Mike Santich has had an extraordinary knack of producing inexpensive gallopers to perform exceptionally well as juveniles in recent years, however, the mechanic-turned-trainer’s latest acquisition may well prove to be his best yet.
Santich’s home-bred filly, Starfield Impact, resumed from a spell with an impressive win in the $100,000 Listed Supremacy Stakes (1000m) at Ascot on March 7 and shapes up as one of the leading contenders of the $150,000 Group 3 Gimcrack Stakes (1100m) at the same track this Saturday.
Santich raced the Demerit two-year-old’s dam, Starfield Image, who flagged considerable potential as a race mare when recording four wins and three minor placings from only eight race starts before her racing career was cut short due to injury.
As the Croatian-born Santich reflects back on his widely-travelled life to date, his story is one of considerable success after having migrated more than 13,200 kilometres from his homeland as a teenager almost 50 years ago.
“I’m from an island in Croatia called Lozisca,” Santich said.
“It’s the furthest one from the coast and it’s a beautiful place.
“All of my uncles and aunties have been in Australia forever.
“We came here when I was 16 or 17 in the early 70s with my mum and old man and they ended up going, back but I stayed here.
“Croatia is a beautiful place, but this country is better to make a few bucks.”
With no family background in the horse industry, Santich’s journey to racehorse training is quite unique.
A chance introduction to the sport in the 1980s led to him meeting top Perth horseman Wally Mitchell, the trainer of former champion galloper, Placid Ark, and his interest magnified significantly.
“I started a mechanical apprenticeship at a Datsun dealer and, after I finished my apprenticeship, I went up north for three years,” he said.
“When I got back from up north, I bought a car yard on Stirling Highway near Leighton and I started a panel and mechanical shop as well.
“A mate of mine had a dealership in Cannington and he had a horse with Wally Mitchell.
“He said to me, ‘why don’t you come in a horse? It’s good fun and it’s good money’.
“He introduced me to Wally and it all started from there.”
Not one to do things half-hearted, Santich didn’t waste much time launching into his newfound hobby.
“I went to the sales and bought a Pago Pago colt and it kept going shinsore,” Santich said.
“All I wanted to do was see my horse go around and I said to Wally, ‘I’m going to go to next year’s sale and by 10 horses, I just want to see one run’.
“He said, ‘don’t be silly, just be patient!’
“I was with Wally every morning and I never missed a morning.
“I would go down and watch the trackwork and learn how to do things like strapping and stuff like that.
“Then I ended up getting my trainer’s licence in the late 90s.”
Now training from a stable at WA’s racing headquarters, Ascot, Santich also operates a farm on the outskirts of Gingin, located an hour-and-a-half drive away.
“The horses being trained are based on Matheson Road in Ascot and the ones that are spelling are at the farm near Gingin,” Santich said.
“I’ve got a caretaker that looks after them.
“I gave my panel beating business away because you can’t do both.
“But I still do it a bit to keep myself busy, otherwise I’d go crazy.
“I’ve got the farm, so there’s always a couple jobs that need doing, and I’ve got 10 horses in work now which is a lot of pressure, too.”
Santich’s partner, Tracey Brown, is a popular local who is the unsung hero of Santich’s racing operation.
The pair are well-known within the Ascot community and oversee the majority of the work at their boutique stable on their own.
“We mainly do it all ourselves and have a couple of people that help,” he said.
“It’s the same as housework; one person does the dishes and the other does the floors.
“You’re there to help each other.
“We’ve got a little café down at the track, so we both fiddle around with that then come home and do the yards and feed the horses and stuff.
“It’s a two-person affair.”
Fast forward to Starfield Impact’s recent stakes victory and you only need to look at Santich’s previous results to learn the filly’s progression is no fluke.
In 2015 Santich purchased a Demerit yearling, who would soon become Spangled Impact, for a modest $2,000 at the Perth Magic Millions Winter Sale before preparing her to win a $60,000 metropolitan event at her race debut only four months later.
The filly also won her following start before being spelled ahead of the Perth’s two-year-old feature race series, where she finished second to champion juvenile Whispering Brook in both the $150,000 Group 3 Gimcrack Stakes (1100m) and $500,000 Group 2 Karrakatta Plate (1200m), before placing third to the same galloper in the $200,000 Group 3 WA Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m).
