Racing, just a very different kind: A weekend at the Quilty

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Two cameras and a notebook, a swag, pillow and torch. A very big jacket and Pip Ducks, socks all the way to the knee. It was the June long weekend and it was cold; at least, colder than a Sydneysider would like it to be. I was on my way to cover the Tom Quilty endurance ride, LandCruiser pointed at the Hawkesbury.

It was dusk when I arrived at the ride base, Del Rio Resort across the river from pretty Wiseman’s Ferry. This is god’s garden right here, exposed orange escarpments rising out of the flanks of the MacDonald and Hawkesbury rivers, wild and wilful bushland in all directions. Of course, in the darkness it was all mostly hidden, but you can smell the Australian bush like no other wilderness. That night, as I landed on some 500 horses and three times as many people, it was perfumed with equine and camp fire.

For those who know little about the Quilty, it’s a 160-km endurance ride, ‘100 miles in one day’. I had rocked up in the dark because riders set off at midnight, trusting their horses to carry them through much of the early legs in utter darkness. It’s an impressive concept, one that is alien to almost every other equine competition in existence. But then, I would discover that the sport of endurance is not like many other equine sports, and I would be smitten.

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I can actually ride a horse. That’s not a tilt towards egoism; it’s just a fact. I know about balance and position, about gaits, diagonals, forehand and tack. So one of the first things I noticed at the Quilty was the overwhelming horsemanship. Spurs and whips are not allowed in this sport, and rider after rider set off bitless and barefoot, a testimony to skill, training and trust. Of course, there was a race on, but out of 342 horses and humans that set off, most did so at a jaunty walk, a good conversation in tow with the person next to them, or a smile cut from ear to ear.

Most of these endurance horses are Arabs or Arab derivatives, that breed being known for its incredible stamina. There were a few anglos and stock horses, and a few Arabs outcrossed to standardbreds, which diluted much of the fussiness that comes with hot bloods. There was a single brumby (below), a horse that I ran into throughout the weekend and which fascinated me, and which completed the gruelling Quilty course with 214 others. There wasn’t, I believe, a single thoroughbred. It was a new experience for me.

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Working in racing as I do, I confess it has been a tough gig to cover these few months. Cobalt headlines, meth scandals and ongoing slaughter realities, the seedy undertones of this great sport get the better of my enthusiasm sometimes. At the Quilty, I saw nothing but welfare and partnership on display from people of every age - 12 all the way to 78 - and I was in heaven. Here is a sport, in Australia at least, that propagates participation and celebrates, with an almighty cheer, the very last horse over the line.

Of course, even the Quilty had its racing moments. There was an hours-long protest against the winning rider, though the result stood. Dig deeper and you’ll see allegations of cruelty pledged at the Dubai endurance community. But on the ground, this sport is grassroots horsemanship. They don’t compete for money, or even for prestige. They compete for personal satisfaction that comes from hours and hours in the wilderness with a horse, not to mention the rugged and spectacular scenery encountered along the way.

Sheikh Mohammed has a large hand in this sport, and I noticed the China Horse Club has dabbled too (see below). Under exquisite June weather in the Hawkesbury, I got to wondering if racing could do anything in this sport. It portions horses out to pony clubs and eventing homes, but could it try to school a horse for endurance? If a thoroughbred can run for two and more miles, can it learn to go, much slower of course, for 100? Couldn’t racing make much of a thoroughbred that might try?

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Naturally, the breed is not suited to endurance. For one, it’s too big. Virtually none of the Quilty horses stood over 15.1hh, which would be a slip of a racehorse. Also, the thoroughbred has been bred for speed for 300 years. There are reasons, largely physical and biological, why the endurance community avoids them. Still, the thoroughbred is gallant and pliable, and I daydream.

