[published Bluebloods May/June 2020]
It is only three years ago that Clare Cunningham received her training licence. Although she had spent her lifetime amongst racehorses she wondered whether the experience would be anything more than another entry on her curriculum vitae. But since then Clare has put her depth of knowledge to very positive use.
Her boutique operation at Warwick Farm has achieved a high percentage of winners and the manner in which she presents her runners has earned plaudits from her peers.
It is very much a family affair with her mother Julie acting as a foreperson, her eldest sister Sarah looking after the accounts and her partner of five years Jason Collett being the stable jockey.
“You can get your horses as fit and healthy as possible but you need a rider to be able to execute the job and Jason does that,” Clare says, who rides much of her own track work.
“Jason is a very good rider who gets the best out of my horses because he knows them so well.
“I am very fortunate to have Mum on side as she is a big asset to the business.
“She knows all about the horses and is a fabulous worker, who helps me run the stable.
“I couldn’t do without her.
“Sarah helped in setting up the stables and even though she is living in Victoria she is also heavily involved doing the books.” Her father Daniel, who decided to remain in East Gippsland, where the Cunningham children grew up, rather than subject himself to the hurly burly of life in Sydney is full of praise for Clare. “She is a hard worker and she has always been as straight as a gun barrel,” Daniel says of his daughter. “She makes a go of anything she tries.”
Besides having the family support Clare says she has been “lucky” to have the backing of good owners, who have at least half a dozen horses in the stable.
“The last thing trainers need is bad debts.”
“With a boutique stable I am able to focus on owners that I can work with and are on the same page as me,” she says.
“If I was paid by the hours I work I’d be a zillionaire but the important thing is that I am enjoying what I am doing.”
The Cunninghams have been immersed in the racing industry from the late seventies when Daniel and Julie lived next door to the master trainer George Hanlon in the Melbourne suburb of Mordialloc. Clare’s mother worked as a foreperson in the stables at a time when George was winning races such as the 1978 VRC Melbourne Cup-Gr.1 with the Aritzo (GB) gelding Arwon (NZ) and the VRC Mackinnon Stakes-Gr.1 with the Lots of Man horse Family of Man, who had won the MVRC Cox Plate-Gr.1 the previous year. Julie also rode the 1981 AJC Doncaster Handicap-Gr.1 winner Lawman, who was a notoriously hard puller in his work and she managed to settle him down to George’s satisfaction. “I still have lots of photos of my mother with Arwon and the other Hanlon horses,” says Clare. “They bring back memories for all of us.”
It was in 1981 the Cunninghams moved to Bairnsdale, in East Gippsland about 300km from Melbourne.
There her parents began running the Desmond Park stud and training centre for Ray Richards, whose colours were carried by Family of Man and a number of other high class performers.
Desmond Park backed on to the local pony club and as they were growing up Clare and her four siblings – Sarah, Joseph, Christopher, “me” and Molly – were engrossed in the equine world.
“Some really good horses came off Desmond Park,” Clare says.
“Among the ones I can remember were Diatribe, who won a Rosehill Guineas and a Caulfield Cup, and Use the Space, who won an Australasian Oaks in Adelaide. “Horses were very much everything for us. “Mum and Dad worked hard all day every day as everyone in the racing industry does.
“The stables and the farm were our backyard so we were always playing around horses. “There was a photo in the local paper of me competing at the age of four at a gymkhana. “As soon as we could possibly ride we did, even if some of us rode before we could walk. “On top of everything they did at the stud, my Mum also taught horse riding to a lot of the local kids. “Besides that Dad was training so we’d go to the races a lot and it was very much horse, horse, horse.
“Even though he is in semi-retirement these days Dad still trains a few.”
But it was not always easy-going and along the way Clare suffered a number of crashes.
“One day Molly rushed up to me, when I was in the feed room, and said ‘Clare has had a fall and she can’t move,’” Daniel recalls.
“I thought ‘oh hell’.
“By the time we reached her Clare was just coming around and was swearing like a trooper.
“She was always very determined and she was back on a horse as soon as she could be”
Clare says her first “job” was breaking-in horses but her parents ruled that she and her brothers and sisters could not forsake their scholastic responsibilities. “Mum and Dad made sure we went all the way through school,” she says. “There was no dropping out. “Although we were always involved with the horses we all had to choose a career in which we could be qualified in.
“All five of us have followed different pathways.
“Sarah is an i.t. specialist at Ballarat University, Joseph, who is an electrician, and Christopher, who is a builder, are both in Darwin and Molly, who is living in Geelong, is an occupational therapist.
After finishing her high schooling in Bairnsdale Clare moved to Melbourne where she began studying nursing at R.M.I.T. in Bundoora.
“I did that for three years and then I did a full-time year at the Box Hill Hospital,” she says.
It was during her second year at R.M.I.T. that she began working for leading trainer Peter Moody, through a connection her father had made. “I looked after a horse for Peter, which won the last race at Bairnsdale one day,” Daniel says. “I had done Peter a favour by doing that and he said if he could return the favour he would, so I asked him if he would look after Clare, which he said he would.”
However, a position was not immediately available so she worked for two months for John and Gerald Moloney, who had stables adjacent to Moody’s at Caulfield, until she could take up a riding job with Peter.
“I obviously needed to earn some money while I was studying,” she says. “I’d get up and ride work and continue working pretty much until I needed to go to class.
“Even when I started as a nurse I’d get up and ride work every morning when I had an afternoon shift or when I had a day off.
“I really enjoyed working for Peter in Melbourne and any spare opportunity I had I was riding on top of doing my nursing job.”
It was a time when Peter was “flying”, as Clare says.
