Not many had seen this bombshell coming, but Cliff Brown suddenly announced on Tuesday he was leaving Singapore and returning to Australia to continue his training career.
Unlike the case of fellow Kranji trainer Lee Freedman where the rumour mill about his imminent departure (he eventually announced last December he was leaving in March) had been working overtime both here and in Australia, nothing had really been hinting at such stunning news hailing from the Brown side.
The Victorian handler has again enjoyed another successful season with a top-five finish (always in Top 10 since 2010 with a fourth place on 57 winners in 2016 being his best) in 2020 (fourth), but it would seem that COVID-19 has, in a nutshell, yet again claimed another victim at Kranji.
Inferno pursuing a career in Australia is one of the pull factors to Cliff Brown's exit from Kranji, picture Singapore Turf Club
The multiple-Group 1 winning trainer said the radical racing reforms that had been brought about by the Singapore Turf Club in the wake of the pandemic has rendered unsustainable a business model that had until then proven viable since his relocation from Victoria in 2008.
As heart-breaking as that decision - made in consultation with his wife Jo - was, Brown had to put his family’s future and his own as a trainer first.
Currently in the process of winding up his operation, Brown said it would be business as usual until he leaves, which he has tentatively targeted as mid-March.
Looking back on his 12 years in Singapore, Brown said he could not have scripted his performance any better, and even though there had been ups and downs, he could have imagined himself seeing out his training days at Kranji.
But nothing could have prepared him for the debilitating effect COVID-19 would have had on his career, a destructive force that hit ground zero in March last year with its ripple effects not looking like they would fade out anytime soon.
Sporting a recently grown beard, a pensive Brown thought for a few seconds before summing up the three main reasons behind his decision - the drastic changes to the racing system, his children and his most recent star Inferno - and all three have been triggered by COVID-19, directly or indirectly.
“COVID-19 has crushed the Club, just like it has damaged a lot of other racing jurisdictions around the world. No-one is immune to its devastating effects,” said Brown.
“When I came to Singapore, my business model was to win as many races as possible. With the many changes we’ve seen in the last year, many things have been taken away as a result – my business model won’t work anymore.
“The number of races has dropped, we can’t get a run for our horses. That has greatly affected our income and our bottom line.
“(Youngest son) Felix is with us, but Jo and I haven’t seen our two eldest kids for one year because of the closed borders and travel restrictions.
“Both Harvey and India are in university back home, and not seeing them for so long has been very hard, and I don’t think travel will happen this year.
“Thirdly, Inferno going back (to Australia) is a big thing. Having him here now wouldn’t make any sense and that’s why we decided to send him to Australia.
“There’s no guarantee that he’ll be good enough in Australia, he may not be top level, but I’d really like to see him there, and be part of that new journey.”
The former juvenile champion and hot favourite for the 2020 champion three-year-old gong (he won both Legs of the Singapore Three-Year-Old Challenge on offer) is currently serving his quarantine before being flown to Australia on January 23.
Inferno was being aimed at the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) last month, but all plans were aborted when the gelding was found to be lame at Sha Tin, and still not fully recovered from the aftermath of the heat stress he had to endure at Changi Airport (on his way to take his Hong Kong-bound flight) following a faulty air-con on his float from Kranji.
Barree Stable’s dual-Group 1 winner and eight-time winner (with a second as his only defeat) will serve the mandatory two-week quarantine in Australia before spending three weeks in a paddock and joining trainer Jim Conlan in Mornington (same place Brown’s original champion Debt Collector went as well).
A successful trainer in Victoria before moving to Singapore, having trained 13 Group 1 and 2 winners in Australia including the 1997 Rosehill Guineas, 2002 Adelaide Cup and the South Australia Derby in 1996, 1997 and 2000, Brown, who has yet to choose a training base having sold his former Narbethong property a few years back, will eventually take over the training of Inferno, a four-year-old son of Holy Roman Emperor, once his trainer’s licence in his former backyard of Victoria is granted.
