Sea Moon and the Mystery of Running Recoveries
Monday 09 September 2013
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!