Ballarat's biggest name in racing Darren Weir had a meteoric rise and a spectacular fall from grace. The man who took over his extensive operation in Miners Rest has an interesting approach to finding winners and is claiming more than his fair share of glory. Tom Happell takes a look at the business model behind Ciaron Maher's racing triumphs...
Ballarat trainer Ciaron Maher's success in identifying lightly-raced European horses and purchasing them to race in Australia for superior prizemoney is part of a thriving new-age business model in the Australian thoroughbred industry.
Maher and fellow trainer, Sydney-based Chris Waller, are the two most notable advocates of this model.
They and their clients buy tried European horses at sales, such as the Newmarket Tattersalls Autumn event in England, with a view to claiming their investment back by winning country cups in Australia and then hopefully progressing to group 1 mile and staying features in the autumn and spring.
One of those country cups is the $500,000 Ballarat Cup to be held this Saturday.
Maher and his co-trainer David Eustace are able to do business in this way because prizemoney pools in Australian racing are more than in England, France and Ireland combined - and there is no shortage of European owners keen to sell to cashed-up Aussie clients for huge figures.
The model is working and the success of the Maher-Eustace imports is there for all to see.
Among their best-performed imported horses is Cranbourne Cup and Scone Cup winner Dr Drill, who was bought for 85,000gns in 2017, and whose earnings in Australia are now nearing $670,000. Sandown Cup and Queensland Cup winner Azuro, purchased for 12,000 euro as a yearling in France, has won total prizemoney of around $500,000.
Lord Belvedere, a more recent stable acquisition and winner of the Banjo Patterson Series Final in the winter, cost 100,000gns but has already amassed just shy of $328,000 in earnings.
Meanwhile, Mask of Time, a group 3 Coongy winner and second place-getter in the group 2 Ajax Stakes, has won $291,000 for connections.
Then there is the intriguing purchase of Big Blue - who Maher bought from Godolphin for an undisclosed figure - who won a St Leger Stakes on the flat over 2600 metres at Royal Randwick and then the Galleywood hurdle at Warrnambool over 3200 metres, underlining Maher's incredible versatility as a trainer.
Big Blue is now an earner of $537,000 in Australia.
Maher has also struck gold in recent times with his international imports on a much bigger stage.
Businessmen Ozzie Kheir and Brae Sokolski, in conjunction with John O'Neill, bought former Coolmore galloper and Chester Vase winner Sir Dragonet for a figure believed to be well in excess of 1.5 million.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the horse was required to quarantine at Werribee until a few days prior to the Cox Plate, its first Australian appearance.
Piloted by champion jockey Glen Boss, Sir Dragonet relished the soft track conditions at Moonee Valley to score by 1.25 lengths.
"Giving us the opportunity to train a horse of this calibre, you don't see that sort of form in this part of the world that much, and I can't thank them enough" Maher told reporters after the race.
To put into context the magnitude of Australian prizemoney, Sir Dragonet had won just $391,000 racing in Europe.
But in his two starts since joining the Maher-Eustace stable, the horse has earned a cool $3.4 million.
This Saturday, Maher and Eustace have two runners chasing their hometown feature, the Ballarat Cup.
These include European import Al Galayel, who like stablemate Mask Of Time is a group 3 Coongy winner, and favourite Junipal, who won last weekend's group 3 Sandown Stakes.
"I reckon he looks fantastic," Maher said of Al Galayel on racing website, Racenet.
"The gap between runs won't worry him at all.
"He hasn't missed any work.
"Last start we rode him forward but he'd rather be the horse descending on them."
Bonvicini, a mare by Irish stallion Myboycharlie, had been part of the stable's Cup nominations, but isn't part of the final field.
Myboycharlie made his name as a shuttle stallion by siring champion mare Jameka - an Oaks and Caulfield Cup winner whom Maher trained.
Myboycharlie now stands at stud in Turkey.
"We might have to go on a European holiday and find where Myboycharlie is and bring him back out here," Maher told racing.com.
"I'm quite fond of training them."
This season Maher has taken a liking to another European shuttle stallion in the form of first season sire, Shalaa.
He purchased up to four yearlings by Shalaa at sales earlier this year.
"They're a really nice line of horses, he seems to put into his stock what I value, he's a horse for the future," Maher said of the former champion juvenile.
This week, though, this Ballarat-based master trainer will have his focus turned to one thing - and that's claiming his first major hometown prize, the time-honored Ballarat Cup, a race first run in 1864, making it only three years younger than the Melbourne Cup.