Rikki McDonald invokes the ladies’ first amendment in not revealing her age, and we’re not supposed to ask. But we can say the first equestrian event she won involved jumping off her pony to hog-tie a goat, and her prize was a shiny new shilling – a coin which became extinct the year Galilee (Alcimedes) won the Melbourne Cup (Gr 1, 2m).
Since those early days in Townsville, McDonald has fitted a lot in. She’s been a trainer, a breeder, and had a thoroughbred stud farm near Casino, New South Wales. She was a TV newsreader and presenter around the NSW Northern Rivers for 20-odd years, quit that and became an academic, spending several years at a few US universities, then returned home in 2000 to set up a hospitality business. And she still says her main background is psychology.
All the while there have been horses and eventing not far away. Selling out of hospitality in 2017 allowed her to build her racing stocks back up, while she now also puts her equine studies qualifications to use teaching a TAFE course for HSC students in Melbourne.
And those students reading this right now might want to sit up straighter and listen – this very instant! – with an enhanced regard for their teacher, given her recent thoroughbred achievements.
In 2021, McDonald parted with all of $5,000 for a colt from the second crop of Australia’s former Champion Stayer Preferment (Zabeel), out of Queen Ouija (Street Cry), a mare who’d won four races from 19 between 1800 metres and 2400 metres.
There was nothing wrong with him, but he was rather huge, and – with the unfashionable brand of “stayer” written all over him – he was put through the modestly ranking Inglis Gold Yearling Sale in Melbourne.
McDonald was taken by his bloodlines, and didn’t mind his size, which is now around 17.2 hands, reasoning “if he can’t run, I can always use him for eventing”. She sent him to Matt Cumani, known for a particular knack with stayers, and at Sandown last weekend the gelding, now called Dunwoody, a maiden in his fifth start, won black type in the VRC St Leger (Listed, 3000m), and $180,000.
In its original form, the race was already a gruelling test for three-year-olds, as a 2800-metre marathon at Flemington. But when moved in the rescheduling that followed the death of Dean Holland, it had to be extended even further.
That didn’t in the slightest bother Dunwoody, who in a nod to his bloodlines veritably Forrest Gumped his way around Sandown, leading throughout and fighting back after being headed – indeed “lengthed” – in the straight, to win by three-quarters of a length while pleading for just one more lap.
McDonald was overjoyed. Her faith in the horse’s staying potential and in his trainer had been borne out. Immediately afterwards she joked to Cumani that she’d “started writing my Melbourne Cup speech”.
As icing on the cake, Dunwoody, named from a word from McDonald’s even more distant Celtic roots for a dark and dense forest, and whose previous high was a third in a 2400-metre Bendigo maiden, started at $61, having been $101.
“I have a group of friends in a small town in Victoria who all went to their local TAB for the race,” McDonald tells It’s In The Blood. “The TAB didn’t have enough cash to pay them all out!”
Still more excitement was to follow, outrageously swiftly.
Two years ago, in another move in her stock re-stocking, McDonald bought a share in an Astern (Medaglia D’Oro) filly to be trained by Ciaron Maher and David Eustace who’d been a relatively cheap buy, though not Dunwoodyesque, at $75,000. Forty-five minutes after the St Leger, Affaire A Suivre brought McDonald her first Group 1 winner as an owner, with her just-as-gritty victory in Morphettville’s Australasian Oaks (Gr 1, 2000m).
“I just about had a heart attack,” McDonald says with a hearty laugh. “It was probably the most exciting day of my life. In the paper the next day there were of my two horses face-to-face in the racing pages. It was all a bit mad.”
Affaire A Suivre has received a thorough documenting since becoming the second Group 1 winner from Astern’s second crop, whose members have emphatically affirmed the Darley stallion after a slowish start, and helped effect a doubling in his service fee, to $22,000, in 2023.
Less is known about Dunwoody, a horse unwanted in both auction and betting rings so far, and who’s now brought Preferment his first black type winner. He may become more familiar soon, since he’ll likely strive higher in the South Australian Derby (Gr 1, 2500m) at Morphettville on Saturday week, and later perhaps the Andrew Ramsden Stakes (Listed, 2800m) and its golden ticket to the Melbourne Cup.
