The horse that changed Australian racing

Andrew Hawkins Columnist

By Andrew Hawkins, Andrew Hawkins is a Roar Expert

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    This November marks 20 years since one of the most audacious assaults ever attempted in horse racing changed the face of Australia’s racing scene forever.

    The 1993 spring saw two horses trained in Europe coming to Australia to contest our greatest race, the Melbourne Cup.

    England’s Drum Taps, an Ascot Gold Cup winner trained by Lord Huntingdon, and Ireland’s Vintage Crop, an Irish St Leger winner trained by Dermot Weld, marked the start of a new era for Australian racing.

    They were not the first internationally-trained runners in an Australian feature. Horses had contested the Tancred Stakes (now known as The BMW) in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

    Nor were they the first northern hemisphere-bred gallopers to contest the Melbourne Cup, with the first British-bred winner Comedy King taking the race in 1910.

    But while the Victoria Racing Club had been trying to entice trainers to bring their horses to Melbourne for the spring for a number of years, it was not possible until 1993.

    And so, they came – a journey of almost 17,000km that seemed to break every rule for winning a Melbourne Cup.

    History tells us that Vintage Crop, ridden by Mick Kinane, relished the wet conditions, coming with a barnstorming run down the centre to win easily from outsiders Te Akau Nick and Mercator.

    Drum Taps was an average ninth.

    No one can underestimate the importance of Vintage Crop’s hit and run victory, as it ensured a steady stream of horses attempting to emulate the Irish chestnut.

    Every year since, horses from all over the world have tried to take the Melbourne Cup away from Australian shores. And in the two decades since, they’ve only succeeded three times.

    In 2002, Media Puzzle – carrying the same yellow and blue silks as Vintage Crop – took the Cup back to Ireland for Dermot Weld, while 2010 and 2011 saw the Cup in French hands as Americain and Dunaden dominated at Flemington.

    The international gallopers have brought new life to the Melbourne Cup. Some of the Cups of the 1980s were quite poor, nothing more than a glorified quality handicap.

    And while the Cup was already on an upward spiral – both the 1991 and 1992 Melbourne Cups were terrific without international competition – it has given the Cup a new level of credence.

    But let me pose a Sliding Doors-esque question – what would have happened if Vintage Crop hadn’t won?

    Would trainers have returned in their droves while doubting it was truly possible? Would owners have been prepared to fork out the large investment required to send a horse to Australia?

    The Cox Plate is perhaps an example of what happens when success is not proven immediately.

    The first internationally-trained runner to contest a Cox Plate was also trained by Dermot Weld, with Make No Mistake a disappointing eighth behind Sunline in 1999.

    Two German gallopers contested the 2001 Cox Plate, with Silvano a gutsy fourth and Caitano an okay seventh.

    But it was 2002 which was ultimately set to make or break the future of the Cox Plate, with global powerhouse Godolphin sending one of the world’s best horses, in Grandera, to Melbourne.

    Grandera had won the Singapore Airlines International Cup, the Prince of Wales’ Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Irish Champion Stakes in 2002 prior to his Cox Plate attempt.

    Unfortunately, the Godolphin galloper also tackled one of the best Cox Plate fields in history, with a world class line-up assembled, and he finished third behind Northerly and Defier.

    He was ahead of two Cox Plate winners in Sunline and Fields of Omagh, as well as emerging star Lonhro and good sprinter Bel Esprit.

    To this day, he is the only international to place in a Cox Plate.

    The following four years saw participation from South Africa (Paraca, Greys Inn), Hong Kong (Elegant Fashion, Super Kid), Germany (Paolini) and Japan (Tosen Dandy), with Super Kid’s seventh to Makybe Diva in 2005 the best result.

    Meanwhile, the only international to contest the Cox Plate in the last five years has been Macau champion Luen Yat Forever, who was tailed off behind So You Think in 2010 – proving form from the Chinese territory is hardly a form reference for what is our greatest race.

    It is true that more races clash with the Cox Plate, with horses sticking to races like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Champion Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

    Also, the Moonee Valley course is not one that appears suitable for European horses used to spacious tracks with unbearably long straights.

    But the Cox Plate will not attract any names of note from overseas until a trailblazer proves it is possible.

    Still, it is also a reminder of the fortune of the Victoria Racing Club with Vintage Crop’s 1993 victory.

    During a European sojourn in the depths of a northern winter last year, I took the opportunity to visit the picturesque Irish National Stud in County Kildare.

    Around the world, only Lexington in Kentucky is considered as good a region for rearing horses. Gentle, green rolling hills, lush pastures – it is a horse lover’s paradise.

    Remember, too, that seven of the first eight across the line in last year’s Melbourne Cup came from Ireland.

    The stud, only a couple of miles down the road from The Curragh, is an eye-opener, and is one of Kildare’s main tourist attractions.

    Every year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the working stud to gain an understanding of how a horse stud operates, as well as to see the extraordinary landscaping around the property.

    But as much as the operations of the stud are a drawcard, the real attraction is a chestnut gelding who has retired to a paddock at the stud.

    As we approach the paddock where this gelding is said to be, my eyes are instantly drawn to a chestnut hiding from the crowds in a distance.

    Slowly, though, he walks towards us, as though he can pick us out a mile away.

    Is this him?

    The tag confirmed it – I was face to face with Vintage Crop.

    He was clearly ageing – he had just turned 25 when we saw him (he’s now 26). His coat was scraggly, he looked like an old grumpy codger.

    But for an ageing gelding, he looked remarkably well.

