Ciaron Maher

published: 04 Nov 2015 in Personality profiles

A family accident turned Ciaron Maher away from motorbikes to horsepower of a different kind and eventually into a career as a jumps jockey. But the heavyweight always knew training was his vocation and he learnt all he could from the experts before setting up with just three horses in 2005. His first Gr.1 winner came in 2007 and now he’s considered one of the country’s best young trainers.

A LITTLE more than a decade ago Ciaron Maher began life as an owner-trainer, with just three horses stabled on the family’s dairy farm at Winslow, near Warrnambool. In the time since, and considering his humble beginnings, he has put together a record that can only be described as extraordinary.
  Being in the heartland of jumps racing and having a background as a jumps jockey and with a lesser class of horse in the stables, he initially concentrated on jumpers. Already there is abundant proof that Ciaron, a “laid back” character in a style reminiscent of legendary English trainer Henry Cecil, is mastering a game of nearly infinite variation. His successes over the fences have featured four Grand Nationals, three Grand Annuals, two Great Easterns and a Great Southern as well as a host of other steeple and hurdle events.  
  In recent times, with an improving quality of horse entering his stables, he has set about establishing himself as a name to be reckoned with on the flat. A first Gr.1 victory, at age 26, came with the win of 100/1 shot Tears I Cry in the VRC Emirates Stakes on the final day of the 2007 Melbourne Cup Carnival. Then as Ciaron’s peers came to appreciate his exceptional talent a window of opportunity to occupy stables at Caulfield opened. That led through to him taking over the complex Rick Hore-Lacy vacated on his retirement earlier this year.
  The transition, with the assistance of his partner and office manager Bianca Gilcrist, Ben Connolly as racing manager and a young staff, has been accompanied by an ever-increasing number of winners on the flat. Significantly, while still preparing his share of winners over the jumps, he now has a VRC Crown Oaks to his credit with Set Square, multiple Gr.1 wins with Srikandi as well as numerous other Group and Listed races. The foundation for this imposing list of achievements was laid during six years riding on the flat and over the obstacles.
  “I always knew I didn’t have a long time as a jockey because of my weight and because of that I was always interested in the training side,” he said. “Being a jockey allowed me to work with a lot of trainers in a relatively short space of time. Although I didn’t take any notes I was always looking around in the feed rooms and asking questions.
  “I took a fair bit from Peter Hayes and Tony McEvoy, who succeeded him at Lindsay Park. I also saw first hand how Bart Cummings and Robert Smerdon ran their businesses and I was taught a lot by Jim Houlahan, who was a master of training jumpers. I’d also seen the way Europeans go about training their horses.”
  However, the person he learned most from was Andrew Payne.
  A member of the renowned Payne racing family, Andrew was training a small team on his elder brother Paddy’s property at Rockbank, 30km west of Melbourne.
“With the other trainers I’d only be doing track work but I wasn’t riding much when I was with Andrew so I was working with him all day,” Ciaron said. “That’s when I started really picking up what it is all about. I’ve used this experience and the other lessons I’ve learned whenever different issues have arisen with the horses I’ve been training.”
  Rather ironically, although he grew up on the dairy farm his parents John and Eileen conduct at Winslow, which is some 230km west-south-west of Melbourne, he was in his teens before horses became an integral part of his life. While there were stock horses and quarter horses on the farm it was motorbikes and motor cross, which had the attention of Cairon as well as his brothers John, Eamon and Declan as youngsters.
  “We were all into motor bikes as kids. I suppose that was from when I was about five. That was my primary interest until Eamon was hurt on the bikes and was in a coma for three weeks. 
Dad thought it wasn’t fair on him, if we continued on the bikes so we sold them and that’s when I started to ride the horses.
  “I think I was about nine or 10 .  . .  I started riding in a yard one morning, then a paddock, then I went into a bigger paddock and then I went and got the cows into the dairy that night. It just went on from there. After that Shayne Fisher, who was training up the road, would pick me up and take me to the stables.”
  During his holidays from Emmanuelle College he would “basically live up there going show jumping, hunting and to anything that was on. Shayne would also be at the races all the time and, later, on he broke-in Moudre for me,” he said.
  From there Ciaron graduated to having work experience with Melbourne Cup-winning trainer John Meagher, at Flemington, but the way to an apprenticeship did not come about easily. “Trainers kept turning me down because they said I was too big, and they were probably right,” he said.
  At that stage, wanting to be involved with horses, Ciaron joined up with local farrier Tom Bertrand with the idea of taking up the trade.
