Steve Talks To Trainer Robbie Griffiths About His Flagship Horse The Quarterback, Last Sunday’s Gilgai Stakes Winner At Flemington, And About Life And Business In General
And the sprinter’s success gives him particular pleasure, not only because his Newmarket Handicap (Gr 1, 1200m) win in March was the trainer’s first Group One win, but as The Quarterback is one of the two ‘best things’ to come out of the most horrendous time in his life.
That was late in 2011 when he was hospitalised as a result of a lingering salmonella related infection which he’d contracted in Bali several months earlier and had left him frighteningly debilitated. He was either in hospital or largely house bound, undergoing further treatment, for almost three months.
However, he did manage to attend the Inglis Melbourne Premier sale in late February 2012 which is where The Quarterback – the fourth foal of Encosta De Lago (Fairy King) mare Soorena, was knocked down to Griffiths Training Pty Ltd for $120,000. Griffiths trained Soorena’s mother Suraya (Brief Truce) who was a debut winner at Sandown. Not that he takes all the credit for the purchase.
“Yes, I bought him but with great help from Peter Ford. I was sick and had just got out of Cabrini Hospital after six weeks. Thank God I had Peter to help me. He said he was a ‘must buy’,” Griffiths said.
Help is the key word as Griffiths now acknowledges that a preparedness to delegate, fostering the development of skill sets among his staff was the other positive to come out of his confinement.
“I learned that things could be done differently. I had no choice. I was trying to keep on the ball via the laptop and videos but I couldn’t be on top of everything from a hospital bed. I had to trust others,” he said.
The trust was rewarded. “We won plenty of races in that time,” he said.
And there was no doubting the wisdom of his purchase, at that time, when The Quarterback won at his second, third and fourth starts and was placed at Group Three level at each of his next two appearances.
Those placings came in February 2014 and while the gelding’s ability to produce a whirlwind finish often promised a stakes win, it was only a tease for some time. He did not win a stakes race until the following January and it was a modest one at that – the Kensington Stakes (Listed, 1000m) at Flemington.
He then failed to beat a runner home at his next two appearances and that’s when his trainer decided that the ‘return to nature’ was necessary.
“We gave him a really good break through the late autumn and early winter and it was back to nature. No shoes, no rugs, no fuss. His feet grew out and it was the making of him,” Griffiths said. The measure of that is three wins, at Group One and Two and Listed level, since the extended spell.
The style of Sunday’s Group Two win, tracking comfortably closer to the speed than normal but still producing his trademark acceleration, hints that his rate of improvement might not yet have expired.
“It seems a bit silly to say he might have improved given that he beat a horse like Chautauqua in the Newmarket in March but it’s possible,” Griffiths said and, in his defence, that’s an observation he made before and after the win.
“Horses can mature and really come into their own at five, six or seven and not just stayers. It’s often hard to convince an owner of that but it’s true. Look at a Buffering or Takeover Target.
“They can improve with time. I had a horse called Count To Zero who didn’t show much early. He won something like two of his first 15 and didn’t get beyond a Wangaratta Class One on a Friday. Then with a break and time he came back and won seven of his next 15 including a Group Three on Derby day,” he said.
The improvement might tempt Griffiths to try The Quarterback beyond 1200 metres again for the first time since November 2014 but not in the short term with his spring goals being the two imminent $1,000,000 1200 metre sprints – the Manikato Stakes (Gr 1, 1200m) on 21 October and the Darley Classic (registered as VRC Classic) (Gr 1, 1200m) on 5 November.
“It sounds good on paper that you’d go to a 1400 (metres race) like the Futurity or the Orr and he’d sit one, one and zip home in 21.5 and, who knows, it might happen but it’s not on the immediate radar. We decided he was really a specialist sprinter after he was beaten at 1400 (metres) on Cup day in 2014 and he came out and won two of his next three at a 1000 (metres).
