*This article first appeared on The Courier on July 30, 2014
SITTING in Darren Weir’s garage is a Mercedes Benz.
He hasn’t paid a cent for it and nor does he intend to keep it, but the lucrative Warrnambool May Racing Carnival bonus symbolises his stunning rise to the top of the nation’s training ranks.
The master horseman will finish the 2013-14 racing season with 253 winners to be crowned the leading Australian and Victorian trainer. While also claiming titles on both national and state country tracks, Weir’s biggest achievement is his victory in the Melbourne metropolitan premiership, where he has toppled Peter Moody after a four-year reign.
“If you were a good footballer and you got to an AFL league and won a flag, it’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? It’s the same in racing. I think there’s 900 registered trainers so it’s a good achievement,” Weir, 44, said.
Simply rating it “good” doesn’t do it justice. It really is an astonishing feat by the boy from Berriwillock, who has gone from a small-time farrier and horse breaker to one of the most recognisable faces in racing.
Like most in the business, Weir’s start in the industry began at a young age and forced him away from school to pursue something he loved. His early jobs included time with trainers Jack Coffey, in Birchip, and John Castleman, in Mildura, as well as a stint at the world-renowned Lindsay Park training complex.
But his break came while working with Stawell trainer Terry O’Sullivan.
“He gave me a start in the business of farrier and horse breaking. I went down there and was his full-time farrier and horse breaker for quite a number of years,” Weir recalled.
“He had a little place across the road and I bought that off him when it was just a house. I had no money to build the stables.”
O’Sullivan and his wife Robyn organised Weir a trainer’s licence and bought him a set of race colours for his 21st birthday. They are the famous maroon and white silks that are dominating to this day.
“I then built four stables and we were that busy we just kept building and building.
“Naturally, I gave away the shoeing and was getting a few horses to train, but was still breaking in. Eventually I gave away the breaking in because the training got too big,” Weir said.
“Terry was a great help because he’s a great mentor, I guess.
“You learn so much off him while you are there, and still while you were training, you could watch what he was doing. I learned the most about horses off the Coffeys, I learned the most about how to patch up an old horse off John Castleman, but I’ve learned how to train a winner off Terry O’Sullivan because he is a genius at it.”
Weir’s first training success came with little-known galloper Epaulay, who saluted at Avoca in October of 1995. The horse raced just three more times and never won again.
It was slow going in those early days, with Weir’s next four winners taking him a little over a year to achieve. However, the training operation continued to grow and eventually led to a move to Ballarat.
“We either had to build more stables at Stawell – and it was a bit tricky for room – or move to this place. It looked a great place, but was a little bit run-down,” Weir said.
“If I knew what I did now, I wouldn’t have done it because it was more run-down than I thought, but it is a great place now.”
Shortly after that shift came the boost that any new and developing stable needs – a group 1 winner. That arrived when She’s Archie landed the South Australian Oaks in 2002 before going on to run second to champion Makybe Diva in the 2003 Melbourne Cup. Back then, Weir’s former partner Leonie was vital in getting the business up and running in Ballarat and is credited significantly in the success it has become today. She remained an integral part of the operation long after the pair had separated, but is now living in Navarre with Weir’s daughters, Taige, 15, and Bonnie, 11.
“(Leonie) came down here and worked as hard as what I did, then unfortunately we split up down the track. But we are still good friends,” Weir said.
“She was a big part of the business as well. She’s a beauty. She was great at the book work and with people, whereas I wasn’t.”
Weir’s admission to not being a “people person” won’t come as a surprise to those who know him. He looks a little uncomfortable on television and doesn’t overly enjoy being on the radio, but is quick to cover his deficiencies with the 50-odd staff he has on the books.
“I like the horses and the staff that work with the horses and the rest of it I’m no good at,” Weir said.
Weir’s Warrnambool satellite stable has been a revelation since it was opened a few years ago, an operation he said was designed to help get the best out of horses that had been struck down with injury or were likely to benefit from a change of scenery.
One galloper Weir points to as proof of its success is the horse that put the keys in the ignition of the Mercedes Benz by winning the Warrnambool Cup in May. Since running last in the 2013 Traralgon Cup for former trainer Rob Blacker, Akzar has won three races in Melbourne, claimed the Warrnambool feature and finished fourth in a group 1 and fifth in a group 2.
“Akzar is the perfect example. If I trained him here (in Ballarat), he would be exactly the same (as with Blacker),” Weir said.
“It’s just trying to keep the horse in the system. Once they get an injury, it’s not as easy to train them at a track, but it’s a lot easier to train them at a beach and keep them sound.”
While the Warrnambool venture is a luxury, it is just part of the overall set-up that is centralised in Ballarat.
“You have got everything you want. You have got beach stables, you have got water walkers, you have got treadmills, you have got facilities for all horses if they don’t eat, paddocks and everything you need. On top of it all is a magnificent training set-up with the straight track,” Weir said.
In some ways, Weir’s breakout season has come as a surprise. While he has always been a good trainer and has regularly churned out in excess of 100 winners a season, why has 2013-14 been such a success?
Even the man himself struggles to put a finger on it.
“It has come and I’m not sure why it has happened this year,” he said.
“We are not doing anything different to what we did last year, but we have just got better horses. Probably a lot of it is because we have been building our facility over the last 10 years, because I have never had the money to go out and build it. We build it as we have got the money.”
Weir said the best part about winning the metropolitan premiership was that it proved training in the city wasn’t the only way to be successful at the top level. And with things going so well, there’s certainly no thoughts of a move any time soon.
“This is me done. I’m happy here. It’s a good location,” Weir said.
“I had four goals. I wanted to win a Stawell Cup because that’s where I first started and Just The Part won that. Brady Cross rode it. I wanted to win a Ballarat Cup because that’s where I moved to and we won one of them with Just The Part again. Garry Murphy rode it. I wanted to win a Swan Hill Cup because that’s where I came from and Can Do won that. Dean Yendall rode it.
“Obviously, then there’s the Melbourne Cup. That’s the dream.”