As a former Geelong captain, four-time All Australian selectee, three-time AFL grand finalist and WA football hall of famer, Mark Bairstow knows a thing or two about being in form.
A superstar on the field in the 1980s and 90s, he is now kicking goals on the racetrack and has his boutique stable of thoroughbreds firing on all cylinders.
The Port Kennedy-based trainer has prepared a remarkable nine winners and seven placegetters from his past 20 starters, including a metropolitan-winning double with rejuvenated gallopers Dam Ready and Special Delivery at Ascot last Saturday.
Born and bred in the wheatbelt region of Lake Grace, a four-hour drive south-east of Perth, Bairstow was first introduced to the racing industry through his father.
“Dad owned horses and raced them for most of his life,” Bairstow said.
“His Dad was a trotting trainer and his brother was a trotting trainer, so there’s a bit of a family connection in racing.”
After dominating the Upper Great Southern Football League in the early 1980s, Bairstow made the move to the big smoke to launch his WAFL career with South Fremantle as a mature 22-year-old in 1985.
A standout debut season saw him promoted to club captain just 12 months later and he went on to win both the Sandover Medal and South Fremantle’s best-and-fairest award that year, capturing the attention of VFL clubs on the other side of the country.
He was recruited by Geelong and made an immediate impact, earning his first All Australian honour in his first season and playing in the historic grand final clash against Hawthorn in 1989.
However, a mixture of events saw Bairstow leave the club and return to his home town the following year.
“I had ties to the family farm, so I went home in 1990,” he said.
“I coached Lake Grace that year and then went back to Geelong in 1991.
“Once I left the farm to go back to Geelong, I started training horses.
“I was interested in racing beforehand and had owned horses, but footy was the major player for me at that stage.
“I trained a few while I was still playing and when I retired I got into it in a bigger whack.”
Bairstow was named captain of Geelong in 1992 and, after guiding his team to a losing grand final against the West Coast Eagles that September, he trained his first winner at Werribee less than two months later.
The horse, True Identity, kickstarted a brilliant run for the unique trainer-footballer and went on to win another 21 races in a 73-start career for Bairstow, including the 1997 Group 3 Easter Cup and Listed Heatherlie Stakes at Caulfield, as well as the Listed Kilmore Cup.
“We had a terrific run in Victoria for the first four or five years,” Bairstow said.
“I was up in the leading country trainers and it was a great run.
“We had some good, consistent horses there for a while.”
Whilst enjoying sustained success on the east coast, however, Bairstow’s mother fell gravely ill and he and his family made the decision to move back to his home state.
“Mum had bone cancer and unfortunately she died soon after I came back,” Bairstow said.
“Mum and Dad had a house in Australind, so I moved to Bunbury and ended up staying there.”
Bairstow trained from the south-west of the state for the best part of 16 years before moving to popular outer-metropolitan training area, Port Kennedy, about six months ago.
Asked if he is training as well as he ever has since being back in WA, he was inclined to agree.
“I probably am,” he said.
“I have a few better-class horses, for starters, which always helps.
“They’ve settled into the property nicely and we train not far from Lark Hill but I don’t take them to the track, only for trials.
“Even though we’ve won races over the years, we’ve never had good-enough horses to race in town as much as we would’ve liked.
“Although, we have won a Northam Cup, Esperance Cup and ran places in a Bunbury Cup and what not, so we have won races, but it’s just been more spasmodic.”
Much of Bairstow’s brilliant run of form in recent times has been in partnership with star jockey Mitchell Pateman, with the pair having combined 21 times over the past 12 months to produce 11 wins, returning an incredible winning strike rate of more than 52 per cent.
The duo had a weekend to remember together at last Saturday and Sunday’s Ascot and Mount Barker meetings, with Pateman guiding each of Bairstow’s three runners to victory.
The first of the trio, More Than Ready five-year-old Dam Ready, scored back-to-back wins and his fifth from his past nine starts when taking out the Vale Mr Riley Handicap (1100m) at Ascot.
Formerly trained by David and Ben Hayes and Tom Dabernig in Melbourne, Bairstow purchased the gelding in the autumn of 2018 and has since prepared him to win on six occasions, accumulating stake earnings of $218,635 in that time.
“He’s getting a bit harder to place now,” Bairstow said.
“It’s a good problem, because he’s won his way up to being a 91-rater now.
“Maybe a race like the Northam Sprint might be his next goal.”
Special Delivery, a former Bob Peters-bred-and-owned Testa Rossa seven-year-old, was an astute purchase by Bairstow for just $15,000 at the 2017 Perth Winter Racehorse Sale.
After winning two races with the gelding after acquiring him, however, he unfortunately sustained an injury which was to rule him out of racing for the following 12 months.
“He had a tendon tear,” Bairstow said.
“He spent a lot of time treadmilling and slow rehabilitation work and, anyone that has done that, would understand it’s a pretty hard process and unfortunately it can backfire on you straight away.
“That’s just the way it is.”
Fast-forward to Australia Day this year, however, and a combination of patience, dedication and horsemanship saw an emotional Bairstow pull off a sensational training performance and a meaningful victory at Ascot.
Despite having his first race-start for 350 days and having drawn unfavourably in barrier 11, Bairstow prepared Special Delivery to win first-up from his injury-enforced lay off with Pateman in the saddle.
An emotional Bairstow couldn’t hide how much the win meant to him in the mounting yard immediately following the race and says the long road to get to that point made it a sentimental moment.
“Because he was in work for 12 months but didn’t race, it’s just a long, slow journey with all the rehabilitation and all the work that goes in to get him to that stage,” he said.
“To win first-up was very rewarding and he’s won again since, so the horse has come back really well and hopefully, touch wood, his problems don’t reappear.
“He has still got a few of those 76+ rating races to go to and win to climb up the ladder a bit more.”
Special Delivery produced another smart win in the TABtouch – Better Your Bet Handicap (1400m) at Ascot on Saturday and brought up the second leg of a winning double for the Bairstow and Pateman combination.
The pair joined forces again at Mount Barker the following day and, in another testament to Bairstow’s outstanding care and management of his stable, they went home winners again after 10-year-old gelding, Toned, scored his second consecutive victory.
Amazingly, the 128-start veteran who has now won 16 races, brought up his third win from his past six starts after circling the field and taking out the L.T. Toovey & Sons Handicap (1850m) in fine style.
“He’s just been a wonderful old horse and I think he’s won a race or two every year,” Bairstow said.
“Funnily enough, as he’s got old he’s actually raced more consistently.”
Asked if he intentionally targets ready-to-run horses to add to his stable, rather than the more common process of purchasing yearlings, Bairstow says it is a training principle he has followed for most of his career.
“I’ve got a couple of youngsters but I’d rather the horses that are up and going, personally,” he said.
“Probably for a quicker return and for a cash-flow thing because, if you have yearlings, it can be quite a long process.
“We basically work on the system of trying to turn them over and win some money with them.
“We’ve always rejuvenated other gallopers.”
As for the future ahead, Bairstow is happy with his current number of 10 horses in work and has no plans of expanding his stable.
With four individual winners from his past nine starters, it appears a strategy that is proving very successful for the former AFL great.
“We’ve never had a big team, but if we can keep producing winners and keep poking along, that’ll be the main aim,” Bairstow said.
“If I could get a few more fast ones, that would be lovely!”