Grant Burns

published: 12 May 2014 in Personality profiles

Being born in the same NZ town as Phar Lap and having family involved in the racing industry meant Grant Burns grew up around horses, even if motorbikes became a passion for a time. However it’s hard to escape your destiny, and with some help from distinguished mentors, Grant has established a career as a bloodstock agent and auctioneer in WA.

‚ÄčTHE thoroughbred bloodstock business has been kind to Grant Burns, and during the 15 years he has been vitally involved he has enjoyed the good fortune to be mentored by a number of the industry’s most influential identities. These include Don Hancock, David Chester, David Coles, Adrian Hancock, Simon Vivian, George Smith, Steve Davis, John Chalmers and Murray Tillett. A consummate listener and with a willingness to work hard, Grant has ridden their advice to a place of prominence as proprietor of Premium Bloodstock and a contract auctioneer for Magic Millions.

Since being launched in 2008 Premium Bloodstock has attracted a number of notable Western Australians onto the books. Foremost of these is mining magnate Ron Sayers, principal of Yarradale Stud. Among Ron’s sayings that Grant, a frank and friendly person, has taken on board is “if it isn’t fair, it isn’t right”. It is a rule he always applies in his dealings with clients, but he has a concern that not everyone else follows this guideline. “A gripe of mine is that you shouldn’t force horses onto people just because you are trying to make a sale just to survive,” he said. “We want transparency and we want people to come into racing and to have a good experience. It’s an amazing game and I’ve been lucky enough to experience that winning feeling.

“It is the greatest thrill you can imagine to watch a horse you own, have a part share in, or have bred, winning a race. As far as I am concerned that’s what it’s all about and you don’t want people to come into racing and be touched by a rogue. That can lead to a bad press that is unjust and turns people away when, in reality, we have an amazing industry that is well policed and should be great fun.”

Although he was in his twenties before he began following a what, in hindsight, seems like preordained path, Grant was literally destined to follow a life among horses from the time of his birth at Timaru. A major port town 160km south west of Canterbury on New Zealand’s south island, Timaru is famed as the birthplace of Australasia’s greatest galloper Phar Lap.

“Obviously I’ve always been aware of Phar Lap and the story surrounding him, but I think my future may have been shaped by my grandfathers. My mother’s father was a stock and station agent and my father’s father was a trainer, mainly of jumpers. My father Jimmy grew up in a racing environment and he had a couple of rides over jumps as an amateur but soon realised there wasn’t much future there.”

That led to him taking on an apprenticeship as a saddler following a move to Mosgiel, a town featuring in Maori mythology 15km west of Dunedin. Once there Jimmy and his wife Shirley established a saddlery business, which they ran for the next 35 years. They also bought a small piece of land, which was part of White Robe Lodge Stud where Mellay (GB), a dual Champion Sire of New Zealand and highly influential broodmare sire, stood.

“I basically grew up in Mosgiel and had a pony, which I’d ride all around the place,” Grant said. “Although by the time I was in my teens my brother Brian and I loved motorbikes, but you needed money to operate them.” To provide the finance Grant started working in the stables at Wingatui of Arthur Didham, the father of Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Midge Didham. “The stables were only about a kilometre down the road and I’d go there before school, after school, on weekends and during school holidays. Arthur was a great trainer and a great old man and I learned a lot from him and Midge’s brother Les. I also used to help at the starting gates at all the meetings around the Otago area so I could buy fuel for the motorbike.”

On leaving school in 1991 Grant went straight into a position with an Australian company named Defiance Food Industry, which had grain stores, flour mills and bakeries in Dunedin and on the Taieri Plains. “Before long I was running the production, organising the grain intakes and buying from farmers and so on. I did that for a few years and it gave me a good grounding in the ways of business. It was a good job, especially when I look back. It provided me with important experience because dealing with farmers was not that different to dealing with vendors. “The farmers have a product they are trying to sell much the same as breeders are doing with their horses. So that was helpful to me when I went into the bloodstock industry.”

