Anthony Azzopardi’s ascension to the top greyhound racing has been a life time in the making.
Introduced to the sport by his father, Azzopardi’s strong work ethic, meticulous planning and dedication to his dogs has helped build a reputation as one of the sport’s leading conditioners.
After contemplating his future in the sport in 2015, Anthony, his partner Kylee and daughter Kaylah, made the decision to move to Victoria to give him the best opportunity to chase the some of the sport’s races in what is regarded the country’s toughest racing jurisdiction. It was a bold move, but one that paid off in the biggest possible way when Whiskey Riot – ‘Red’ as he’s known at home – landed the world’s greatest greyhound race, the TAB Melbourne Cup last November.
A month after that triumph, we sat down with Anthony to look back at the win, his new state of the art training property, and what lay ahead 2020.
He also took time to take over the Sandown Facebook page to answer a number of interesting questions and provide invaluable advice to greyhound fans and participants. Click here for more.
Mick Floyd: Melbourne Cup winning trainer Anthony Azzopardi. Have you got used to that title yet?
Anthony Azzopardi: Jeez, it’s like I won a world title! No it’s really good, something amazing that’s for sure.
MF: It’s a bit over a month since the Melbourne Cup. What are the feelings when you look back on the night?
AA: It was truly a buzz really. It’s still a buzz for me, it gives me goose bumps. How do I explain it? It’s just a privilege, a real privilege to win the best race. I know there’s the Million Dollar Chase and all that, but Melbourne Cup… it’s the Melbourne Cup. It’s everything we aim for as trainers I just feel so privileged and honoured to win it. Even for my family as well. It’s the greatest thing ever.
MF: A lot of planning goes in to a Melbourne Cup campaign. How far out did you start planning for the Cup?
AA: It was a lot of planning, would have been five, six months, really. We talked to (owners) Colin and Sandra (Camden-Bermingham) and we said, “look, I know it’s a long shot, but the Melbourne Cup’s definitely got to be on the radar.” He’s an early speed dog, went 29.20s here and that was a really good run beating that really good bitch Neo Cleo. I thought that was a big thing for us because we needed to see that strength.
I wanted to keep the travelling as light as possible. I didn’t want to keep going to Sydney or wherever there were races – I was able to pick and choose which races we went for. The Adelaide Cup (where he ran second to Hooked On Scotch) showed me that dog was really up to the task. He was a real good run in the Top Gun at the Meadows, but the real test was the Shootout. That Shootout, I know he got beaten, but he actually won for us.
MF: I remember speaking to you after that race, and you had a big grin on your face. It was the happiest I’ve seen someone who’s been beaten by a nose in a group race.
AA: Yeah (laughing). We walked out with no prize money, but I can tell you, I was happy because I knew the dog was up to it and an eight-dog field is always different than a four-dog field. The (Shootout) format suited the winner (Hooked On Scotch) which is a fantastic dog – he almost won the Melbourne Cup himself – so there was no question about his ability. But our dog’s a leader, if you jam up a little bit behind and can pinch a break you can be hard to run down and that’s how it all ended up.
MF: I think everyone has seen the video of the Cup from behind the boxes. What was the feeling when you realised he’d hung on?
AA: There was a lot of things going through my head. When he hung on, it felt like a big relief. It’s something I really wanted, something really bad.
We’d been in the Melbourne Cup a couple times before that. You go home, you’re happy with your dog, but you’re really disappointed because it’s an opportunity lost. You never know when you’re going to make another Melbourne Cup. But the feeling was a big relief.
I thought about my father, back where we used to go, the old country tracks in New South Wales – Coonamble, Orange when it was open, Bathurst. We started off on the bottom, and to work our way gradually to the top – it’s a feeling I couldn’t even put in words, mate. That’s what really come to my mind. It’s all the people I met through the country tracks, where we started from and now we had reached the highest level.
Anthony Azzopardi enjoys strong support from his family and group of loyal owners
MF: It was certainly one of the more popular wins I’ve seen, and there were a lot of well wishes on the night. When you checked your phone, how many messages did you have?
AA: Oh mate, it took me a week to get through them all – I had 437 messages on my phone! I’ll be honest, there were numbers that I didn’t have names to. I wish I knew who they were, but yeah, it was just amazing the love and support we got and there was so many nice people out there congratulating us we didn’t even know. It’s a magical feeling, mate. It couldn’t be any more grateful to them for their support.
MF: It can be a tough grind at times as a greyhound trainer. It’s not a job, it’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle and the whole family is involved as well. Your partner Kylee wasn’t here on the night, she was at home whelping down a litter of pups. What did she say to you when you got home?
AA: We got home, I’ll never forget it, we got home and she ran right past me and went straight to ‘Red’, gave him the biggest hug and he loved it (laughing). He loves her because she spends a lot of time with him too. She gave me a hug and Kaylah (their daughter) and we’re all in tears to be honest. Even thinking about it now makes me want to go to tears.
For her, it’s got nothing to do with money. Same with all of us as well, I’ll be honest, it’s the love of the animals. She loves those greyhounds, I’ll tell you. She’ll come in the morning after we do all the dogs and they go ballistic – sometimes I hate her coming in the kennels! But they just love her and she loves them. You’ve got to understand too, she plays with them, she whelps them down, she spends a lot of time with them.
While they’re growing up, they get all the attention. She puts them on the leash, she takes them for walks, she takes them down to the dam, she does a lot of work with them. It makes my job a lot easier – when they come in the kennels they’re so far more advanced than most dogs. They go to break ins, and in two weeks you can pick them up. They just know everything. Yeah, she’s amazing. She got a really, really big buzz out of it.
