Chris Russell

published: 07 Apr 2014 in Personality profiles

The tragic death of his father Ken in a race fall at Rosehill has not stopped Chris Russell from forging a career in the thoroughbred industry and he’s grateful for all the help and support he received from many industry notables along the way. After an early career at the Magic Millions, these days Chris is a familiar figure at Inglis sales where he has been a bloodstock consultant and auctioneer since August 2012.

THOROUGHBREDS are firmly embedded into the life of Inglis bloodstock consultant Chris Russell, with his interest in racehorses being fostered from a very early age. He was little more than a toddler when his mother Carol began taking Chris and his elder brother Daniel, a sister Sara came later, to the races to watch their father Ken in action.

Then, cruelly, on October 9, 1993, his father was fatally injured in a race fall at Rosehill. For a time everything threatened to unravel, but Carol and the children stoically battled through with the support of the racing fraternity. Their spirits were further lifted by the accolades heaped on Ken following his death.

The tributes to the immensely popular jockey included the construction of a superb statue in his hometown of Monto, some 500km north-west of Brisbane. A man admired for his integrity it is understandable that Ken Russell, in passing at 42 years of age, is so fondly remembered. Renowned as the “Monto Marvel” and “King of the Coast” he rode 1804 winners from about 10,000 rides and won 14 premierships from Rockhampton, down through Brisbane and the Gold Coast to Gosford.

While Daniel and Sara have chosen to steer away from horses, Chris has ensured that the Russell name has continued in the thoroughbred world by following a career in the bloodstock business. With his size ruling him out of following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a jockey, he set about making a name for himself in the industry, first at the Magic Millions, and now with Inglis in Sydney.

“I am one of the lucky people who really enjoy what they are doing because I consider my job my hobby,” he said. “Obviously that makes it easy to get up and go to work in the mornings.

“I think it’s great standing in a paddock with a stud master, who is quite often considered a friend, discussing something you are both passionate about. As far as I am concerned you couldn’t ask for anything more fulfilling from my work.” It is a way of life that is certainly in his blood because his grandfather Gordon Russell, who died in March 2011 at age 93, was a successful jockey and trainer in Queensland’s north. He provided Ken with his first winner at Rockhampton in June, 1972.

After beginning his riding career, as a senior jockey, in his home town of Monto, early in 1972, Ken transferred south to the Gold Coast in 1979 where he stayed until opportunities opened up in Sydney in 1987. Chris was born while the family was living on the Gold Coast and had only just finished pre-school when the move to Sydney came. With his father’s main commitments being at Rosehill, the family settled in Baulkham Hills, 30km north-west of the city centre.

“Dad originally went to Sydney to ride for Doc Chapman and then he had a stint as stable rider for Brian Mayfield-Smith at Nebo Lodge and finally with Jack Denham. With Dad being a jockey I loved the races right from the time I was very young. When he’d arrive home I’d always rush out to see whether he had ridden any winners.” His first real memories of his father’s successes on the racetrack came in 1989 when he landed Malibu Magic a winner of the Magic Millions Two Year-old Classic for fillies, which Ken had also won the previous year on Sea Cabin.

“Mum was at the races but being school holidays we were off camping at a little place called Round Hill near Bundaberg, with our uncles and aunties,” Chris said. “I remember everyone being all excited and breaking into raptures because Dad had won the Magic Millions.”

While those victories were being notched up Chris was going to a little school in Winston Hills. He stayed there until completing grade four when he transferred to Parramatta Marist Junior for years five and six. It was during that time, when he was 11, that his father died. Ken’s death was traumatic for Carol with Daniel, 13, Chris, and Sara who was just eight years of age, to look after. It was even more distressing and vivid because Carol and the children were at the meeting.

“We were all there and I can still remember the fall as if it was yesterday,” Chris said. “We had been to Little Athletics in the morning and we didn’t normally go to the races after having sport in the morning, but for whatever reason we did that day.”

They have, however, been comforted over the years by the wonderful admiration and respect shown to Ken’s memory. As well as the Monto statue, Racing Queensland has instituted, rather ironically considering Ken did not serve an apprenticeship, the prestigious Ken Russell Apprentice of the Year Award, while the Gold Coast Turf Club commissioned a portrait of Ken which hangs in the club’s foyer. 

