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  • Provincial Racing NSW


A friendship spawned virtually out of nowhere 25 years ago has led to Illawarra Turf Club chairman Barry Vandenbergh and his wife Marie kicking “goals” on the track.

Thanks to a close association with Melbourne Cup winning trainer Mark Kavanagh, the couple share in the ownership of winter find First Immortal, named in honour of the late great rugby league legend Clive Churchill.

Affectionately known as the “Little Master”, the champion South Sydney fullback and Kangaroos captain was the first named of the 13 Australian immortals regarded as the best to have ever played the game.

The equine First Immortal is a three-year-old son of the Coolmore shuttle stallion and multiple Group 1 winner Churchill and the second foal of Excites mare Storm Siren (a four-times NSW winner, all on wet tracks), and fetched $160,000 when sold to Kavanagh Racing at the 2021 Inglis Classic yearling sale in Sydney.

His latest victory in the $200,000 Mahogany Final (2500m) against his own age at Flemington on July 1, showing a dazzling turn of foot under his 60kg topweight, was his fifth from only 11 starts.

Vandenbergh, who has been a member of the ITC Board at Kembla Grange for 22 years and its chairman for the last decade, recalls meeting Kavanagh initially by phone in 1998.

“Marie and I owned 25 per cent in a Sydney-trained horse called Border Time, and Mark rang to ask about him as he was on the market,” Vandenbergh said today.

“He bought him sight unseen, and Marie and I flew to Adelaide later that year to meet Mark and his wife Isobel, and we became good friends with them.

“He won quite a few races with Border Time at the then three Adelaide tracks of Cheltenham, Victoria Park and Morphettville (the former two are now closed).

“Mark was an ex jumps jockey who started training at Mt Gambier before moving to Morphettville in Adelaide, and later to Melbourne.

“We speak on the phone early every Saturday morning as he is winding up his trackwork duties at Flemington.

“After he bought this colt (First Immortal), who was subsequently gelded, Mark rang to say he really liked him and gave us an early opportunity to be involved, and we own 30 per cent of him.”

Vandenbergh, a retired managing director and racing devotee, gave credit for First Immortal’s name to Clive Churchill’s son Rod.

“I have known the Churchill family for a long time, and spoke with Rod after we had bought into the horse.

“He came up with the name, and his mother Joyce, who is 96, was very pleased about it.”

Vandenbergh says he and his wife have enjoyed plenty of success with Kavanagh well before First Immortal entered the picture.

“When we first met Mark, his stables at Morphettville weren’t full and I sent him seven horses which were previously trained in Brisbane,” he explained.

“He told us one of the horses was a ‘social animal’ and would never be able to change him, but won races with the other six.”

Vandenbergh also had another horse (Sadler Joh) with Kavanagh, who won two races with the gelding at Victoria Park and Cheltenham in 2002-03.

“Mark felt he would be better suited over the jumps, and recommended we send him to Eric Musgrove in Victoria,” he said.

“Eric won a 2000m race on the flat at Mornington with Sadler Joh, and also hurdle races there and at Hilton and Bendigo.

“But the biggest thrill he gave us was winning the 2005 Galleywood Hurdle (3000m) at the famous Warrnambool carnival. He was a 20-1 chance, and it was a terrific result taking money off the Victorian bookmakers.”

First Immortal didn’t race as a two-year-old and began his career only last November in a 1400m Pakenham Maiden Plate when seventh in a field of 13.

He broke through at his fourth start in a 1950m Maiden Plate at Yarra Valley two days before Christmas.

First Immortal has won three of his last four starts at Flemington – the scene of Kavanagh’s 2009 victory with Shocking (Corey Brown) in that famous two-miler - and has earned a spell.

“Mark isn’t going to push First Immortal, and as always will plan his races carefully later in the year,” Vandenbergh said.

The ITC chairman is yet to see his promising young stayer live in action and has had to be content watching him on TV win from afar.

But he is looking forward to going to Melbourne to see him race next preparation.

Who knows? If First Immortal keeps improving, perhaps the Vandenberghs might even be trackside at Flemington on the first Tuesday in November next year with a Melbourne Cup runner!

After all, the trainer knows all about winning the race.

*Words John Curtis, July 11 - Pics supplied*

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