The benefit of sending racehorses to Queensland for winter campaigns has stood the test of time for many of Australia’s biggest stables, writes Matt Stewart.

The Queensland sun
The Queensland sun is famous for its restorative powers on humans and horses (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Horse or human, it’s been assumed there’s nothing quite like some sun on the back.

Melanoma awareness has curbed the human appetite for sun worship but in Australian horse racing it is mostly assumed that warmer is best and hence it’s not just good prize money that entices southern trainers north in winter.

The Americans head south to Florida, the Europeans, at least some of them, have Pisa, or even southern France. The Japanese and Koreans have snow shovels.

There’s a great story about the legendary Vincent O’Brien and his quest to get some sun on the back of Sir Ivor. It’s unclear if O’Brien was the first to identify the home of the Leaning Tower as the ideal horsey break from those cold Irish winters but he was the most famous.

As an aside, Aidan O’Brien, who succeeded Vincent O’Brien (no relation) at the famed Ballydoyle, has never bothered with sunning his horses.

According to the Racing Post’s Lee Mottershead, Aidan O’Brien believed hacking along in the cold, sleet and snow made horses more resilient. 

“I don’t think Aidan’s ever wintered away from home. I might be wrong but they have even spoken about Irish winter toughening them up,” Mottershead said.

In contrast, Lloyd Williams, a devotee of O’Brien, believed Macedon Lodge, perched on the side of Mount Macedon, toughened up his Cups squads.

When Godolphin first marched on the scene in 1992, they used Dubai, then a desert outpost, as a hotspot to launch campaigns into the fresh European summer.

“Dubai was definitely the parallel (to Queensland or Florida) but much more in the past,” Mottershead said.

“When Godolphin first started, they used to winter all their star juveniles in Dubai and pretty much run them in the Guineas off the plane. That happens much less now. As an example, their horse Notable Speech ran on the all-weather over here through winter before winning the Guineas.”

Sir Ivor was American-bred so Vincent O’Brien may have been seeking American conditions to canter around the San Rossore Hippodrome but Sir Ivor developed a heat abscess upon arrival and his leg “blew up like a balloon” according to

Sir Ivor won the 1968 Epsom Derby for Vincent O'Brien after returning from a winter spell in Italy. (Photo by Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

There was another story - that Sir Ivor, who was on the verge of becoming one of the greatest horses of all time - escaped on the Pisa airport tarmac.

In the end, all was well. Sir Ivor returned to the UK to win the 1968 Guineas and Epsom Derby, then the Washington DC International. (Had he disappeared down the Pisa tarmac, we’d never have had Sir Tristram, or his son and Sir Ivor’s grandson Zabeel).

Dual Prix de L’Arc De Triomphe-winning trainer John Hammond says the quest for coveted sunshine was not easy in Europe. Hammond also sent horses to Pisa for a clearing of the mind and a hit of Vitamin D.

“It kind of helps them along. I sent horses to Pisa one year for better weather. We don’t have an American equivalent of Florida. Even in Cagnes or Marseille the weather is often iffy,” Chantilly-based Hammond said.

“It benefits horses less than humans but for any athlete, it’s easier to train in warmer climes.”

The Queensland carnival, which is now well underway, hosts many interlopers, many of whom stick to successful formulas that have always challenged the notion of a winter spell.

Annabel Neasham, who pretty much launched her own career and that of Zaaki Down Under via a Queensland winter, has observed that Chris Waller uses Queensland to mould young horses who become spring stars. It’s his testing ground, on firm ground, under sunny skies.

The Autumn Sun won the JJ Atkins for Waller in the winter, then eased just briefly before bombing the Golden Rose and Caulfield Guineas. (If only he’d been named The Winter Sun).

The Autumn Sun rose to promise during a Queensland winter campaign. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

Lee Freedman launched Mahogany and a host of other stars the same way.

Neasham stumbled across Brisbane because it was the best option at the time for Zaaki, whose clean sweep of the Hollindale Stakes, Doomben Cup and Q22 in 2021 has him more fondly remembered in Brisbane than anywhere else.

“It wasn’t really by design, the races were just there in front of him,” Neasham said. “But he enjoyed the warmth. Horses are adaptable to any conditions but they prefer warmth. So long as the grass is good.”

The Kiwis have been bombing Brisbane for many years with great success (an Eagle Farm bar is named after a New Zealand hero, Rough Habit), Bart Cummings lit up Eagle Farm and Doomben with many including Never Undercharge and Campaign King, Rick Hore-Lacy (Foxseal), Tommy Hughes (Grey Affair) and the FBI (Freedman Brothers) considered Brisbane something to plunder and also as for grounding.

Danny O’Brien has returned to Brisbane with Vow And Declare, a trail that in 2019 finished up with victory at Flemington on the first Tuesday In November.

Mike Moroney has always had a few weeks in Brisbane locked in every winter. The slight complication was finding the right horse.

Neasham said the benefits were probably more subtle than obvious, along the lines of a happy horse is a good horse and horses, like humans, are happier when it’s warm.

Neasham has a permanent stable at Eagle Farm and boosts it each winter with proven and rising stars. She has half an eye on the winter carnival and one on the spring. Two Saturdays ago she won the Doomben Cup for a second time with Bois D’Argent.

“They have a bit of a break by just being there and then you don’t have to give them us long out to get ready for the spring,” she said. “You don’t need to burn up as many calories to have them ship shape for spring.

“It makes for a relatively quick turnaround but we’ve found that works for us.”

She said almost every season a star horse seems to burst into spring off the back of a big Brisbane.

“You’re seeing it more and more, horses like Without A Fight and Incentivise. They tend to springboard off a winter carnival. I’ve noticed Chris Waller do it so effectively. He will furnish some nice two-year-olds up there and come back as really effective spring three-year-olds, like The Autumn Sun,” Neasham said.

For Neasham, who managed to squeeze in a fleeting European holiday last year, Brisbane represents a slight easing off the pedal. Moroney always felt the same.

“It’s not a chill, as such, but you feel that pressure’s a little bit more off than when you’re trying to win races at The Championships. It’s still serious stuff but perhaps a bit less stressful,” she said.

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