He was also an inaugural inductee into the GCTC’s Hall of Fame, and in addition each May the club holds the Ken Russell Memorial Classic-Gr.3 for two year-olds, as a tribute to his achievements. Although a latecomer to race riding Ken had, by the time of his death, built a reputation for his honesty and reliability as well as his ability in the saddle, which had seen him win a long string of feature races. These included the 1989 Doncaster Handicap on the 33/1 shot Merimbula Bay, an AJC Spring Champion Stakes for Mayfield-Smith on Sakana, a STC George Ryder Stakes and a STC Storm Queen Stakes. He won the QTC Grand Prix-Queensland Derby double on Mayfield-Smith’s Hidden Rhythm in 1989 as well as two Queensland Oaks, two SAJC Goodwood Handicaps and appropriately, given Chris’s work place, a William Inglis Classic at Rosehill on Pockets.

On the way through to Sydney Ken also achieved incredible success at the Gold Coast, highlighted by his Magic Millions victories and his seven wins in the GCTC Gold Nugget Stakes between 1981 and 1991, as well as winning numerous premierships. Not long before the tragedy Ken and Carol had bought a block of land on the Gold Coast and had started building a house.

“It was a very difficult period for us all, particularly Mum, but we were fortunate that the racing community, as it does, rallied around us. We stayed in Sydney while the house was being built and then in 1995 we moved back to the Gold Coast. After returning to the Gold Coast, I was enrolled in The Southport School where I finished the remainder of my secondary education.”

As he was coming to the end of his days at T.S.S. Chris had thoughts of following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a jockey, but as he says, increasing weight ruled that out. His future direction began taking shape when on finishing his high schooling in 2001 Chris received a scholarship to do the Diploma of Horse Business Management at the Marcus Oldham College at Geelong. It helped that along the way he had gathered practical experience mustering cattle on his father’s property near Monto and working in the Gold Coast stables of Bonecrusher’s jockey Gary Stewart.

“We’d go up to the property during school holidays and when we were in Sydney Mum and Dad would take me to John Tapp’s place for riding lessons,” Chris said. “Once I turned 15 and was old enough to hold a strapper’s licence I would go to Gary and Janelle Stewart’s stables and help out.

“A trainer named Michael Lakey was running a spelling property called Glen Eden, outside Beaudesert, and I’d go there as well during my school holidays. Also through Paul Knight and David Chester, I had work experience at the Magic Millions during the 2001 yearling sales. Doing the course at Marcus Oldham was good because it gave me a feel of all the different sections of the horse industry.”

It was about half way through the course that Paul Knight rang Chris saying, “there was a job going, if he was interested”. “I finished the course in November, had a week off and then started at the Magic Millions in December, so I went into the 2002 yearling sales pretty well straight away,” he said. “Being there I was like a little kid in the big city working with people such as David Chester, Alastair Pulford, Paul Knight and others who were all very good to me.”

Over the next 12 months Chris became friendly with Hoss and Gillian Heinrich and left the Magic Millions to help look after the day-to-day running of their racehorses and bloodstock. “Being with them gave me more of an exposure to the racing and training side of the business,” he added. However after a year with Hoss and Gillian, Chris decided it was time for a break to allow the opportunity to travel.

“My mates were travelling and I decided to do some travelling as well. People were saying if I didn’t do it when I was young I’d never do it, and I thought that was probably right. I was very fortunate David Chester, Paul Knight and the people at the Magic Millions understood what I was about and they said they would employ me when I decided to settle down again.

“At first I did a ski season in Canada, and then I worked up in the Whitsundays as a concierge on Dunk Island for six months. When I came back from my trips I’d pick up whatever work I could, often installing shelving for a company owned by the father of a friend. I also maintained the connection by doing work for the Magic Millions. 

“I did bid spotting and I organised the management of the stabling when horses were coming in and going out at the major sales. Once I figured I’d saved enough money I’d go away again . . . I went to Europe a number of times, to Africa, South America and South East Asia, which was all pretty exciting.”

Around the middle of 2007 he decided his excursions were over and rang Paul Knight looking to rejoin Magic Millions, but then the Equine Influenza outbreak struck, rushing the whole industry into a meltdown. “I thought I might as well go away again before starting back with Magic Millions in time for the 2008 yearling sales, which were held in April that year,” Chris said.