“Structurally he’s very sound but from a respiratory point of view, he’s a bit soft and it suits to keep him to sprinting. His DNA says he’s a speed horse and why change things when he’s going so well?” Griffiths said.
Griffiths has good reason, at present, to be pleased with how his training operation is performing. He hopes the functionality of his new and excellent Cranbourne stables, which houses 60 horses, might signal the start of something special. The block is certainly that; he can watch track work from the front balcony and view the tie-ups; hose down bays and sandrolls – and speak to the staff – from the back or oversee the entire stables from the CCTV screen in the office which splits into 16 views.
That and a number of promising young horses including the three-year-olds colts Charlton (Redoute’s Choice) and Terindah (Foxwedge); the gelding Fast Stryke (Stryker) who’s from the same family as The Quarterback and who’s nominated for next Wednesday’s Blue Sapphire Stakes (Gr 3, 1200m) and the fillies Selenia (Not A Single Doubt) and So Distinct (So You Think) gives him good reason for optimism.
“Charlton’s a beautiful, looking horse with really good ability. He’s in the Derby but my aspirations may be ahead of nature as he’s not fully furnished yet,” he said of the colt who, at his second start, ran second to Bella Sorellastra (Lope De Vega) who then ran second to Serenely Discreet (Exceed And Excel) in the Edward Manifold Stakes (Gr 2, 1600m).
Terindah, well named after a Bellarine Peninsula winery given he’s out of Toast Of The Coast (Rory’s Jester), won by five lengths at Kilmore when first-up on 26 September.
“Nice horse with a bit of quality but still immature. Will be better in the autumn or as a four-year-old but he’s going well,” Griffiths said of the colt who is an acceptor at Warrnambool races today.
And the fillies Selenia (nominated for Caulfield on Saturday) and So Distinct have been among his recent winners and have won at huge odds. So Distinct won her Mornington maiden, at her second start, at 100/1 while Selenia was 40/1 when she took the Champagne Stakes (Gr 3, 1200m) at Moonee Valley.
Selenia is typical of the successful Griffiths’ purchase over the years – the cheap buy who ’does good’ and consistent with his modus operandi which is first and foremost based on trying to get a return on investment.
“We paid $30,000 for her at (Inglis) Easter in Sydney so the assumption was she can’t be any good but that hasn’t proved to be the case. You’ve got to take some risks in this game – buy the first foal or ignore the unfashionable pedigree or take the chance on the stallion who’s seemingly on the nose,” Griffiths said.
Selenia is quite the success story. She is the first foal of the Hussonet (Mr Prospector) mare Lunar Lady who is a three-quarter sister to Bubble Below (Hussonet) who just happens to the dam of Lucky Bubbles (Sebring) who was runner-up to Chautauqua (Encosta De Lago) in this year’s Hong Kong Chairman’s Sprint Prize (Gr 1, 1200m). Lucky Bubbles, of course, hadn’t raced at the time of the purchase.
Griffiths paid the same sum – $30,000 – for the Group Two winner and multiple Group One placegetter Angelic Light (Holy Roman Emperor) and continues to seek the value in that end of the market.
“My average spend on yearlings per year would be around $1,500,000 but generally for a good number and every one of them is bought on spec. Last year, I bought 18 or 19 and there’d still be five unsold but that’s a familiar story for trainers.
“Nobody gets it right every time with yearling purchases but you’d want to hope your selection criteria hits the mark most of the time; that you’d buy three or four very good ones from the sort of numbers we bought last year and that the majority of them would get to the races. That’s our aim, that we will race the horses we buy.
“There’s proven nicks and crosses and certain things I like and I’ve got a good team with people like Peter (Ford), Chris Blomeley and McKeever Bloodstock but for all the good judgement, you cannot see their (the horse’s) will power. You won’t see that until you see them out there,” he said, pointing to the track.
“There’ll always be good and bad times but maybe that’s the one good thing about working seven days a week in this business. There’s no time to spend your money….you just put it back into the business,” Griffiths said.