“I haven’t applied yet. I’ll do that once everything here is sorted first,” said Brown.
“I haven’t picked a place yet either. In normal times, I would fly in and out early to scout around for a place, but we can’t do that anymore, it’ll have to be when we get there.
“I’m leaving around mid-March, and will also serve my two-week quarantine. If all goes well, I’m hoping to start training in May, during which time Inferno would have already had a few weeks of work.”
Brown said he would bring along a few of his current string of around 54 horses with him while the rest would be redeployed elsewhere, just like his staff.
As he mentioned those loyal people who have been with him from Day 1, through thick and thin (we all remember his first days of having just the one horse, Liang Kee, in a box, himself, Chris Bock and Tim Fitzsimmons – now a trainer in his own right – as the only occupants when he just moved in in 2008), Brown choked a little with emotion.
“Of course, the first people I informed were my owners, and they were understanding, but telling my staff I was leaving was the most difficult part,” he said.
“I’ve seen them get married, have kids. It may sound corny, but they have become like a family to me.
“There are too many good people to mention, but Jeya my supervisor, Cikai and Sabri, my senior track rider, have been outstanding.
“Some have travelled to Hong Kong and Dubai. My Malaysian boys have been amazing, too, they left their families behind during the lockdown to stay with us.
“Only Chris and Tony (Lane) will come along with me to Australia, but I told my local boys they can apply to join me in Australia one day. I’ll do everything I can to get them in.
“One of the positives for my time here has been the growth and development of my staff. I have enjoyed that.
“I’ve already found new trainers for them here, and similarly for the horses, some will come with me, others will stay. Trainers like Tim, Ricardo Le Grange, James Peters and Tan Kah Soon will take over those who will stay.”
Since Celine Star, ridden by John Powell and sporting his home colours of Tarnpirr Stable, handed Brown his first Singapore win on July 13, 2008, the score has been padded up further by another 565 winners, including a remarkable haul of 34 at Group level, 13 of which came at Group 1 level.
Undoubtedly, 2016 Singapore Horse of the Year Debt Collector, with five Group 1 accolades, will remain his landmark horse, but Zac Spirit (two Lion City Cups), Gilt Complex (two Group 1s, including the Dester Singapore Gold Cup), Inferno (two Groups 1s) and his very first Group 1 winner Clint in the 2011 Emirates Singapore Derby have all given the Brown brand name a well-decorated big-race reputation in Singapore.
Brown would not pinpoint any as his career highlight, but certainly has a soft spot for three horses, Zac Spirit, Debt Collector and Inferno.
“I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of highlights. I’ve been really lucky to have had great owners who gave me such good horses to train,” he said.
“Zac Spirit was a very good horse, and he would be with Debt Collector and Inferno the three best horses I trained here.
“Lowlights? There have been plenty as well, but the worst are when your horses get injured. In saying this, it’s sadly part of this game.”
As the 51-year-old conditioner readies himself to bow out of Singapore, he would currently be too busy keeping the machine going to let any sense of nostalgia sink in, but he knows he will feel a twinge when he goes through those departure gates at Changi Airport sometime in March.
“The Singapore Turf Club and Singapore have been very good to us. That’s why it’s so hard for Jo and me to leave,” said Brown whose only 2021 winner thus far is In All His Glory on January 9.
“We’ve been so fortunate and lucky to have lived here for 12 years. We really relished the opportunities we were given.
“Our kids have grown up here. I’ve also made many friends in and outside racing, and Jo has made a very good friend here and she’ll be very sad to leave her.
“Singapore is also a fantastic place to raise kids. How many places in the world are there where your kids can take the train, and 99.9% of the time, they get to where they want to go, safe and sound?
“City life is good and safe, it’s efficient and it’s a great lifestyle, but at the end of the day, I depend on racing as my livelihood, and right now, it’s reached crossroads here and I had to pick a path – and I’ve chosen home.
“It’ll be great to be back home, too. We have a house in Queenscliff near Geelong and it would be great to be able to go back to a footy game, and watch my favourite Geelong Cats play!”