Not long after she had completed her graduate year as a nurse Peter asked Clare whether she would be able to accompany Black Caviar and others to Brisbane. At that stage Black Caviar had an unbeaten record behind her and she brought up her 13th straight win in the BTC Cup-Gr.1 at Doomben on May 14 of 2011 with Hay List two lengths away and Buffering a further five lengths back. Although Clare did not ride Black Caviar – Paddy Bell was always on her in training – she had the honour of being aboard headliners such as the five-time Group 1 winning Sebring horse Dissident, MRC Blue Diamond Stakes-Gr.1 winner Reward For Effort, Plucky Belle, by Sebring who won the ATC Coolmore Classic-Gr.1 in 2014, and many others.
“Black Caviar was the only horse in the stable that wasn’t shared amongst the riders,” she says.
“She was Paddy’s ride but the other horses were shared around.”
It was not long after returning to Melbourne from Brisbane with Black Caviar that Peter told Clare he would be setting up a satellite stable in Sydney.
“He asked me whether I would move to Sydney and manage the stable,” she says
“Peter also thought the experience would tell me whether or not I enjoyed being a foreman.
“I accepted and later that year I went up to Sydney.
“At first we had 10 boxes at Rosehill because we couldn’t be allotted boxes at Randwick so we were there for close to two years.
“Then Peter was granted 25 boxes at Randwick so we moved there. “While we were at Rosehill we won The BMW with the imported horse Manighar, a Gimcrack Stakes with Brilliant Bisc and we were still at Rosehill when Black Caviar won the T.J.Smith.
“To be honest coming up to the race was surreal.
“We felt the pressure Peter had on his shoulders and we obviously wanted everything to go right.
“Once the job was done, and Black Caviar had maintained her unbeaten record, there was a lot of relief and we had a feeling that the 25th race was close to being her last, which it was.”
There were other memorable days after the stable shifted to Randwick.
One of those was April 6, of 2015, when Clare saddled three runners for two Group 1 victories and a Group 3 success.
The courageous Dissident captured the ATC Randwick Guineas-Gr.1, Pasadena Girl (NZ), by Savabeel, took the Champagne Stakes-Gr.1 and Hi World, by High Chaparral (IRE), was first home in the Carbine Club Stakes-Gr.3. “That was a big day,” Clare says. “We always had good horses in the stable and there were a lot of wins.”
It was towards the end of 2015 that Peter Moody told Clare that he was probably going to close the Randwick stable because of his involvement in the “cobalt case” in Victoria. “We probably didn’t get the full impact in Sydney of what he was going through in Melbourne,” she says.
“We didn’t have the publicity and stewards rocking up all the time.
“Peter was sick of it all and at the same time he was going through his troubles I was thinking of making a change as well.”
By then Clare and Jason had become partners and when a position with Racing.com was offered she elected to remain in Sydney and to fly down to Melbourne to fulfil her on-course duties.
While proving particularly competent at choosing horses on their mounting yard appearance Clare was not comfortable in the position so that lasted only about six months.
“It wasn’t for me but it was worth a try,” she says.
She was considering returning to nursing when she received an offer from Bjorn Baker to ride track work for him, which led to her accompanying the stable’s team to Queensland for the Magic Millions carnival.
Baker’s star Winning Rupert, by Written Tycoon, performed brilliantly extending his unbeaten record to five with three victories between December 3 and 31 of 2016.
Sadly a tough run in the race brought his winning streak to an end when he finished fourth to 150/1 Flying Jess in the Magic Millions Three-Year-Old Classic-RL.
“When I came back to Sydney after about two months in Queensland I broke my hand and while I was recovering a did a bit of soul-searching,” she says. “Originally I didn’t want to train racehorses after seeing what Peter Moody went through but I decided I’d have a bit of a crack at it after all. “It was like ticking another box in my career and to be honest I didn’t think anything would come of it.” The first horse into her stable was the Pins gelding Sir Barb (NZ), who turned out to be her first winner in a Benchmark 65 at Goulburn on June 19 of 2017, when ridden by Jason. Sir Barb, who had Clare’s brothers and sisters in the ownership, went on to win at Goulburn at his next outing.
This enabled Clare to finish the 2016-17 season with two wins from 12 runners for a winning percentage of 16.7 and a place strike rate of 41.7 per cent.
“He was a barrier rogue when we bought him on my option for $4,500,” she says of Sir Barb.
“Jason was a very important part of getting his confidence up and getting him going once the gates opened.”
The second horse to join her fledgling team was the West Quest (CAN) gelding Cradle Mountain.
He put together four consecutive wins from November 26, 2017, to Anzac Day, 2018, when he scored in a Benchmark 79 at Randwick.
Sadly for the stable Cradle Mountain tore a hamstring muscle at his next outing, at Scone, which sidelined him for six months.
Clare and her staff spent months nurturing the horse back to health, icing his injuries, performing ultra sounds and slowly building his strength on the water walker.
Their diligence was rewarded six months later, on November 3, when he resumed with a victory at Rosehill but since winning again at Rosehill three weeks later he has had further troubles. However, once again, there was recompense for the effort put into him when on January 25 this year Cradle Mountain, with Jason aboard, brought up Clare’s first black type success in the ATC Carrington Stakes-LR at Randwick. With the likes of Elkano, Glamour Fox, Just Shine, Keep Up, On The Take, Sacred Edge, Segenhoe, Travancore and Triple Hero making contributions her stocks had risen sharply in 2017-18 when she had 25 winners at a strike rate of 23.1 per cent.
The stable’s prizemoney earnings were $662,658, which rose to $902, 225 the following season.
As Clare refines her skills and attracts a better class of horse she is maintaining a winners-to-runners percentage comfortably above 20 per cent and 2019-20 is shaping to be her best season so far.
Her success is obviously thoroughly deserved and is heartening for any other young aspirants entering the cut throat business of training racehorses.