Great to sit alongside Clarry Conners at a Smithfield RSL “Men Of League” fundraising luncheon last week. The champion trainer told me two things of interest over lunch.
He said he had a horse engaged at Rosehill the following day, whose chances would be enhanced by further rain. Heavy rain fell through the night, and Conarchie saluted at $33.80, vindicating his trainer’s judgement.
Clarry also casually mentioned that he’s been training horses for just on fifty years, which will come as a surprise to many. I’d like to be the first to acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary, of a distinguished training career.
Young Clarence Edward Conners was completely hooked on racing, by the time he reached his mid-teens. He was a strapper and work rider for his Dad, trainer Clarry Conners Senior, who battled around with a couple of horses for most of the 1960’s.
Veteran Cessnock residents might remember racing’s “Steptoe And Son” occupying three old stables which backed onto the Town Hall building. “My late Dad was a survival expert”, recalls Clarry Jnr.” Our horses Fugitive and Jacquard occupied two of the boxes, and we slept in the other one on two old bunks”.
Clarry’s business acumen was evident in the Cessnock days. “I negotiated a very important deal with the Town Hall janitor who happened to be a keen gardener” said Clarry. “I bagged all of the horse manure for his garden, and he would forget to lock the Town Hall toilet door when he finished work”.
“Old” Clarry’s talents as a trainer were reflected in the fact that Fugitive won eight races, and Jacquard eleven, including one at Randick.
A lifetime of hard work, and a frugal existence for many years, did the veteran horseman little harm. He died just five years ago, at the remarkable age of 98.
When young Clarry opened his door as a public trainer in 1968, he did so with some trepidation. A little mare called Coney Princess was his never-to-be forgotten first winner at Kembla Grange, but the win rate after that was very sluggish. He battled away for quite a few years, with the odd handy horse keeping him afloat.
A chestnut colt called Victory Prince changed the course of Clarry’s career in 1984. He won only two races from eleven starts, but one of them was that elusive Group 1- the AJC Sires Produce Stakes with Tony Marney up.
I’d be very surprised if Imperial Prince isn’t Clarry’s all-time favourite stallion. The Irish horse sired Victory Prince, and he also produced the filly destined to catapult her trainer into the big time.
A daughter of the Boucher mare Outing, Research was a plain looking, ill-natured bay filly who was enormously talented, and inherently tough. Clarry owned a quarter share in the temperamental girl, and guided her to nine wins and seven placings for $1,880,000. Her four Group 1 victories included the AJC Derby of 1989, when she led throughout for Mick Dittman. “She not only consolidated my training career, but she funded the construction of the house we live in to this day”, said Clarry. She came along at exactly the right time, because the old fibro house was about to fall over”.
Clarry bounced off the Research era, with several nice horses, and a flurry of major wins. How fitting it was that a son of Victory Prince, should give him the first of his four Golden Slippers. It was a crazy, joyful, unforgettable thrill that brought Clarry to tears, as he spoke with Ken Callender on Nine’s Wide World Of Sports. His elation was short-lived.
Tierce returned a positive swab to the prohibited substance Lignocaine, and Clarry knew instantly how it happened. He’d been struggling to heal a cut in Tierce’s mouth, and was confident the old bottle of mouthwash he had in the cupboard, would do the job.
It almost did the job on Clarry and owner Richard Turnley, and it was a distraught trainer, who attended John Schreck’s office at Randwick, to learn his fate. Hefty as it was, the $10,000 fine came as a great relief and a lesson to all trainers.
One year later the pony sized filly Burst, finished like a flash to give the trainer his second Slipper win. It took him six years to win the third with Prowl in 1998, and then two years later, the wonderful filly Belle Du Jour gave Clarry his fourth Slipper, with arguably the most spectacular win in the 43 year history of the classic. Tierce and Burst went on to secure the “Grand Slam”, with wins in the Sires and Champagne Stakes.
Clarry had a fifth Slipper stolen from under his nose. When the chestnut colt Encounter loomed up to tackle Guineas 100 metres out in the 1997 edition, he looked to have it in the bag. Encounter suddenly veered out, before lunging again to miss by a nose. “Shane Dye said the colt caught sight of his whip, and took fright”, recalls Clarry ruefully.
And what of another Newhaven product, the ill conformed Arborea. Suspect forelegs kept her out of the sale ring, which proved to be a windfall for the Kelly family and Jack Ingham- 8 wins, $837,000 and a wonderful spring treble in 1993, the Thousand Guineas, Wakeful Stakes and VRC Oaks.
The lowest point of Clarry’s career came in the 1996/97 season. He was training an exciting three year old called Mouawad, who’d won seven out of eight, and was going into the Doncaster off a Group 1 treble. “He was a near certainty at the weights”, recalled the trainer.” On the Good Friday we discovered a tiny bubble on his off fore tendon, probably the result of a slight bump in his stable”, said Clarry.”It was a tiny area, and he was completely sound on it, but I knew it was enough to rule him out of the Group 1. The vets came, and immediately ordered his withdrawal. I was crushed, and so was jockey Grant Cooksley. He’s the best horse I ever trained, and Grant had no doubt he was the best he ever rode”.
Apart from the horses we’ve already profiled, several others have helped build Clarry’s impressive CV.
VRC Oaks (Dear Demi)
Magic Millions (Mirror Mirror)
AJC Oaks (Rose Archway)
J.J.Atkins (Apercu and Mossman)
Spring Champion Stakes (Viking Ruler)
QTC Oaks (Zagalia and Allow)
QLD Derby (Air Seattle)
Australian Guineas (Pins)
Flight Stakes (Only A Lady)
4 Group 2 wins (Staging).
He pays special tribute to Shane Dye and Mick Dittman, with whom he had very successful partnerships.
Clarry has long been on the end of light hearted banter, about his inclination to “switch jockeys”. It’s true that he was presented with a chocolate wheel, fringed by the names of several high profile jockeys of the 1990’s. That chocolate wheel is still on display in the office at Victory Lodge.
Clarry is the first to admit his career wouldn’t have been as bountiful, without the love and devotion of Maree, his wife of forty nine years. The couple have had the pleasure of watching sons Heath and Marc, become third generation trainers. Marc has been at Warwick Farm since he started, and runs a small, efficient operation. Heath fell in love with Victorian racing when he managed his father’s Melbourne stables some years ago, and is currently based at Geelong. “Both boys are keen and committed, and will do well if a few nice horses happen to wander into their stables”, says Clarry.
Conarchie’s win last Saturday (Sept 8th) took his trainer to some 1600 career wins, with 39 at Group 1 level, and another 52 at Gr 2, Gr 3 and Listed status.
The Clarry Conners story is well documented, and has been written by many authors in many different publications. But it seems the fiftieth anniversary of his remarkable training career, has gone largely unnoticed.
Many trainers can be a little testy on race days, and Clarry is no exception. On a bad day, it’s not a good idea to be shoving a microphone in his face. Get him away from the track, and all the associated pressures, and he’s a different bloke.
I’m very pleased I ran into him at last week’s charity function, and I was very interested to learn he had reached such a special milestone.
It’s great to have had the opportunity to pay tribute to a little battler who chased his dream, and made it happen. Congratulations Clarry!