Driving Miss Andretti

Stephen Howell | December 1, 2007


Sean Buckley at home this week with daughters Kodi (left) and Shawna, and their second favourite horse, Bonny. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

THE question Sean Buckley asked when offered $10 million for Miss Andretti was: “How do you put a price on fun?”

It seems that fun, to the man who runs the UltraTune car service empire, is priceless because he held on to Australia’s racehorse of the year — the offer came after she won the King’s Stand Stakes in England in June — and is loving the ride she is giving him at home and abroad.

Next start is the Hong Kong International Sprint tomorrow week.

With the fun — since Buckley and partner Gabriella Guenzi bought 75 per cent of Miss Andretti from West Australian owner-trainer David Mueller in March last year and gave her to Lee Freedman to train — has come 10 wins from 13 starts and more than $2 million in prizemoney.

Add another $1 million-plus and the kudos that accompany a seventh group 1 success if she beats the Hong Kong quicks, Sacred Kingdom and Absolute Champion, at Sha Tin.

“I am lucky,” Buckley said, qualifying his success with revelations of what he spends on breeding, buying and racing horses, and of the failures and upsets that outnumber the wins.

Without qualification, the 47-year-old is lucky to be able to indulge his passion for horsepower, having switched from the V8s more in tune with his core business to thoroughbreds only a few years ago. On the wall of the gym in his luxury Malvern home are photos of his first Sydney winner, Incendia (October 2003), and the first in Melbourne, Desert Marauder (April 2004).

Miss Andretti came to Melbourne to conquer early last year, but was put on the market at $600,000 after two poor runs. Deal details are confidential, but simple maths means Buckley bought the bulk for about $450,000. “(Bloodstock agent) Greg Zarra talked me into it. He said, ‘Take the risk, Sean. It’ll win you a million.’ ”

Recently, Mueller said he thought he had the better end of the deal when it was made. Not now.

That’s the direct result. Indirectly, Buckley has found racing has opened business doors as he takes UltraTune into the Middle East, a venture he said would mean opening 100 stores in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and other countries in the next year and spending six months in the region.

“All my joint-venture partners, as soon as they knew I owned Miss Andretti, it opened doors,” he said, quoting an Egyptian banker he described as the equivalent of the head of Macquarie Bank as saying: “I know her. I watched her on TV. She’s a champion.”

Buckley said he had 208 UltraTune operations in Australia, would have 220 by June, with another 15 to be added over the next 12 months. “That should be about it,” he said.

He has capped his other business, UltraHair, at four clinics because stem-cell development flagged a change in the baldness business.

That crime boss Tony Mokbel used one of the clinics, on top of Buckley buying Mokbel’s farm at Kilmore to base his horse business, has meant unwanted front-page publicity has ridden alongside Miss Andretti this campaign.

Buckley’s brief comment on the alleged criminal links: “Upsetting. I knew it wasn’t true, but I wasn’t asked my opinion … I was told (by the authorities) I wasn’t being investigated or asked to give evidence.”

Evidence of Miss Andretti’s ability is on show each time she steps on the track, and Buckley is never short of words about her. “When I bought her, I thought we might win a Sangster or a Goodwood,” he said of autumn group 1 sprints in Adelaide.

Guenzi, a long-time horse lover, said the improvement was based on the mare, now a six-year-old, becoming stronger and bigger, as other Ihtiram horses have.

“I don’t know how a horse can improve nine lengths,” said Buckley, comparing the mighty Miss’ efforts against Takeover Target in the 2006 Newmarket at Flemington and in the 2007 King’s Stand at Ascot in England. “How the f—? I don’t know.

“It doesn’t always work. Blessed Sue (another West Australian purchase) went backwards. This particular horse, whatever he’s done, he’s got the secret.”

Freedman has taken good care of her, as he did the great stayer Makybe Diva.

At the presentation after The Age Classic last month, on the spot where the trainer had asked owner Tony Santic after Makybe Diva’s third Melbourne Cup win if he wanted to retire her, Freedman put the same question to Buckley. “No,” was the easy answer, supported by Guenzi, who said Miss Andretti was sound and “not a wuss”.

She bounced back brilliantly this spring from her failure in the Golden Jubilee Stakes on a wet track in England, when she swallowed her tongue — she now races with it tied — with two from two in Melbourne and a soft landing in Hong Kong on Monday.

If Miss Andretti races up to expectations next weekend, Buckley and Freedman have more travel in mind, the owner listing the Australia Stakes at Moonee Valley on February 16 as the next start after quarantine. After that, the choice is two Australian group 1 races — the Sangster in Adelaide and the T.J. Smith in Sydney — or an international sprint in Singapore in May. Then, another crack at the two English races in June. “I feel like we’ve got unfinished business,” Buckley said.

Already, studs are touting sires. Buckley said Coolmore wanted him to take Miss Andretti to the US from England to be mated in southern hemisphere time with its gun, Storm Cat, who stands at $US500,000. The deal offered is no charge for the service, with the progeny owned 65% by Buckley, 35% by Coolmore. A start in the rich sprint on Breeder’s Cup day would complete the trip, and her racing career.

Breeding is a big part of Buckley’s UltraThoroughbreds, and he said he had spent $15 million on stock in the past three years, at home and in South Africa.

He said he had 28 primary mares and another dozen secondary matrons he is “playing with for different reasons”, such as breeding stayers. There are mares, foals and racehorses in retirement at Baree (Kilmore) and “40 or 50” racehorses with Freedman, John Ledger, Gai Waterhouse and David Hayes.

Of course, Australia’s racehorse of the year is the favourite, excess baggage to bring home the 10-kilogram gold trophy after Monday’s awards night the source of much amusement, to Buckley and Joe Janiak, owner-trainer of another of Australia’s international sprint winners, Takeover Target. “That’s the price you pay,” Janiak told Buckley when he saw him at the airport.

Actually, it’s loose change in the overall investment and in making the business of racing fun. So much fun that Buckley said: “It’s easy to lie in bed at night time and do breeding analysis for Miss Andretti, rather than look for UltraTune sites.”