Mark Minervini has saddled up a handful of Group runners in a career not yet three decades old. He’s familiar with the butterflies that most trainers experience when they have a runner at the elite level.
But it’s doubtful that Mark has ever been more nervous than he was as Calipari moved into the gates for a 900m Maiden scamper at Newcastle on Saturday. Not only was this to be his first ever NSW runner, it was also the start of a whole new phase of his training career.
Moving house is a traumatic experience at the best of times. It’s not hard to imagine the emotional upheaval associated with moving an entire training operation from South Australia, to the toughest racing arena in the nation.
Mark secured Calipari late last year on the Inglis Digital On Line Auction for $42,500. The son of Written Tycoon had been a $270,000 yearling purchase for the China Horse Club, who were reluctant to retain him once it became obvious he needed to be gelded.
Team Snowden tried him as a colt in three juvenile races for a second at Newcastle and two unplaced efforts. “The China Horse Club are constantly on the lookout for potential stallions and are not in the business of keeping geldings”, explained Mark. “This is the only way my clients can obtain horses by top sires from fashionable families”.
Minervini didn’t produce Calipari until December of last year. The three year old was placed twice at Morphettville, but his new trainer suspected he wasn’t on his game. “The vets discovered some minor knee issues, largely attributable to immaturity and I made the call to put him away for an extended spell” said Mark.
Calipari was one of nine Minervini horses to be shipped to Newcastle a few weeks ago. The gelding was stepping out for the first time in eight months when he contested a Newcastle barrier trial on August 19th and set the tongues wagging with a 7 length win.
By the time Mark and his wife Michelle found a TV monitor in the Newcastle betting ring on Saturday, somebody had backed Sangria very heavily. “That dimmed my confidence a little, but I felt a bit better when Sangria came out of the gates looking as though he was going to buck”, said Mark. “I wasn’t too upset when Chad Lever had to ease him out of the race”.
As it turned out Sangria would have had a job to beat Calipari had he jumped cleanly. The long striding son of Written Tycoon was never in doubt and cruised to an easy win for in form jockey Aaron Bullock.
Calipari isn’t Mark’s only success story from the Inglis Digital On Line Auction. In December of last year he snared West Australian mare Mica Lil for $20,000 on behalf of a large group of Adelaide owners. The daughter of Testa Rossa won just over $100,000 and was Group 1 placed, before making $220,000 at a broodmare sale recently.
Another Inglis Digital purchase for Minervini is the royally bred Super - a son of Snitzel from Weekend Hussler’s sister Good Weekend. “He was such an uncontrollable colt that the Snowden’s didn’t race him at all”, recalled Mark. “We got him for $22,500. He came off the truck in Adelaide screaming and squealing and stamping the ground. He went straight to the vet clinic”.
Mark has had a few niggling issues with Super and to date he’s had only a handful of starts. He was an easy winner in a Balaklava Maiden and followed that with a good second at Morphettville after which the trainer decided to test him in better company. “We slipped him to Melbourne for a BM64 at Caulfield and got Damian Oliver to ride him”, said Mark. “He ran second beaten only a short head after being held up for clear running in the straight”.
Super was one of the first shipment of horses to Newcastle and trialled pleasingly on the Beaumont track August 19th.
Mark Minervini blames a certain horse for his addiction to the racing game. He was working for the late Brian Murphy in the late 1980’s when a compact chestnut colt by Durham Ranger started to show unexpected ability.
Named Durbridge, he was destined to race seventy two times for twenty one wins and fifteen placings for $3.4 million in prize money. He won six Group 1’s, eight Group 2’s and one Group 3. “He was the most magnificent horse in every aspect”, recalled Mark. “Great conformation, wonderful temperament and the most beautiful golden coat. There’s no doubt he was the horse to influence my future”.
Like most trainers Mark Minervini has never had the good fortune to train a horse like Durbridge, but he’s had a few handy ones through the stable.
His all-time favourite is the bonny mare Vormista who, in just seventeen starts won four times and was placed in another six races for $468,000.
Mark bought her on spec for $130,000 at a Melbourne Premier Yearling sale. The daughter of Testa Rossa was snapped up by loyal stable clients Jeff Halsall, Brent Cannon and Paul Inlander.
She won a race at Group 2 level, and ran second in three high profile Group 1 sprints (BTC Cup, Manikato Stakes and Australia Stakes). Vormista had to be retired when she sustained a hairline fracture in a hind leg.
Other consistent winners for the Mark Minervini Adelaide stable were Mr. Sands, Go The Knuckle, Sure Bet, Linbird, Hanabananah, Red Labelle, In The Mist and General.
The decision to move to Newcastle was a life changing one for Mark and Michelle Minervini. They leave son Adam (29) and daughter Nicolle (25) behind in Adelaide, but hope to see them from time to time in their adopted home town.
The decision was motivated by the South Australian prize money deficiency. Despite a recent injection of funds, the stakes levels are such that owners are reluctant to invest in horses. “I’m now fifty three years old and probably have only a decade ahead of me as a commercial horse trainer”, said Mark over the weekend. “I had no option but to move to the East”.
The trainer was understandably nervous about informing owners of his plans. “I expected a sizeable defection but that wasn’t the case”, explained Mark. “Many of my owners don’t come to the track in Adelaide preferring to stay home and watch Sky Racing. It makes little difference where their horses race. Most said they’d rather be racing for the bigger prize money in NSW”.
The Newcastle Jockey Club made the transition much easier for the South Australian horseman. “I can’t begin to tell you how welcoming the Committee has been”, said Minervini. “They’ve given me twelve boxes initially with another eight becoming available shortly. My neighbours are Kris Lees and Paul Perry so I’m in top company”.
There are six two year olds among the remaining eight horses yet to arrive from South Australia. “There are some lovely youngsters in the group and I’m looking forward to working with them”, he said.
Mark’s acutely aware of the strategic location of his Newcastle training base. “Depending on the class of your horse, you’ve got the pick of several Hunter and Mid North Coast meetings, and a fast freeway to Sydney if the right horse comes along”.
Last Saturday Mark saddled only Calipari at Newcastle. Next Sunday, the first day of Spring, he’ll have three Wyong runners Super, Martinique and Bravio - one third of his current team.
As for the promising Calipari, it’s a seven day paddock break and then he’ll be aimed at a Class 2 (900m) at Newcastle on the second day of the Gold Cup carnival.
Mark Minervini’s feet haven’t touched the ground for several frantically busy weeks. He has absolutely no misgivings about the gigantic leap he’s taken.
You’ve only got to study Mark’s website and observe his attention to communication to realise NSW has gained a very professional trainer.
In researching his background, one common thread is evident. With immature horses and horses with niggling problems you’ll find he possesses great patience.
I once asked Bart Cummings to nominate the single most important attribute an aspiring trainer should have. “That’s easy son, patience is by far and away the most vital component of horse training”, replied the maestro.
Remember the incomparable Bart Cummings also came from Adelaide. When it comes to horsemen there’s something about that place.