Towards the end of 1995 Grant was gripped by the urge to travel and left Defiance Food and headed for the United Kingdom. “Mosgiel is only a small town of 10,000-odd people but it seemed like everyone my age had travelled,” he said. “Basically, when I was 22, I jumped on a plane and went overseas. I was away for three years and during that time I did all sorts of things from pouring beer to filling potholes in roads and laying communication cables in a job for Bank of America in Moscow.

“It was amazing what I did and where I ended up during the time I was overseas. I was based in London with some mates and we travelled all over the UK. The All Blacks toured a few times while we were in London and, being a mad fan, I went to their games whether they were in Wales, France, Holland or wherever.

“What you would do was work through the winter in London, doing whatever you could to get some money and then travel through the summer. We travelled all over Europe, all through the eastern countries Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, and we did Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Anzac Day at Gallipoli.

“We went to Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territory where you wouldn’t dare go now because it is so dangerous. We also went to South America . . . all through there, Brazil, Argentina, up through Peru, Ecuador and all those countries on our way home.”

Grant arrived back in time for his father’s 50th birthday but soon realised Mosgiel was not going to be the place to build his future. He decided to cross the Tasman and begin “door knocking”. Among the doors he knocked on was that of Don Hancock, who was then managing director of the Magic Millions.

“I had been to the yearling sales when I’d been on holidays on the Gold Coast and I told Don I wanted to work for the company. I knew by then my passion was horses but the question was how I could become involved, and I will always appreciate the help Don gave me.

“He said the Magic Millions didn’t have any vacancies but he gave me the names of people I should approach including Michael Ford at the Australian Stud Book. I received a lot of knock backs and I was doing odd jobs in Sydney when Don rang me 15 or 18 months later. He asked me what I was doing and said if I was ever on the Gold Coast I should come and see him. 

I jumped on a flight a couple of weeks later and he told me he had an opening in Perth, if it interested me.” At that time John Chalmers and Murray Tillett, who had previously been with Goodwood Bloodstock, were running the Western Australia office of Magic Millions in a caretaker capacity. “It was a big call by Don because he was throwing me in the deep end, with my not having had any real experience in the bloodstock industry,” Grant said. “Naturally I grabbed the chance and I will always be grateful for the opportunity given to me by Don. I was also fortunate that John and Murray were also great and I learned a lot from them as well as having Don as an amazing mentor.”

Within 12 months John and Murray had moved on, which led to Grant, who had put in long hours to make a success of the new role, being appointed as state manager. During the three years he was in the west David Chester had taken over as Magic Millions managing director.

When Rob Monsma, who had been running the company’s Adelaide office, left in 2003 David asked Grant whether he would be interested in replacing him. He accepted and before long was very comfortable and, as he says, “very fortunate” to have the opportunity of working closely with people such as Adrian Hancock and David Coles. “Both Adrian and the late Mr Coles are legends,” he said. “I have been very lucky to work and learn from great people like them.” Other significant influences on Grant while he was in Adelaide were Simon Vivian who in those days was looking after the interests of Magic Millions in Victoria, and the revered George Smith.

“For about three years I went on yearling inspections with Simon and George, who is as knowledgeable as anyone I’ve ever met,” he said. It was Simon who introduced Grant, he is still not sure whether it was by accident or design, to auctioneering. “We would run little bi-monthly sales on a Friday or a Sunday where we would sell around 65 or 70 horses. Simon had been on to me about trying myself as an auctioneer, but I had kept saying no. Then one Sunday Simon rang from Melbourne to say his plane was delayed, and then about half an hour before the sale was due to start he rang again to say he was still on the tarmac.

“With that I rang Adrian but he was on holidays, and I tried a few others but couldn’t find anyone who was available. When we couldn’t delay the start of the sale any longer I said to myself ‘well, it’s now or never’. I locked myself in my office, studied the catalogue, wrote down some notes and then proceeded to the rostrum and apologised to everyone for what was about to happen.

“Simon turned up about 30 minutes later and I have never been sure whether he had been hiding down the road or in a back office. He was ready to take over but I was enjoying myself so much I wasn’t keen to let him take over and that’s where it all began. After that David Chester pushed me along and I got to sell at a lot of sales very quickly, which was amazing for someone so new in the industry. It wasn’t too long before I was selling at the yearling sales.”

