This is the week that Lloyd Williams waits for all year.
While Williams’ $840 million fortune might be built on property development and a canny investment strategy, it is the challenge of winning a Melbourne Cup that drives Williams these days. “It’s 100% of my life at the moment,” he told BRW in May.
Williams has already won the Melbourne Cup on three occasions: with Just a Dash in 1981, with What A Nuisance in 1985 and with Efficient in 2007. But the hunger for another victory never goes away.
“When you’ve had as many horses as I have and been in it for as long as I have, and you’re in the last quarter of your life, you want to win the Melbourne Cup again,” he said a few years ago. “So you keep trying.”
Trying doesn’t quite cover Lloyd Williams’ approach to winning Australia’s most famous race. For the past decade, Williams has created the sort of racing business not seen before in this country, using principles borrowed from his long business career.
“The critics said you can’t apply business principles to racing, but I think you can,” he said earlier this year. “I’ve turned this into a well-oiled operation business that has a product — successful racehorses and stallions.”
Today Williams will have one runner in the Cup — At First Sight — suggesting his strategy appears to paying dividends.
While Williams has long been obsessed with winning the Melbourne Cup, his quest to turn his hobby into a business started in 2007 when he paid $5.5 million for Macedon Lodge, a training and breeding property outside of Melbourne.
The 121.4-hectare3 property — which includes 8000 metres of private training tracks and a 75-metre pool for horses — has become the centre of the business. More than 150 horses are trained on the property by Williams’ private trainer, Robert Hickmont.
Williams’ son, Nick, is the racing manager of Hudson Conway Racing and is also in charge of selling off the horses that don’t make the grade.
One of the key planks of the Williams operation is trading. Much like the way that a fund manager will dump those stocks that haven’t performed, Williams holds dispersal sales twice a year to sell horses that aren’t good enough to win a Melbourne Cup or a Cox Plate.
(Many of these horses go on to bigger and better things. A former Williams horse called Subscribe was sold to interests in Hong Kong, renamed Vengeance of Rain and went on to win $7.5 million in prize money.)
The proceeds of these sales are then reinvested in more racing stock. In the past two years, it is estimated that Williams has spent about $20 million buying horses from Europe, where the quality of horses that can “stay” in long-distances races such as the Melbourne Cup is much higher than in Australia. His cups contender Midas Touch was bred in Britain, while other stayers At First Sight, Green Moon and Mourayan (scratched today from the Cup field) were all bred in Ireland.
Judging whether Hudson Conway Racing is profitable is not easy, but it is hard to deny that Williams gets results in what can be a fickle sport. Last season, he had 311 starters for 61.5 wins (including a dead heat) and a strike rate of 19.61%.
Williams’ army of horses, all of which will carry the famous Williams navy and white colours, won $3.1 million last season and have already won $1.4 million this season. First prize in the Melbourne Cup is $3.3 million, which will clearly boost the coffers of Williams’ racing operations.But he’ll have a fight on his hands to capture the prize, with fellow rich list member Gerry Ryan entering the race with two great chances. Like Williams, Ryan is a long-time horse lover and through his caravan business Jayco has been a fixture as an owner and sponsor. He’s had some good horses in the past, but it was his decision to invest in a French stayer called Americain (in partnership with co-owner Kevin Bamford) that gave Ryan his biggest thrill in racing.
The stallion stormed home to win the 2010 Melbourne Cup, after collecting the Geelong Cup the month before. And despite appearing to be in poor form just a few months ago, Americain is now favourite for the 2011 Melbourne Cup after a brilliant win in the Moonee Valley Cup.
But Americain’s greatest danger could come from within Ryan’s own stable. He is also a co-owner of Jukebox Jury, a horse that arguably boasts better European form than Americain, but has not had a run in Australia in preparation for the Cup. But if the race becomes a war between the two horses, Ryan and Bamford know whose side they will be on.
“We will be barracking for Americain,” Bamford said last week. “It takes a good horse to win the Melbourne Cup — it takes a champion to win it twice.”
The handicap conditions of the Melbourne Cup mean it is always an open race and there are several other runners with wealthy connections that are worth watching. English horse Modun is raced by the Godolphin stable, which is owned by billionaire Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. The Sheikh wants desperately to win the Cup and bought this horse with the race in mind.
Red Cadeaux is another English horse that is owned by Ronald Arculli, a prominent barrister in Hong Kong and England. Arculli is also chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. And Moyenne Corniche, yet another British horse, is owned by Dan Gilbert, a 32-year-old professional punter. He told The Guardian recently that despite nearly going “skint” a few times, he appears to have hit upon the right formula. “I always thought if you really can crack this game, you only need to be making a few percent to be winning a fair amount of money. If I can keep it going like this for the next 10 years, I’ll be happy.”
German horse Illo is being trained for the Cup by Bart Cummings. Australian-born, British-based fund manager Richard Pegum is a part owner.
How should punters assess the form of the horses from these wealthy owners? Americain looks hardest to beat, while Lloyd Williams’ best chance may well be At First Sight, who looks to be running into form at the right time. But Gerry Ryan’s Jukebox Jury is definitely the horse that could surprise.
*This article was originally published at Smart Company