At Caulfield on Saturday, 100 people – many already friends, the rest about to be – will gather in a bar overlooking a parade ring, and spend the long countdown to the cup sharing the dream. For the couple who brought them together, this is as much the joy of ownership as whether it actually comes true.
Darren and Liz Dance met on a Geelong squash court, and of everything they imagined of their lives together, hosting the Australian owners of a cups-chasing English galloper in a bar festooned in fluorescent yellow surely wasn't on their radar. Yet Darren is big on the notion that things happen in life for a reason.
The racing bug skipped a generation in his family, bypassing gambling-averse parents but biting a young boy who watched in fascination as his grandmother studied the form at the kitchen table. From Warrnambool, he'd point an old Mazda 808 at wherever they were racing each Saturday – the local track, Terang, Hamilton, Mortlake, Camperdown – and punt $5 a race with $5 set aside for food. "We'd hope we won something in the first couple or we were in strife."
His work with retailer Target took him to Geelong, and in the early '90s he and a senior manager drove to Frankston only to find the bloke they were supposed to meet was off sick. His boss didn't want to waste the day, so they detoured to the Inglis autumn sale at Tullamarine, caught up with trainer Mark Riley, and soon they were looking at a yearling.
"All I saw was this brown horse with a cut on its leg and blood on its foot," Dance said. Riley and his boss bought it for $8500, and asked if he wanted in. He was a 25-year-old clerk with a mortgage running at 17 per cent interest, a wedding on the horizon and a Fijian honeymoon to pay for. At the end of their first month in their new home, he and Liz had all of $50 left over and used it to paint the toilet. "I called him and said, 'I'm gunna go in that horse.' "
Needing $2000 in a hurry, he jagged a $1700 quaddie for a $4.50 outlay, scrounged the rest and became a horse owner. He didn't tell Liz, sneaking a mid-honeymoon phone call to hear it had won its first trial. Eventually he told his bride he'd bought her a present, and they drove to a paddock at Freshwater Creek, near Geelong.
"What do you think?" Dance asked her. "It looks like a horse," Liz replied.
She soon warmed to Mookta, which won its first start at Yarra Glen by six lengths, won at Caulfield as a two-year-old, and after taking out the Oakleigh Plate and Newmarket Handicap had paid for their house, plus renovations, and an investment property to boot. They pledged not to buy another horse until Mookta retired, but when he went to stud they went a leap further and bought a 34 hectare farm on the Ballarat-Ballan road. "I had this brainwave that we should have cattle and one or two broodmares to breed our own racehorses, and keep working," says Dance, who was by then with Coles-Myer in IT. They started with 45 cattle and two horses; now, Manningtree Park has no cows and 150 horses.
The Dances have a share in every one of them, a philosophy that underpins Australian Thoroughbred Bloodstock, a name chosen because it put them near the top of the phone directory. "I want to own horses with a heap of people, not have them saying, 'He keeps the good ones for himself.' "
He certainly got his wish. There are 1400 owners on the ATB books, including many who have been with the Dances all along. Like Stephen Everett, who with brother Michael had a $1200 Zephyr Bay mare at Manningtree Park which was served by Racer's Edge for $4000, and produced True Courser, which won more than $530,000.
Everett says the Dances make sure their owners have a good time, regardless of whether the horse salutes. And when you do win, the bar is raised. "Oh yeah, no worries about that, a bit of a blur," he says of the celebrations after True Courser won the 2005 Warrnambool Cup.
He praises the work Liz does behind the scenes, keeping everyone organised and informed, and concurs with Dance's assessment of his wife as the party animal of the pair. He does the driving and doesn't drink at the track, viewing it as his office, a place where he spends 300 days a year.
He has learnt much about horse-spotting since that bloody but fortuitous Tullamarine sale, and backs himself to find animals capable of winning much more than they cost. Buying a cheap Lonhro progeny, marking it up and selling it isn't their go. "I've been lucky at home, having mares and foals, watching them grow and caring for them," he says of the learning curve.
In the past couple of years their enterprise has "exploded", after urging from Chris Blomeley, then with Inglis, to syndicate a Melbourne Cup runner. Dance had never harboured such ambition, but admits that when he was sweeping floors at the Warrnambool Target he couldn't have foreseen where he'd end up with Coles-Myer either. After Unusual Suspect ran solidly in both cups in 2011, his business training of devising a strategy to mitigate risk and arrive at the right outcome took over.
After careful selection they paid $500,000 for Jakkalberry, an entire, which then won an American St Leger and ran third in last year's Big One, turning a handy profit.
Dandino, at $900,000, followed, and while Dance reckons he would recognise most of his owners once he's met them, he has no idea how many lay claim to anything from the hindquarters to a hair on the seven-year-old's mane. "We send out 16 invoices, and we've got 100 people coming and a heap who aren't."
When you've shelled out big dollars and your horse is only in the country for six weeks, every second counts. "Not everyone's going to follow him around the world – if they get a chance to see him here on Saturday and soak it up ... that's important."
A good communicator, Dance treats all part-owners as family.