“I like youngsters because a lot of hard work goes into them,” Santich said.
“Over the years I’ve learnt what sort of work they need and, I did sport for 20 years myself, and they’re not much different.
“It’s a challenge, but they respond to the way I train them and they get results.”
Three years prior to Spangled Impact’s outstanding two-year-old season, Santich unveiled another impressive type in the form of Kendal Star filly, Starfield Image.
After making her race debut as an autumn three-year-old, she returned as a four-year-old in the spring and finished second first-up from a spell before winning four consecutive races —however — her racing career came to a premature end after she fractured a sesamoid bone in a stable incident.
Despite having previously promised himself that his breeding days were long gone, Santich says he couldn’t resist the temptation to send his talented mare to stud.
“I swore years ago I would never, ever breed horses for as long as I live because I had two broodmares and they cost me a fortune,” Santich said.
“They couldn’t run to save themselves and I thought, ‘no more breeding for me, I’ll just go to the sales, pay the money and then six months later find out if they can run or not’.
“But, this particular horse, the way she was and how fast she was, she was a freak.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to breed from her and I don’t care how much money she costs me or if she sends me broke’, because I knew she would pass it onto one of her progeny.”
Starfield Image’s first foal, a Proart filly named Classic Pro, has had four race starts to date for a win and two minor placings.
However, the broodmare’s second offspring, the Supremacy Stakes-winning Starfield Impact, has stolen the limelight.
“She’s a double of her Mum,” he said.
“If you ever had them next to each other, other than being a bit darker, Spangled Impact is a double in every way.
“Their body shape and their attitude is in every way the same as her Mum.
“It’s actually scary.
“She’s got a full brother yearling sitting in the paddock, too.
“He’s absolutely beautiful and, I don’t know if he can run the same as his sister, but I’m over the moon to get one out of three.”
After only being beaten by a head on debut last October, Starfield Impact recorded two minor placings either side of a victory in the $100,000 Crystal Slipper Stakes (1000m) at Ascot before being spelled.
Although she displayed obvious above-average ability after netting $97,500 in her first race preparation for her owner-breeder-trainer, it was her recent first-up performance in the Listed Supremacy Stakes that make WA’s racing fraternity take notice.
Caught three-and-four-wide without cover after jumping from barrier seven in a nine-horse field, the Demerit filly still proved too strong over the concluding stages to defeat the Simon Miller-trained American Choice by a head.
“It was mind blowing,” Santich said.
“I always worry about the barriers because barriers win you races and she’d only been in work for six weeks, but I gave her a 400-metre trial as a pipe opener for Saturday.
“When she drew a wide barrier I was tossing and turning whether to go there or not, but she pulled up a treat after the trial so I thought we’d take a gamble and put her in and see what happens.
“When Jason (Whiting) dropped out and couldn’t get in, I didn’t think she was any hope of running in the first four.
“Then, when she came around the corner, I thought, ‘she can win this’ and I was speechless.
“She pulled up so well after that you could’ve sent her around in the next race.
“She’s just a tough filly.”
Having now accumulated $218,100 in total stake and bonus earnings from her first five starts to date, Santich believes the best is still yet to come.
He now has his eyes peeled firmly on the $88,500 first-place prize of Saturday’s Group 3 Gimcrack Stakes (1100m) at Ascot and says he will be able to create history if he can win the fillies-only feature event.
“She’ll go the Gimcrack on Saturday and that’s my goal I want to achieve if I can,” he said.
“She would be the first horse to ever win the Crystal Slipper, Supremacy Stakes and the Gimcrack, so that would be something to dream about.
“That’s my goal and whatever happens in the Karrakatta Plate will be a bonus.
“I’d love to win the Karrakatta Plate because I ran second with Spangled Impact in it, but whatever happens, happens.”
With an in-form stable and an incredibly-exciting horse in his care, Santich has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
Asked how long he thinks he will maintain his current workload, the veteran says he’ll keep going for as long as his body allows him.
“There’s a lot hard work that goes into horse training,” Santich said.
“A lot of stress, not just physically, but mentally because you always worry.
“Mentally is harder than physically, especially when you’ve got a good horse.
“At this stage, I’m doing it on my ear so I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.
“But, even if I closed the books tomorrow, I’ve achieved a fair bit in my time I’ve been with racehorses and it’s been a pretty good rollercoaster.”