Young Cranbourne trainer Jack Laing brought up his first city winner with a horse that he rescued from the bushfires which ripped through Bunyip and surrounds, destroying 29 homes and 14,500 hectares of land in 2019.
The horse – Our Boy Bryan – was only eight weeks old and still on his mother, Divine Beauty, when lighting strikes in the Bunyip State Park sparked a ferocious bushfire.
Laing received an SOS from the breeder of Our Boy Bryan, Dorothy Hodge, who feared the fires would destroy her Bunyip property and all the horses on it.
The 71-year-old Hodge is a well-known breeder of Arabians and operates Salah Arabian Stud and dabbles in the breeding and racing of the occasional thoroughbred.
When the fires hit, Laing and his father, Group 1-winning trainer Robbie, along with horse breaker/trainer Shane Bottomley, headed to Hodge’s property with a convoy of trucks and a horse float to rescue Hodge’s horses.
Along with Our Boy Bryan and his mum, the trio rescued another 15 horses from Hodge’s property, including her much loved Arabians.
Laing, who spells his horses at her property, recalls how he got a distressed phone call from Hodge as the fires crept closer to her house.
“We went out there with a couple of trucks and she breds Arabs as well and we threw them all on the trucks,” he said.
“It got pretty hairy and by the time we got up to Bryan and his mother, we thought we’d leave the hard ones to last, and he was only a couple of months old or so and was a big, strong bugger and a bit cheeky.
“There was ash falling on us at that stage and the fences were on fire so it was pretty hairy actually.
“We finally got Bryan on the float after he punched on with us a bit and he has always been a big brute of a horse and as we drove off, the fences were burning and there were a few grass fires.
“Half an hour later Dorothy called back and said the wind had changed. It was one of those things and if we had have waited for the wind and it didn’t change, they would have been in a lot of trouble.”
In agreeance, Hodge recalls what a “handful” Our Boy Bryan was to get onto the float when the horses were being evacuated.
“It was a job and a half for Jack and Shane, who is a big man, to get him onto the float,” she said.
“The whole placed was covered in burnt leaves and things. I was in Sydney and had to make a dash home and it was a bit scary. I was going to stay (after the horses evacuated) but my son Shaun said ‘you are not’ so I took all of my house cats and the dog to a friend in Pakenham. I landed on her doorstep with six cats.”
Hodge said she returned the next day not knowing whether her house would be still standing, but luckily it escaped damage.
Hodge is good friend of Sydney jockey-turned-trainer Gerald Ryan, and it was he who gave her his nomination to the Group 3-winning Unencumbered (Testa Rossa x Blizzardly), who stood at Three Bridges Thoroughbreds in Eddington. Our Boy Bryan is from the stallion’s last crop before his untimely death in March 2018.
Hodge said the last city winner she had was Bit of Grace (Bit of A Skite x Cushina), a mare she bred, which won at Sandown and Moonee Valley in 1985 and was ridden by Gerald. Her full sister, Bit Of Hope, was also a dual city winner.
“The funny that is that Gerald rode that one (Bit Of Grace) and we have been friends for 47 years,” Hodge said.
“He gave me the breeding service to Unencumbered which is why Gerald’s daughter Tai is also an owner. It was a lovely thing of him to give me the nomination and it was very much appreciated.”
Like Our Boy Bryan, Divine Beauty and her dam, Love The Sun, who was by 1986 Sydney Cup winner Marooned, all have the same colouring of chestnut with a white face.
Hodge had previously bred three foals, all by Happy Giggle (Rory’s Jester x Sorority) which she used to agist at her property, out of Our Boy Bryan’s dam, Divine Beauty (Don’t Say Halo).
Only one of the Happy Giggle foals, True Desire, made it to the track, but the filly won a race and was placed twice from 10 starts.
“I have bred Arabian horses all my life and this sounds silly, but I have had a gut feeling about this horse (Our Boy Bryan) since he was born,” he said.
Hodge said she formerly stood multiple Group winner Bit Of A Skite (Showoff x Gold Vink) at her property after she used to agist the stallion for Epsom trainer Owen Lynch.
“I have been here on the property for 47 years and I still spell racehorses,” she said.
“Over the years I have only probably raced half a dozen horses and the half-sister to (Our Boy) Bryan won a race for Shea Eden and I had two more Happy Giggles out of the mare (Divine Beauty), and I’ve still got one at home as she got injured.
“The one before Bryan (Remember Owen) was an absolute cracker but he had bone cyst and was permanently lame and had to put down unfortunately.”
Divine Beauty had her first of four foals in 2009 but has had nine seasons when she wasn’t served. Before Our Boy Bryan, the mare went three seasons without being served and another two seasons after he was born.
The mare is 19 years old, but Hodge’s son Shaun is now keen to put her back in the breeding barn after Our Boy Bryan’s win.
“Divine Beauty was given to me, and she has had a good home and she’ll be here until she dies,” said Hodge.
Hodge was also the strapper for Our Boy Bryan and says it’s something she has been doing since she used to take days off from high school to work at the races.
While she hasn’t bred a lot of thoroughbreds, it’s a different story with the Arabians.
“I have bred a hell of a lot, including Australian champions and really top horses and if you look at Bryan’s colours, there is an Arabian horse on the front and back,” she said.
“He has got purple colours with a white Arabian horse which is my stud logo.”
Laing wasn’t surprised with the big odds of three-year-old Our Boy Bryan at Moonee Valley on Friday night – he started at $19 – after he was third on debut and followed it up with a second at Cranbourne before tackling the city assignment at his third start.
“I think going from Cranbourne to Moonee Valley and it was my only second metropolitan runner, and I hadn’t had a city winner or many winners at all, I dare say that would have equated to the odds,” he said.
“I’m learning wisely and it’s a very fickle game and if you don’t train 10 Group 1 winners in your first 10 starters you go to the bottom of the pack.
“I have only trained two winners but I guess I have taken a different approach compared to others. If you don’t inherit a bunch of good horses from a big stable then people generally go and buy tried horses online to try and drop their grade and sneak a few wins out of them.
“I went and bought about 10 or 15 yearlings and that’s why there has been a bit of a delay. I guess the fruits will come shortly as there is a few I’ve got that are ready to go and there are some good ones there.
“There are a few I bought online and from breeze ups. I have got a Tosen Stardom colt that is a year younger than (Our Boy) Bryan and has worked with him and has run rings around him. I also have a Divine Prophet filly that looks pretty good.
“They will be coming to fruition from now until early year.”
A plumber by trade, Laing now has 18 horses in work.
Laing hopes the Tosen Stardom colt out of an Octagonal mare – they hope to name it Belgium Black – will be the next Laing family Derby winner.
Our Boy Bryan will head to Flemington in three weeks to tackle an open 1400m handicap.
“He won with authority the other night, so we are hoping,” he said.