Chris Watson

published: 09 Jun 2015 in Personality profiles

The Watson family can thank the weather gods for the start of their thriving thoroughbred enterprise at Mill Park in South Australia which began in earnest when a truck load of mares arrived at the sheep property to escape a cold and wet Adelaide winter. Now, more than 20 years later and with Chris Watson at the helm, the stud can boast 16 Gr.1 winners and a reputation as one of the finest nurseries in the country.

MENINGIE in the south-east corner of South Australia has a population of less than 1000. Yet, rather surprisingly to many in the breeding industry, a property just outside the town’s boundaries is, quite possibly, the most prolific thoroughbred rearing ground in the nation.
  Since beginning to raise racehorses in a serious way just over 20 years ago the Watson family’s Mill Park Stud has produced 16 Gr.1 winners of the calibre of Gold Guru, Mummify, Princess Coup, Divine Madonna, Rebel Raider and Fawkner. This upward spiral began in the early 1990s when a large number of mares arrived from Toorak Park Stud in the Adelaide Hills to agist in the more favourable conditions of the south-east.
  Before that moment Peter and Serena Watson were breeding cattle and sheep on the 4046ha (10,000 acre) holding while only dabbling in breeding horses. Then when Gold Guru, Mummify and company began strutting their stuff on the racecourse, Mill Park’s fortunes improved quite dramatically.
  It was just the fillip the place needed because as Peter was to say later, “we turned a hobby into something that saved us. The way wool prices went, if we had still been relying on the sheep we’d have been on the bones of our backside.”
  The upshot is that 810ha (2000 acres) is now allotted to thoroughbreds and although Peter and Serena are still playing an integral role in the conduct of Mill Park their son Chris has, in more recent times, taken over as manager.
  “Mill Park has always been a family affair and a huge amount of the credit for the success of the stud must go to Peter and Serena,” Chris said. “Mum has always had a huge interest in the nutritional side and Dad and I spend a great amount of time assessing the stock and possible matings, while my sister Belinda who is a successful fashion designer, comes home as often as she can.
  “I think having the family involvement is important, and that plus a number of other factors have contributed to the winners we have been able to produce. We are on very different country, with sand over limestone, from your typical horse growing country in the eastern states of Australia, but we are fortunate, being close to the Southern Ocean, that we have a temperate climate, without having extremes of temperature.
  “Added to that, the area is renowned for growing out animals for primary production, and I believe that applies to thoroughbreds. Our average paddock size is large compared to the norm and this ensures there is a low stocking rate per paddock which allows for a natural, free-range upbringing. Everything points to the significant role the environment is playing because early on we achieved an amazing strike rate with the mares on Mill Park producing Gr.1 winners 
by stallions who weren’t fashionable.”
  Those factors, as well as the support of leading South Australian racing identities, has led to Mill Park receiving the utmost respect from all sections of the industry. Chris says the family is fortunate to have become involved in such a vibrant industry and he is now “giving something back” as president of the South Australian Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and as a director of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia and Aushorse.
  The journey to the status the Watsons have attained had its beginnings more than 40 years ago when Peter and Serena moved to Meningie from Adelaide. “The property was originally owned by my mother’s side of the family,” Chris said. “Mum visited the property a few times and loved it. Then, I think it was in 1973 shortly after I was born, Mum and Dad began living at Mill Park. They had little or no farming experience, but they started running Charolais and Angus cattle before a tuberculosis scare led them towards having sheep.”
  Over those years Serena always had an interest in horses, especially thoroughbreds, and at one stage held an owner-trainers’ licence. So while she and Peter were running the farm Serena indulged in breeding from a mare or two. Les Irwin also introduced them to the art of pinhooking and this turned out to be a successful venture. Les had been running Narrung Stud, on the opposite side of Lake Albert to Mill Park, before he joined Gooree. With the yearlings Serena bred and the pinhooked stock, the Watsons had for years made an annual pilgrimage to the Adelaide yearling sales at Morphettville. 
This opened the way to associations and friendships with Toorak Park Stud principals Harry Perks, Trevor Robertson and Rodney Fairclough.
  Among the others, they met the renowned horseman Barry Appleton who was managing the Adelaide Hills property for Perks and company. A very astute man Barry became a regular visitor to the Watson’s farm and was impressed by the extensive layout and its pastures. So around 1990, when there was little feed on Toorak Park and a bleak, wet winter was approaching, Barry arranged for Toorak Park’s mares to be sent to Mill Park.
  “As I recall there wasn’t much discussion before the trucks arrived,” Chris said. “I think there was just a phone call from the trucking company saying the mares were turning up the next week. Once they arrived the mares were tipped out into the sheep paddocks and the horse enterprise has just grown from there, but as you can imagine it was a very steep learning curve.”
  Among the mares to arrive unheralded was Proud Halo, a daughter of Don’t Say Halo (USA) who had scored four wins up to 2200m. A mating with Toorak Park stallion Geiger Counter (USA) resulted in the foaling in 1994 of Gold Guru, whose five victories in the 1997-98 season featured the VRC Australian Guineas (2000m), STC Ranvet Stakes (2000m) and AJC Australian Derby (2400m) at the elite level. 
