Steve Moran

MELBOURNE’S Bluegrass Bloodstock principal Leonard Russo remains well and truly grounded despite the remarkable results for his business in recent weeks. Steve reports.

The responsibility of a young family, some debt and a little fair dinkum work will do that for you – keep you grounded. Even when there is cause for celebration.

Russo’s had reasons aplenty for celebrating in recent weeks. One of which was that Moss ’N’ Dale (Castledale), the horse he bred and part-owns, won the Sale Cup (Listed, 1600m) on Sunday.

But that didn’t stop him turning up for his occasional day job when I spoke to him on Tuesday. Concreting. Russo looks pretty fit. I guess relative youth and a bit of concreting will do for that for you.

He might well have been basking in the results of recent weeks but there’s bills to be paid and his circumstance speaks of the difficulty of establishing yourself in a very competitive bloodstock trading world.

The recent results will surely help. They include the Group 1 placings of Malaguerra (Magnus) and Mr Sneaky (High Chaparral) whom he selected as yearlings and secured for $32,000 and $120,000 respectively.

The former, purchased for owner Bruno Micalizzi, is likely to defend his Darley Classic (registered as VRC Stakes) (Gr 1, 1200m) crown next week at Flemington where Bluegrass-sourced runners are also likely to include Paseeto (Nicconi) who’ll contest the Carbine Club Stakes (Gr 3, 1600m). Russo selected and paid $66,000 for him for Jason Azzopardi, brother of David Azzopardi whose Dream Thoroughbreds race Mr Sneaky.

Then there’s the tried horses he’s recommended and acquired. They include The Willybe (Alamosa), who is a likely Cup day runner in the Prince Of Penzance Handicap (2800 metres), and the recent Moe Cup winner Count Da Vinci (Faltaat). Both were bought from New Zealand.

All rather impressive from someone who grew up in suburban Doncaster; who’d had virtually no horse experience until he’d finished school and whose business is, in reality, less than five years old.

“I registered the name in 2010 but it’s really only since 2013 that I’ve been active at the sales. I put myself into a fair bit of debt, at the start, flying around to all the sales with no clients and no orders but I had to make a start. I’m still paying off some of those debts, he said. And I think he meant it.

Thus, he’s still concreting. “I do a few days here and there with a mate’s concreting business. I’m not locked in if there’s pressing horse stuff to do so I’m lucky really,” said the man who is unlikely to be donning the ‘steel blues’ during Cup week, I fancy.

His racing interest was partly stimulated by going to school with Tim Martin, son of prominent racing broadcaster Bryan Martin. That was at Whitefriars College, Donvale, which has produced many a racing tragic and the odd ANZ Bloodstock News columnist, a decade or three earlier.  “I remember being around 13 or 14 and going up to the broadcast box at the races with Tim,” Russo said.

Post VCE, he enrolled in the breeding diploma course at Northern TAFE (now Melbourne Polytechnic’s Diploma of Horse Breeding and Stud Management) and eventually won a threemonth scholarship to Cambridge Stud in New Zealand.

“I’d had very limited hands-on horses experience before going to TAFE but it was great and later I had the fantastic opportunity to go to Cambridge (Stud) to assist in yearling preparation. Zabeel was in his prime, Eight Carat was there and it was the year the farm sold the record NZ$3.6 million yearling which, of course, was Don Eduardo (by Zabeel),’ he said.

His racing journey then took him to Te Runga Stud and the expert tutelage of Wayne Larsen with whom he still breeds and races. “Wayne taught me a lot about horses, about conformation and life in general,” Russo said.

His education continued for 12 years, before the formation of Bluegrass Bloodstock, variously managing farms in New Zealand and working for Coolmore Stud in Ireland. “Danehill and Sadler’s Wells were there and I was fortunate enough to see Galileo win the Irish Derby which was the first time I’d seen a crowd applaud a horse long before the finish as we’ve seen here since with Black Caviar and Winx, he said.

A stint bid-spotting with Tattersalls in the UK and work, as either a foreman or strapper, with a number of trainers was to follow.

And now, with that trove of experience behind him, he’s deriving great satisfaction from getting it right as often as you can in this game.

He names Count Da Vinci as his most satisfying purchase. “I’ve watched tapes of horses, especially from New Zealand, for years without spending anyone’s money. I was confident I knew what to look for and that’s where I headed when owner Wayne Notman, on the recommendation of mutual friend Peter Gangemi, rang me to source a horse who could possibly win him a Hobart Cup. He specified it had to be a tried horse from New Zealand.

“I spent another two months watching videos and I came across a six-year-old gelding called Faaltline by Faltaat out of a Shinko King mare, a pedigree I was extremely familiar with having looked after the stallion Shinko King and prepped Faltaat yearlings. This pedigree told me this horse would be extremely tough, get better with age and handle wet or dry.

“Faaltline had a mediocre race record but I really liked his racing pattern. He could lead over 1400 (metres) and show a kick and do the same over 2100 (metres). We offered $60,000 for him, which was big overs but I truly thought he was the right horse and not being for sale we had to offer something decent to entice the owners to sell.

“The rest is history. Faaltline had a name change to Count Da Vinci, then won his first five races straight in Tassie for Scott Brunton and went on to win the Hobart Cup and run second to Big Duke in the Launceston Cup,” he said.

His breeding exploits have been fortuitous too courtesy of the $20,000 Strategic Image mare Hot ’N’ Moss whom he bought, from the paddock, as a yearling. “She had a lot of ability but plenty of issues which prevented her from showing it so I was happy to breed from her. We sent her to Castledale at Te Runga farm with my good friend Wayne Larsen.

“Her first foal is Moss ’N’ Dale, and her second is Moss ’N’ Bolt who won at his second start at Bairnsdale early in October and her third is a yearling. The breeding game is not easy so I acknowledge we’ve been very lucky,” he said.

Luck, of course, also plays a part in yearling selection but if Russo can soon find another Malaguerra, Mr Sneaky or Paseeto then an element of good judgement will be also be well acknowledged.