MF: You’ve had quite a lot of success in your career. That time you spend with the dogs has got to be a big reason for that?
AA: Oh yeah. We spend a lot of time with the dogs. Now we’ve got this new setup, it’s basically like a house now. We got the kennel block for them, we’ve got our area where we sit there and we have Sky channel on. The dogs are always with us and I think that’s very important. You get to know their attitudes and what they like and what they dislike and I think that for me, I need to know that as a trainer. We do spend a lot of time with them and I love it. I’m lucky I have a family behind me that loves the same thing. If your partner or wife didn’t like it, I don’t think it’s not going to work. I’m very lucky to have a family that likes what I like.
MF: You mentioned a new setup. You made the move to Victoria a few years ago now to contest these sorts of races, and you’re into another property now that you’ve built from scratch. It must be really rewarding to reap the rewards of backing yourself the way you have.
AA: Yeah, it is mate. I was scratching paint off the wall for a little bit there. Things had got a little bit dear and didn’t realise what things are worth. But yeah, it is, it’s very rewarding I’ll be honest with you. I’ve put everything, every idea, I’ve had … like my other properties, what I should have changed, should have done, I’ve done on this property. There’s nothing I could say on this property that I’m missing. We’ve got all different sorts of training facilities. I’m going to put a pool in very shortly, that’s the only thing’s left now. We’ve got running and galloping paddocks, we’ve got a brilliant straight track with a lure on the straight track. We’ve got everything now and it’s a relief to get success straightaway. I think since we’ve been there, we’ve won a Healesville Cup and heap of other races. I don’t keep count winners, but we know we won a Melbourne Cup!
MF: I can tell you how many winners you had in 2019 – 119 winners from 362 starters, over a million dollars in prize money at 33% strike rate. They’re pretty good figures.
AA: That just shows the work we’ve put in with them, you know what I mean? Our dogs – I’m not just saying because they’re our dogs, but only can speak to it about our dogs because I’m with them every day – they love life. They got a great life. They go out in the sun when they want to go out in the sun. They never need be busting to go to the toilet or anything like that. If they’re very happy, it makes me happy and they’re going to perform at their best. That’s basically what I go off, really.
MF: Melbourne Cup weekend was a pretty big weekend for you personally as well turning the big 4-0. It must have been a fun weekend for many reasons, with family and friends and a big crew there to celebrate.
AA: It was a big surprise, to be honest. My 40th was on Saturday and we won the Melbourne Cup the night before. The next day, the party begun. I didn’t have any idea my family was coming. They were all down here on Friday. Actually, at the pub there at Bacchus Marsh. The missus booked them all in there to watch the race so they didn’t ruin the surprise party here Saturday. When they walked up, my whole family, that was amazing.
That weekend couldn’t have been any better, honestly. I’ve never had a weekend like it, it was amazing. It was just amazing how we won a Melbourne Cup. It was my 40th, surprise with my family. My mother, she’s 82 and she walked up, that was a big effort. And Kylee and Kayla organized all that. They did amazing job.
MF: When did it all finish up?
AA: I think Monday morning (laughing). It was pretty big I’ll tell you. I’ve had a few good stints in my time, but I think that was a pretty good stint.
MF: Since winning the Melbourne Cup, do you find yourself getting more offers for dogs?
AA: I’ve been lucky enough to have always been offered dogs. I get a lot of… not race dogs but mainly pups coming through. I have got a couple recent new race dogs now, which is good but it hasn’t really changed as much because, like I said, I’ve always been offered dogs. I’ve been lucky enough for that and I’m always pretty full, too. I try to keep a lot in house as well. I let Colin and Sandra, Terry, and all the owners, Craig and his wife Analise, we keep everything tight knit there. They breed a lot of litters as well. I breed a couple myself.
MF: Does it change your expectations with the dogs now? Do you raise the standard, trying to find that next Melbourne Cup winner?
AA: No, no, no, definitely not. I don’t think you can do that, it’s a bit unfair. You wouldn’t have any dogs otherwise. No, it’s still the same old Anthony, mate. I just do the work with them and if I think we’ll be competitive in Melbourne, I’ll keep them. If not, I go to the owner. I’m lucky enough that I’ve got other trainers everywhere, the Northern Rivers, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Tasmania. If I think a dog is probably going to win the most money, say for example, Northern Rivers way, I’ll advise them. If they take it on board, they take it. If not, well, they can place themselves. But yeah, I won’t keep it if it’s not going to be competitive in my kennel here.
MF: 2019 was obviously was a big year. What’s ahead in 2020 for Anthony Azzopardi?
AA: Look, I think the future’s pretty bright. We got a new litter and we’ve got a very nice young team coming up. Hopefully they go on with it, but they still have a long way to. They’ve been trialling and everything and they’ve been going really super. I’m pretty excited over these pups. But like I said, they got a long way to go yet.
MF: You’re training some pretty good dogs, you own a few pups, you breed a few, and you stand a dog at stud (Raw Ability). How do you see the sport generally?
AA: The sport’s great, I think it’s been the best it’s ever been. There’s a lot of money to be made, even on the country tracks – you don’t need to be in the city to make money. There’s been some new rules implemented and I understand some rules are harder than others, but it’s the game we’re in now and I think it’s going to be for the best, really. I think all the upgrades on the tracks have been great. Safer racing. Yeah, I think the industry is well and truly moving ahead now.
MF: Is there one we should keep an eye out for in 2020?
AA: I’d like to tell you that, but he’s not named yet (laughing). But when he’s named I will tell you. But I’m going to tell you, he’ll make a big impact if he goes on with it.
The TAB Melbourne Cup was the crowning achievement of Anthony Azzopardi’s training career