That first night at the Quilty, I slept in the back of the Cruiser waiting for first light. It was good to be among these people, to see how they conduct their sport and hear how they talk about their horses. That the smell of open fires and crisp bushland came with it was a bonus, the concrete cage that is so often the city very far away. This, up here, was what horse ownership was all about, and I was glad I was reminded of it. It would be unfair to say racing can learn from it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could.

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The Internationals are here. Hurrah, hurrah!

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There are certain races in the world that, according to script, spew up champions. The English Derby is one, the Arc another, and the Cox Plate is Australia’s version, a race reserved for the most brilliant of the spring, the one horse that has earned the right to lift silver. But racing doesn’t always go to script, does it? When maiden Shamus Award rolled over the line at Moonee Valley two weeks ago, the purists (and I’m often one of them, though not in this instance) rolled their eyes and bleated that the Cox Plate was in tatters. A maiden shouldn’t win a wfa championship. Imagine if it happened in the Arc!

Shamus Award’s victory left a few eyebrows pinched down here, though the story behind the horse is terrific. If his trainer wanted to sock all his critics in the eye, he did it brilliantly, for the newspapers, Twitter, they were all alight about the horse’s nomination in the first place. Of course, I wondered what would have come of Shamus Award had the ridiculous Atlantic Jewel stayed sound. Coolmore’s mare might have washed, dried and ironed the field before the final furlong, because all the big guns – It’s A Dundeel, Puissance de Lune – were starched before the final turn.

Racing is a curious business. This time last year the ragtag Puissance was the ‘it’ horse, and at the time I thought it was a big, gusty call from Glen Boss to declare the horse the next Cup winner. In a sport that rotates on vagueness, Boss’s confidence was, I suppose, great fun. But then Puissance was as brilliant in the autumn, and did little wrong when he opened his spring this year. And then the Underwood undid him a little, out of the money for the first time in six runs. He looked a sore, beatable horse, confirmed when he ran second-last in the Cox Plate.

I must admit, it took the wind out of my sails a little to see him ailing. Puissance had a grip on Cup favouritism, and he’d earned it, and amid an onslaught of imported talent, he was a ‘local’ horse (what the hell is local these days) that seemed to be all the good. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as upsetting as Atlantic Jewel bowing out. She would have given the Cox Plate field a neat, nasty lesson I feel.

So, the Cox Plate changed the playing field a good deal, and isn’t 24 hours a long time in racing. Now we sit less than 48 hours from the Melbourne Cup, the long-time favourite is gone and we have a strangely familiar chant going on – where are the locals?

Well, what is a ‘local’ horse these days?

When it comes to stayers in this country, true locals are a rarity because the Europeans just do it so much better. It’s like cycling. Every pro bike-rider doped because they weren’t competitive unless they did. The Euro imports, whether visiting or on a one-way stub, have proved again and again they are better at this staying game than the home bloods.

In Tuesday’s field of 24 (as it sits), there are five true locals, horses that are born and bred Australian – Fawkner, Super Cool, Ethiopia, Hawkspur (not the Irish one) and Dear Demi. Of the remaining 19, 10 are locally owned imports, brought in to syndicates or the far-sighted Lloyd Williams. The remaining nine are ‘invaders’, poised to steal the spoils for overseas. That means that nearly twice the number of visitors are competing than true locals, not to mention the fact that foreign-breds have overrun the field completely. These are interesting and well documented stats this week, nothing that surprises Australians any more. The internationals are here to stay, and I’m glad for it.

The Melbourne Cup has a far better footing on its claim to being a ‘great race’. It was the same with the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the King’s Stand Stakes: they became better competitions when the foreigners came for the loot. And Australia has only herself to blame really, spending far too much time gazing at the Golden Slipper instead of the first Tuesday in November. Yes, we are famous now for the sprinting genes. But we used to be a grand old dame of staying character, way way back to the great Yattendon. Star Kingdom, you have a lot to answer for, my friend.

