When horse trainer Gary Portelli met Yu Long Investments’ Yuesheng Zhang earlier this week, the Chinese billionaire had one thing on his mind: pigeons.
Four days before today’s inaugural, $10 million Everest race — Mr Zhang had arrived in Sydney’s west to inspect the horse that would leap forth from his $600,000 slot in the lucrative event. “He came to the stables on Tuesday to see the horse, but he was more interested in seeing my racing pigeons,” Portelli said.
The man who trains champion racehorse She Will Reign at his farm in Warwick Farm has, since he was young, kept thousands of racing birds. They’ve been a hobby and a pastime on countless cold winter Saturdays. It’s a passion, he learned, that he shares with Mr Zhang.
“He can’t speak a word of English … It was like we were able to communicate through the birds,” he told 2GB’s Ray Hadley. “He’s in there catching birds, laughing, carrying on. I said, ‘we came away with a little bit of pigeon English together’.”
The Chinese investor recently won a pigeon race worth $800,000 in his home country.
“Racing pigeons in China have gone berserk,” Portelli said. “I find it a fascinating sport.”
There are birds bred to fly sprints, as well as middle and long distances, reaching speeds of between one and two kilometres per minute. An increasingly obscure sport that attracts several thousand people Australia-wide, pigeons — like horse racing — this week bridged the gulf between a foreign billionaire and a Sydney trainer.
Meanwhile, Portelli’s She Will Reign is a fairytale underdog. Sold as a yearling for $20,000 — a steal, in racing circles — the daughter of Manhattan Rain and Courghette was the Cinderella filly that fit the 2017 Golden Slipper.
Owned by a syndicate of 19, more than 150 friends and family turn up to support her on race day. A truckie, a carpenter and an ice-cream maker are some of those who own a tiny percentage of the horse, who has a big chance of winning the trophy today, to be presented by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove.
“These (horses) are the best sprinters collectively put together for a long time,” Portelli said. “You could probably run the race 12 different times and get 12 different winners from different barrier draws. The last 100m, they’ll all be going good till then. That’s where it’ll change.”
Rossi Kewley is one of She Will Reign’s owners. “It’s crazy. This race is set up for the millionaires and billionaires, but if you’ve got the right horse it doesn’t matter,” he said. The 32-year-old ice-cream maker bought a share in February last year.
Trent Hill’s daughter, Sienna, has grown up with horses as a regular topic of family conversation.
“We’ve got a kid who doesn’t want to hear bedtime stories,” the 45-year-old truckie said. “She wants to see re-runs of She Will Reign.”
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