Verry Elleegant’s journey from triumph to tragedy: How a one in 1000 chance caused champion mare’s death

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Verry Elleegant’s journey from triumph to tragedy: How a one in 1000 chance caused champion mare’s death


One day on the way home from trackwork, the man who rode the best horse in Australia each day stopped in at the bottle-o to grab a six-pack.

He’d always considered himself a “drunk musician”, which belies his actual talent.

So, Chris Harwood picked up a stubby, his guitar and penned a tune to Verry Elleegant, perhaps the best racehorse on these shores since Winx.

How many horses are good enough to inspire someone to write a song about them?

This week, Verry Elleegant died during complications while giving birth on an Irish stud farm.

Her shock death has brought an outpouring of emotion – not least from champion trainer Chris Waller and jockey James McDonald – for one of the most talented and quirky racehorses of the modern era. Sadly, the foal also did not survive.

Verry Elleegant’s legacy on the track was immense: the 2020-21 Australian Horse of the Year; just shy of $15 million in prizemoney; a winner of 16 races from 1400 metres right up to the gruelling two miles of the Melbourne Cup; 11 victories at group 1 level, including that magical day at Flemington when she thrashed her rivals in the race that restarted the nation after some of the world’s harshest COVID lockdowns.

One of her senior part-owners, Brae Sokolski, was so convinced another horse he had a share in, raging hot favourite Incentivise, would be the Cup winner that he wore a tie made in his colours.

Instead, Sokolski ended up jumping the fence and running past Flemington security to celebrate with Verry Elleegant as she returned to scale – a move that earned him a $10,000 fine from stewards for breaking COVID-19 protocols.

So, how did she get from that magical moment to Sokolski receiving a phone call at night from the other side of the world to say she had died suddenly?

Why was Verry Elleegant in Europe?

Part of Verry Elleegant’s allure was her humble beginnings.

Her sire, Zed, was so unwanted almost a decade ago that he was serving Clydesdale hacks and mares on New Zealand’s south island. His service fee was once as low as $NZ500. Verry Elleegant’s dam, Opulence, was bought by her breeder for $14,000.

Verry Elleegant was such a handful as a young horse that her first trainer, New Zealand-based Nick Bishara, jokingly described her in 2021 as “quite a bitch and just a wild child”.

“She came to us broken in and we had to get her re-broken in again,” he says. “I’ve never had to do that with another horse in my career.”

Years later, the mare’s owners sent Verry Elleegant to Europe to finish her racing career, which included two runs in French races in August and September of 2022.

The goal was for her to run in one of the world’s most prestigious races, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but her two below-par lead-up runs led to her rating being controversially dropped by French authorities, and she wasn’t among the top 20 horses entered for the race.

Yet her owners decided to keep her in Europe to start her breeding career by visiting one of Europe’s top stallions, Sea The Stars, whose bloodline is considered so precious that it costs $330,000 to have a mare covered by him this year.

What happens to mares when they stop racing?

It’s commonplace in Australia’s billion-dollar horse-breeding industry for mares that have finished their racing days to start a new life as a mum.

It can be lucrative business by either selling or racing the progeny, and the better performed a horse has been on the track during her racing days, generally the more valuable her offspring is.

Mares are generally sent to a variety of stallions – depending on how deep an owner’s pockets are – by what is referred to as southern hemisphere or northern hemisphere time.

In Australia and New Zealand, the breeding season runs throughout spring, when mares are usually in season.

All mares are covered in that period and generally give birth the following year after a gestational period of about 11 months. Most foals are born after August 1, which is designated the horses’ birthday.

The process of picking out a stallion by analysing decades of bloodlines and previous matings can be a complex one, and it’s not uncommon for horses to be sent to a sire and continue to keep racing for a short period before retiring from the track.

In Europe, the official birthday for all horses is January 1 and the ideal time for breeding is when the weather to begins to get warmer in spring (March-May).

How unusual was Verry Elleegant’s death?

Sokolski said the foal was found to be in what veterinarians and breeders describe as a “dog-sitter” position.

In essence, the foal was presenting backwards, in a manner which wouldn’t allow it to come out of Verry Elleegant’s uterus via the traditional method of front feet and nose first.

“You’ve got a very large animal with a very large uterus and a lot of contractions going on,” respected veterinarian and horse buyer Dr Chris Lawler says. “It’s extremely difficult to try to turn these things around.”

But how rare is it to have a foal wanting to come out with its tail first?

“I would only be hazarding a guess; you might only find three in the Hunter Valley during the whole [breeding] season,” Lawler says. “It’s certainly greater than a 1000-1 chance that you would be faced with a dog sitter.”

How much would her progeny have been worth?

Roslyn Buerckner spots bids during the Magic Millions sales.Credit: Luke Marsden

If you want to find a cost of living crisis, don’t go to a horse sale.

Billionaire sheikhs and businesspeople battle it out with horse racing’s global breeding giants to buy and sell horse flesh every year at sales around Australia, most notably Gerry Harvey and Katie Page’s Gold Coast Magic Millions extravaganza and the Inglis Easter spectacular in Sydney.

The most successful sires have eye-watering service fees, led by the likes of the Hunter Valley’s I Am Invincible ($302,500), Zoustar ($220,000), Fastnet Rock ($110,000), So You Think ($99,000), Pierro ($82,500) and even a horse that made American racing history, Justify ($77,000).

They serve mares to help replenish the stock required for the racing industry. About 13,000 foals are born each year and registered with the industry’s official record keeper, the Australian Stud Book.

If Verry Elleegant was to safely deliver a foal and her owners wanted to sell it, they could have fetched a small fortune provided that it grew to an athletic yearling attractive to buyers.

“If it was a colt and if it was a reasonable type, you’re opening the bidding at $1 million,” Lawler says.

But not all owners want to breed with mares.

Given the ongoing trend of syndication companies putting together large groups of mum-and-dad horse owners who buy in with smaller investments, sometimes it’s easier to sell a mare when she finishes racing rather than get a consensus among dozens of people.

Champion racehorse Sunlight sold for $4.2 million when she finished her racing career, and Verry Elleegant might have been just as valuable.

John Messara is one of Australia’s greatest ever horse breeders.

John Messara is one of Australia’s greatest ever horse breeders.

Do champion racehorses make good broodmares?

If you think about the three best horses to have raced in Australia in the last two decades, not too many people would disagree that they are all mares: Makybe Diva, Black Caviar and Winx.

But there’s an old wive’s tale that fast horses on the track don’t produce fast progeny.

“Why is it? No one has given a rational scientific reason for it,” Arrowfield Stud boss and one of Australia’s best breeders, John Messara, says. “People say, ‘you can’t do it in both places. If you over extend them on the track, they can’t do it in the breeding barn’.

“But it’s a minute population we’re looking at.”

The evidence, albeit from a tiny sample size, is certainly compelling.

Makybe Diva has had 10 foals make it to the track and none have won a black-type race or even scaled $100,000 in career prizemoney. Black Caviar’s five foals to race have shown a little more promise but are yet to win a stakes event. Winx lost a foal after her first mating; her only living progeny is not old enough to race yet and will be sold in April.

Given the events of the past week, that little filly might be even more valuable than you think.

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