbred industry.”

On completing his university course Murray and Paul Smythe went, as graduating students did in those days, on an excursion to London. “I really liked being over there and when my wife Anne and I were married we decided to head for London. That would have been in the mid-1970s. We decided we’d like go travelling together and we took in as many sights as we could on both sides of the channel.”

They also ventured to Aintree in 1977 to witness the immortal Red Rum, with Tommy Stack aboard, winning the Grand National Steeplechase for a record third time. “We didn’t go racing that often as when we had the opportunity at weekends we’d go to Paris or Rome or touring, but seeing Red Rum win the Grand National, I think it was by 25 lengths, was really something.”

During the nearly three years Murray and Anne were in London he worked as an internal auditor for a computer company, International Computers, in Euston Road. “The offices were right by the tube stop and it was the best job anyone could ever imagine. It was an interesting time because computers were in their infancy. I was working with a great group of people, who had a fantastic camaraderie so it was all very enjoyable.”

On returning to Perth he worked for “a while” at the famed Swan Brewery, situated quite grandly on the banks of the Swan River. It was while struggling to establish himself back in his home town that Murray had a major breakthrough after buying a pacer named Sinn Fein in partnership with Paul Smythe. 

“We bought Sinn Fein for $6000 and he won his first nine races for us. He went on to win $100,000 race called the Golden Nugget and $100,000 was a lot of money in those days. Then we got good money when we eventually sold him, so Sinn Fein was an absolute winner for Paul and myself.”

Murray said the venture further fired his interest in the horse racing business, although at that stage still more on the standard bred side. This led to him applying for a position as standard bred manager at Goodwood Bloodstock, but after being overlooked he decided, with Anne’s support, to move to New Zealand to gain some hands-on experience.

“That was in 1985, Anne had just had our daughter Katie and she was three months old when we arrived in Christchurch. I was fortunate to find a job at Bob McArdle’s Nevele R Stud, which was a major operation. They were setting up a joint venture with some investment bankers near Auckland, called Harness World Bloodstock. We set some stallions up and I managed that for the couple of years I was there.”

As the financial crash of the late 1980s was gathering momentum Goodwood Bloodstock sent an emissary to New Zealand to enquire whether Murray would join the company. He accepted, and just after Matthew was born in New Zealand the Tilletts made the journey back to Perth.

A “good mate” John Chalmers was managing Goodwood Bloodstock, but a split within the board of directors led to him departing from the scene and Murray being appointed as interim manager. “Two people we had working in the pedigree department, where everything was still being hand-written, were Damon Gabbedy and Mark Pilkington, who have gone on to forge successful careers in the industry,” he said. “Damon reckoned I was a dictator and to this day he still calls me Mussolini.”

When a new chief executive was installed about 12 months later Murray bought the standard bred side of the business and established a company named Gloucester Standardbreds. “We ran the standard bred sales for the next three years, and that all went well.”

In 1990, with the company still embroiled in difficulties, Murray was approached about buying Goodwood Bloodstock, which he did in partnership with Paul Smythe. “Mark, who had been overseas, joined the company, so there were basically the three of us running it,” Murray said. “We did really well with Goodwood until a breakaway group of breeders, headed by Federal parliamentarian Wilson Tuckey, began conducting their own sale. That fractured the industry which eventually led to Magic Millions coming in and taking over our rivals.”

In the meantime David Smith had bought Durham Lodge and had secured Scenic from Lindsay Park through Mark Pilkington. “David’s son Jeremy, who now runs Durham Lodge, was working for us. David decided he wanted to buy into Goodwood Bloodstock so I decided to sell out my part of the company. “That was in 1998 and the following year Magic Millions, which was being quite aggressive, held another sale. There was no possibility of Perth being able to sustain two sales companies so in 2000 everyone got together to discuss the situation and Magic Millions took over Goodwood Bloodstock.

“I went back to run the company as Magic Millions and everything was soon working smoothly again. As an experiment, against some opposition, we conducted a Super Select Yearling Sale in the Burswood Dome on a Saturday night. We were only able to construct boxes for 120 horses and logistically it was very challenging, but it was without a doubt the best sale we’d ever held in Perth with an average of around $70,000.

