Sep 2013

Sea Moon and the Mystery of Running Recoveries

Afleet Alex Preakness
Saturday 7 September, a little past 3.30pm, the Makybe Diva Stakes was giving Flemington an audience that spanned cities, states and countries. My Twitter timeline was dotted with hard-nosed punters on Puissance de Lune, Melbourne Cup palm readers, and a small British audience that had risen early to follow the passage of Sea Moon. The ex-Juddmonte horse was starting his Australian career in this newly elevated Gr1 mile, and we were all watching. Three seconds after the spring, Sea Moon blew it. Missed the kick and almost kissed the green. He beat only two horses home.

I followed the timeline very carefully after Foreteller pipped Puissance at the post. One or two said Sea Moon was ‘disappointing’, entirely missing the incident at the start. The experts discounted the run
because of the incident. They said Sea Moon had run very well in spite of it, his sectionals adding up to a very good final furlong. Most agreed that the run had to be forgiven, that a horse that sprawls so badly was excused. It got me thinking.

How brave should we expect our racehorses to be in this day and age? Should they get on with the job more when they run into trouble? Let’s take a look at some of the miracle race-recoveries I’m aware of.

First off the blocks is Shannon’s 1946 Epsom Handicap, footage of which has been kicking around on ‘Remember When’ the last few weeks. In that race, Shannon was the shortest odds-on favourite in the race’s history, and somehow the AJC starter, experienced Jack Gaxieu, let the field away with Shannon and another runner, Scotch Gift, about 12 lengths behind the line. By the time Shannon got galloping (he had to walk up to the line, stop, then set off), he and Darby Munro were half-a-furlong behind. The footage is extraordinary. With 61kg, Shannon ripped away at top speed for the entire mile, falling short at the line by a nose. Mathematically, the margin was six miserable inches.

Munro rode the guts out of Shannon that Saturday afternoon (
read every detail of this race in Chpt 27 of the forthcoming ‘Shannon’), believing he owed it to the race-going punters that had heaped their post-war pounds on the odds-on favourite. He accepted no excuses, and neither did the woeful public. Shannon had had less than a mile to run down the field, and by jesus did he do it. Two days later, he and Darb ran around in the George Main Stakes, lopping the top off the Australasian mile record by six lengths to leg-weary Flight.

In 1932, three-year-old Peter Pan staged one of the greatest ever Flemington recoveries. Running around by the abattoirs in the Melbourne Cup, he was in the leading division on the rails when he clipped the heels of the horse in front at the 5f pole. At the moment he began to fall, his stablemate Denis Boy slammed into him from behind, propelling him into the air again. Cannoned twice, he dropped back through the field some 20 lengths and disappeared from contention. Imagine how fast this colt was travelling in those final three down the straight. Peter clocked the then-fastest Cup time for a three-year-old when he dive-bombed Yarramba and won the ’32 race by a neck (documented in
chapter 10 of ‘Peter Pan’).

These are very old races, of course. Horses were different then, you might say. The tracks were different, the breeding. So let’s briefly look at one of my favourite contemporary mid-race miracles – Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness Stakes (
click here for the footage). Bursting around the turn in this second leg of the US Triple Crown, Alex is moving around the outside of the leader, Scrappy T. When Scrappy T fans into the carpark, he runs right over Afleet Alex. The footage speaks for itself. One of the greatest stretch recoveries the turf has ever seen (see pic above).

So what has this to do with Sea Moon?

Well, from an historian’s perspective, horses have come back from lesser incidents than Sea Moon’s Makybe start and fared well – often in the money, sometimes the winner. They say that a great horse needs no excuses, and in some ways Black Caviar proved that at Ascot. If she tore all those muscles in running, she didn’t let it stop her from getting to the front. Shannon, Peter Pan and Afleet Alex had their blood up to get to the line, and there are countless others you will say. Kingston Town comes to mind... ‘Kingston Town can’t win’. And it raises the weary question of what horses are made of these days. Thankfully, we don’t expect them to run twice a week anymore, and we scrutinise their welfare as we should. But has modern breeding made them softer, modern training less courageous?

In Sea Moon’s case, the experts are likely right. Sea Moon, like most of the field in the Makybe, was not wound up to Gr1 level. This race is a prep event on the long and winding road to the big ones. So we probably didn’t have a horse that was fully fit, at least fit enough to spring back from a sprawling. More than this, the Makybe was Sea Moon’s first start in Australia, and Shannon has taught me all about the challenges of horses acclimatising. Different foods, different water, different ground, it all adds up. It might take much longer than a season for Sea Moon to find his English legs. On the other hand, he might be far sharper than his Makybe suggested.

So, in the end we’re left only with questions. Is Sea Moon really as good as what they’re saying, the ‘equal-best raider to ever land in Australian hands’? Do we forgive too much in racing these days? Should we expect our top animals to be a little more battle-hardened? Then again, in Phar Lap’s era they were saying, ‘they don’t make them like Carbine anymore’, and here I am, ghosting those very whingers!

