Simon O'Donnell

published: 01 Oct 2015 in Movers and Shakers

FOR many Australians who love horse racing, to win the Melbourne Cup would be a dream come true. Simon O’Donnell has always had a passion for our great race and in 2008 came within a whisker of winning the Cup with the imported gelding Bauer. 

  O’Donnell and friend Terry Henderson, who jointly operate OTI Racing, purchased the gelding with their eye on winning the Cup. The Luca Cumani-trained grey went oh so close to running down the Bart Cummings-trained Viewed in the dying moments 

of the race, and for many it seemed as though he had won. 

  O’Donnell has represented Victoria and Australia in cricket and has also played football (VFL) for St Kilda. However he rates those few seconds when he thought he had won the Cup, as possibly providing the most emotional of any of his previous sporting moments . . .

Q: What would it mean to you to win our most famous race?

A: “I think more than anything it would be an honour to win the Cup. So many people have tried 
to win that race, but to get to the top of the tree and win; well it really would be more of an honour than anything else.
  “The feeling when we first thought we had got there and won it, well I’ve never had instant elation like that in any other sport. Of course that excitement was gone in about 10 seconds, but it only fuels the endeavour to be more competitive and hopefully win one, because it’s just an extraordinary horse race.”

Q: And you are back for another attempt in 2015?

A: “We’ve got horses entered, but so many things can change between nominating a horse and that first Tuesday in November. The face of the race now (late September), compared to the face of the race when they go to the gates can be a completely different thing. The work that’s got to be done on the training track in between now and getting to the gates, and then there’s also a real attrition rate in trying to get there. That would just add to the satisfaction if one day you were to win it. The journey is always tough but it would be a wonderful experience to have for all the hard work that not only us, but all the other people endeavouring to win that race put in.”

Q: So would you say you have a real passion for staying races?

A: “Yes I definitely have a passion for staying races. There’s always a debate that we don’t breed enough stayers here in this country. We do have a wonderful breeding program here and we are world class right across the board. But I think the one weakness is that for mile and a half and beyond, we don’t get a lot of those horses here. I do feel that is now being addressed, which is great. While that is happening we are looking at obtaining horses from racing jurisdictions that have had staying blood as a part 
of their system for a long time and we’re trying to take advantage of that here.”

Q: What requirements or qualities are looking for in a prospective purchase?

A: “The basics are generally performing at a mile and a half and beyond; not over-taxed, which a lot of the European horses aren’t, they are usually raced far less than ours are; a pedigree that points towards being able to run journeys on a regular basis; still some scope for improvement. They are some of the initial offerings you want to see before you continue the interest.

  “A lot of horses are run by us and we also keep an eye on things ourselves. If we spot something we will get people to go and have a look at them and make approaches. It really happens a number of different ways. The bottom line is, you have to keep an eye on what is happening in Europe and the kind of horses that are on the radar with the pre-requisites we believe are suitable. Where these horses come from isn’t one specific source, it’s a matter of keeping your finger on the pulse.”

Q: And how did the partnership between you and Terry come about?

A: “Terry and I had gotten to know each other over the years of being involved in thoroughbred racing, had seen each other ‘around the traps’. We had talked over a lot of things and then one day we just sat down and nutted out some ideas and have tried 
to put them into practice.

  “We thought that the international influx was going to be a significant factor in Australia. We had some ideas initially and that graduated into what we do today, although it is far different to how it was at the beginning. Today it’s really a matter of targeting staying races here with horses who are actually bred to do so.”

Q: Over the years you have owned some nice horses . . .

A: “From an international perspective, Manighar has far and away been our most successful, of course there was Bauer, Lidari had an okay season or two without winning a big one. We’ve got a nice horse coming out for the Cox Plate this year called Gailo Chop, who is hopefully going to be competitive at Gr.1 weight for age here.

  “We’ve had horses who haven’t quite made their ultimate goals, but you just continue to let them acclimatise and get used to the racing here and hopefully fulfil the expectations.”

Q: How did your love of racing first come about?

A: “My late father used to breed a few horses back home in Deniliquin. That’s where the interest started, with that upbringing around them. It’s one of those things that when it’s in your blood, it only leaves when you leave this earth.”

Q: So how did the move from Deniliquin in NSW to Victoria come about?

A: “Well back then a lot of country kids, they went off to boarding school and our family was no different. I don’t think we probably thought about it at the time, but looking back it was a positive experience and being at boarding school really taught you some good lessons on how to get on in lots of facets of life.”