Folks are saying this is the best Cup yet, and we might be saying that every year from now on. If we are, it’s not a bad thing. I used to think the race was a bit of a lottery, a prize open to the lucky, to be honest. But as the Cup tows itself into line with the best of the world’s races, helped along by the best horses entering, the results will follow. In other words, the best horse will win, on paper at least.

The 2013 Melbourne Cup Field
1. Fawkner
2. Dunaden
3. Green Moon
4. Red Cadeaux
5. Sea Moon
6. Super Cool
7. Voleuse de Coeurs
8. Fiorente
9. Hawkspur
10. Tres Blue
11. Brown Panther
12. Foreteller
13. Ethiopia
14. Dandino
15. Verema
16. Mourayan
17. Seville
18. Dear Demi
19. Mount Athos
20. Royal Empire
21. Masked Marvel
22. Simenon
23. Ibicenco
24. Ruscello

Footnote: for an educated insight into the changing shape of the Melbourne Cup, pick up the recently published ‘The Modern Melbourne Cup’ by Danny Power (@thethoroughbred). Available from Slattery Media Group (@slatterymedia).


Sea Moon and the Mystery of Running Recoveries

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?




Book Space – Noor, the other Charles Howard horse

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First, I am a writer, and as Stephen King says it therefore goes that I am a reader. But not the disciplined, passionate reader-of-anything bookworms that soak up literature in impossible servings (bravo to them, I say). I’m much more fussy. I read nonfiction almost all the time, and of this, most is racing related. So I thought I would hijack the blog every so often and turn it over to some of the more interesting racing books I own.

Top of the list is a little-known work from the US, and not because it was a stellar read or even remotely as brilliant as others in my library, but because its story is unusual. By author Milton C. Toby, the book is ‘Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky’. Published by The History Press in 2012, it is Toby’s seventh book, which is an impressive effort in tough publishing times.

Anyone that knows anything about Seabiscuit knows that Noor raced in the same Charles Howard colours, albeit over a decade later. A wiry, well-bred Irish yearling, Noor came from the hallowed halls of the Aga Khan empire, and after two useful seasons racing in England (he was third in the 1948 English Derby), he was sold to Howard in California, one half of a two-horse package. What followed in 1950 surprised everyone – Noor defeated Citation four times, set track records all over the joint, clinched one of the most competitive Hollywood Gold Cups in living memory (Hill Prince, Ponder, Assault, On Trust), and became the first horse ever to defeat two Triple Crown winners. The horse earned Hall Of Fame honours in 2002.

Toby’s reconstruction of Noor’s racing career is a little disjointed in his book, lacking good narrative and, disastrously, a complete racing record at the back. In my opinion, any biography devoted to a racehorse should provide a full table of career starts, but I won’t write off his effort based on this. ‘Noor’ is a small book (158 pages), and the best of it occurs in the second part. Here, Toby follows what really was the second coming of this horse, when Californian Charlotte Farmer saved Noor’s grave from redevelopment, relocating it 2200 miles from California to Old Friends, Kentucky.

This part of the book is delightful, told largely in Farmer’s own words. But again it’s not the narrative that is strong. It’s the realisation that this scenario – that Noor’s final resting place was teetering under tonnes of proposed concrete – is as real in California as it is in Sydney and Melbourne. How tiring that racing history seems to be in constant threat of demolition, and how refreshing that here is a tale of a few determined people who loved one horse enough to preserve what was left of him.

Toby is an experienced racing writer, and I really enjoyed his book, but not because its writing is exquisite or its research even remotely deep enough, but because the author constructed each chapter with a seeded affection for Noor. I appreciated this. In a US market where there are a lot of thoroughbred biographies, Noor deserved his own book, for his is a very, very interesting story. In fact, he is one horse that probably deserves a bigger book.

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Worth a look:
http://www.kentucky.com/2011/09/01/1864058/champion-racehorse-noor-given.html
http://www.kentucky.com/2011/08/31/1864105/grave-of-hall-of-fame-horse-noor.html