Eminent Australian owner Francis Cook has returned to New Zealand this week, the source of one of his standout racetrack performers.
Cook and his wife Christine have enjoyed sensational success over the last few seasons. Their tally of Group One victories has soared into double digits thanks to the likes of Lasqueti Spirit, Foreteller, Moriarty and this season’s Gr.1 Toorak Handicap (1600m) and Cantala Stakes (1600m) hero Fierce Impact.
They have become renowned not only for their success, but also for sharing the thrill of racehorse ownership with many others, and for spreading their star horses across numerous stables – from champion trainer Chris Waller to lesser-known names such as Matthew Smith and Lee Curtis.
Their first foray to New Zealand was the 2013 Premier Yearling Sale at Karaka, where they paid $190,000 for a Zabeel colt who was given the name Preferment.
Six years later, following victories in the Gr.1 Victoria Derby (2500m), Turnbull Stakes (2000m), Australian Cup (2000m) and BMW (2400m), Cook has come full-circle. He returned to New Zealand to inspect Preferment, who now resides at Brighthill Farm, along with a selection of his first crop of yearlings who are bound for Karaka 2020.
“I came over this week with a small group that was organised by New Zealand Thoroughbred Marketing,” he said. “We’ve been to see Preferment at Brighthill, and we’ve seen a few of his yearlings around some other studs.
“I thought Preferment just looked outstanding. For him to still be so dappled and fit after serving 100-plus mares in his third year at stud is a credit to Nick and Benji King and the team at Brighthill. He’s in fine condition.
“I thought the yearlings looked very good as well, and it’ll be interesting to see how they go at the sale.
“We’d love to see them get out among as many good stables around Australia and New Zealand as possible, to give them the best start they can have.
“I think it’ll be a strong sale in general in New Zealand this season. The overall feeling among our group was that the growth and presentation of New Zealand yearlings was actually superior to what they’d seen in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, because of the drought there.”
Cook credits Waller with the selection of Preferment, who won five of his 29 starts and more than A$3.4 million in prize-money.
“We’ve been involved with the Chris Waller stable for the best part of a decade now,” he said. “We initially joined a syndicate of owners with the intention of importing some staying horses from Europe, but Chris thought they were too dear. He suggested we have a look in New Zealand instead.
“Preferment was part of the first group of horses we bought at Karaka. He raced in Linda Huddy’s colours during his career, but since then we’ve brought in our own set – the red with the crossed sashes.
“We’ve kept coming back to New Zealand since then, we call ourselves the Kaha Syndicate and buy horses together. We’ve had some good success.
“Unforgotten is another horse we’re involved with who was bought over there, she’s done a great job.”
Bought for $360,000 in 2016, Unforgotten has won six races and more than A$1.5 million, headed by the Gr.1 Australian Oaks (2400m).
Aided by respected bloodstock agent Guy Mulcaster, the Kaha Syndicate has signed for 11 yearlings at Karaka over the last two years.
They include Zalatte, who has won three races and was close up behind the placegetters in last season’s Gr.1 Surround Stakes (1400m) and Schweppes Oaks (2000m), and Relucent, whose 2019 spring campaign included a third in the Listed Geelong Classic (2200m) and fourth in the Gr.1 Victoria Derby (2500m).
Nyami, a Charm Spirit gelding bought for $120,000 in 2018, will begin his career in a maiden sprint at Canterbury on Friday evening.
“Every year we seem to get at least one really nice horse,” Cook said. “We tried to follow the Preferment path with Relucent, but he wasn’t quite fully mature this spring. He still ran fourth in the Derby and should have more ahead of him.
“It’s good to be part of these partnerships, we get to share ownership of quite a few horses and it saves us from having to buy too many ourselves.”
Along with some golf in Queenstown, Cook also spent some of his New Zealand sojourn inspecting some possible filly recruits for the couple’s other major racing venture – Mystery Downs.
Fillies under the Mystery Downs banner are owned by the Cooks but leased out among large groups of others, who get to share in the excitement at a more accessible price level.
The venture’s biggest success story is Lasqueti Spirit, who won the Gr.1 VRC Oaks (2500m) and earned more than A$950,000 in stakes.
“We like to lease our fillies out to groups of about 10 or 12 people,” Cook said. “With horses we buy from the Gold Coast, my wife puts together syndicates made up exclusively of women. But in all other cases, anyone can get involved.
“We bought a nice filly from Little Avondale last year, Magical Angel, by Per Incanto. We’ve leased her out to clients of Matthew Smith. We spread our horses out among quite a few trainers, that’s something we really like to do.
“This type of syndication works particularly well for fillies. When you’re dealing with colts, not many people really have the money to get involved with ownership.
“But, as breeders, we can buy fillies ourselves and take on that capital risk, then share the experience and thrill of racing a horse with some great groups of people. It’s a lot more fun than just racing them ourselves.
“We just charge a percentage of the prize-money, so if the horse doesn’t win anything, we don’t get anything from it.
“At the end of the day, we might have a horse who’s worth nothing. Or, at the other end of the scale, we might have a Lasqueti Spirit. We’ve got her breeding now, and she has a lovely foal by Pierro at foot.” – NZ Racing Desk