He was bred by Yulong Stud, who bought Queen Ouija in 2017 and sent her to New Zealand to be covered by Preferment at Brighthill Farm. Yulong’s owner Zheng Yuesheng has shares in the Victoria Derby (Gr 1, 2500m)-winning stallion and sent a cluster of mares to him in his establishment years, but there was also pedigree science in the Queen Ouija mating.
Not only is her dad Street Cry (Machiavellian) building a bristling reputation as a broodmare sire, the cross brought a 5f x 4m duplication of Mr Prospector (Raise A Native), and a 5m x 4m of Northern Dancer (Nearctic), the latter through the great Sadler’s Wells, who appears as recently as being Dunwoody’s second damsire.
“She was an exceptional stayer herself, and if you breed black cats to black cats, you’ll get black kittens,” says Yulong’s sales and nominations manager Harry King, coincidentally the son of Brighthill’s owner Nick King. “But also Mr Zhang is a big fan of Mr Prospector, Sadler’s Wells and Zabeel, and they’re all in Dunwoody’s pedigree.”
Moreover, Dunwoody has a 5m x 5f of the great American Blue Hen, Special (Forli), via Nureyev (Northern Dancer) and Fairy Bridge (Special), and if doubling Special isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’ll do till we get one.
Other stars inbred to Special include Enable (Nathaniel), St Mark’s Basilica (Siyouni), Cracksman (Frankel), Magical (Galileo), Addeybb (Pivotal), and Camelot (Montjeu). Better known here will be Dundeel (High Chaparral), Ocean Park (Thorn Park), Sir Dragonet (Camelot), Russian Camelot (Camelot), Happy Clapper (Teofilo), Tofane (Ocean Park) and another who grabbed quite the staying laurel of a front-running kind, 2020 Melbourne Cup winner Twilight Payment (Teofilo).
“I like the fact Dunwoody’s pedigree has all the big names in stallions, which also means all the big names in female lines too, in his fourth line,” says McDonald. She references sires including Sir Ivor (Sir Gaylord), Nureyev, Danehill, Mr Prospector, Northern Dancer and Canny Lad (Bletchingly).
McDonald wrote her own pedigree report before buying Dunwoody, and it also highlights the repetition of potent mares Natalma (Native Dancer) and her dam Almahmoud (Mahmoud), who both appear seven times, as well as Special.
“There’s such lovely lineage and depth of staying quality there,” she says. “There’s nothing I didn’t like about his pedigree. I didn’t find anything where I thought ‘That’s no good’, or ‘Why would they put a sprinter over that horse?
“Everything was quality. It was all good European bloodlines, good English bloodlines, and the horse looks all of that – that incredibly fine Arab coat, that lovely long neck, that lovely long barrel. I was so excited to see him and see he matched the pedigree.
“He’s a staying horse, and that’s unpopular because of Australia’s accent on speed, and two-year-olds who don’t necessarily train on. We keep bringing stayers in from Europe these days, which is weird to me, because we used to have some of the best staying stallions in the world.
“But if you want to have a horse who gallops on and brings home income over several years, it’s all in that mile-plus category, and three years-plus, not two-year-olds.”
McDonald has already received more than she very modestly bargained for, since she didn’t expect Dunwoody to run at three, given the hulking frame which so drew her to him.
“I happen to really like big horses because I ride, and we only have big horses in eventing,” she says. “He had all of that scope, so big, elastic and rangy. And watching him gallop now, he has that beautiful hock and knee action. One stride is just about the equivalent of another horse’s two strides.
“Matt’s done a tremendous job with him. I told him if he wanted to hold him back until a late three-year-old, I’d be fine with that.
“When they extended the St Leger by 200 metres I wondered if that would work for us. But Matt says he’s very much the warhorse. I actually think he’s the king’s royal charger.”
McDonald teaches about horses, and racing teaches us that you can’t be too carried away by any horse winning its fifth start, particularly when putting three-year-olds over 3000 metres.
But whatever else happens in the Dunwoody story, this remarkable horsewoman can revel in another coup involving the big bay.
At Inglis’ recent HTBA sale at Riverside, she bought Queen Ouija’s third foal, by Yulong’s Alabama Express (Redoute’s Choice), for just $7,000. Had the sale been the Sunday after the St Leger, rather than the Sunday before, she would’ve had to pay considerably more.
You can’t teach timing like that.