During the years he had been travelling and working part-time he had struck up a friendship with Grant Burns who was managing the company’s Adelaide office. “I’d go to Adelaide to help him with the various sales, and I got to know a lot of the South Australian people. When Grant moved to Perth in April, 2008 the management of the South Australian part of the Magic Millions operation was taken over by Tim Brown who was based in Victoria. After Grant left Adelaide and I had returned to the Magic Millions on the Gold Coast I found myself becoming heavily involved in helping Tim with the organisation and running of the various Adelaide sales.

“Following the 2010 sale, South Australian breeders collectively decided they wanted to develop a stronger Magic Millions presence in the State. At that point David Chester sat down with David Toole of Kambula Stud, Sam Hayes of Cornerstone and Chris Watson of Mill Park to discuss the situation. Having worked with Grant Burns and Tim Brown in helping to run the Adelaide office I had developed a sound knowledge of the South Australian landscape.

“With Tim as the current Adelaide manager, but committed to his base in Victoria, it became an obvious decision for me to relocate to Adelaide. I worked there first as a bloodstock consultant and then as South Australia manager. Taking the new position in Adelaide was great experience because I found myself having a much higher level of responsibility. I was always confident in the knowledge that I had the utmost support and guidance from Tim Brown and Wendy Cubitt and I really appreciated all the help they gave me during that period. I was also fortunate to be able to spend more time doing horse inspections in the Hunter Valley with Tony Williams, who has been a great friend and mentor to me over the years.” Along the way Chris had begun to “try his hand” at auctioneering. “It was Grant Burns who really pushed me into auctioneering, and he gave me my first chance at an Adelaide monthly sale,” he said. “Obviously Grant was there, but I was also greatly assisted by Adrian Hancock who is another in the industry to help me immensely. To say I was nervous when I began selling would be an understatement, but I gradually settled down and my auctioneering has continued on from there.”

It was while in Sydney for the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale of 2012 that Simon Vivian, who had been at Magic Millions in Chris’s early days with the company, approached him about a transfer. With Ian Macpherson scaling down his involvement, Inglis was searching for a suitable replacement. About two months later Simon rang to advise Chris that he would be receiving a phone call from one of the Inglis management team.

That eventuated and a meeting with the company’s managing director Mark Webster and bloodstock director Jonathan D’Arcy resulted in him joining Inglis at the beginning of August in 2012 as a bloodstock consultant and auctioneer. His duties since have included yearling inspections in the Hunter Valley as well as visiting studs in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australian where he has developed a well-known profile.

Chris’s auctioneering opportunities have also been expanded. After beginning with mixed sales he was given increased exposure at last year’s Inglis Classic Sale which was then followed up by the Melbourne Premier. He had sessions on the rostrum at both of those sales this year.

“I’ve been given a good chance in the auctioneer’s box since I’ve been with Inglis. Obviously the goal will be to do some auctioneering at the Easter sale and hopefully that opportunity will come along in the next couple of years. Auctioneering is something that I really enjoy doing and I will keep working at honing my skills.” Added to that Chris has found the transition to Inglis and living in Sydney “quite easy”. Now living in Randwick he has been able to establish a lot of friends through working with a “talented group of young people” at the sales company.

“Although it was a tough decision to leave Magic Millions, where everyone had been very good to me, there have been immeasurable benefits in seeing how another company operates. I am very fortunate to be working closely with experienced people such as Mark Webster, Jonathan D’Arcy Peter Heagney and Simon Vivian. It has also been invaluable for me to be working closer to Australia’s thoroughbred breeding heart in the Hunter Valley.”

Of late Chris has begun to dabble in racehorse ownership in conjunction with Wade Burridge who is a close friend and former Magic Millions employee. The pair race a promising three year-old named Smart Huss who is by Husson (ARG) from the Indian Danehill (IRE) mare Problem Solved. Trained at the Gold Coast by the Meagher family, Smart Huss won at his debut at Eagle Farm on November 27 and followed that success with very encouraging efforts against Listed and Gr.3 company at his only two subsequent starts. “He looks to have a bit of a future and we put him out in the paddock after his third start to give him more time to develop and mature. We’ll aim him at some of the races during the Brisbane Winter Carnival, so there is a lot to look forward to.”