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The rapid rise of Annabel Neasham

The Sydney trainer talks to Asian Racing Report about her international aims, giving young people a chance and what Australia’s racing authorities can do to help staff recruitment and retention.

Annabel Neasham spearheads one of Australia's most successful emerging training operations. (Photo by Mark Evans)

Annabel Neasham has ‘a little goal’ she and her team set at the start of the season but besides that, she says, they haven’t set any specific targets. As for pinpointing headline career ambitions, well, ‘yes and no.’

Her ‘little’ target is to train 120 winners in the 2022-23 season. So far, she has 62 all told, including 34 in the New South Wales state trainers’ premiership. She is hurtling towards her career best tally of 83 wins, set last season, which followed on from her previous best of 30 the season before. But what is most remarkable is that Neasham is still not even halfway through her third season with a licence.

“We haven’t set specific races that we’d want to win,” she continues, “but I suppose I do want to win the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Slipper, all the Group 1s are what you want to win.”

She already has seven Group 1 wins to her name, by the way, including Mo’unga’s Rosehill Guineas, her first, which came in the back half of her rookie season. Her best, Zaaki, has bagged five Group 1s for the Neasham operation, which has 100 in training at Warwick Farm racecourse in the Sydney suburbs and 30 more in Brisbane, at Eagle Farm racecourse.

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Mo'unga takes out the 2021 Rosehill Guineas. (Photo by Jason McCawley)

Neasham may not be one for setting out a long list of career milestones to take aim at but this is the woman who – quite famously by now – won the Mongol Derby, learned to play five musical instruments, and moved to the other side of the world to find her way in racing. She has put together a team of eager young staff, she has international ambitions and she understands the importance of connections, with her horses and with the people in her sphere.  

In person, there is an unmistakable manner about her that suggests she is both a smart mind and a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-to-it kind of character, with a will to make things work. So far, she is nailing being a racehorse trainer.   

“I had no intention of training racehorses in Sydney when I was growing up, I think it’s just been a case of being in the right place at the right time and having a lot of luck,” she says, and in acknowledging the providential, she modestly overlooks a raft of other salient factors.

There is the horsemanship she has developed to a high level since the day she took stewardship of her first childhood pony, a personal knowledge of the horses in her care, a documented determination to succeed, a competitive core, and a way of connecting with people, notably the owners that provide the foundation on which she is building so rapidly and effectively.

And then there is the putting together of a team made up of the right people. It is noticeable that Neasham uses ‘we’ more than ‘I’ when talking about what she does, how she does it and what she is aiming to achieve.

“We’ve just built an amazing team around me, I’m surrounded by really talented people; we’ve got a really young team, I’m one of the oldest in the team, it’s a vibrant team,” she says.

Zaaki makes all in the Champions Stakes at Flemington. (Photo by George Sal)

Neasham is barely into her 30s. She was raised in rural Northamptonshire, England and arrived in Australia as an unknown a little more than six and a half years ago, having realised early that she was never going to be an Olympic Eventer.

“I sort of had my eye on being a jumps trainer in Britain but everybody kept putting me off saying it’s too hard and so I delved into the bloodstock side of the world, but it didn’t give me enough of a buzz,” she recalls.

Neasham ‘scoured around’ for a pupil assistant job in Britain but had no joy in securing any of the few openings out there. She looked farther afield and settled on a plan to gain a year of experience in Australia and the same in the United States.

“I hoped then I could go home and get an assistant trainer job. But I only got as far as Australia,” she says.

She found a job with Gai Waterhouse and then Ciaron Maher; along came Covid and, with isolation and travel restrictions in place, she was given the responsibility of overseeing Maher’s ‘satellite’ string in Sydney; the results spoke volumes; in 2020 she set up on her own with the helpful backing of Aquis Farm.   

Annabel Neasham and Hugh Bowman await Top Ranked's Epsom photo finish verdict. (Photo by Jenny Evans)

Whereas home had offered little opportunity to accelerate her ambition to train, Australia’s more egalitarian make-up enabled the hard work and talent of an unconnected outsider to be welcomed and then advanced rapidly despite her youth.  

“In Australia I find people give young people a lot more opportunity than perhaps I’ve seen anywhere else,” she observes. “I’m seeing that now; I’ve got a lot of English staff now working for me and if they’re capable then very quickly they’ve risen up to running a barn or whatever it may be and they don’t want to go.

“It’s harder to get that opportunity in England. I love England and I love the racing there and the history, I’m not discrediting it at all but I just think in Australia it’s easier to have a go. I never even thought about it before but everything I tried to do was just easier and I think if you work hard people identify that and give you opportunities and it’s up to each individual whether they take them. I was just lucky that every path I went down ended up opening up another door.”

Every path I went down ended up opening another door.

So, does her own experience mean that she consciously decides to recruit and advance young people?

