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Changing Tracks: Bel part of new journey for Briarwood Farm

7 min read
Two-and-a-half years since their business was at a crossroads, Briarwood Farm's Lisa and Gavin McMaster will be hoping for Group 1 glory on Saturday in the Empire Rose S.

Peter Moody's decision to quit training two and a half years' ago sent shockwaves through an entire industry. But for Briarwood Farm's Lisa and Gavin McMaster, the shockwaves were felt more than most.

Briarwood was primarily an agistment and spelling operator based at Cora Lynn on the south-eastern skirts of Melbourne and Moody, then one of Australia's biggest trainers, was their biggest client.

"We were clients of Moody for 13 years. We spelled for him for 13 years, since he came down from Queensland. We had a fantastic relationship with him and it was a bolt out of the blue when he rang me up one Saturday morning and said I'm walking away," Lisa McMaster told TDN AusNZ.

"We had a fantastic relationship with him and it was a bolt out of the blue when he rang me up one Saturday morning and said I'm walking away." - Lisa McMaster on Peter Moody's departure

"We were devastated, because we had 30 spellers at our place when he walked away. But I guess when you are given lemons, and you have just got to make lemonade."

Broodmares on Briarwood Farm, the McMasters have been building up their band since the departure of Peter Moody from training

The resultant soul-searching saw Lisa and Gavin decide to put much more of their energy into breeding and racing their own horses, something they had done on more of a hobby level before that point.

"I thought what we love doing is breeding and racing and I thought well, if we have to breed and go in a different direction, that's what we’ll have to do," she said.

"I thought what we love doing is breeding and racing and I thought well, if we have to breed and go in a different direction, that's what we’ll have to do." - Lisa McMaster

"We've built up our broodmare band, which we will continue to do. We are doing a lot more of the breeding and racing going forward."

A few months before the Moody bombshell, one of their broodmares, Sadiya (Encosta De Lago), had foaled a Bel Esprit filly. With their new strategy for breeding and racing in their mind, they decided to keep her rather than send her through the yearling sales.

On Saturday, that filly, now a 4-year-old mare named Temple of Bel (Bel Esprit) contests the G1 Empire Rose S for trainer Tony McEvoy.

Temple Of Bel as a foal

Long time in the Game

She's a special horse for Lisa McMaster in more ways than one. She is the fourth generation her family has bred and raced, including the granddam, Lisa's Game (Umatilla), who gave them one of their greatest thrills in racing when narrowly beaten in the 1998 G1 Caulfield Cup.

"My father (Don Marshall) bought Lisa's Game's dam, Barbie's Game (Comeram {Fr}), then we raced Lisa's Game. We raced Sadiya, the mother and now Temple Of Bel, so we’ve got quite a few from the family," she said.

Lisa's Game, named after Lisa McMaster herself

Lisa's Game was named after Lisa, one of the spoils, she says of being an only child.

The McMasters sold Temple of Bel's older sister by Artie Schiller, the now stakes-placed Wheal Leisure, for $22,000 as a yearling and also sold her younger half-sister by Fiorente, Sadente, for $50,000.

"It just so happens that we kept Temple Of Bel. With the others, you can't keep them all, they do accumulate pretty quickly, so we sold the others and kept her," McMaster said.

Temple Of Bel started her career with Henry Dwyer before spending time with Archie Alexander, highlighted by a win on the middle day of the Caulfield Cup carnival last year, in a 1600m race where she beat subsequent G1 New Zealand Derby winner Vin De Dance (NZ) (Roc de Cambes {NZ}) as well as subsequent Group 2 winner Villermont (All Too Hard).

The McEvoy touch

Keen to find the right trainer to tap in to her obvious ability, the McMasters then sent her to McEvoy in April.

"It started to become pretty apparent to me what we had on our hands quite a while ago. Obviously, when Tony took the filly over, I wanted him to come to those conclusions himself," she said.

"It started to become pretty apparent to me what we had on our hands quite a while ago." - Lisa McMaster

"There's no point saying we’ve got a top filly. All owners think their horses are fantastic, so I didn’t say much, I thought I'd let the horse do the talking."

Temple Of Bel enjoying her campaign for Tony McEvoy

Her first start for McEvoy saw her run a narrow second in a $300,000 Vobis race at Caulfield before finishing down the track in the G1 Schweppes Oaks and then second in a Listed fillies race in Adelaide.

This is her first full campaign for the trainer and after closing sixth in the G2 Blazer S. at Flemington, Temple of Bel rushed home for fourth in the G3 Ladies' Day Vase at Caulfield.

"This campaign, pretty much from the word go, from pre-training, she went to South Australia so he (McEvoy) could get a handle on her from the start. He started to understand what he had in her. He was absolutely thrilled with her last two runs and her sectionals," McMaster said.

"I think we need to aim at the highest level and hope we get into the Empire Rose." - Tony McEvoy

"He said, 'I think we need to aim at the highest level and hope we get into the Empire Rose', which we have scraped into."

There is a bit of sense of history repeating, 20 years since Lisa's Game secured her spot in a Caulfield Cup at the last moment with just 48.5kg.

"With her grandmother Lisa's Game, she just snuck into the Caulfield Cup field by the skin of her teeth. She was 100-1 and she ran second to Taufan's Melody (Taufan {USA}) by a short margin," she said.

"We needed three to come out when the nominations came through for the Empire Rose (for Temple of Bel) and three came out."

Gavin McMaster (middle) with Temple Of Bel

She is by far the lowest rated horse in the race, and has come up with outside barrier, but that doesn't concern McMaster, who wants to see her get into clear air.

"I was more than happy for her to draw out, because she is always slow out of the barriers. She's a momentum horse. She's got a huge stride and she can rattle off some fantastic sectionals if she is unimpeded," she said.

Tragic end for Sadiya

Briarwood Farm's plans as a breeding operation were dealt a blow earlier this year when Sadiya died in a paddock accident. It means that carrying the legacy of Lisa's Game on the farm will fall to Temple Of Bel, when she becomes a broodmare, as well as her yearling half-sister.

"It was a terrible accident and we were very upset about that, but we’ve got one last filly, we've decided to keep by Star Witness," McMaster said.

Sadiya with her last filly by Star Witness, who is now a yearling

"It was a terrible accident and we were very upset about that, but we’ve got one last filly, we've decided to keep." - Lisa McMaster

As well as building their broodmare band up towards their target of 12 or so, Briarwood are spelling horses for trainer Grahame Begg and syndicator Shelley Hancox. They are also offering broodmare services for several outside clients.

"We are doing a lot more walking on, breeding other people's horses and looking after their mares. It's not as much of the spelling and we'll continue to build up our broodmare band. I'd like to have a dozen mares," McMaster said.

The Star Witness x Sadiya filly

Remarkably, Temple Of Bel is one of only two horses the McMasters have in work with a few more fillies to be added in the coming months.

That shock Lisa McMaster got when Peter Moody called back in March 2016 has now parlayed into a whole new business model. With that in place, she is confident she can continue to turn those lemons she spoke of into something much sweeter.

"There's a lot more risk, but if you know what you are doing pedigree wise, you can really increase your chances of success," she said.