Cameron Crockett didn’t know where he was, in those first surreal moments after Ori On Fire had flashed past the post to win the TAB Highway on Saturday.
He refused to believe it had happened, until he saw the magical “number 2” flash onto the semaphore. He was quickly surrounded by excited connections and well-wishers, but his thoughts were focused on the silent mobile phone in his coat pocket.
From the day Cameron had his very first runner as a trainer, he would talk to his father immediately after the race. If Max happened to be at the same meeting, he would see his son within minutes. If he wasn’t in attendance, he’d ring Cameron as soon as the horses went past the post.
“Sometimes his call would come at an awkward moment”, recalled the young trainer. “I may have been talking to owners, or needing a few moments to collect my thoughts after a race. But on Saturday, I would have given anything to have him share my excitement after training my first winner at Royal Randwick”.
The racing world was saddened by the passing of Max Crockett on November 25th, 2018, aged 74. He had led a frantically busy life as a yearling breaker, firstly at Randwick where he was patronised by many leading trainers. Later he accepted an offer to move to Mudgee as breaker for the famous Gooree Park operation. “He was totally dedicated to his craft, and the well-being of his horses around the clock”, said Cameron. “My sister Yasmin and I saw so little of him as we were growing up, that I started to blame the horses for keeping him away from us”.
Cameron says he had little time for horses until his mid-teens, when an amazing transformation took place. His school required him to do some work experience. For the sake of convenience he arranged to help out early mornings at Mudgee racecourse, where Max was training a few horses before reporting for duty at Gooree Park. The genetic forces quickly took over and young Crockett finally realised why his “old man” liked horses so much.
He went to work for Gooree Park, and under the tutorship of Max and the renowned horseman Harry Meyer, he went ahead in leaps and bounds. Being taught by Max Crockett had its drawbacks. “He would tell me to do something with a horse and I couldn’t always grasp what he meant”, said Cam. “My father was born with a special gift and he could somehow just make it happen. I tried to explain that I wasn’t Max Crockett and things could get a little strained at times”.
Late in 2012 the young man’s life took a sudden and unexpected turn. Harry Meyer died in mid-December and just a few weeks later Cameron suffered a broken femur when a yearling reared over backwards and landed on top of him. “With Harry gone and me out of action for an indefinite period, poor old Dad had to carry the workload alone”, said young Crockett. “It was during this period that the first signs of his health issues surfaced”.
By the time Cameron was ready to resume work he realised his passion for horse breaking had waned. Max was also aware that failing health would prevent his returning to the rigours of breaking yearlings. They jointly tendered their resignations from Gooree Park and a wonderfully successful association came to an end.
The Crocketts set up independent training operations at Mudgee and got on with the job of winning races. Cameron would have you believe, that a little bit of rivalry existed as it does in many family horse training situations.
Cam had been hobby training a horse called Are You Sure for quite some time before his accident and continued in a supervisory capacity during rehabilitation. Max Crockett had him in work initially, but thought he lacked the constitution to handle a serious preparation. “There was something about him I liked and asked if I could lease him to race with my wife Elizabeth and Des and Carol Kennedy”, recalled Cameron.
At the time of his retirement, Are You Sure had won nine races including the Wellington and Coonabarabran Cups and a restricted race at Canterbury - Cameron’s first city win.
The young trainer suffered three major disappointments very early in his career, which today wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Setback number one, he got a horse called Servimoss which came to him with ordinary form, but quickly registered two wins and three placings from only six starts. Cameron believed the gelding could win in town, and put him away for a break before planning a metropolitan campaign. He never saw Servimoss again. “The horse turned up in the David Vandyke stables at Warwick Farm, and won a couple of races including one at Hawkesbury”, said Cameron. “It hurt at the time, but I now realise these things happen to everybody and you have to move on”.
Cameron was very attached to a mare called Shatavari, which he believes is the fastest horse he’s had to date. “Just when I thought she was going to make a quantum leap, she bled from both nostrils, and that was the end of that”, lamented the trainer.
Another setback involved a horse called Socks The Fox, who raced as a stallion for most of his career. “I felt he was very talented, but needed to be gelded if he were to realise his full potential”, said Cameron. “The owner agreed to the procedure very belatedly, and then the horse hurt himself in a paddock accident. He was never the same again”.
Sharpe Hussler and Nictock have been very solid performers for the stable. The former won three races including a BM 79 at Rosehill - Cameron’s first metro Saturday winner. He hasn’t raced since finishing a very respectable seventh (5 lens) in the Kosciuszko last October.
