THANK goodness for Aunty Esme! TONY McMAHON will forever be grateful that his wife Jean has an aunty bearing that name – otherwise the consequences could have been diabolical. Instead, the Rockhampton couple and a group of friends are toasting the deeds of a two-year-old filly called Paradis Imperial, who stretched her unbeaten sequence to five with an impressive city debut at Eagle Farm last Saturday, and is the most prolific juvenile winner so far this season in Australia.
The 64-year-old trainer, who has spent virtually a lifetime in the racing industry fulfilling a variety of roles, made a triumphant return to Brisbane with his first winner “in about 30 years”. In the process, Paradis Imperial boosted her earnings to just over $180,000 (nearly half of it made up from QTIS bonuses). Easy to swallow considering she cost only $9000.
That’s when Aunty Esme got him off the hook; though she knew nothing about it at the time.
McMahon, who for many years has done promotional work for the Magic Millions company in Central Queensland, attended the yearling sales at the Gold Coast last March. But his wife “threatened” him about buying a horse. “Jean left the sales halfway through to visit her Aunty Esme, and said to me: ‘You’re not going to buy a yearling are you?” “Of course not,” McMahon replied.
When a grey filly by first season sire Instinction (the former smart Melbourne sprinter by Group 1 winner Exceed And Excel) entered the sale ring, McMahon had other ideas. “I love first season sires, and really took a liking to this filly,” he said. “I started bidding on her, and couldn’t believe it when she was knocked down to me for $9000. “The vendor (Gainsborough Lodge) was devastated. Her half-brother (by Bradbury’s Luck) had sold a year earlier for $72,500. “I went around to the filly’s box afterwards and asked whether she had a stable name. “When her attendant told me it was Esme, I said to myself: ‘How good is that. That’s my way out.’”
Later catching up with his wife, McMahon’s body language quickly told “the boss” he had gone back on his promise. “Jean said: ‘You have bought a horse, haven’t you,’” he recalled. I said: “I have; I’ve bought us a grey filly called Esme.” “That’s okay then,” was her reply. The McMahons brought in a group of friends to race the filly, and Jean took charge to name her. It was a no-brainer. The filly’s dam is Hennessy Beau – and spirit maker Hennessy in 2011 released Paradis Imperial (a cognac of imperial finesse). Paradis Imperial (the cognac) comes packed in an elegant crystal decanter featuring an 18-carat gold plated label. The expensive brandy’s equine namesake comes packed with plenty as well.
Her trainer says there was so much to like about his filly as soon as he put her into work.
“She showed ability from Day One, and is as tough as they come,” McMahon said. “She eats four feeds a day.” Unfortunately, McMahon took ill and underwent surgery and wasn’t able to prepare Paradis Imperial for her debut at Rockhampton’s Callaghan Park on November 4. “I gave her to a good friend (former jockey) Lyle Rowe, and got out of hospital in time to see her run in a 900m trial a couple of weeks beforehand,” McMahon said. “I thought she would bolt in, and was devastated when she ran a distant third. “But Mark Barnham, who rode her, eased my mind when he dismounted and said to forget all about it as the saddle had slipped.”
As a result of her trial defeat, Paradis Imperial started at $17 (even bigger odds were offered) when she stepped out against her own sex in the Breeders’ Plate (1050m). She was narrowly beaten by odds-on favourite Royal Myth (who had been placed at her first two Brisbane starts), but gained the race on protest in the stewards’ room. Brisbane jockey Nathan Day rode Paradis Imperial then, and has maintained his association with her at subsequent victories at Mackay (November 17 and December 29) and Rockhampton again on December 10 leading up to the Eagle Farm victory.
“Both Nathan and my trackwork rider Mark Unwin have been fantastic,” McMahon said. “It’s great to have such wonderful combinations.”
McMahon reclaimed Paradis Imperial after her first win (he says Rowe, who won the 1967 Stradbroke Handicap at Eagle Farm on Mister Hush, understandably would have liked to have kept training her), and is enjoying preparing the five “girls” he has on their Stanwell farm just outside Rockhampton. “All my horses are either fillies or mares and they lead an idyllic lifestyle. They each have an acre paddock to relax in during the day and are boxed at night. “Apart from going to the track to work, they are spelling all the time.”
His “girls” are seven-times winner Mamselle Corday, Shrouded (three wins), lightly-raced three-year-old Gai Of The Galaxy, an unraced filly and, of course, Paradis Imperial. The latter’s Brisbane romp was the culmination of a huge – and busy – few days for McMahon. He won the last race – delayed because of the oppressive heat – with Shrouded at Callaghan Park on the Thursday, had to wait 30 minutes for her to produce a swab sample before taking her home and then loaded Paradis Imperial onto his three-horse float at 11pm for the overnight 8 ½ hour trip to Brisbane. McMahon’s first season sire urge resulted in him buying Cindy Kate, the first of the Mossman breed, in 2003. She won seven races. He also came close two years later to purchasing debut Randwick winner and now stud success Written Tycoon (by another first season sire Iglesia), but was outbid by then Sydney trainer Grahame Begg at the Gold Coast sales.
To say McMahon has led both a colourful and interesting racing life would be an understatement.
Born at Nanango in Queensland, he has been a chief steward, handicapper, race club general manager, journalist and race broadcaster – and still puts the 10x50s to good use calling them home at several Central Queensland tracks (Gladstone, Middlemount, Springsure, Yeppoon and Calliope).
In fact, he called the Calliope (just outside Gladstone) program on the Saturday prior to saddling Paradis Imperial for her Eagle Farm triumph. It was through his first job as a bank clerk at Surfers Paradise that he got his break in racing.
“As a youngster, I remember backing a great front-runner called Tea Biscuit in the old Hotham Handicap at Flemington at the start of Melbourne Cup week, and was hooked,” McMahon said.
“Ross Clelland was a relieving teller at the bank at the time, and his father Don (who was then president of Tattersalls Club in Brisbane) gave me an introduction to the late great race caller Vince Curry. “Vince kindly used to listen to my phantom calls, and suggested I should head to the Northern Rivers to pursue my passion to call races. “Greg Carlton, who became a good friend, got me a start calling the races at Lismore. I think I was about 16 and a half years of age.”
When a serious problem arose with McMahon’s vocal cords, Carlton and the much revered Brisbane handicapper Jim Anderson Snr (both now deceased) quickly taught him the basic essentials of handicapping. He later returned to the microphone as the Gold Coast’s first TAB race caller, and also was chairman of stewards on the Northern Rivers between 1978-86.
McMahon had earlier also spent three years as handicapper at the now defunct Newcastle Racing Registration Board, and took out a licence to train on the Gold Coast in 1986. He was based there for two years and relocated to Central Queensland after taking a team of horses to Rockhampton for the 1988 winter carnival. McMahon replaced the retiring Gary Foale as Rockhampton race caller, and also spent 25 years as the Morning Bulletin’s racing writer. Now “retired”, he is enjoying the full time he can devote to his training duties, looking after his “girls”.
As for Paradis Imperial, she is back home on the farm at Stanwell as her trainer ponders her next assignment. “She is weighted out of two-year-old races at home now, so I guess we might have to start making regular trips back to Brisbane with her,” McMahon said. “Her run of success has attracted some offers, but nothing to date has been concrete. “It’s another matter, of course, whether we would decide to sell her.” Jean McMahon and Aunty Esme might have something to say about that!
HOOFNOTE: Another Rockhampton-trained youngster The Bank Manager, who easily won the barrier trial Paradis Imperial contested last October, finished third in the Eagle Farm race and has now been beaten twice in races by McMahon’s filly.