  “Because I wanted to be an apprentice I hadn’t been eating much but then Tom said I’d have to become a lot bigger, if I wanted to be a farrier. I started eating K.F.C. and having hamburgers a couple of times a day, but I was still riding track work for Noel Arnold and he offered me an apprenticeship. I went to the apprentices school and had about 50 or 60 rides on the flat for one winner at Penshurst, which was about the only time I took my full claim.”
  Even as a 17 year-old wasting was taking a toll and he remembers nearly collapsing as he walked across the mounting yard after riding in a race at Terang.
  “I told my father ‘that’s it’ but he said ‘you have four weeks holiday coming up, take that and then see how you feel’. While I was having the break friends of John Cornell, who was riding over the jumps for Peter Hayes, arranged for me to have an opportunity to ride for Lindsay Park. Of my first 11 rides over the jumps I had five winners so that was pretty good.”
  With Ciaron riding on a crest of a wave over the jumps he was chosen, at 19, as a member of the team to represent Australia in the jumping jockeys series in Ireland. “I had a half-dozen rides and was placed a couple of times. That gave me the travel bug and after riding in the next jumps season I went back to Ireland.”
  During that stay he rode out of the Co. Dublin yard of James Dreaper as well as doing a lot of riding out to hunts. After six months in Ireland he moved to the stables of Charles Egerton at Lambourn where fellow Australian jumps jockey Steve Pateman was based.
  “Steve and I had been at Lindsay Park together and after we had gone back to Ireland he talked me into having another crack at riding in Australia. By then my weight was really going up and I was about 73kg when I came back from Ireland.”
  After that he had stints with Robert Smerdon, Bart Cummings and Tony McEvoy, who had taken over as Lindsay Park’s trainer follow the tragic death of Peter Hayes in March 2001. He later worked closely with Andrew Payne as well as being involved in a contract harvesting business with Declan during the off-season. Following that he worked in a “breaking yard” in Dubai for Sheikh Hamdan.
  “Another Australian jumps jockey, Mick Patton, was an outrider for the clerk of the course at Nad Al Sheba, arranged a job for me leading horses down to the start in 2004 when Pleasantly Perfect won the World Cup. That was a bit of fun and I had a good time out there.”
  Soon after his return home he secured an owner-trainer licence using stables that had been put up on the farm. Although having only three horses to begin with he soon demonstrated his ability as a trainer by notching five wins and four placings from just 18 runners in the 2004-05 season.
  The most successful of these was the Jeune (GB) gelding Spectacular Storm, who won three times including the Galleywood Hurdle at Warrnambool and was to take the MVRC Dominant Hurdle in 2005 and the Dominant Steeple the following year. His other winner was Al Garhood, a gelding by Zabeel, who won on the flat at Pakenham and over the hurdles at Casterton on his way to becoming an absolute star in jumps races. During the next six seasons he won 11 races including two Warrnambool RC Grand Annual Steeples, two Brierly Steeples and 
a Von Doussa Steeple at Oakbank.
  In his fourth season as a trainer Ciaron notched his first Gr.1 win with Tears I Cry, who was bred and part owned by Warrnambool clerk of the course Anne McGrath. By Lacryma Cristi (IRE) and from the Salieri (USA) mare Cassazione, he was sent out at 100/1 in the VRC Emirates Stakes-Gr.1 (1600m) on the final day of the 2007 Melbourne Cup Carnival. With 21-year-old Nikita Beriman aboard Tears I Cry overcame jumping from the extreme outside gate to defeat Bird Dancer by three-quarters of a length, with Shinzig 1.75 lengths father away third.
  “He was a little tough horse, who tried all the time,” he said of Tears I Cry. “He kept improving each time I brought him into the stable and the harder I worked him the better he went.”
  Al Garhood, who won his Grand Annual Steeples in 2010 and 2011, had been providing further highlights in Ciaron’s career when Moudre came along. “I was trotting around the track at Warrnambool with Shayne Fisher, who was breaking in a horse,” he said. “He was very green 
but he looked like a good mover so I asked his breeder and owner Colin McKenna whether I could train him.
  “I’d taken over the training for him of Pentacolo when Paddy Payne thought he’d been better suited working on the beach at Warrnambool. He won a Great Eastern Steeple at Oakbank, which was a pretty big thrill for everyone, and on the back of that Colin   gave me Moudre. He turned into a phenomenal horse for us.”
Further enhancing Ciaron’s standing in the racing community Moudre, who is by Blevic from the Raami (GB) Tolkaami, won races such as the VRC Queen Elizabeth Stakes-Gr.3 and the MRC Heatherlie Handicap-LR. He was also beaten a head by Americain in the Geelong RC Geelong Cup-Gr.3. 
  Americain went on to capture the Emirates Melbourne Cup-Gr.1 while Moudre missed out on a start. “That year he was number 25 on the entry list, which was pretty disappointing, then the next year he had a tendon injury,” Ciaron said.