The lightly raced Nictock has won seven from seventeen and put together three metro wins on the trot in mid-2017, while Artistic Beauty has won several races for the stable, including the Gilgandra Cup.
Cameron tells a good story about two of his best horses, illustrating the glorious uncertainty of the racing game. He joined an army of bargain hunters at the 2015 Inglis Scone yearling sale, with a couple of Benfica colts on his shopping list. The colt later known as Barbass, was a big overgrown yearling who looked like he’d take forever to get going. The colt later called Ori On Fire, was neat and compact, and looked a ready-made two year old. Barbass was knocked down to Cameron for $4,000, while Ori On Fire made $27,000.
Cameron and his owners were in for a rude shock! The big, gangly $4,000 yearling was at the races exactly one year later, and won the $104,000 Inglis 2YO Challenge with Blake Shinn up. He was then just pipped by Skylight Glow over 1400 metres at Randwick, after which connections decided to take him to Brisbane for the Gr 1 J.J. Atkins. With Damien Oliver in the saddle he raced as “flat as a biscuit”, and was beaten out of sight. “There’s no doubt I made a bad blue in going to the Gr 1”, said Cameron. “It’s a totally different level, and he was run off his feet. I believe it gutted him, and he hasn’t been the same horse since. He had a trial recently after a very long break, and we’ll just take our time with him”.
Ori On Fire, (the one that looked like a natural two year old), took forever to hit his straps. It was twenty months after the sale before he had a race start, and he appears to be just coming to hand as a five year old. He’s been patiently handled by young Crockett, with only fifteen starts under his belt for four wins and five placings.
Cameron was pleasantly surprised when he received a phone call from Darby Racing founder Scott Darby a couple of years ago. Scott informed Crockett that the company was looking for a country based trainer and would like to send him three horses. “Do you think I could win a race with any of those three horses”, lamented Cameron. “I tried everything under the sun, and I couldn’t get one of them over the line. I was resigned to never getting another Darby Racing horse to train”.
Scott Darby understands racing and its vagaries better than most and has continued to send horses to the Crockett stable. Only last Sunday, Regal Cannon was a winner at Orange in the distinctive Darby Racing colours, and Cameron has won several races with Meraki Miss and Reprimand in recent times.
At thirty two years of age, Cameron Crockett has all the attributes of an emerging top trainer. He’s prepared to try different things and works hard at keeping horses “switched on”. He and his young family live on a small property on the outskirts of Mudgee, which was formerly used as a training base by Tracy Bartley. His horses are based at the Mudgee racecourse, but he’ll very quickly ship a horse out to the property for a “freshen up”, when required.
Cameron’s wife Elizabeth has had no connection with horses, but is happy to lead the pony around when one of their three children requests a ride. “Our eldest daughter Grace (5) shows no interest in horses, but Oliver (3) is crazy about them “, says Cameron. “I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t go right on with it. It’s far too early to tell which way baby Theo (10 months) will go”.
The young trainer has twenty eight horses in work currently and sings the praises of the team behind him. “Amy Spry and Hannah Bekker Olden ride most of my work and are both outstanding in the role”, says the trainer. “Jack Fraser breaks in all of my young ones and does an expert job. My ground staff Jeff Perry, Jordan Westrip and Emily Henry all do a super job, while my racing manager, Michael Keane, has been very active in helping me grow our business”.
As far as jockeys are concerned, Cameron has had great support from Matthew Cahill. The Cowra based jockey has been among the upper echelon of country jockeys for many years and more than holds his own whenever he comes to town. “If I take five horses to a meeting, he’s happy to ride all five, even if a couple have no hope. It’s hard to find that kind of loyalty”, said Crockett.
Jake Pracey-Holmes has won his share of races for the stable and is happy to jump on a couple in trackwork whenever required.
Cameron reserves a special mention for the two most important women in his life. “My wife Elizabeth has supported me in everything I’ve ever attempted, and continues to do so. My wonderful mother Cheryl, has done more for me than she will ever know”, says a very grateful young horseman.
Cameron’s memories of his amazing father are indelible ones and will stay with him for the rest of his life. Max hadn’t been overly generous with his compliments over the years, but he surprised his son with a profound statement in April of this year. Cameron had trained winning doubles on consecutive days at Dubbo and Coonabarabran, but wasn’t expecting too much in the way of praise. Imagine his feelings when Max walked over to him at trackwork the following morning, and quietly offered the following comment. “Cameron you’re a better horse trainer than I’ve ever been”.
I hope Max knew in his heart of hearts, just how much that compliment meant to the son who worshipped him.