The Disappearance of Racing Randwick

We like to think that racing is age old, and it is. The ‘Sport Of Kings’... named after a time when there were kings. And of so many sports, perhaps this one thinks it honours its past better than most. We remember Phar Lap and Carbine, Persimmon and St Simon, all the way back to the three foundation sires eons ago. We celebrate 150 years of great races. We preserve racing. Or we think we do.

The photograph above was taken Monday last, on a very warm, spring-like day in Kensington, racing suburb of Sydney. The elegant, Federation home pictured is 158 Doncaster Avenue, rested on a large block on the western fringe of Randwick suburb. Leap the back fence and you’re on racecourse land.

Eighty years ago, on the same Monday afternoon in spring, you might have seen Banjo Paterson tugging on a cigarette on that front verandah. After all, this was the home of racehorse trainer Frank McGrath, and McGrath and Paterson were friends. You might have seen Eric Connolly or Bill Pierson, and you most certainly would have seen the men that owned such racing legends as Peter Pan, Amounis and Beau Vite. And in a matter of months, the only thing surviving of this house will be this photograph.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. To understand this issue, you must first know a little about Doncaster Avenue.

Flanking the western perimeter of Randwick racecourse, the busy street has been an artery for horse racing since racing began here, and that’s a while ago by Sydney standards. As recently as 60 years ago, Doncaster Avenue and its offspring (Bowral, Goodwood, Carlton streets) were alight with racing livelihoods – feed merchants, farriers, jockeys, and trainers like ‘Master’ McGrath. Harry Telford was here, and Peter Riddle. Some of the great horses of our nation sprung from this place. At these times, the street came alive every morning to horse iron on footpaths and the smell of molasses and hay in the wind. There was nowhere in Sydney like it.

The racecourse remained, but sadly the livelihoods did not. From my guess, the great push out of Doncaster Avenue began in the 1970s, and the land grab is well and truly under sail. Take a look at the photograph above. This is two doors north of McGrath’s home, the former stables of trainer Harry Darwon. The 1954 Queen Elizabeth winner Blue Ocean (the race’s inaugural winner) came from here, as did countless others.

On any week in any month of the year, I drive around the suburbs that circle Randwick racecourse and see where Randwick’s racing heritage is headed... down a long black hole under forgettable modern design and Hebel and glass facades. McGrath’s home and Harry Darwon’s old yard are next, to be rubbled for a development arrogantly tagged ‘The Stables’. It was sold by John Messara. And I’ve been told that McGrath’s yard won’t be long following its fate. At 158A Doncaster Avenue, it is currently home to the Waterhouse ‘Tempest Morn’ string. But for how long?

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve written two big racing biographies, and the stables and training homes associated with both horses remain. Peter Pan’s not for long, but Shannon’s trainer lived in a still-present home on Norton Street (which sat behind the long-gone Kensington pony track), while his yard on Bowral Street is now the HQ of the Waterhouse operation. I’ve stood in all these places, soaked up their chafed weatherboards and scarred stable doors, picturing them 70 and 80 years ago. But I know they won’t survive my lifetime, so I savoured them even more. McGrath’s home is the first to go. I suspect his yard, and hence the yard that spawned Amounis, Peter Pan (pictured there below in 1935), Beau Vite and Russia, will be next.

22 DSC_0116
So why is it that racing Randwick is disappearing before our eyes?

I’ve been told the locals are complaining about the rodents and early-rising horses. I’ve been told UNSW has tripled the value of land. Why keep horses when you can go up, commanding $470K a pop (and that’s cheap for this neck of the woods)? Pulling the thoroughbreds off Doncaster, I’ve been told, is safer, more viable for the future of horse racing. And like so much in life today, ‘viable’ has little tolerance for history. Randwick is the great racing suburb of this city, but off the course (and often on it, let’s be honest), there’s not a preservation order in sight.

And so, gradually, slowly, the roots of our sport crawl into the imagination.

Max Presnell has written on this subject many times, most recently this weekend in the ‘Herald’ (
click here to read). He has an elephant’s memory of who lived up and down Doncaster Avenue, from the earliest McGrath days to the later Tommy Smith era. But at any stage you can access the ATC archives, and there discover just about every racing name that ever lived around the racecourse. And pretty soon this will be the only way to know, because McGrath’s home will be gone, probably soon his yard, and then every box and broom along Randwick’s famous avenue. People will die, until the only record of who was where is on paper.

As with most things in life these days, the bottom dollar is everything in horse racing. And while admitting that I am in the business of racing history, it is certainly the case that the betting dollar and the real-estate dollar come well before the preservation of times past in Randwick. It doesn’t always need to be this way. At Saratoga and Churchill Downs, racetrack tours transport paying visitors over the course, through the stands and into the backstretch homes of the horses. History is front and centre of these tours, and they operate almost every day. So, a little ingenuity anyone?

If there is anything Black Caviar reminded us of in this country (and Atlantic Jewel is starting to do the same), it’s that racing can crawl deep into the national affection... more than league or union, more than cricket. So why are we so reluctant to save its past?