After a disappointing end to the 2016/17 season, Adam Marcus has gone back to the drawing board and his new strategy has seen him flying up the winners to runners statistics. We visited his Milnerton training yard to see how he’s done it.
While the last season might not have panned out as he’d have liked, few things are wasted on Adam and life lessons are certainly not one of them. As the old adage goes, it’s not the challenges life throws, but how one deals with them that counts.
Adam has used the opportunity – for what is adversity if not an opportunity wrapped in different clothing? – to take stock. He has refocussed his energies, rationalising his string into a tightly selected group to offer focussed attention to each individual and optimise his statistics. While it was not entirely painless – rationalising is never easy – the strategy is paying off, delivering a particularly successful recent run as well as rewarding him with one of the highest strike rates in the country.
“There’s been a big transition in the yard,” says Adam. “I had been focussing on trying to expand, but sometimes you need to take a step back and make some adjustments befor eyou can move forward. Particularly in Cape Town, you can’t get away with carrying horses that are not performing and I decided to cut down on the number of runners and focus on getting my strike rate up instead.”
Change Is Good
He implemented the new regime at the start of the new season. “Any horses that were in their place or not earning, I’ve either moved on to a weaker centre or retired to good homes. It’s been hard and the horses I’m left with may not be super stars, but they are all competitive in their division and I’d rather have a higher strike rate than lots of horses in the yard with no results,” he says firmly.
It has been tough as Adam gets very attached to his horses, particularly as so many of them are his father’s homebreds and therefore more or less part of the family, but it has also brought a sense of relief.
“My dad has always liked to help around the yard, but officially retired last July. He wanted to retire at 60, and ended up extending it a bit, but when we got back from Durban, he cut back his time in the yard. He now only comes every second Sunday and Monday to give me a break, so I still get the best of both worlds.”
Reaping The Rewards
The strategy started paying dividends at the beginning of 2018 and his stats for his last 30 runners in March reflected 11 winners, 5 seconds and 5 thirds, giving him a 37% win and 70% place strike rate.
“I did get a bit of stick from some quarters, saying I was racing for target practice, but when I looked at the programme after that, I’d run out of horses!” he says wryly. “We’ve worked ourselves up to the highest strike rate in the Western Cape and the 6th highest in South Africa. Even though we’re not winning big races and trophies, we’re doing our horses proud.”
A Boy And His Horse(s)
With the visiting trainers gone, Adam’s corner of the Milnerton training centre is quiet and tranquil. Adam has taken advantage of the additional space by spreading out, separating the string into age groups, keeping the fillies and colts in separate groups and also matching up stable mates so that fussy horses get a quiet corner or a placid neighbour and every horse is happy in its stable. It makes for a relaxed, happy yard, where horses snooze happily while grooms efficiently dispense with the daily chores.
Adam is happiest walking round the yard, adjusting a magnetic boot here, noting the odd cut or scrape there and absent-mindedly dishing out pats and wither scratches as he assesses and assimilates every detail.
This meticulous, hands-on approach has earned him some big hitting clients and he has found particular favour with stud farms wanting to produce fillies for stud, taking his time with a late or backward individual and the occasional difficult horse that needs just that little bit extra time, patience and TLC to coax the best out of them.
“I might be young and up and coming, but I like to think people see that I’m well educated, level headed and have the ability to be professional. It does help coming from a racing family, but I don’t think it would have made any difference to the way I do things.”
Keys To Success
Adam has a very clear sense both of himself and what he wants out of life, as well as his ability to succeed. Unusually for someone his age, he is an absolute stickler for detail and from that perspective, tighter numbers means he has more time to spend on each individual. He has decided to capitalise on this and skip the Durban season this year in order to focus on developing his string. “We have a few progressive young horses and if they develop the way I hope, we’ll have a few prospects for the Cape feature season.”
A key factor in achieving this is his choosiness when it comes to jockeys and unusually for a yard his size, he is able to call on the best in the business. “It’s the trainer’s job to get the best result and when you get a run, you have to make the most of it. I’m very fussy when it comes to riders. It’s impossible for one jockey to get on with every horse and I tend to choose between Richard Fourie, Greg Cheyne, Aldo Domeyer and Grant van Niekerk. They are top picks for most trainers, so I obviously don’t have my pick all the time, but Richard was my dad’s apprentice and when he left he was replaced by Grant. Greg was my dad’s stable jockey for a while and he also helped support Aldo’s application to get into the Academy, so these are all guys that I know well and who I work well with.”
Making your own luck
“Most of the string are merit rated 70’s to mid 80’s, so they’re not stars, but they pay their way and more importantly, the owners are happy and having fun. Nurturing a horse, particularly something with a lower merit rating and trying to get it to win two more races or find a way to add black type to the pedigree – that’s what I enjoy most,” he says and his office with its neatly ordered files with copious notes on each horse is testament to his searching mind.
He is unconcerned about the fact that he may not have the big ticket horses with the fashionable pedigrees of some of his neighbours. “Pedigree may determine price, but once the horse gets to the yard, that price goes out of the window. It has to, or most of us probably wouldn’t sleep at night! When I go to the sales, I have to choose sharply – either a nice individual with a lesser pedigree, or a little immature.” To illustrate the point, he pulls out a 2yo Var colt that he found on the CTS Book 1 sale. While he’d been too small to catch anyone’s eye at sale time, he’s now well over 16hh and Adam shows him off with obvious pride. Interestingly while Adam says he is prepared to compromise on pedigree, he is not willing to make concessions on the individual. It’s a philosophy that works for him.
Carving A Niche
He has a particularly good relationship with Sandown Stud, having produced Priceless Jewel, Crystal Cavern and Royal Badge from James Armitage’s So Royal family, and has just received the latest So Royal filly, who he is delighted with. But a number of other studs have cottoned on and he has some very high quality looking stock – although it’s hard to tell the expensive ones apart from the rest, as all the horses shine like brass pennies.
“I like to think of it like booking a hotel. Would you rather have room 1010 out of 2000, or would you prefer a boutique guest house where you are one of maybe 10 rooms? I’ve got where I am with limited opportunities, but I have the luxury of a little more time for each horse. I can check all my horses personally and spend hours looking at the programme and getting them to their peak for a particular race. If I have to work a little harder to get a little extra, I’m OK with that.”
He also knows that if you keep trying for long enough, eventually you’re going to get lucky. And when he does, he’ll be ready.