Will Bourne followed his father Butch into the thoroughbred game, but as Ciaron Maher’s right-hand man, is going at a pace his dad can only dream about, writes Matt Stewart.

Will Bourne
Will Bourne has become an integral part of Ciaron Maher's training operation as the stable takes on mega-status in Australian racing. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

In Ciaron Maher’s monster stable of many moving parts, Will Bourne has worked his way up to become head of global affairs, or Secretary of State.

It’s a serious brief. Maher doesn’t believe in limits. It was a matter of time before he became fair dinkum about Europe and its wealth - and wealth of staying talent.

There is undoubtedly a growing mystique about Maher and his ability to pull the levers of the biggest stable in Australian history. You never know where Maher will turn up – but he does, mostly before first light. His laconic manner belies his aggressive ambition. There is caution but no handbrake.

The moving parts move fast and with precision.

“They go at a hectic pace, those blokes,” says Will Bourne’s father, Seymour-based trainer David ‘Butch’ Bourne. “I don’t know how they do it but hats off to them.”

Will Bourne hitched aboard the juggernaut six years ago. He was working for Darley on the Friday, played in the first round of local footy on the Saturday – Seymour versus Mansfield – “and was looking at yearlings with Ciaron for Sydney Easter on the Sunday”, says Butch.

Bourne was an introverted kid with a singular focus but has long had the same shrewd commercial ‘trader’ mentality that his father has always had.

During school holidays, Will would front up at the Flemington stables of Russell Cameron and John O’Shea. He bid-spotted at yearling sales when he was 13. He learned about the business of bloodstock by studying it at college and worked on stud farms to learn about yearling preparation.

Without realising it, he was preparing himself for Maher.

When you work your way up the ranks with Ciaron Maher, you need to be multi-skilled. It helps to have a lively social media presence. Maher has become the king of marketing. Bourne, a good-looking 31-year-old with social media savvy, is good at what he does and good for business.

He is young and single, so he can keep pace with the skyrocketing stable. “The first five years, when we were building, it was a pace that probably was (personally) unsustainable. But it’s settled down,” Bourne said.

Butch says Will started out shy and withdrawn but had a strong appetite to learn. Maher hires on instinct. His track record is astounding. Annabel Neasham was his Sydney foreman just a handful of years ago. Maher identified the genius in Dave Eustace.

I met a young trainer in a vast horse training forest near Chantilly a year ago. His name was Noel George, a former English jumps jockey who’d taken French jumps racing by storm. I asked him if he’d heard of Ciaron Maher and said he’d met Maher when he spotted him in a long nightclub queue somewhere in England just before the pandemic.

George had never met Maher but recognised him and George knew the bouncer. He secured Maher entry and a drinks card and three beers later, Maher offered George a job. COVID-19 came along and George declined. Maher missed out but his instincts were good. George was about to become a star.

Likewise, Maher knew Bourne had “it”.

Butch says Will plotted his own course to become the most jet-setting member of Maher’s team.

“I was conscious of not wanting to be the one to tell him what to do. I farmed him out to everyone,” Butch said. “He wanted to learn to ride work, to gallop horses on his own accord to give him that feel and understand that (jockey) language.

“He’s done it all himself.”

Butch Bourne
Butch Bourne says his son Will has plotted his own path in racing. (Photo by Ross Holburt/Racing Photos via Getty Images)

The betting for this year’s Melbourne Cup reflects the pivotal role played by Bourne as Maher explores deeper into Europe.

Sydney Cup winner Circle Of Fire and high-class recruit Middle Earth are the favourites at $11 and $13 for the Melbourne Cup.

Berkshire Breeze, yet another strong import launched off-season by Maher, is on the fourth line at $18. These contenders are among 14 horses secured in Europe by Bourne in the past two years.

Bourne had been behind the deal to secure Gold Trip. He’d become good mates with top UK jockey Jamie Spencer, which may explain why Spencer was flown in to ride Gold Trip in the 2022 Cox Plate. (Alas, it wasn’t Spencer’s best ride). Under Mark Zahra, Gold Trip won the Melbourne Cup 10 days later.

Circle Of Fire was owned by King Charles and like most of the Europeans secured by Maher and Bourne, was not for sale.

For 20 years, Australians tippy-toed through the European tried horse market. “They see ya coming” became the catch-phrase. The Europeans kept pushing up the price.

Maher and Bourne blazed in with a different ploy.

“We thought “why not buy horses that are not for sale?” Bourne said, adding that the relatively poor prize money in Europe provided a good base for negotiation. There is certainly an art in convincing an owner, particularly a King who didn’t really need the money, to accept an offer they weren’t seeking.

Will Bourne
Sourcing European staying talent has been a profitable exercise for Will Bourne. (Photo: Inglis)

“Many times, they don’t have a commercial mind but even in Europe, where the wealth is absolutely extraordinary, there comes a point when you have to have some sort of commercial approach to it,” Bourne said.

“Circle of Fire last year … it’s not as though the King was sitting there thinking I want to trade this horse but we put a big offer in writing to his racing manager, who passed it on to the King. They obviously thought it was a lot of money and it would be somewhat commercial to move it on.”

Maher and Bourne shop in the 200,000-1 million Euro bracket. In other words, high end, which can mean at least a perception of high pressure on Bourne.

“There is no pressure from clients or from Ciaron. It’s more self-pressure. They’ve put their faith in you. You feel you have an obligation to get it right,” Bourne said.

Bourne’s strike rate is good. He laments that expensive import Light Infantry Man has failed to fire here, saying “some just don’t click and it’s not easy to predict” but the stats are generally good, and not just off shore.

Clients were able to purchase Hitotsu from Wendy Kelly and Bella Nipotina from the Hayes boys. Hitotsu went on to win two Derbies and Bella Nipotina has become a mature-age sprint star.

Bourne’s reconnaissance with European prospects involves stable inspections, trackwork sessions and race-day assessments. There are no shortcuts. These are expensive gambles.

“It was really beneficial to see Circle Of Fire in the mounting yard at Royal Ascot amongst the other horses. It gives a different perspective than seeing them in the stable. He was very strong-boned, an Australian-looking horse. I loved the way he looked,” he said.

“There is no pressure from clients or from Ciaron. It’s more self-pressure. They’ve put their faith in you. You feel you have an obligation to get it right” - Will Bourne

“It’s high risk so you do whatever you can to reduce it. It can be a two-year process. It’s been two years with Berkshire Breeze.”

America is a tough market because there is not the same stake-money angle as Europe. Ditto Japan.

“The wealth overseas, including Europe, is extraordinary. It’s a different world. It’s irresistible for us,” Bourne said.

Bourne has swept into Europe four or five times for Maher in the past 12 months. He has advanced up the plane as his stocks with Maher have risen. 

“Started up the back in cattle, now business class,” he said.