An eye for form: Nick Williams oversees a workout at Macedon Lodge
PICTURES \ JULES TAHAN
It is a bitterly cold morning in the Macedon Ranges but the staff at Team Williams seem oblivious to the weather as they go through their daily routines preparing likely contenders for this year’s spring carnival.
Not all will make it – that’s the nature of horse racing – but there is no doubt that they are unlikely to get a better opportunity than at Macedon Lodge, the state-of-the-art training facility set up by Lloyd Williams, one of Australia’s best-known and most successful thoroughbred owners over more than half a century.
“This place is the result of 50 years of planning,” says Nick Williams, who is acting as racing manager for his father, although he stresses it is very much a team effort at Macedon Lodge.
Williams, through his private company Hudson Conway, bought Macedon Lodge about five years ago. The 120-hectare property was originally developed by the late Kurt Stern, and the New Zealand mare Ethereal was stabled there when she won the 2001 Caulfield and Melbourne cups.
It was then regarded as a showplace training facility, which has only been enhanced since Team Williams took over, extending the tracks and adding every available facility for the welfare of its equine residents.
In addition to the original 50-metre lap pool, there is an undercover water-walker, four walking machines, a horse shower and overhead heating for horses with back problems.
The main gallops are on two Pro-Ride synthetic tracks, one of which is a straight 1600 metres and, for a bit of variety, there are several other tracks winding through hills and trees.
The main stable block features double-size boxes, which Nick Williams believes were originally designed by Stern to be transformed into motel units if Macedon Lodge failed as a training facility.
“They’ve even got the little trapdoors in front where you could put breakfast trays,” he says.
New staff quarters have been added to the complex, which has about 35 people looking after 80 horses. “A lot of the staff have been with us for years,” Williams says, which in itself is a little unusual in an industry known for the transitory nature of its employees.
“Dad has always said it takes 5000 man hours to get a business right but in racing it takes at least twice as long and there are no guarantees of success.’’
Lloyd Williams’ business background stretches back through property development, the setting up of Hudson Conway in 1986 and the establishment of Melbourne’s Crown Casino. Yet his passion has always been horseracing, although apart from a recent visit to Caulfield to watch three of his horses trial, he has not attended a city race meeting for about 10 years.
Always a forward thinker, Williams sometimes became frustrated with the workings of racing’s officialdom but, during a relatively brief stint on the Victoria Racing Club committee when the VRC was still the controlling body, he left his mark by organising the purchase of the high-school property adjacent to Flemington racecourse, which is now the headquarters of Racing Victoria.
Since the sale of Crown to James Packer, Williams has adopted a low public profile while keeping a close interest in all racing matters as he continues his quest to win only the best races, most notably the Emirates Melbourne Cup.
This has resulted in 43-year-old Nick Williams becoming the public face of Team Williams, and he shares the passions of his father.
“I suppose I didn’t have much choice,” Nick says as he scans the walls of a picture gallery in the office area at Macedon Lodge.
With a few notable exceptions – Lloyd Williams stopped collecting pictures of his winners in 1996 – there are probably about 200 on the walls stretching back to the 1960s.
“We haven’t actually counted them but there have been between 80 and 100 group race winners,” Nick says.
The first Lloyd Williams-owned group winner was the filly Cautious Sue, trained by the late Noel Kelly, in the group 2 Kewney Stakes at Flemington in 1969 and he admits to being “hooked” ever since.
Whether they admit it or not, it is the dream of every racehorse owner to at least have a runner in the Melbourne Cup, but Williams was determined to take the dream to the next level and has channelled his efforts into winning the race. The dream became a reality with the success of the Tommy Smith-trained Just A Dash in 1981, although the horse, in the ownership of Williams and two good friends, George Frew and Tommy Pettiona, carried Smith’s colours of dark-blue and green stripes rather than his now-famous colours of navy blue, white arm bands and cap.
The win of Just A Dash only made Williams more determined to make the Melbourne Cup his focus as an owner, and he was able to win the race again in 1985 with What A Nuisance, this time in partnership with Dennis Gowing and trained by John Meagher.
Despite his reputation for being a private person, Williams has always been generous with his family and friends when it comes to sharing ownership in his horses and, embracing the theme of “Team Wiliams”, Nick Williams is now the first-named owner in the racebook in recognition of his role at Macedon Lodge.
The move of the stable from Flemington to Macedon was celebrated with the win of Efficient – trained by Graeme Rogerson and ridden by Michael Rodd – in the 2007 Melbourne Cup.
The previous spring the New Zealand-bred Efficient had given Williams his second Victoria Derby, a race he had won in 1993 with his champion three-year-old Mahogany, arguably his best horse, although he never ran in the Melbourne Cup.
Mahogany also won the Australian Jockey Club’s Australian Derby in 1994 and was voted Australia’s racehorse of the year for the 1993-94 season. Later in his career, Mahogany’s versatility was highlighted by his dual wins in the group 1 Lightning Stakes over 1000 metres at Flemington.
It is remarkable and a tribute to the attention by the staff at Macedon Lodge that the now nine-year-old Efficient is again in the mix for a start in the Melbourne Cup. Because of his problems over the years, the grey gelding has raced only 29 times, but there was a glimpse of his former greatness earlier this year when he finished second in the Sydney Cup.
Another of the VIP horses at Macedon Lodge is 10-year-old Zipping, now in retirement, who also never won a Melbourne Cup but always ran well in the race and won four consecutive Sandown Classics, which is now known as the Zipping Classic.
Since he first arrived at Williams’ Flemington stables, Zipping has been looked after by Jason Chandler and the gelding is a favourite of all the staff at Team Williams.
The resident trainer at Macedon Lodge is Robert Hickmott, who has been with Team Williams for about 11 years and took over the role of head trainer about three years ago.
After having a high of 20 entries in the 2010 Melbourne Cup, Team Williams has only six nominations this year, but they include two of the top fancies in early markets in Green Moon and Mourayan, both imports from
Ireland, and another highly promising stayer in New Zealand-bred Excluded.
Green Moon showed he has more than a touch of class with his second to Southern Speed in last year’s Caulfield Cup and he appears to have come back even better this spring.
Williams is considering taking on the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley, a race he has yet to win, with Green Moon on his way to the Melbourne Cup as Team Williams cranks up for another exciting spring carnival.
Footnote: Last Saturday, Team Williams had one of its most successful days on record with three wins and a second with four runners at Flemington, including the group one Turnbull Stakes and also winning the group three Craven Plate at Randwick with Mourayan
Footnote: Nine-year-old Efficient, the most recent of Team Williams’ Melbourne Cup winners (2007) has been retired after suffering a recurrence of an injury to a suspensory ligament.