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The horse nobody wanted, prepared by the self-taught bush trainer taking on the sport’s biggest names in one of the oldest races on the Australian turf calendar. This is Warialda Warrior’s Derby story.
John Ramsey is a breeder first, and trainer second. He currently has three horses in work. Any more and he would be spending too much time away from home, and the family’s Hunter Valley boutique stud Turangga Farm.
One of them is his homebred three-year-old Warialda Warrior, known affectionately as “The Warrior” by Ramsey’s kids, and named in honour of former rugby league star Noel “Crusher” Cleal, who was born in the northern NSW town Warialda.
A long way from Flemington: Outsider Warialda Warrior with trainer John Ramsey at Scone.
Few give the bay gelding any chance of saluting in the $2 million classic but should the $101 chance defy the odds he would instantly become part of Derby folklore.
Ramsey, his family and Warialda Warrior will not arrive in Melbourne until the morning of the race, after two days and 1050 km on the road from Scone.
It’s not quite, as Melbourne Cup mythology had it, Archer walking from Nowra to Flemington to win the inaugural race in 1861, but is another earthy element to a most unlikely Derby runner. Unorthodox? Yes, but it’s worked for him in the past.
Horses are in Ramsey’s blood. His father Stuart Ramsey founded the family’s successful stud farm, which has produced several group 1 winners, including Hong Kong champion Able Friend and star mare Sky Cuddle, who ran fourth in Makybe Diva’s Cox Plate win.
Turangga Stud has two other runners on Derby Day, both trained by Peter Moody and Katherine Coleman – Life Lesson in the Empire Rose Stakes, and Chain Of Lightning in the Rising Fast Stakes.
Ramsey spent three months working for Albury-based trainer Brett Cavanough, picked up tips from local horse breakers and his father. He describes himself as “pretty much a self-taught” trainer.
In the Derby, he will mix company with some of the giants of the turf: the Hayes dynasty, the juggernaut stables of Chris Waller and Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, and racing royalty Gai Waterhouse, who between them have won hundreds of group 1 races.
Ramsey, 38, has trained just the one city winner but has a group 1 second to his name with former staying filly Never Listen. More about her later.
At a time when Australian breeding is geared towards producing sprinters that can give owners a quick return, Ramsey loves stayers. He enjoys the horsemanship it takes to develop them, the planning, the patience.
Ramsey bred Warialda Warrior with his mare, the aptly named Romance Writer, who he sent to Coolmore stallion Saxon Warrior. Purchased eight years ago, Romance Writer raced only five times for a win in a 1000-metre maiden but has a rich staying pedigree through the mighty Zabeel. As a hoof note, her half-sister Sara Ann is the dam of another Derby runner Kosgei.
“Everything I’ve bred out of it has won,” Ramsey said.
Despite his mother having what Ramsey describes as “one of the best pedigrees in Australasia”, Warialda Warrior was passed in at $60,000 at last year’s Inglis Classic Yearling sale.
“I couldn’t get a bid on him, nobody was on Saxon Warrior,” Ramsey said. “He wasn’t the best type of yearling, he had it all there, but you’ve got to see what they’ll grow into. He’s still a big baby. He’s about 12 months away.”
Ramsey kept him to train himself, partly because his family breed to race “and you’ve got to be prepared to back your judgment and be prepared to race them” and it would cost him too much to send to another trainer.
“I don’t have the cash flow,” Ramsey said. “I have to start off by training them myself, then when they win prizemoney I’ll send them off.”
Ramsey knew when he was breaking in Warialda Warrior that he had ability.
“When they’re running pretty good sectionals carrying me, I’m 85 kilos, I know they’re going alright.”
“When they’re running pretty good sectionals carrying me, I’m 85 kilos, I know they’re going all right,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey had the Derby earmarked as far out as May before Warialda Warrior had even raced. In five starts, he has never finished further back than fourth, progressively improving as he went up in distance.
“He’s still 12 months away, but he gave me the feel he’d make a good stayer with his work,” Ramsey said. “If you don’t aim up, you can’t win them.”
At first glance, it’s easy to see why Warialda Warrior is at cricket score odds. As his jockey Darryl “Digger” McLellan puts it, the horse has many boxes unticked. This will be his first time racing the Melbourne way of going. He is stepping up from provincial class ones. Victoria Derby winners rarely come through Muswellbrook, Gunnedah or Hawkesbury.
This is where Never Listen comes back into the story. Four years ago, the filly came through the same lead-up races at Newcastle and Scone on her way to running second in the VRC Oaks as a $41 longshot. She trounced every horse but the winner. That time, Ramsey arrived on the day of the race with his first Flemington runner, hence why they are doing it again with their second.
“It seemed to work for him, he had a bit of luck doing it last time,” McLellan, who rode Never Listen, said. McLelland, from Newcastle, is flying instead.
Ramsey, though, is not here just for the thrill of it. Many in the Derby field typically find the gruelling 2500 metres too far, and Ramsey is convinced Warialda Warrior will stay.
“We’re not going down there to make up the numbers,” Ramsey said. “We wouldn’t travel that far for it. I’m going down there to run top four. I know one thing, he’ll stay the trip.”
McLellan agrees. “We’ll certainly beat half of them home,” he said.
Eighth in the 16-horse field collects a $40,000 cheque, which combined with the $31,850 he has already won would have more than covered his sale reserve.
Victory for Ramsey, who drew inspiration from North Melbourne premiership coach Denis Pagan’s win in 2020, would be bittersweet.
On the one hand, it would be a dream come true for him to train a group 1 winner he had bred himself, and the $1.2 million would go a long way for the family business, but he knows the calls will come from other owners and trainers wanting to take the horse off him.
It’s not easy training good horses in the bush, Ramsey said, as it’s a long way to the city where the better races are.
“I’d have to weigh it up,” Ramsey said. “It’d be a lot of money, it’d help out in life but at the same time I might wait 60 years to find another one good enough.”
Whatever happens, Ramsey, his family and Warialda Warrior will be on the road back home after the race, via Albury to visit his wife’s parents, while racegoers party well into the evening.
“Go home, lay down and scratch my head,” Ramsey said. “We might celebrate later.”
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