It's In The Blood

Knight’s Choice

Norm Bazeley is a 74-year-old farmer, boutique breeder, former trackwork rider and hobby trainer, and an amateur philosopher.

One night a few years ago he was home on his 115-acre farm at Walcha when he received a phone call.

“Have you got a mare named Midnight Pearl?” a woman asked. Bazeley confirmed she was one of his five.

“Oh! Pearly was my heart and soul!” the woman said.

The woman, who’d tracked the mare down via the studbook, introduced herself, as Sheila Laxon.

“I was a bit blown away,” Bazeley says. “Not everyday you get a phone call from a Melbourne Cup-winning trainer.”

Midnight Pearl, by renowned broodmare sire More Than Ready (Southern Halo), had won seven races in country Victoria for Laxon – who’d had quite some good fortune with another mare in 2001 Cups double winner Ethereal (Rhythm) – and John Symons, her partner in training and life, before they moved to the Sunshine Coast.

She was offered in an online sale in 2013, and Bazeley bought her – for all of $1,000.

“I’d always wanted a More Than Ready mare. I noticed her online, saw she’d won seven races, so I bid one grand and ended up getting her. I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” Bazeley tells It’s In The Blood.

When she came off the truck at his Elswick Park farm, Bazeley might have had his answer.

“I thought ‘Oh wow’,” he says, but not in a good way. “She looked a bit average. She was pretty light-boned, not a big solid mare like most More Than Readies. But I thought, ‘Oh well, it’s only a thousand bucks’.

“But she was a lovely, kind mare. I get real attached, and I love these horses just like they’re my children, you know?”

Bazeley started breeding with Pearly, and the results lived up to his first impressions, unfortunately. Warranting only a fast-forwarding summary, two colts by Rothesay (Fastnet Rock) and one by Casino Prince (Flying Spur) netted $24,000 combined as yearlings, and 28 starts for two placings as racehorses.

But Bazeley had an idea in mind, and he doesn’t drop such things easily.

“I got as far as second year high school, left that and did some trackwork riding here in Walcha, moved to Brisbane and started at the bottom in the civil construction industry, worked my way up to be one company’s Australian construction manager, then started my own business in 1984,” says Bazeley, who started training a small string at Deagon two years after that.

“I always had ambitions bigger than Ben Hur. I would set goals that were miles above my current ability, and work hard to get there. And I’m very determined.”

Determined, in this instance, to put Midnight Pearl to Not A Single Doubt (Redoute’s Choice). He’d been impressed, like most, by his daughter Miracles Of Life, who was also out of a More Than Ready mare, and who won Group 1s in the Blue Diamond Stakes (Gr 1, 1200m) and Robert Sangster Stakes (Gr 1, 1200m) of 2013 and 2015.

In 2018, Bazeley entered a nomination for Midnight Pearl to be covered by Not A Single Doubt, but was disappointed when she didn’t make the grade. Undeterred, he looked for a son of that stallion.

Extreme Choice, another Blue Diamond winner, was in his second year at Newgate. His service fee had dropped from $38,500 to $22,000, reflective of the fertility problems that had emerged through a 52 per cent miss rate in his first season.

“I liked him as a racehorse,” Bazeley said. “I went to Newgate and the boys brought him out and I said, ‘Yep, this is where we’re going’. I knew he was sub-fertile, but I took the punt.

“We did a pregnancy test at 14 days and she was positive. Then 26 days, and then at 45 days she was still positive, so we got fairly excited then.”

Around then – May 2019 – Bazeley hopped on a plane to see the best horse he’d bred win the Singapore Guineas (Listed, 1600m).

“I just went up for a day and flew home the next morning. I’d bred this good horse, so I wanted to see him win a good race,” Bazeley says of Top Knight (Zoustar). A $65,000 yearling, Top Knight would add Singapore’s Derby (Listed, 1800m) and Queen Elizabeth Cup (Listed, 1800m) in a glittering career of four stakes wins. But Bazeley would soon have bred one promising to be far better.

In his second season, Extreme Choice sired only 29 live foals from 68 covers, and by late September, 2019, Bazeley had one of them – a colt born without a problem. It was a month or so later that he received that phone call from Laxon. He told her about her Pearly’s latest offspring, then stayed in touch by emailing her photos of him, although not meeting Laxon or Symons in person.

The colt made it into the Magic Millions sale of 2021 but, given Midnight Pearl’s earlier progeny, and with his family’s only direct black type being a Group 2-placed third dam, he was only in Book 2. He had a lot number very similarly as ignominious as his dam’s purchase price – 1001.

“At the sale,” Bazeley recalled, “this bloke walked up and looked at the colt in his box and said ‘Is that the Extreme Choice?’ I said it was. He said, ‘What’s your reserve?’”

