The trainer who’s learning to fly on the way to the Golden Slipper

For Annabel Neasham, learning to fly is a good way to describe her fledgling career as a racehorse trainer. It’s also the name of the filly she hopes will bring a “first major” with victory in the $5 million Golden Slipper on Saturday. The English expat only took out a trainer’s license in August 2020, but has already won eight group one races and caught the eye of global players like Coolmore – the breeding giant that owns Learning to Fly.

Neasham was an accomplished equestrian rider in England and originally wanted to emulate famous British jumps trainer Henrietta Knight. However, a working holiday in 2016 changed that. “I just wanted to come and get experience out here,” said Neasham on Friday. “I never planned to become a trainer out here, it’s just the way things happened.

“I soon identified how much opportunity there was out here. So I just got my head down, worked hard and more and more doors opened.”

Her first job was in Sydney with the first lady of racing, Gai Waterhouse, and Neasham said it taught her a valuable lesson. “Gai’s so successful, but her biggest thing is just working hard ... she takes it to another level.

“Yes, everyone works hard to some degree, but some people work harder than others. And I think those that work the hardest, probably get the luckiest. The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Neasham says she has “always loved horses”. “They are my passion and my obsession. But I’m also an adrenaline junkie as well. But I wasn’t going to be good enough to be a top rider.

“Being a racehorse trainer, our sole job basically is to try and get horses to win races. So, for me, that was just the perfect combination of competitive sport, and also the animal that I’m so passionate about.”

In 2018, the “adrenaline junkie” won one of the more gruelling tests of horse and rider – the Mongol Derby. It was about 14 hours a day in the saddle to complete the 1000km race along the Mongolian Steppe in 10 days – using semi-wild horses that were swapped every 40km.

After six months with Waterhouse, she linked with Ciaron Maher – the co-trainer of 2022 Melbourne Cup winner Gold Trip – and was with him four years before striking out on her own. Neasham started with 20 horses at Warwick Farm and now has about 130 in work.

“It was hope and dream that you’re going to end up in all the big races, be a regular on a Saturday in the metropolitan areas. Whether it happens is obviously a different matter, but I never really doubted myself in that sense.”

On Saturday, she will also have two runners in the other big race of the day - the $5m All Star Mile at Moonee Valley - Laws of Indices and My Oberon. Neasham won the race last year with her best horse to date, Zaaki.

But the Slipper is the richest two-year-old race in the world and one of Australia horse racing’s four majors – alongside the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate. And it is the biggest race in the land for the breeding industry, and clients like Coolmore.

It’s why Coolmore would probably rather another of their horses – Shinzo – won the Slipper. The colt is not nearly as well performed, but the breeding dividend will dwarf the first prize of $2.8 million. He will wear the owner’s first colours – all navy blue – as the higher weighted horse (colts carry 56.5kg and fillies 54.5kg). The filly will have a pink cap.

Learning to Fly is unbeaten after three starts and is second in the betting to race favourite Cylinder, a colt owned by Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai. She has already earned $1,47 million and a red Ferrari – an incentive Coolmore offered to the owner for the first big winner by its stallion Justify.

Neasham made a jocular pitch for the car and was even sighted taking it for a spin. But the promotion’s rules said it would go to the person who signed the consignment order at the sales, and that was part-owner Kia Ora stud.

“It’s the sort of race every trainer wants to win – and we’re heading in with a live chance. “She should run really well; she’s got a nice barrier, and she’s the only unbeaten horse in the field. We wouldn’t swap her for anything else.”

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