By Stephen Moran

Why wouldn't you race a horse with Tony Noonan? It's hard to imagine any trainer could provide you with a better all-round experience in the sport of kings.

The self taught Mornington-based horseman has not only prepared numerous top class horses including Ortensia, Bionic Bess, Varenna Miss, Show No Emotion and Piavonic (the Group 1 conqueror of Sunline) but has also groomed champion jockey Nash Rawiller and nurtured the career of his son Jake - one of Victoria's most promising young riders.

But, perhaps even more importantly, it's what happens off the track which makes Tony Noonan Racing so impressive. It's inclusive. As an owner, you're made feel part of the team with the personable trainer ensuring communications are a priority and that clients are regularly invited to lunches, stable visits and grand trips right around the racing world.

Trust me, you'll become part of the family.....even if that means you might be sometimes leaving your own to cheer home a winner at Flemington or breathe in the crisp dawn air in Mornington or joining the stable on trips to Royal Ascot or Hong Kong.

Dean Grass is no stranger to the rigours of working with the thoroughbred.

One of Victoria's most respected horsemen, Grass has spent his life devoted to these magnificent creatures and over the best part of 30 years fine-tuned his skills as a breaker, pre-trainer, and trainer in his own right.

Initially focusing on breaking-in horses for the equestrian arena as a young man, Grass received his first taste of the racing industry when he was given a group of yearlings to work with for a local trainer.

"I initially was just breaking-in equestrian horses, then I was contacted and asked to break-in a group of prospective racehorses so that's when I first started really considering moving full time into racing," Grass said.

"Obviously I thought it was a worthwhile direction to head in, and I'm very glad I did."

After attaining his trainers license at age 30, Grass went about transforming his business into one that focused purely on breaking-in, pre-training, and training racehorses.

"I really do enjoy the breaking and pre-training so that became our main activity, the actual training itself isn't something I thought I was going really get into," Grass said.

"It's true that you need to train a few to keep your license, but once I started it I discovered I really had a great time doing it, it's a nice little add on to the business."

With an all-systems-go lifestyle emanating from his 50 acre property in Garfield, Grass hopes to maintain a manageable number of horses through his stable in order to maintain the high level of service that his clients have come to expect.

"I want to keep things manageable, I don't want it getting too big, we considered it but it didn't seem the right option for us," Grass said.

"Hopefully we can continue to maintain a great service with the breaking-in and pre-training, when it comes to the racing, I'm looking to hopefully move into buying yearlings and prepping them up for the ready-to-run sales,"

"I'll still race a handful, but it's an area I would really like to move into."

The manner in which Grass conducts himself when it comes to his clients and his horses is second-to-none; a trait that has the team at KniGGhts under no illusion that this successful racing operation will continue to grow from strength-to-strength over the coming years.

"KniGGhts has been great for us, it takes the hassle and strain on working relationships away from interactions with clients, and allows us to focus on what we do best," Grass said.

"I never have to stress about chasing money, because I know Luke and the team are prepared to do the stressing for me!"

By Tom Gilmore

Astute Cranbourne-based trainer and kniGGhts client Stephen Theodore wasn't always going to pursue a career in racing, despite being the son of highly respected horseman, Les Theodore.

At age 10, the now accomplished and highly successful Theodore was terrified of horses, and at 550kg and able to run at speeds of 60km/h many wouldn't blame him.

So, instead of showing a liking to the "hands-on" side of the thoroughbred training, Theodore quickly built interest and a healthy respect for the punt.

"I was so shit-frightened of them, they were a big strong animal and just intimidating to a young bloke," Theodore said.

"I really wasn't interested in them at all except for the punt, which I know at age 10 might possibly be frowned upon, but when you are born into the industry you are raised with a Quaddie ticket in hand."

As he progressed into his teenage years, Theodore started to garner a greater interest in the behind-the-scenes working of his fathers operation. With no signs of a possible career as a brain surgeon on the horizon, a move into beginning life in the stables seemed an obvious one.

"It was probably at age 16 that my Dad and Mum realised I wasn't going to be a Rocket Scientist or a jockey.....so a path to becoming a horse trainer started to really firm in the market, purely because I had to do something and I would have a great teacher in Dad," Theodore said.

"It was always going to be something I would eventually do I think, it just took some time, when I turned 17 I started to really get into it."

From there, Theodore never looked back and has now been training in his own right for the last eleven years.

A small operation to begin with, where tried and troublesome horses would fill a majority of the charismatic horseman's boxes, Theodore over the last three years has expanded his business into one of the most exciting training organisations in Victoria.

That progression didn't just happen organically.

Knowing he had to begin to source quality yearlings from Australia's premier thoroughbred sales to compete at the highest level, Theodore took a calculated risk with the backing of some loyal owners.

"The first eight years we had were fantastic, it seemed every tried horse that came into the stables we were able to turn around and regroup its form," Theodore said.

"We sought of got labelled with that tag of focusing purely on recycled horses, which was frustrating because you can only go so far with that type of horse,

"Three years ago we decided to try and transform that stereotype, I got heavily involved in buying yearlings, I have gone from buying one or two yearlings to this year purchasing a massive 17 yearlings."