At that early stage, Extreme Choice had only had a couple of runners. Stay Inside was 11 days off starting his first, Golden Slipper Stakes (Gr 1, 1200m)-winning campaign, but Tiger Of Malay had won on debut at Randwick, and Extreme Warrior had run second in Caulfield’s Debutant Stakes (Listed, 1000m).

“I said, ‘I’d like to get at least $80,000’,” Bazeley said. “And the bloke said ‘No worries’, and walked off.

“I said, ‘Don’t you want to look at him and go over him?’ He said, ‘Mate, if I look at that colt and I criticise it in any way and we don’t end up buying him, I’d get divorced’. Turns out it was John Symons.”

Symons and Laxon weren’t going home without him. Gold Coast trainer Les Kelly went to $80,000, the couple went a further $5,000, and the gavel fell.

An offer came in this week for the horse – for $2.7 million. Because that horse – now a gelding known as Knight’s Choice – last Saturday took his record to four (successive) wins from seven starts, claiming the first of what should be lashings of black type with an imperious win in the Winx Guineas (Gr 3, 1600m).

Let’s not make any bold predictions, but there’s not a single doubt Knight’s Choice will now win 32 more in a row, just like Winx (Street Cry) did after taking the race in 2015. Ok, that might be a stretch (although if it does happen you read it here first), but at the least he may be on the way to trying to repeat her spring follow-up trick by contesting the Cox Plate (Gr 1, 2040m). He’s set to join Bel Esprit (Royal Academy) and Ethereal among the finest Symons and Laxon, respectively, have trained, and may also stamp himself among the very best progeny of the explosive Extreme Choice.

“You do allow yourself to dream. That win was phenomenal,” said Laxon of Knight’s Choice, who leapt to stakes class from a Wednesday three-year-old Benchmark 65 at Doomben. “They came home in 33 seconds at Doomben, and he was fifth on the turn, so God knows what he came home in.”

Laxon fondly recalls that first phone call with Bazeley. Not only had she and Symons had Midnight Pearl but also Denoninator (Denon), who they’d trained for nine wins, including three at Eagle Farm in four starts before his untimely demise from a heart attack in 2016.

“We were devastated,” Laxon says. “After he died we wanted to see if Pearly had any more coming.

“She was a real gutsy little trier, and always did the best she ever could. You see some amazingly gifted gallopers who don’t try hard. But others, what they might lack in ability they make up for in courage, and Pearly was like that. She’d break her neck to beat anything.”

In a couple of years’ time we might be hearing the same things about Knight’s Choice. His chief owner, Cameron Bain, a mining executive in his 60s who’s had horses with Symons for 35 years, is at present very happy not to sell, and to enjoy a ride which could reach some dizzying heights.

“After Saturday’s win, straight away I thought of the Cox Plate,” Laxon says. “That’s a race John’s always wanted to win. But there’s a lot of options. There’s the Golden Eagle in the spring, but he’s also a Magic Millions horse so there’s that raceday in January too.

“It’s a slight shame he’s a gelding, but he was very unruly and hard to handle as a young colt. He’s lovely to do anything with now. There’s not much of him – probably about 15.1 hands, but he’s got a lot of attitude. He thinks he’s pretty good.”

Bazeley’s as delighted to have made friends with Symons and Laxon as with Knight’s Choice’s progress, saying: “To me, that’s the satisfaction in life – the people you meet along the way.”

Meanwhile, there’s a relationship he’s hastily rekindled.

Midnight Pearl had a second mating with Extreme Choice in 2019, but this time she missed. Switched to his then studmate Winning Rupert (Written Tycoon), she threw a filly who’s as yet unnamed, while in 2021 she missed to Brutal (O’Reilly). Also worried into downsizing by a health scare (which thankfully proved minor), Bazeley retired the mare last September and gifted her to some friends nearby.

After Saturday’s Winx Guineas, he went and got her back.

“I offered to buy her but they said they were happy to give her back,” he says. “I’ve got another mare who’s retiring, so I’ll give them her instead.

“She’s rising 18, so I’ll have her thoroughly checked by the vet to make sure she’s alright before we send her to any stallion.”

Bazeley says he’s keen to stick with a winning theme in the next mating. At her age, it might not be worth revisiting Extreme Choice, but he has a stallion son in Stay Inside, while The Autumn Sun – by Not A Single Doubt’s sire Redoute’s Choice (Danehill) – is another possibility.

Suddenly, thanks to a special young racehorse dropped from a Doomben midweeker into the racing world’s headlines, the options look very enticing for Bazeley and his thousand-dollar mare.

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