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Courchevel opens the door to the Winx family at Chairman's

14 min read
Courchevel (Snitzel), the half-sister to Winx (Street Cry {Ire}), will sell in Friday's Inglis Chairman's Sale from the draft of Segenhoe Stud and, in a rare interview, her owner-breeder John Camilleri talks breeding, buying and selling on the eve of her historical sale.

Cover image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

On Friday evening, the Inglis Chairman’s Sale will open the breeding-stock sale season, a first opportunity this year for buyers looking at mare investment. Eighteen vendors at Riverside will sell 59 mares (accounting for withdrawals), a cherry-picked collection pointed at the elite end of trading.

Among them is Segenhoe Stud with a draft of nine and, as expected, they are an excellent set of horses.

They include Courchevel, a half-sister to Winx, O’Rachael (Northern Meteor) in foal to Pierata, and Oregon’s Day (Domesday), an accomplished Group-winning race mare.

“We are extremely fortunate to have highly respected breeders as clients,” said Peter O’Brien, Segenhoe General Manager. “Most of them are very good businessmen and women, as well.

"The market is so strong at the moment that people are seeing it as an opportunity to maximise the value of their mares, and this is the first proper mare sale of the season. It’s the first bite of the cherry for people looking to buy quality mares.”

Among Segenhoe’s draft are a number of horses O'Brien said are worth noting, albeit each of them is excellent. He flagged Oregon's Day, in particular, but also Lot 5, Anatina. She was a two-time Listed winner and Group 1-placed when second to Tiger Tees (NZ) (Dubawi {Ire}) in the G1 The Galaxy in 2014.

“Her 2-year-old, Fake Love, is a stakes winner this year, and she’s in foal to Capitalist,” O’Brien said. “If ever a mare ticked every box, it’s her.”

In O’Brien’s careful and loyal hands, Segenhoe Stud has nursed some of the best families in the Australian Stud Book. However, there are few that he is more attached to than the family of Vegas Showgirl (NZ) (Al Akbar).

As the dam of peerless Winx, and also Group 3 winner El Divino (Snitzel), Vegas Showgirl is an important mare in an exceptional family, and it’s tightly held.

However, on Friday evening, the Chairman’s Sale will reintroduce the family with Courchevel, Vegas Showgirl’s sixth foal. Unraced, Courchevel is Lot 15 and the jewel of the Sale, according to O’Brien. She is in foal to Capitalist on a cross that has produced both Profiteer and Marine One.

The gems that come along

Courchevel was bred by John Camilleri. You’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a big breeder, but he isn’t. He bred Winx and Vancouver too, but it doesn’t define him, and he won the AJC Derby with his very first racehorse.

Camilleri doesn’t brag and he doesn’t showboat, and nor does he take any of it for granted.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “Blessed to have owned a few nice broodmares from which I’ve bred a few good racehorses, sold a number of valuable yearlings and raced some good horses. People spend a lifetime in racing and breeding, and wait for that gem to come along. I’ve had more than my share of good luck.”

Lot 15 - Courchevel

That’s one way of putting it.

A little over 20 years ago, Camilleri entered the business of horses with Fairway (Danzero), the chocolate-coated, Derby-winning gelding who beat Sunline (NZ) (Desert Sun {GB}) in the G1 Turnbull S. Within a handful of years, he was easing away from syndicates into the industry of thoroughbred breeding.

He bought Unearthly (NZ) (Zabeel {NZ}), the first filly he purchased to breed. She was sourced as a yearling by James Bester, and was a subsequent winner of the G1 Flight S.

There was also One World (Danehill {USA}) in those early days, bought at Inglis Easter in 2003 and a Group 3 winner a year later.

Camilleri has had broodmares Celebria (Peintre Celebre {USA}), Procrastinate (Jade Hunter {USA}), Skates (Danehill {USA}) and Private Steer (Danehill Dancer {Ire}), all of whom forged dynasties within his small and select band of mares. Camilleri has been wildly successful at times in the sale ring, not to mention Winx and Vancouver.

Still, he’ll never say he’s made it.

“I’ve never felt like that, and I don’t feel like that today,” Camilleri said. “If you think you’ve made it in anything, you’re probably kidding yourself because every single day, every single week, you’re learning more.”

John Camilleri | Image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

Hobby horses

On Friday, Camilleri will offer two mares at Riverside. Courchevel will be the first time in a long time that the door to the Vegas Showgirl family has opened, with the last of her progeny to sell being Boulder City in 2016. He fetched $2.3 million.

Later, Stellar Vinia will be offered from the Segenhoe draft, the Redoute’s Choice dam of South African Group 2 winner Ektifaa (More Than Ready {USA}). From the grand mare Calvinia (Varick {USA}), whom Camilleri purchased in 2007, Stellar Vinia is a half-sister to Group 3 winner Fireworks (Snitzel), as well as New Zealand Champion Calveen (Canny Lad) and G2 Emancipation S. winner Kosi Bay (Spinning World {USA}).