“From the days of Gold Guru we’ve had a fantastic partnership with the boys from Toorak Park,” Chris said. “We have looked after their stock ever since.”
  The following season the London Bells (GB) mare St Clemens (GB) foaled a filly who was to capture the WATC Fruit ‘n’ Veg-Gr.1 at Ascot as St Clemens Belle and by then Chris was well and truly immersed in the thoroughbreds.
  During his years as a boarder at St Peter’s College in Adelaide he had always returned home on school holidays to help his parents on the property. A capable hockey player, cricketer and cross country runner as a student, Chris rose to become vice-captain of his boarding house, whose captain was Australian Football League chief executive officer Gillon McLachlan. Gillon’s younger brother Hamish, who is a well-known Channel 7 commentator, was “a couple of years” behind them.
  “I had been helping with the horses and going to the yearling sales while I was at school and I had really caught the bug early on,” Chris said. “I always enjoyed working with horses and riding as a youngster and found pony club and one-day events were all good fun. I am not sure of the timing but I certainly viewed being in the thoroughbred industry as a career, and working within the farm as a long-term option.
  “Les Irwin knew that, and when I was finishing my education he suggested I find work with a major stud in the Hunter Valley and I went to Arrowfield in 1991 straight after school. I worked under Peter Orton, which was an amazing experience because I learned so much from him. He is one of the industry’s leaders and a person for whom I have the utmost respect.
  “I did a bit of everything but I had a huge amount of involvement on the yearling side, culminating in being yearling manager for a year. I also worked on the broodmare side and worked a little bit with the stallions. During the time I was at Arrowfield Wayne Bedggood, who is now general manager at Cressfield, was there. He is a great bloke and another for whom I have the utmost respect.”
  Another bonus from working at Arrowfield came in 1993 when Peter Orton arranged for Chris to gain further experience at Airdrie Stud at Midway in Kentucky. At the time Brereton C. Jones, who was Kentucky’s Governor, owned Airdrie and Tim Thornton was stud manager. “I was living with Tim and I had a fantastic opportunity to go to the Kentucky Derby with Tim and Brereton. It was the year Sea Hero won and it was one of the highlights of my life.”
  After finishing at Arrowfield in 1994, Chris decided to take a sabbatical away from horses and went to Kenya where he worked on the Wildenstein family’s Ol Jogi Reserve, one of the most innovative wildlife conservation areas in the world. “They concentrate on trying to preserve the endangered species such as rhinos and elephants. The reserve has a huge menagerie and is set in the middle of the migration tracks, so being there for a couple of months was a fantastic experience.”
  From Kenya Chris went to Mount Coote Stud in Limerick. “I did a season at Mount Coote doing the yearlings. That included selling at Tattersalls and Goffs in Ireland. There I met a really good bloke named Ken Condon who is now a trainer based at The Curragh. I then had a great opportunity to work for Shadwell at Nunnery Stud when Green Desert was firing on all cylinders. I didn’t do a lot with the stallions, but worked with the young stock during the breaking process and thus gaving me a good grounding in that side of the business.”
  After returning home in 1995 Chris decided to study for a Bachelor of Business degree at the University of Adelaide as part of his plan for the future. “It was a three year course and after completing that I began working full time on the farm,” he said.
  Not long afterwards that he found himself “falling head over heels in love” with a University of Melbourne veterinary student who was doing work experience on the farm. “That meant plenty of trips over to Victoria to see Sian,” he said. This led through to their marriage in 2006 and they now have two children, Katie, who is six, and Jack, three. “We all live on the farm and it’s a good life for us.”
  However, that has come about after some difficult times as the 20th century was coming to its conclusion. “Initially it was a bit of a tough time for us after the mares turned up,” Chris said. “We didn’t have many mares of our own because the wool market had basically crashed and we’d bought partners out of the property. Those mares turning up was a bit of a godsend and pushed us into becoming more commercially involved in the thoroughbreds.”
  It certainly helped the situation when Gold Guru and St Clemens Belle were followed by Mummify, who was foaled in 1999. By Jeune (GB) from the At Talaq (USA) mare Cleopatra’s Girl he went on to capture the SAJC South Australian Derby-Gr.1 in 2003 and subsequently the MRC Caulfield Cup-Gr.1, Underwood Stakes-Gr.1, two Caulfield Stakes-Gr.1 and a Singapore International Cup-Gr.1 at Kranji. Those and other efforts resulted in Mummify earning $5,137,905. Another 1999 product from Mill Park was Proprietor, by Belong To Me (USA), who was prepared by Paul Perry to win the AJC The Galaxy-Gr.1 in 2006.
  “There is no doubt the success of Gold Guru and Mummify whetted our appetite for the thoroughbred industry, but I suppose it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we were becoming commercial. Having that early success gave us the inspiration to push on and make a success of what we were doing.”
