When 93-year-old Neville Begg was last month named a Member of the Order of Australia (OAM), son Grahame Begg, like his father a top-shelf horse trainer, knew nothing about it.

The older Begg didn’t mention it and the younger Begg found out on social media.

“My wife came across it the night before and we were like, what the hell is this about? He kept that really quiet, didn’t he?”

As he recounts the story to The Straight, Begg is laughing, like it’s typical of his Hall of Fame father to get more famous and tell no one. 

Neville’s OAM was awarded on Australia Day for a lifetime dedicated to the thoroughbred, and it lengthened the legacy of the Begg family not just in Australian racing, but in Australia.

Neville opened his Randwick stable in 1963 and spent a decade running second to TJ Smith in the premierships. He trained 39 Group 1 winners, including Emancipation and 1980 Golden Slipper winner Dark Eclipse, and, after a six-year tenure in Hong Kong, he finally retired in 1996.

But the story wasn’t over because in 2015 he bred the Blue Diamond winner and now valuable stallion Written By, and his savvy as a breeder has since set him apart in retirement.

Written By wins the 2018 Blue Diamond Stakes.
Written By gives the Begg family another Group 1 result in the 2018 Blue Diamond Stakes. (Brett Holburt/Racing Photos via Getty Images)

For Grahame Begg, they were big shoes to fill and, as his website states, ‘a person’s family tree will only take one so far’. He was 29 when he took over his father’s operation at Randwick, but these days he is set up in Melbourne. 

“I won’t train in Sydney again,” he says. “You’ve got to have too big a number of horses up there to stay competitive. It’s a different landscape now.”

Begg has about 30 horses in training at his Mornington yard and he always seems to have a smart one. When we talk to him, he’s on his way to Ballarat with two well-bred types, one of them his father’s Zoustar half-brother to Written By.

But the current star of the stable is the four-year-old mare Magic Time, who handed Begg his 100th stakes winner last November when landing the Group 1 Rupert Clarke Stakes at Caulfield, her fifth win in eight outings. Rumour has it she’s one of the best Begg has ever had.

“She’d be up there, I think,” he says. “She’s got a good record so yes, I guess. She’s pretty untapped.”

Magic Time belongs to studmaster John Muir of Milburn Creek. She’s by emerging sire Hellbent from a mare that herself won two stakes races in South Australia.

When she was passed in at Magic Millions three years ago, Muir took her home, named her Magic Time and sent her to Begg in Melbourne. Muir had done the same thing in 2009 with another filly of his, Secret Admirer, when she too was passed in as a yearling.

In Begg’s care, Secret Admirer became a dual Group 1 winner and one of the smartest three-year-old fillies in Sydney. She won the Flight Stakes and the Epsom Handicap when the latter traditionally eluded the mares. 

Comparisons between her and Magic Time aren’t a long bow.

In her first eight starts, Secret Admirer won the Flight and the Epsom, and was second in the Tramway Handicap and Toy Show Quality. By comparison, Magic Time has won the Group Three pair of the PJ Bell Stakes and The Nivison, as well as the Rupert Clarke, in her first eight starts.

Additionally, in those first eight races, Magic Time has almost equalled Secret Admirer’s total career prize money of $1.4 million, something she took 28 starts to achieve.

Group 1-winning mare Magic Time.
 Sir Rupert Clark Stakes winner Magic Time is one of Grahame Begg's current stars. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Racing Photos via Getty Images)

This pair is just one example of a long line of top race fillies to emerge from Begg’s yard. The others include Our Egyptian Raine and Bonanova, the Oaks winner Mahaya and the recent stars Dosh and Lunar Flare.

“I won’t train in Sydney again. You’ve got to have too big a number of horses up there to stay competitive. It’s a different landscape now” - Grahame Begg.

Begg never gets tired of being known how to handle the race fillies.

“The trick to them? Just don’t rush them early,” he says. “Give them time to find their feet and then see how they go. Ease them into things gently, and I always think less is more early on. Try to get them to evolve.”

Patience isn’t always easy picking in Australian racing, where quick returns are coveted. But Begg says it’s easy with clients like Muir, who understand the play and trust the trainer.

“John is a racing stalwart and he gets it. He doesn’t put any pressure on you and he allows you to do your thing, which has been really good for a horse like Magic Time. We had Secret Admirer together so we’ve had a good bit of success.”

Begg isn’t a syndicate trainer. That’s not to say he doesn’t have syndicates among his owners, but they’re not usually the big syndication outfits that trawl the yearling sales. 

Of the 30-odd horses he has in training, he credits his father with supplying many of his good ones, along with people like  Muir.

“My father breeds extensively and he obviously bred Written By, so we’ve been lucky to have access to good horses like that,” Begg says. “We’re also fortunate to get nice fillies off breeders too, Magic Time being one of them.”

Grahame and Neville Begg.
Grahame Begg and his father Neville, seen here during trackwork in Hong Kong in the 1990s, have been an enduring father-and-son partnership. (Photo by DAVID THORPE/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Magic Time will have an exhibition gallop at Sandown next week, along with a Flemington jump-out, ahead of her autumn resumption in the Newmarket Handicap. After that, she’ll go to Sydney for races like the  TJ Smith Stakes and, all being well, Begg is dreaming of The Everest.

“Let’s hope so,” he says, guarded. “She’s got to keep evolving but with the mares, I find that we retire them too early. She’s still coming into her own, but certainly The Everest would have to be a consideration coming into the spring.”

Training racehorses is just one part of Begg’s job. He’s also in the business of supply and demand, and since January he has bought seven yearlings at two Australian sales, plus a further two at Karaka in New Zealand.

Across all nine youngsters, the average was just shy of $225,000, which isn’t a huge figure for a Group 1- winning trainer. But Begg says neither he nor his father ever needed a high-priced horse to achieve their respective success.

“To be truthful, I don’t have the really, really big clients behind me, so we don’t buy a lot of horses in the scheme of things,” he says. “We’ve got to be pretty calculated in how we go about it, and you need a lot of luck.

“We just try to buy athletes and horses we think we can syndicate, to put it simply.”

The new yearlings are by such sires as Pierro, Bivouac and Zoustar, as well as Proisir, Ardrossan and a couple by So You Think and Toronado. Six of the nine are fillies and, according to Begg, they’re all mostly sold 

“That’s obviously really good because I don’t have debt hanging over my head,” he says. “Obviously, coming up to the yearling sales, it helps if your horses are going good. It puts you in the spotlight a bit and people stand up and take notice.”