DAVID Heffernan cannot resist the lure of the Gold Coast in January, annually jetting from one luxury playground to another.
But it is not merely the Gold Coast’s inherent and well-documented attractions that lure the Dubai-based company chief executive Heffernan across the globe each summer – it is the irresistible challenge and undeniable fun this expatriate Australian has each year in his quest to find a winner.
And we’re not talking about having a flutter – Heffernan is among a growing group of successful business people investing in beautiful baby racehorses in the hope they will reward their judgment with eventual victory on the racetrack.
Sooner rather than later, preferably, because the Gold Coast-based sale company Magic Millions has created a $5 million raceday for its sale graduates held a year later – at the Gold Coast, of course.
Just as some accomplished executives dream of lowering their golf handicap, the Heffernan’s of this world visualize leading in the winner of the $2-million Magic Millions Classic.
Working abroad for more than 12 years, Heffernan has developed and grown a highly successful water infrastructure and specialised engineering firm in the Middle East; he is the CEO of Septech Emirates.
But he would much rather talk horses, and his enthusiasm for his annual pilgrimage to Magic Millions is infectious.
The quest to find a racetrack star begins at Christmas with family at a thoroughbred property in the Yarra Valley in Victoria.
There, Heffernan begins poring over the Magic Millions catalogue, and between festive celebrations, debate rages over the merits of various yearlings.
Heffernan and his father Kevin, a long-time owner-breeder and former Melbourne Race Club committee member, his sister Carole, a trainer in her own right, and brother Danny make and re-make shortlists as they contemplate future triumphs on the turf.
“The rest of our ‘pre-sales training’ centres around travelling to the Gold Coast for New Year’s Eve, some sunshine and more festive celebrations before we get down to the hard work,” David says.
“I am still Australian at heart. I love going home and there is nothing better than combining this with family and friends at Magic Millions Horse sales,” he says.
“The breeding and racing business is always a highly social occasion and we all seem to kick off as if it was only yesterday since the last sale.”
David teams with highly-regarded bloodstock agents Hubie de Burgh and Mark Pilkington (themselves an unusual but effective combination of European reserve and straight-down-the-line Aussie) and accomplished, ever-affable trainer David Hayes to refine that all-important shortlist.
“They all have the uncanny ability to purchase incredibly talented colts and fillies at affordable prices,” Heffernan says.
The high-powered troupe with David Hayes at its helm makes Main Beach its “headquarters” as yearling shortlists are progressively and painstakingly pared down from hundreds to dozens.
“Hours are spent meticulously inspecting them, studying their pedigree and vetting them, only to chip this exciting list down to a selected few groups.
Armed with these highly-confidential documents, I set off with the team to discuss strategy, residual values, racing, breeding options – and the fun part for me, the famous ‘off-course meetings’ over lots of lunches at the old favourites,” Heffernan reveals.
Heffernan's success stories thus far include Husson Lighting, a $180,000 Magic Millions buy who was raced by David and his father Ken, along with several friends.
At his first start, Husson Lightning was runner-up to fellow Magic Millions graduate Murtajil in the Listed Breeders Plate at Randwick before capturing the Group 3 Maribyrnong Plate in slick time – despite, remarkably, colliding not once but twice with errant seagulls on the course – at Flemington at his second appearance.
The precocious juvenile was rapidly secured by the Holmes a Court family's historic Heytesbury Stud in Western Australia for stud duties this spring.
Another notable purchase is the Red Ransom colt All American. “A superstar in the making,” Heffernan enthuses.
Of course, it is not all furrowed brows and furious scribbling in catalogues – Heffernan has a vast repertoire of wonderful long lunches and boating trips with his thoroughbred pals.
“Every year, the Magic Millions team and Aushorse members extend their hospitality to all their buyers, ensuring we make the most of our trip and enjoy great Australian hospitality. I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” says David.
And this is the nub: the phenomenon that is Magic Millions has created a not-to-be-missed social experience combined with some serious money-making business.
At the sales days, one can dine in five-star style amid a tidal wave of white roses, crystal and linen while bidding on gleaming thoroughbreds who sashay like leggy models across the sale ring only metres away as a bidding board flashes figures in several currencies.
It is an alluring combination: sun, surf, sumptuousness – and the sport of kings.
As a consequence, Magic Millions and industry marketing body Aushorse have led the way growing international participation.
While big-spenders such as Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley racing and breeding operation and mining magnate Nathan Tinkler make headlines, Magic Millions has traditionally been a very happy hunting ground for those with more modest budgets.
Co-owner Gerry Harvey remains confident Magic Millions’ distinctive blend of entertainment and commerce will continue to prove a winner with international visitors, predicting future growth in the Asia Pacific and particularly China.
De Burgh is among those who believe Australia’s stature on the international racing stage will increase.
“Australia is an ideal place for Europeans to buy horses. You can buy European pedigrees by stallions people can relate to and at a discounted price," he said.
"Compared to Europe the cost of training in relation to the prize-money returns is so much more in favour of the Australian owner that to us in Europe. Buying in Australia makes so much sense that I am frankly surprised that more Europeans aren't buying horses here."
Melbourne-based Mark Pilkington, perhaps the most highly-respected agent in Australia, is among industry participants who have worked hard behind the scenes to encourage international participation. He is excited to see increasing diversity on the buying bench but believes there is scope for immense growth.
Pilkington also believes Magic Millions has set a new standard by making the business of buying horses a remarkably pleasurable experience.
"I think most international guests who can fit the sale into their calendar go home full of praise of the Magic Millions event as a whole," he says.
Heffernan agrees. “It is an incredible experience for owners like myself to get amongst the action with the stars of the industry and experience racing at its best, all at the Gold Coast,” he says.
“The Gold Coast has all the natural ingredients from a relaxed environment to attract owners, trainers, breeders and racing fans alike from all over Australia and overseas,” he says.
“I believe the sales, although highly successful to date, will grow in appeal and success as the years go on. I know I will be there.”
The BMW Magic Millions is part of Queensland Events' major event portfolio. For the full calendar of supported events visit www.queenslandevents.com.au.
For more information on the Magic Millions visit www.magicmillions.com.au
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