“It’s probably unconscious,” she says after pausing to consider. “But I am conscious of it.”

She is also conscious of a problem facing Australian trainers, despite the booming industry which is blasting along with massive prize money and healthy engagement compared to Britain: the recruitment and retention of homegrown Australian stable staff.

“It was really hard during Covid because the racing industry has relied heavily on overseas workers, so it was a big hit and that’s something that needs working on,” she says.

“If there is a downfall to Australian racing it is probably the lack of staff that are Australian coming through, we’re importing people. I’m lucky, I’ve got connections back home so we’ve got a lot of English that come out and work for us and I’ve got a great French rider who has recruited a few French people for us and it’s great to have them.”

Jamie Kah and Annabel Neasham celebrate another Group 1 for Zaaki. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)

What she would like to see is the authorities in the respective Australian jurisdictions provide formalised training schools under their official direction.    

“I think one thing Australia does need to do is invest in something similar to the British Racing School, I think that’s what Britain has done so well. They don’t have anything like it in Australia and we need to have that. Some great people have tried to start setting up and have done some great things but we actually haven’t really got the governing bodies behind it yet, but I think that will start to change.”

Neasham is also conscious of the way today’s young people might view starting a job that requires getting to work long before the sun rises. She is all for the training tracks being opened later.

“The hours are very early and people are all split on that decision: my stance is that I’d like it to be later, I think it would attract more people,” she says firmly.  

“I’m not quite sure how it got so early, I think it was who could get on the grass the earliest; maybe in the olden days it was about who could gallop their horse in the dark and it works really well and nobody knows and they all have a bet. Times have changed now and I’d love to see it go back, even an hour later to begin with would be a great help.

“A lot of people will disagree with me but my personal opinion is if we change it to more sociable hours, we will greatly increase the participation from staff. We’ve had several people we brought into the team who had never touched a horse and obviously you spend a lot of time training the staff up, so you want to try and retain them.”

Annabel Neasham at the Warwick Farm barrier trials. (Photo by Mark Evans)

Neasham is also conscious of the need to retain and attract good owners and her operation is very much of its time in the way it connects the bill-payers with their horses.

“I was really lucky to get a number of very high-quality horses from Aquis from day one, so I’ll be eternally grateful to them for trusting us with good stock, and it grew quickly from there so now we’ve got a range of clients,” she says.

“Technology has changed and it’s probably changing everywhere but I think Australia has really led the way in giving those owners a really good experience. A massive part of the business model is to have that connection with owners and we’ve got a girl called Alex Turpin who works for me and her sole focus is ensuring that our clients are well looked after.”

That includes Neasham talking on the phone to as many owners as possible, owners receiving video footage of Tuesday gallops, and stable open days.

“Without the owners we’ve got nothing to train and we need to look after them,” she adds. “It’s very common for there to be upwards of 20 owners in a horse, which makes it more affordable and it means we’ve got a big database because some people have a two and a half percent share in a horse. That connection is massive for the sport and the industry. In the old days I’m sure owners would have had to look in the newspaper to see if their horse was running and nowadays with the technology, everyone has had to change and offer more of a service.”

Neasham is easy to talk to one on one, at times a touch guarded, as anyone in her position would be, yet at others relaxed, dropping off-the-cuff comments with a hint of thoroughly unpretentious dry humour.

The one-time “mad horsey lover trying to have a crack at getting a decent job in a stable” has developed an inspiring enthusiasm for Australian racing: “Prize money is staggering,” she says, and then throws out there that, “Peter V’landys (Racing NSW CEO) has just been a genius with what he’s done to Sydney,” adding quickly, “and the racing in Melbourne is unbelievable as well, so we’re so spoiled.”

So much so that she says she doesn’t really need to travel horses overseas. But, then again, as a British abroad she has a natural international outlook and her first overseas runner, Laws Of Indices, running third for Aquis in December’s Hong Kong Mile has whetted her appetite.

Laws Of Indices was gallant behind California Spangle and Golden Sixty. (Photo by HKJC)

Annabel Neasham at Sha Tin. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

“I don’t want to get any bigger in terms of numbers, it’s quality we want, to make sure we’re competing at the right races,” she says and that includes offshore Group 1s.

“Horses from Australia have raced in Hong Kong, they’ve raced in Japan, in Dubai, in Europe. I’d like to (take) more horses to Hong Kong, and I’d love to go to Royal Ascot, I’d love to go to the Breeders’ Cup.”

She quickly points out that the Breeders’ Cup comment was another off the cuff, but then proceeds to outline some of the pros and cons, and adds, “I just think it’s a global sport; everyone wants to see the best racing the best.”

Neasham might not have a long checklist of goals but her ambitious drive is plain to see in her incredible emergence: a rapid rise to sit among the best in her field, underpinned by a refreshingly uncomplicated, almost wholesome, desire to succeed. Watch out world.

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