Q: I’m sure you had some great sporting heroes back then that you really admired?

A: “Yes, I will trot out what most people would consider the ‘usuals’, like Dennis Lillee and the Jeff Thomson in cricket. In footy terms it was guys like Peter Hudson. There was just a bevy of them, and it’s really hard to name all of the ones you used to enjoy watching, as there were just so many. Back then, sport seemed far more ‘free’ and less statistically driven. A lot of it was just the spirit and the ability and the competitiveness of an athlete, without so much of the coaching profession having such an intimate effect, as they do these days.

  “I really do think it’s gone forward though, not back. In the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s I think a lot more of the game relied a lot on instinct. These days I believe with the amount of training they do, it has taken sport now to a whole new level.”

Q: You are obviously more recognised as a cricketer, but you played football for St Kilda for a couple of seasons too?

A: “Yes we had barracked for St Kilda all our lives. My dad played there, a cousin of mine played there, so there was a family link to the club and it was great to be able to continue that on, albeit for only a short period of time.”

Q: To play at the top level of two sports is a great achievement.

A: “It was sometimes able be done back then, but with the natural progression and the professionalism of these games it really doesn’t allow people to play both anymore. Cricket loses a lot of athletes to football, not so much the other way around, but you just don’t see them doing both now.”

Q: You were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma during the height of your cricket career. How did you discover this and how did you feel?

A: “I had some issues prior to the 1987 World Cup and they really began to manifest as that tour went on. It made me realise that there was an issue serious enough that it needed further investigation when I got back home.

  “It knocked me around at the start, hearing those words from the doctor, but then you just have to sit down and assess and come up with a plan around what you have been told. I think it’s a key ingredient for people then, now and in the future that after that initial outpouring of emotion, to sit back and realistically look at the situation and how is best to deal with it. That’s step one, and that leads to lots of different steps which can be unpredictable of course, but you’ve got to be ready and prepared 
for them.”

Q: And is it something that you think about a lot now?

A: “I think about it every day. In the past they used to think of cancer as a death sentence, well it’s not so much that way now, but it’s definitely a ‘life’ sentence.”

Q: After you successfully fought that battle with cancer, you returned to cricket briefly and then obviously focused on racing and business more. What are some of the race meetings you have attended abroad and do you have a favourite racetrack?

A: “We have been to Ascot and Goodwood and regularly attend meetings during the European season. I really love Goodwood but it’s a course you really have to see to believe. It’s hard to describe, but it’s actually like in the middle of nowhere! There are all these beautiful farms and fields around, it’s just a wonderful track to go racing at. The backdrop is unique to anywhere in the world really.”

Q: And how do you think Australian racing compares to what you have seen overseas?

A: “I think our racing depth and our racing in general is definitely world class. So we can really be very proud of our product on the international stage. No doubt about that. We might have our ups and downs and our challenges, both on and off the course, as lots of racing jurisdictions do, but I think our competitiveness and the horses we produce are once again, nothing short of world class.”

Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests away from racing?

A: “My wife Rebecca and I have three teenage children, so with their sport and other interests you don’t really have a lot of time for other things. But family time is something that I have always enjoyed and it’s something that I will continue to enjoy, especially while they are the ages they are. So no, I don’t really put a lot of time into anything other than what we do as a family.”

Q: In your time in racing I guess you would have had a few funny moments along with the usual highs and lows?

A: “Yes, and one that really sticks out in my mind was many years ago when I had a horse with Johnny Meagher. It was one of the first horses I had ever had a group of people in, and he raced at Ararat this particular day with Neville Wilson riding. Neville wasn’t over-complimentary about how the horse handled the day, after finishing well back. I thought I had better find something positive for his owners to hear after they have driven all the way from Melbourne, so in front of them I said, ‘Neville do you think he will stay?’ He turned on his heels and said ‘yes it will stay alright, it will generally stay well behind all the others!’ It was a very valuable lesson.”

Q: Having been involved in racing over many years now, what would be some advice that you could give somebody who was just starting out in the industry?

A: “One thing I will say is you’ve definitely got to be patient. You’ve also got to be ready for the emotional challenges racing throws up, because you will have more emotional lows than highs. The high points may not happen immediately and waiting for them isn’t something that usually comes easily to people first starting out, but if they are going to be ‘long-termers’ and stay involved then I’d say they really have to find a way of dealing with that.” n