By Ray Hickson
Around two years ago Sam Phillips took a punt on horse racing and on Day 1 of The Championships he felt like he collected as his pride and joy Trapeze Artist beat the nation’s best sprinter.
You see, the 28-year-old strapper kind of hit the jackpot though you probably didn’t notice.
The chance to be an integral part the career of the two-time Group 1 winning colt, and a product of Gerald Ryan stable, is what he hopes is just the start of his unlikely journey in racing.
And the centre stage at Royal Randwick, caring for a multi-million dollar thoroughbred who’d posted a career defining wins in the Group 1 TJ Smith Stakes and Group 1 All Aged Stakes, is definitely a far cry from being an irrigator in country Western Australia.
“I was jumping up and down like an idiot celebrating with the owners then I remembered I had to get down there and collect him,’’ Phillips said.
“In the emotion of it all you straight away think to go out and celebrate and have a big one.
“But once you cool down and the horse is back in his box you're just exhausted. It's a big day and you're normally in bed by 8.30pm.’’
Sam remembers exactly when the racing bug bit him.
Aside from being a casual punter with a cursory interest in racing he’d had basically nothing to do with horses until he found a job with hobby trainer Mal Seinor.
That gig, which saw him strap his first horse at a meeting in Toodyay, north-west of Perth, on his 22nd birthday, lasted less than a year but it was enough to start the ball rolling.
“I took a spur of the moment trip to the 2010 Melbourne Cup and that was the turning point. I got caught up in the theatre and the emotion,’’ he said.
“Two weeks after the Cup I was at Bunbury and what really caught me was owners at Bunbury that had won a $10,000 maiden were celebrating as hard as owners that won Group races in Melbourne.
“I thought it's not just for the big players, anyone can do it.
“I loved working for Mal, but I found it quite hard to get into anything over there because the industry is smaller and everybody wants two or three years’ experience.’’
With no opportunities in the WA racing industry he went back to irrigation work in Busselton and, like most young guys, did some travelling.
Then he bit the bullet and landed a stable hand job on the other side of the country.
“I thought I had to have a shot so I threw in some CVs in Melbourne and Sydney and heard back from Gerald,’’ he said.
“I ended up doing the drive over and I hated every second of it.’’
It didn’t take too long for the effects of the tortuous drive to wear off and only a couple of months after arriving at Rosehill he strapped his first horse for the Ryan stable.
Trapeze Artist would come into Sam’s life pretty quickly. But circumstances saw him also responsible for star colt Menari in his two-year-old year and another smart stablemate Condor Heroes.
It sounds a bit like a soap opera but he became attached to Condor Heroes and wanted to focus on him.
“Another guy looked after Menari and he went overseas. Because Menari was already racing, and Trapeze Artist hadn't, I was given Menari to look after,’’ he said.
“When they turned three I had Menari and Condor Heroes. Condor Heroes was a speedy little colt and he was my favourite.
“I had the choice because they were going to the same races and I ended up choosing Condor Heroes. Everyone thought I was mental because Menari was head and shoulders above anyone.
“Unfortunately, Condor Heroes broke down and because I didn't have anything else I was given Trapeze Artist.’’
The life of a strapper is one that, unless like Claire Bird with Sunline, Donna Fisher with Black Caviar or Umut Odemislioglu with Winx you’re attached to a household name, can go relatively un-noticed.
Whether they’ve never raced, never won a race or are a champion they all need the same care and when you’re devoted to a racehorse they become a bit like your child and make those 4.30am starts easy.
Trapeze Artist’s TJ Smith win was his second at Group 1 level, following the Golden Rose in the spring, and Phillips said the experience only confirmed that racing is where he wants to be.
“The first one was unexpected. Because Menari was such a hot pot and having worked close with him I knew how well he was going,’’ he said.
“But to beat the best sprinter in Australia and with such authority I was more stunned than anything. You know your horse better than most people around and you know their quirks.
“You do get very attached to them. I'll cry when he walks out the gate that's for sure.’’
With next season’s two-year-olds already poking around the stables the search is already on for the next Trapeze Artist though he concedes he may have to wait a while.
It’s probably good practice because Phillips has the words ‘aspiring trainer’ on his Twitter profile so he will need to get used to the revolving door nature of racing if he wants to move in that direction in the future.
“That's the dream, to train them. I'm not kidding myself, I know it is a fair way down the track,’’ he said.
“Gerald is very good, I can ask him just about anything and he'll tell me what I'm doing right and doing wrong.
“I know it is years and years away. It's about learning as much as I can off whoever is willing to teach me. Hopefully I'll have enough knowledge one day to get it all right.’’