In the days before syndication became as big business as it is nowadays in Australian racing, a group of old school friends from Melbourne got together and bought a broodmare in the hope of one day breeding a Cup winner. Road was her name, a daughter of Whiskey Road.
The Cup dream hasn’t yet been realised and, in keeping with most people’s experience of racing, there’s been plenty of heartbreak interspersed with the happy occasions when a number of Road’s offspring have saluted at the track. The mare died a while back but one of her daughters, the nine-time winner Spaceage Juliet, now 19 herself, is keeping the dream alive.
The friends called their syndicate ‘The Empire’ and their shared racing interest has in many ways provided the means to uphold strong bonds that stretch back more than four decades to primary school. The Empire has expanded over the years and, back in 2006, I was drawn in to its embrace.
Although it has become the norm to refer to racing as an industry, let’s not forget that it started as a sport. Many of us working in racing came to it first as a fan and later were fortunate enough to be able to turn it into a job. I also now live in a small racing stable and the success of the horses trained here by John means so much to us that I tend to go to the races filled with worry that something will go wrong. Sometimes it does, and sometimes that means that I enjoy racing a lot less than I used to. It has become a business, even if it started as, and remains in many ways, one of life’s unmatchable pleasures.
That’s part of the reason I have enjoyed the involvement with the Empire horses so much. We’re removed from them geographically and though we take great pride in being a very small part in their lives, watching them grow and eventually race, to a great extent they are someone else’s concern.
More than that, however, they are the stitches in the fabric that holds together a fantastic group of people with an age span of five decades, spread across Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai and England. Regular emails between us, which have evolved into what’s app messages, would always be signed off ‘GTE’ – Go The Empire.
John’s friendship with this group goes back farther than mine, to the days when he was pupil assistant to Luca Cumani in the 1980s and working alongside Joff Dumas, who eventually returned home to Australia but remains one of John's greatest friends. Joff is really the one who holds the whole thing together. He has the thankless task of being the syndicate manager, of collecting fees, of refereeing discussions over naming the horses and deciding which stallions to use, of delivering news from trainers and stud managers, both good and bad.
Joff, with his brother David, and old school friends Cameron Plant, Dan Happell, Patrick Stock and Mark Ritchie, formed the original core of the Empire which now runs to 18 members. Eighteen friends.
The most recent horse we raced together – unsuccessfully, sadly – was a grandson of Road, named Thousandmilesaway. All of the mare’s descendants have been named after songs by the Empire’s favourite band, The Hoodoo Gurus, and Thousandmilesaway seemed particularly appropriate given the geographical spread of the group.
In recent years, my work for TDN has taken me to many places around the world. Any trip to a major race meeting is a thrill but being away from home frequently can sometimes be a little disorientating. Fortunately, on travels to Melbourne, I know I’ll see my Empire friends. It’s an extraordinary feeling spending almost 24 hours flying to the other side of world and stepping off a plane to find yourself very much at home. That’s what their friendship has given me, along with a deep-rooted love for Australia.
Many of the Empire members have stayed with us in Newmarket over the years and the most frequent visitor among them was Cameron, whose work also caused him to be away from home often. For the last four years he’s been based in Dubai, meaning I could see him annually, at least, when at the World Cup meeting.
Cameron also took a share in a horse with us in Newmarket. Perhaps only an Australian could view a ‘short’ six-hour flight from Dubai to the UK as being perfectly feasible in planning to see the filly race.
In recent weeks, as the news around the world has united us all in a common fear, there have been several upbeat bulletins from Wangaratta to give the Empire a little lift in times of trouble. Adrian Corboy has been pre-training our two-year-old gelding by Puissance De Lune out of Spaceage Juliet and, in his own inimitable fashion, has relayed news that this one ‘might be alright’.
While we have all come to accept bad news on the equine front over the years, on Easter Sunday the news Joff had to deliver to us all was of an altogether more desperate kind. Cameron, more than halfway through a fortnight’s enforced quarantine in Melbourne after arriving home from Dubai, had taken his own life.
It is unbelievable even to have had to type those words. To think of the person that I only ever knew with a smile on his face to be gone just like that.
The dreadful new normal of all our lives in the last few months has been to switch on the television and hear of an ever-increasing death toll. The relentlessness of the bad news is almost numbing but, to many of us, there are no names and faces behind these numbers to make them seem real.
There is now a different reality to those of us who were lucky enough to call Cameron a friend. He didn’t die from coronavirus, of course, but it’s hard not to connect his demise to being isolated at a time of his life when he needed more than ever to be among people he loved and who loved him.
We’ll never know if the outcome would have been different without the pandemic constraining everyone’s lives. Perhaps not. But what I do know is that it has robbed us of the chance of spending any more happy days with him at the races.
Perhaps people will read this and think ‘there’s more to life than racing’, and of course there is. Much more. But what racing gives us is the chance to forge friendships with people from different parts of the world who we’d never have met otherwise. And it means that as race meeting after race meeting is cancelled in the pandemic’s wake we know that, for a while at least, we will miss not just the sport we love, but also those regular meetings with friends. At a picnic in the car park at Ascot, on the rail at the pre-parade ring at Newmarket to cast an eye over Classic hopefuls, in the bar afterwards to celebrate our winnings, cut our losses.
This loss, however, is one which will be keenly felt for years to come. The technology we all rely on these days means that we’re never really that far apart. From Dubai, Cameron kept a close eye on our runners in England and I knew that, without fail, he would be the one person to send me a message pre- and post-race on any day that my mare Hope Is High was running. He sent messages of support and solidarity when things didn’t go her way, and took as much pleasure in her winning as I did. And that’s one of the special aspects of a racing friendship – that shared joy in someone else’s success.
There will be more days in the sun for the Empire even if for now it feels as though darkness prevails. And when we are all able to meet again at the races, Cam will be with us still in heart and mind, his camaraderie and love of the game galloping on through every horse we are fortunate enough to share. GTE.