  All the while the jumpers were keeping the stable ticking along and were ensuring Ciaron’s name was frequently in the headlines.
Among his successes were the 2011 VRC Grand National Steeple with Man of Class, who won the Great Eastern the following year, and the first of Bashboy’s unprecedented three Grand National victories came in 2012. The Postponed (USA) gelding Mr O’Cierin (NZ) was also a highly valued performer on the flat with wins in the Clarence River JC Grafton Cup-LR and MRC Naturalism Stakes-Gr.3 and earnings of nearly $600,000.
  As his name became more-and-more prominent in racing circles so did the demand for his services and the 20 boxes, which had been built on the farm, did not provide sufficient room for the horses in training. “We reached a point where it was either move into the track at Warrnambool or try and find stabling in Melbourne. My thinking was that I was already a Warrnambool trainer. Besides, I was doing a lot of driving when I wanted to be spending more time with the horses.
  “It was around the time I had Moudre and Mr O’Ceirin that I ended up getting three boxes in Aquanita at Caulfield. I had the horses at Warrnambool but it gets pretty wet down there in the winter, which made it tough to get the young ones going. Also by then I wanted to have a better class of horse in the stable, rather than the ones who needed the beach. We were able to gradually increase our numbers and when Jim Mason decided to transfer to Ballarat we moved into the 25 boxes he had.”
  The expansion in the stable’s operation was accompanied by the purchase of 12ha (30 acres) in the fertile area of Pakenham, around 60km south east of Melbourne. “The Pakenham training facility complements our Caulfield set up perfectly. We have an indoor arena, which is an ideal asset for our young horses gaining their education, and it can be used as an alternative when mixing up the training programs of the older horses.
  “The young horses learn how to carry themselves correctly and how to use themselves properly and I’ve found that holds them in good stead when they come into Caulfield. The close proximity of the Pakenham property allows us to give our horses a freshen-up in between runs.
  “This has proved to be a winning formula as they pick up quickly and return to our Caulfield stables looking and feeling well. All this is a tribute to our talented staff, who do a super job.”
  With everything falling into place Ciaron brought up a second Gr.1 win with the Reset filly Set Square in the VRC Crown Oaks in the spring of 2014. 
Her victory was a further tribute to his skills because Set Square was having only her fourth start in a race.
  After running third in a lowly maiden at Donald at her debut she won over 1600m at Ballarat.
  At her next start she won the MRC Ethereal Stakes-LR (2000m) and Ciaron was able to persuade her football team of owners to pay a $55,000 late entry fee for the Oaks. It paid dividends when, with Hugh Bowman up, Set Square won in decisive fashion from Thunder Lady. “She’d always shown me she was a stayer and after her Caulfield win she thrived, so I knew she would be a top chance in the Oaks,” he said.
  Then another milestone came earlier this year when on the retirement of Rick Hore-Lacy he took over the stables at Caulfield.
“That was great because we had a lot of horses in pre-training and needed the stabling.”
  The move was surrounded by a series of memorable wins beginning with the triumphant performance of four year-old mare Srikandi in the Gold Coast Turf Club’s Victory Stakes-Gr.2 (1200m) on April 25. That was followed by the victory of the Pure Theatre mare Regina Coeli, who was bred by Ciaron’s parents and is raced by Colin McKenna, in the Grand Annual on May 7. On June 6 Srikandi, with long time friend Kerrin McEvoy aboard, won the $2m BRC Stradbroke Handicap-Gr.1 (1350m) at Doomben.
  “I was an apprentice and Ciaron was a budding jumps jockey when he were both learning our trade at Lindsay Park,” said Kerrin, who had riden Srikandi’s sire Dubawi (IRE) to win the Prix Jacques Le Marois-Gr.1 at Deauville in 2005. Two weeks after the Stradbroke Kerrin piloted Srikandi to her win in the Tattersall’s RC Tiara Stakes-Gr.1 (1400m) at the Gold Coast, which lifted her earnings to $2,172,600.
  Following her wins the 12-year-old Perugino gelding Bashboy won the Crisp Steeple (3900m) at Warrnambool on July 12 and the Grand National Steeple (4500m) at Ballarat on August 9 to become the first Australian horse to earn more than $1m solely in jumps races. 
  Taking that all into account it is little wonder there has been an influx of new owners and more young horses than ever before now in Ciaron’s care. Foremost amongst them at present is the brilliant Street Boss (USA) filly Petits Filous, who Ciaron selected and purchased for $65,000 at the Inglis Classic Yearling Sale in 2014, which is a further testament to the all-round skills he possesses. n