As this was happening Grant received coaching from David, Adrian Hancock, Simon Vivian and Steve Davis while David Coles often sat in the Morphettville auditorium and marked his card. “Mr Coles would have a chat to me on the Monday morning and say ‘you did this well but you could improve a bit here’ and so on,” he said.

Following Simon Vivian’s transfer to Inglis in 2005 much of his workload was taken over by Grant. That meant he spent considerably more time in Victoria, often staying for weeks on end. “While South Australia was quietening down a little we had a lot more yearlings from Victoria being entered for the Gold Coast sales. Again that was very, very valuable experience and it enabled me to meet a lot more people.

“The auctioneering also allowed me to get to know more people and that meant I was developing friendships and relationships with a wide range of people in the industry. Over a period of five or six or seven years I covered a fair bit of ground in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria and that certainly helped.”

It was during this period that Grant’s partner Lexie Morton moved from Perth to join him in Adelaide. “She was nursing in remote areas of Central Australia and the Northern Territory, so Adelaide was a good base for her,” he said of Lexie, who is the daughter of WA Minister for Mental Health, Disability Services and Child Protection Helen Morton, who with her husband Allan owns a horse property at Queenslea Park.

In 2008 Grant was approached about returning to the west to act as a representative for Mungrup Stud and Touchstone Stud, which was just being established. There was sufficient encouragement to attract the pair back to Perth, and in the middle of that year Premium Bloodstock was founded. “I felt awful having to tell David Chester I was leaving Magic Millions after the company had been so good to me,” he said, “but David was understanding and I’ve remained on with the Magic Millions since then as a contract auctioneer.”

Only months after being back in Perth Grant developed an association with Ron Sayers, the managing director and major shareholder of the multi-national concern Ausdrill. A man with a wholehearted approach to everything he tackles Ron, who was a partner in the superstar Northerly, has developed Yarradale Stud at Gidgegannup, 40km north-east of the city. There he stands Frost Giant (USA), Gingerbread Man, Discorsi, Heritage, Musket, Scandal Keeper (USA), Zentsov Street (USA) and War Chant (USA). He also has another property at Harvey in the southwest, and around 150 broodmares of his own.

“He is a person who thinks outside the square,” Grant said of Ron. About five years ago he decided to conduct a sale on the farm to find new homes for 20 or 30 or 40 yearlings he had after the sales and asked me if I’d like to be involved as auctioneer. I loved the idea and he has since become my biggest individual client and I believe I am blessed to be doing a lot of work for Ron as well as the Magic Millions. 

I am also doing quite a bit of work for Eddie Rigg who has Giesel Park and works closely with Ron.” At the time of their return to Perth, trainer Danny Morton, Lexie’s cousin, was on fire with Scenic Shot and Scenic Blast notching up a series of feature race successes. By capturing the VRC Lightning Stakes-Gr.1 (1000m) and Newmarket Handicap-Gr.1 (1200m) Scenic Blast earned a trip to Royal Ascot. Grant and Lexie were among the touring party which accompanied the Scenic (IRE) gelding.

“We spent a month over there and a great time was assured for all when Scenic Blast won the King’s Stand Stakes,” he said. With Danny often away travelling Grant became involved in the stable’s operations, with his attention on client services, by providing racing reports, advising owners of their horse’s programs, and generally looking after communications.

Along the way he has ventured into part-ownership of horses which went into Danny’s stable and those of another friend, David Harrison. These have featured a Vain Rancher gelding named Casper Cowboy, who registered wins in the WATC Australia Day Stakes-LR (1100m) and Belmont Newmarket Handicap-LR (1200m). Another winner is the Oratorio gelding Belora, who won the 2012 Boulder Cup-LR (1760m) a couple of months after Grant and Lexie returned from a memorable second trip to Royal Ascot. 

They had gone back to Royal Ascot, with friends and racing partners David and Jenny Harrison, to watch Black Caviar carry on her winning way in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes-Gr.1 (6f). The next day, June 24, with Windsor Castle as a background Grant proposed to Lexie, but they have yet to tie the knot. “We’ve been together for 10 years and we should have been married by now,” Grant said. “I keep telling Lexie she will have to organise a wedding sooner, rather than later.”