“The enthusiasm and hype followed on to the second day of the sale at Belmont Park with everyone who had missed out on the night before wanting to buy a horse. Unfortunately it was a very expensive exercise and we didn’t do it again.”

After 14 years of running sales companies in the west Murray, in 2004, accepted an offer from Inglis to work in the Melbourne bureau, but logistics proved a problem. “Because Katie and Matthew were too young to move out of school Anne stayed at home in Perth. It was an expensive exercise and, in the end, it just wasn’t practical so I went back home and, with David Chester always being very good to me, I rejoined Magic Millions early in 2005.

“The Magic Millions sales in Perth were having a very good run, particularly with our sales to south-east Asia with Singapore and Malaysia thriving. We were massively strong in those countries, our horses acclimatised really well and posted the right results on the racetrack, which led to us receiving really, really good support from there. With all that we kept on achieving record growth year-on-year and, of course, on the way through we had success with our local stallions.

“In the early days, when Heytesbury Stud was a major, major player, we had Haulpak and then there were horses like Jungle Boy and Beau Sovereign through to the likes of Scenic and Metal Storm. Having horses like that is vitally important because Western Australia needs its own stallions to be successful to ensure the state has a successful breeding industry.”

Then as the first decade of the 21st Century was coming to a close Murray decided that a change of direction was in order. “Because Matthew was living in Victoria we thought it would be a good idea to move across to Melbourne and for me to get on to the other side of the fence,” Murray said. The move across the continent opened the way for the renewal of an association with a friend Brett Langan, who had also previously lived in Perth. “Brett had become associated with a couple of scientists involved in human fertility issues,” Murray said. “It was evident to Brett that the theories the scientists had about hormone levels and testosterone levels could apply to horses.

“I was asked whether I could find a horse with fertility problems. I rang Arthur and Harry Mitchell, who I know pretty well, and asked whether Foreplay who had problems after producing Decision Time in his first crop, would be available. They had just decided to give up on him because he was totally infertile as far as they were concerned, completely and utterly. They gave us half the horse as long as they didn’t have any more costs with him, so we took him to a clinic at Cranbourne where we began treating him with stem cells.

“The treatment worked on Foreplay and then we sent him on to vet Angus McKinnon at Shepparton. The results continued to be encouraging which led to Foreplay going to Woodside Park for the 2010 breeding season. The young stud master at Woodside Park Gerard Jones, who does a fantastic job, began working on the horse and nine of the first 10 mares he served were in foal. We then bought the other half of the horse and last year he was transferred to Wattle Grove Stud at Berrima in NSW, where I understand his fertility rate was 90%.”

Following the connection with Woodside Park, established through Foreplay, Murray was appointed as the farm’s bloodstock manager at the time Mark Rowsthorn was taking over the running of the operation from his father.

“After being on the auction house side of the business I had been thinking I would like to become involved as a bloodstock manager for a breeding farm,” he said. “That’s when the opening at Woodside Park came along and it has been a very busy time since, because a lot has been occurring under Mark’s influence.”

Under the new regime the Iglesia horse Written Tycoon, who was Champion First Crop Sire in Australia in 2010-11, has been added to the roster. “He an ideal horse for us going forward. He is a quality, commercial stallion and he will help elevate the farm to the level we are aiming for.”

The broodmare band is also being revamped with lesser mares being sold-on while more commercial mares are being bought to replace them. These mares will, in turn, be sent out to the nation’s leading stallions with their progeny, mostly, being sold as yearlings. However, some of the stud’s products will be raced by Woodside Park or in partnership with clients of the farm.

The training side, previously known as Wadham Park, is now being used for breaking-in and pre-training. “It is a magnificent facility, it has a track, stables, a water walker, swimming pool and everything you could possibly want to prepare young horses. As what we doing becomes more widely known within the industry I am sure our client base will grow, whereas previously the stud and Wadham Park were regarded more as a private concern. It is part of my duties to ensure that growth occurs.”