With that natural progression and some clever business decisions, the skills Theodore possess as a trainer have been thrust into the spotlight and with the amount of success had to date, one can safely assume that there appears to be no ceiling on what can be achieved for this impressive stable.

By Tom Gilmore

The wife of a racehorse trainer is a pretty glamorous one, right?

Wrong, just ask Mel Sell, partner of Kyneton-based trainer Mick Sell.

The mother of three and all-round utility in the Mick Sell Racing training operation has been there since day dot, when the thought of training horses under their own banner was somewhat of a pipedream.

"We have had our full training license for six years now, but we have been pre-training and breaking in for years before that," Sell said.

"Mick also used to ride work for plenty of the big training names, I also used to ride work and that's how we met, I came across him down at David Moodies farm and really the best way to put it from there was that I started to help him out and never ended up going home."

It was only after one of the Sells' best clients, Bob Wiltshire, handed them the keys to the campaign of Stately Dash that the thought of taking out a training licence became a reality.

"Bob basically said we had no choice, so Mick went out and got his licence and we started up from there," Sell said.

"We were still pre-training and breaking-in for the likes of Lloyd Williams, but we were mainly known for re-educating horses with bad manners when we decided to head out on our own."

From those very humble beginnings, Mick & Mell have built up a highly respected business which now has 15-20 horses in full training at the one time.

With so much going on, its amazing that Mel finds time to juggle stable life with that of a growing young family.

"They keep me busy, I reckon my youngest has a goal to put me into a mental institution by years end," Sell said.

"I have a great friend that pops in and looks after the kids occasionally if I really need it, but other than that, I'd call it unorganised chaos around here,

"I'll be on the phone to owners and trying to keep the kids from killing each other at the same time."

Mells commitment to the business and her owners can be explained in no better way than on one particular afternoon when the races were on at Flemington.

She was pregnant at the time and had broken her waters 30 minutes before the race, after planning to watch it on the couch at home when youngest daughter Louise decided it was time to make her appearance. Right there is the back seat of the car. On the highway.

"I was meant to watch it on the couch but I told my friend that we had to get moving," Sell said.

"So I grabbed my phone, put the Racing Network on and watched it live in the car on the way to hospital, there was no way I was going to miss it,

"After the race and not far away from the hospital I told my friend to stop the car because the baby was coming, and that's what happened,

"I called Mick and told him not to stress and that she was a healthy baby girl, so he stopped the float he was driving home and decided to hoof it through the Bulla Road exit, my dad picked him up on the other side and they met us at the hospital, alls well that ends well."

It's a dedication to their owners and horses that see clients of kniGGhts, like Mick and Mell Sell, shine in all areas of the racing industry.

What comes first? The chicken or the egg? The yearling or the owner?

My relationship with my clients is almost always personable. KniGGhts has a job to and our clients rely on us to do what we are paid to. However this doesn't normally stop me from being able to enjoy the company of our clients on both a social level as well as professional.

Quite often kniGGhts clients become friends. We chat about many things that are unrelated to their businesses. Catch ups to discuss debtors and creditors often morph into social gatherings that have been known to end late in the evening amid much revelry and excessive consumption of refreshments.

Despite these friendships, my mobile gets red lighted at sales time more often than not. For many trainers, sales time spurns ambition. It's a chance for trainers to replenish their stocks and this always fuels hope. Hope is the air upon which the racing industry breathes to survive. For trainers, sales time is not normally a period where conservatism pervades their consciousness. Trainers buy the yearlings they think will turn into the racehorses that can take them to the next level. Most of the time, having an owner ready to take on the cost of these expensive yearlings is simply an added bonus.

If I'm being fair I can see why my clients avoid avoid me. The conversation normally goes like this –

Me – "Gee that filly you just bought is beautifully bred. I guess that's to be expected when you pay $250k for a filly. Who have you got lined up to take her?"

Trainer –  "Nobody yet. Go away".

In an instant I've created a situation where the trainer's excitement is dulled somewhat by my intrusive attempt to bring logical assessment to their purchase.

After the filly has been purchased, this exact same situation is looked at completely differently by our client and by me. The trainer looks at their new purchase and envisages being interviewed by Bruce Clarke after winning the Golden Slipper. Bruce will be waxing lyrical about how clever they were to pick out such a champion filly at the sales. All I can see is bills. The sales invoice, the float home, the scope, insurance, the breaking in bill, the agistment after that. I can see them now as I write this. Even thinking about it makes my stomach queasy. I keep waiting for the notification where my client calls me with information about which owner I can forward these costs on to.

In truth this whole situation only fills me with more admiration for my clients. Even though my concerns permeate our conversations and I know I annoy my clients at this time of year. The facts are that if they don't get new stock they will certainly go backwards. New owners aren't always ready to go so these trainers are forced to buy horses that cost more than their houses in the hope that owners will emerge once the horse has been secured. It's a strange existence. It's a lifestyle that requires bravery. The rewards can be life changing. So too can the failure. If a milk bar owner gets stuck with 20 litres of milk that he can't sell he goes home, kicks the cat and lives to fight another day. If a trainer specs a yearling and gets stuck with it and that yearling turns out to be no faster than the kicked cat, the fallout can be disastrous.

It's a tough way to live.

Luke Jervis

Managing Director - kniGGhts

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