Stellar Vinia will sell for Camilleri in a partnered ownership with O’Brien, and Chris and Jane Barham. The mare’s filly, Bourbon Street (Vancouver), who races in the silks of Camilleri’s Fairway Thoroughbreds, broke her maiden at Kyneton in late March, and is pointed at the G1 Queensland Oaks on June 5.

Lot 57 - Stellar Vinia

Camilleri is no stranger to the Chairman’s Sale, selling broodmare Florentina (Redoute’s Choice) at last year’s event.

The pretty daughter of Celebria (Peintre Celebre {USA}) sold for $650,000 in foal to Kingman (GB), and it proved a song. The yearling sold at Magic Millions in January for $1.8 million to Tom Magnier.

“I had much more of an attachment to Florentina,” Camilleri said. “Even still today, I shake my head wondering why she went through the ring, but then I remember that the books needed to balance. She was a beautiful mare. She’d travelled overseas and back for me, and she was from one of the best families in the Stud Book. So you tend to think, why on earth did I do that?”

"I had much more of an attachment to Florentina. Even still today, I shake my head wondering why she went through the ring, but then I remember that the books needed to balance." - John Camilleri

However, Camilleri isn’t distracted by sentiment.

“You just move on,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t keep me awake at night.”

Camilleri doesn’t sleep well. At times, he doesn’t sleep at all.

He is the Chairman of the Baiada Group of companies, which oversees the Steggles and Lilydale chicken brands and, separately, a vast portfolio of property. With everything he does, Camilleri is meticulous. He is fastidious about detail, punctuality and order. The way he does anything is the way he does everything, be it in business or bloodstock.

But horses don’t keep him up at night.

“They’re a hobby, things that just keep my mind ticking over that aren’t mainstream,” he said. “Mainstream things never leave your mind. They’re the things that keep you awake, and I don’t have the ability to just switch off.”

For years, when Winx was running, everyone wanted to know how he lived with himself for selling her.

“I could have retained her if she didn’t make the right amount of money,” Camilleri said. “But then she might not have been any good, or I might have chosen the wrong trainer, or something might have happened. You can’t really think about what would have been. People have bought the horse, and you wish them well.”

Counting foals

Camilleri’s broodmares number about 30 most of the time. A handful are in the UK and Ireland, but the majority are kept under the watchful eye of O’Brien at Segenhoe Stud.

In the last two years, the band hasn’t changed a great deal, but occasionally, like on Friday, Camilleri will sell to bring in new blood.

“Courchevel is a good example of this,” he said. “I have three daughters of Vegas, and Vegas is still alive, and hopefully will be for a little while longer. There is a philosophy in some corners of the industry that you can never have enough of the one good family, and you should retain all fillies. I can see the merit in that, but for me, the whole thing needs to be anchored with some commercial balance.”

Vegas Showgirl with her Deep Impact (Jpn) filly, born in 2019 and named City Of Lights | Image courtesy of Bronwen Healy

Camilleri admits that it's easy to never sell anything. You fall in love with a horse from the right family, and you keep it. It happens the length and breadth of the industry. But he also recognises that this tactic can empty pockets and hamper abilities to purchase fresh bloodlines.

He added that he also tends to believe the best producing-years occur earlier in a mare’s stud life, specifically within the first five foals.

“I’m a strong believer in the fact that, after the fourth or fifth foal, the mares need to do something,” he said. “Once you’ve passed foal number five or six, statistically it’s quite a slippery slope down in terms of producing a yearling that will perform well.”

However, there are always exceptions to the rule, even in Camilleri’s strict life.

In 2007, he bought Procrastinate (Jade Hunter {USA}) who was 17-years-old. She was a Group 3 winner with 10 foals behind her, including Foreplay, Time Thief and Personify (Galileo {Ire}), the dam of G1 VRC Oaks winner Personal (Fastnet Rock).

By all accounts she was a risk, but she still produced the two-time Group 3-winning A Time For Julia (Redoute’s Choice).

“It doesn’t often happen,” Camilleri said. “Procrastinate was strong in the twilight years, and I’d loved to have owned her from day one, I really would. But who knows, I might not have done as well out of her as others did.”

‘Effing’ mad

Camilleri’s modesty is interesting. He is a brilliant boutique breeder, and there’s no better display of this than the mare One Last Dance. By Encosta De Lago from One World (Danehill {USA}), she was a G3 Blue Diamond Prelude (Fillies) and Listed Blue Diamond Preview (Fillies) winner, bred and raced by Fairway Thoroughbreds.

However, when she retired, she ran into a tragedy of incidents and was difficult to breed.

Her first foal was born without eyes, while she slipped or missed to a succession of elite stallions including Fastnet Rock, Pierro, Sebring and Redoute’s Choice.