  Along the way the Watson’s have also established a viable agistment operation. Leading trainers such Leon Macdonald, Stuart Padman, Mark Kavanagh before he shifted to Melbourne, and the Jollys, began sending horses to Mill Park from the mid-1990s.
  “We have had a lot of support from the trainers and even now agistment is still probably a good half of our enterprise. We still look after horses for Leon MacDonald who has one of our longest standing clients, Phillip Stokes, David Jolly and the Huxtables. We probably run, depending on the season, 50 to 75 spellers on the property.
  “As well as that we have between 60 or 70 broodmares on the farm, which we have in partnership with a lot of our long-standing clients. Mostly the mares are foaled down in the Hunter and some are foaled down in Victoria. They are then served and come back to us with their foals to grow out.
  “With the operation growing and now highly commercial, we are these days, using Danny and Serena Swain’s Glenelg Park in Victoria and Catriona and Royston Murphy’s Sledmere Stud at Scone as our interstate bases. We like to keep all our mares in a place that ensures a similar high standard of care that we require, and it allows us to easily check on our stock during the breeding season. We’d had our horses at Segenhoe when Royston was there for a long time.”
  The formula devised by the Watsons has certainly worked, with so many horses raised at Mill Park turning into high class racehorses during the past 20 years or so. Three years after Mummify and Proprietor came Divine Madonna by Hurricane Sky, and Undoubtedly by Redoute’s Choice, who were both sent to the stables of Mark Kavanagh. With electrifying finishing bursts Divine Madonna was first home in the VRC Emirates Stakes-Gr.1, Empire Rose-Gr.1, MRC Toorak Handicap-Gr.1 and STC Queen of the Turf-Gr.1, while Undoubtedly won the MRC Blue Diamond Stakes-Gr.1 in 2005.
  “Obviously breeding Divine Madonna was a great thrill for us,” Chris said. “To see her unbelievable turn of foot over the last 600m was definitely a highlight.”
  In 2003 came the outstanding Encosta de Lago filly Princess Coup, and Devil Moon who is a daughter of King Cugat (USA). Princess Coup’s 11 wins included four Gr.1 events and when combined with her 10 placings, all in stakes races, pushed her earnings to $3,651,776, while Devil Moon’s victories featured the VRC Turnbull Stakes-Gr.1.
  Serious Speed, a 2004 foal by Royal Academy (USA), won the MRC 1000 Guineas-Gr.1 after spending her formative years at Mill Park, as did the Reset gelding Rebel Raider who was foaled in 2005. Prepared by MacDonald he stunned the racing world by capturing the VRC Victoria Derby-Gr.1 at 100/1 with Clare Lindop aboard in 2008, and then went on to capture South Australian Derby six months later.
  Shamardal’s (USA) AJC Epsom Handicap-Gr.1 winner Captain Sonador was foaled in 2006 and 2007 was a special year with Happy Trails, by Good Journey (USA), Fawkner, by Reset, and Southern Image’s (USA) daughter Southern Speed all being reared at the property. Still performing with distinction Happy Trails has a VRC Emirates Stakes, Turnbull Stakes and Mackinnon Stakes at the top level to his credit, and Fawkner was triumphant in Caulfield Cup as well as a Caulfield Stakes. Southern Speed, who was prepared by the then relatively new training partnership of Leon Macdonald and his son-in-law Andrew Gluyas, won the Caulfield Cup in 2011.
  Also among the 2007 foals was Midnight Martini, by Street Cry (IRE) from the Zabeel (NZ) mare Benvenuta (NZ), who was bred and raced by the Watsons. They were amply rewarded with Midnight Martini’s seven wins including the VRC Matriarch Stakes-Gr.2 at the 2012 Melbourne Cup Carnival.
  Then in 2014 Harry Perks and partners, who also raced Serious Speed and Southern Speed, won the AJC Champagne Stakes-Gr.1 with the Mill Park-reared Bernardini (USA) filly Go Indy Go. Among those adding to Mill Park’s glorious record is this year’s SAJC Adelaide Cup-Gr. 2 winner Tanby, who was knocked down to Nick Williams for $200,000 from Mill Park’s draft at the 2008 Australian Easter Yearling Sale. Significantly, the Watson’s were right up among the most expensive lots at this year’s Gold Goast Magic Millions yearling sale when they sold a filly by Sepoy from Celebrity Girl to the China Horse Club for $850,000.
  “To begin with we were taken by surprise with the results we had. Now we have proved successful we are determined not to rest on our laurels,” Chris said. “We make regular visits to the Keeneland broodmare sales and to the UK to keep up to date with what is happening internationally. We are fortunate that as well as having the family interest of Peter, Serena, Sian and myself we have always had wonderful support from the team working with us.
  “I feel a lot of our recent success is due to our wonderful team led by our assistant manager Kellie McCarthy, who is a fantastic girl. We all really appreciate their input and this has helped the family to put down a foundation for the future.” n