One Last Dance when racing

“After the third foal she lost, I said to Peter I was changing something,” Camilleri said. “I needed this mare in foal. She was a really good race mare, and I was going to die wondering if she could be a good producer or not. I told Peter I was going to send her overseas, and he said you’re ‘effing’ mad.”

“After the third foal she (One Last Dance) lost, I said to Peter (O'Brien) I was changing something... I told Peter I was going to send her overseas, and he said you’re ‘effing’ mad.” - John Camilleri

One Last Dance, with all her talent and problems, flew to Adrian and Philippa O’Brien’s Hazelwood operation at Newmarket, England. After a bit of rest and veterinary intervention, she visited Kingman and was successfully in foal shortly after.

In October 2019, that foal headed to Tattersalls Book 1 and sold as a yearling to Coolmore for a staggering 1.8 million gns (AU$3,591,000).

“None of us dreamed of that figure,” Camilleri said. “Adrian liked the colt very much, and thought he might fetch around £500,000 (AU$898,447) to £600,000 (AU$1,078,137), which is still a lot of money in Australian dollars. But when you get Godolphin and Coolmore on any horse, they tend to make a lot more, and that’s what happened.”

Lot 475 - Kingman (GB) x One Last Dance (colt) | Image courtesy of Tattersalls

Camilleri was ringside that English afternoon, but no one rushed at him with handshakes, cameras or microphones. As is his way, he slid off to a quiet location, in this case the Red Room at Tattersalls.

“It was a sense of achievement for me,” he said.

“Peter could well have been on the money that it was a crazy idea, pulling her out of Australia, putting her on a plane and taking the risks, spending a lot of money on freight, service fee and all that comes with it. It could have been all for nothing.”

Too cheap all along?

Largely, John Camilleri has sat out the last 12 months in bloodstock buying, but if Courchevel and Stellar Vinia sell to a reasonable level, he is likely to buy a broodmare or filly to diversify and inject his bloodstock.

He’s not sure what he will buy, or even if he will, because he said things are different these days. The good fillies with the deep pedigrees aren’t going to market.

“If you look at the catalogues nowadays, as opposed to about 10 years ago, there might be a handful of really well-bred, well-conformed fillies for sale,” he said. “They’re valuable assets now, so it’s understandable that breeders are retaining them.”

Camilleri likens the situation to the luxury goods market, where a used car is worth up to $20,000 more today than last year, and where there is a six-month wait on boats and high-end cars.

He said there is a lot of money chasing luxury goods, and wonders if the current yearling prices are new benchmarks, that they might have been too cheap all along.

“Horses are luxury goods,” he said. “Statistics don’t change each year – successful returns on horses, purchase-price returns on costs, training fees and all that. But the market keeps going up. To my mind, all of these rapid price escalations come to an end and, if you’re a genius, you can pick it.”

"The market keeps going up. To my mind, all of these rapid price escalations come to an end and, if you’re a genius, you can pick it." - John Camilleri

He is sincere when he says he has got it wrong for the last three years in thinking things would plateau, or at least slightly correct, when they haven’t. But it might be the businessman in him, because Camilleri prefers to be conservative. His wheeling in bloodstock is little different to his dealing in big business.

“I’m the same person,” he said.

When choosing stallions for his stock, he looks towards the end product. If he has an elite mare, Camilleri wants to identify an elite sire to give her every possible chance of getting an elite yearling.

There are a number of stallions that he considers ‘elite’, largely because they are proven, and he will happily stretch the budget to meet the service fee.

However, he will also support first-season sires on blind, albeit calculated, faith.

“Capitalist is a very good example,” Camilleri said. “He looks like being a very good stallion, and how far he’ll go, I don’t know. But I’ll certainly support him. You’ll hear in the industry that he’s just going to be a 2-year-old stallion, that they’re just speedy squibs. I couldn’t support that thinking at this stage. Capitalist couldn’t do much more than what he’s done at this point in time. If the prediction is that he isn’t going to be any good and can’t make it, god help the others.”

Capitalist | Standing at Newgate Farm

Camilleri is involved in the Southern Hemisphere ownership of Vadamos (Fr), who raced in Fairway silks against Winx in the 2016 Cox Plate. Camilleri was also in Dissident and Merchant Navy. In the UK, he has retained a Frankel (GB) colt from One Last Dance, which is in-training with Clive Cox.

While it isn’t his way to invest in the boys, Camilleri doesn’t limit himself in life. His strategies are pliable and his focus is farsighted.

“It’s a bit like The Everest,” he said. “Six or seven years ago, it didn’t exist. Now it’s got to be on the scoreboard to at least have a runner in there.”

The success he’s had in bloodstock hasn’t dazzled him, and likewise it hasn’t changed his attitude about expanding his bloodstock interests.

"I don’t have hundreds of horses, and I might say I don’t want that,” Camilleri said. “I’ve got a philosophy that I’d rather be small and do things really well.”

Mission accomplished.

2021 Chairman's Sale
John Camilleri
Segenhoe Stud
Peter O'Brien