    I was there with an American friend, and I had spent two hours before arriving at the property telling her all about Vintage Crop and the extraordinary role he had played in rejuvenating the Melbourne Cup.

    We may have spent a mere 10 minutes with him, but it was my chance to say thanks to a gelding who changed the face of Australian racing forever.

    Thanks, Vintage Crop.

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    The Crowd Says (11)

    • July 15th 2013 @ 8:27am
      Zhang said | July 15th 2013 @ 8:27am | ! Report

      You forgot about the Japan winning the Melbourne Cup in 2006.

      • July 17th 2013 @ 12:09pm
        Greg said | July 17th 2013 @ 12:09pm | ! Report

        Well done Zhang. Andrew, you may have had in mind Europeans, but your article clearly refers to international horses (still a good read and your point is well made that the VRC had a stroke of luck with VC’s win). The Japanese 1 & 2 was a sight to behold. When will they come again?

        • Columnist

          July 18th 2013 @ 12:24pm
          Andrew Hawkins said | July 18th 2013 @ 12:24pm | ! Report

          I honestly don’t know how I left them out, it was an oversight on my part. That was the first Melbourne Cup I attended!!

          The Japanese were meant to be back this year with a horse called Admire Rakti, but last I heard he may not make the trip.

          • August 14th 2013 @ 2:54pm
            James said | August 14th 2013 @ 2:54pm | ! Report

            Andrew, do you have any more info on whether Admire Rakti will make the trip this year??

    • Roar Guru

      July 15th 2013 @ 10:38am
      sheek said | July 15th 2013 @ 10:38am | ! Report

      Andrew,

      Beautiful article. For a young fella, you write with the measured wisdom, depth & empathy of a sage of the ages!

      I’ve often thought, in light of the history that followed, how well named Vintage Crop was. He really was at the forefront of a “vintage crop.”

      I love the way the Melbourne Cup has become a quality handicap. It needed to. The element of trying to even out the field is still there, but every cup field now usually brims with quality.

      As a punter, you do your head in more than usual, with over half the field attracting “reasons to win.” The anticipation of the unexpected grows more & more.

      I do this exercise where I automatically write down the first eight finishers (similar to an Olympics final) of the Melbourne & Caulfield Cups & then see what other horses can be added on two criteria.

      That they carried 57 kgs (9st) or more. This weight usually indicates that they were a good racehorse at some point of their career. Also, if their odds were 10-1 or less. Again, a good indicator of good recent form.

      I was astounded to discover that very rarely did I need to add horses outside the ‘top 8.’ Maybe one, or two, or three, but very, very rarely anymore that this.

      In other words, in most cases, all the good horses, either/both carrying weight or good odds, finished in the top 8 in most years.

      What this told me is that a lot of hopeless nags have run in both the Melbourne & Caulfield Cups. Without being unkind to them, I hope they had good lives once it was realised they were duds on the track!

      The Melbourne spring carnival is so well structured I’m surprised overseas owners haven’t cottoned on to this fact. Some of them are slowly awaking to the other riches available at the spring carnival beside the ‘big 3’ – Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup, WS Cox Plate.

      A smart overseas stable can reduce costs & improve their chances of prizemoney return by bringing out 3-6 horses. They can have one/two champion handicappers to contest the Caulfield/Melbourne Cups double, & perhaps either the Geelong/Moonee Valley Cups as well.

      They can have one/two champion WFA horses to contest a handful of outstanding set weight races – Caulfield Stakes, WS Cox Plate, LKS Mackinnon Stakes & perhaps even the Sandown Classic.

      They could also bring out two sprinter/milers to contest a range of excellent races over 1200-1600 metres.

      I think we here in Australia have the potential to produce the best horse racing structure in the world. But just as long as administrators, breeders, owners & trainers don’t stuff things up.

      As much as there is to admire about some aspects of American racing, we certainly don’t want to replicate their largely bland racing program.

      • July 15th 2013 @ 11:14am
        Drew H said | July 15th 2013 @ 11:14am | ! Report

        The Melbourne Cup, being a quality handicap, should also balance in more races for exemption from ballot. There needs to be another path in, and it could include a particular 1400-1600 race that is well suited to versatile horses. (Afterall, there is a 3yo exemption race.) Would that test how good our sprinters are? I think some sprinters could do the jump up in distance, depending on the timing. If the McKinnon is a proven path then why not a path for sprinters too?

        The handicapper has too much to do with this handicap. Just the same, the overseas horses are not necessarily given gift starts. (Perhaps I just hate handicapping. Perhaps I just hate the whole game)

        Probably the final acceptance fee sorts many out before even considering a start…..ouch.

      • July 15th 2013 @ 6:27pm
        Andrew C (waikato) said | July 15th 2013 @ 6:27pm | ! Report

        Hi Sheek, please give me your opinion of the BEST BRED / EQUIPPED horse pedigree-wise to take to the Melbourne Cup with ‘positive’ intentions. I would actually start with a Zabeel son and move forward 🙂 I’ve bred one whom I reckon might be a prospect. 🙂

    • July 15th 2013 @ 8:04pm
      olduncleed said | July 15th 2013 @ 8:04pm | ! Report

      Fancy forgetting Delta Blues!

      • Columnist

        July 16th 2013 @ 6:16am
        Andrew Hawkins said | July 16th 2013 @ 6:16am | ! Report

        I was focusing on Europeans – shouldn’t forget Delta Blues, given that was the first Melbourne Cup I attended!

    • July 28th 2013 @ 9:41pm
      Glenn Innis said | July 28th 2013 @ 9:41pm | ! Report

      It changed the Melbourne, and to a lesser degree the Caulfield cup, but had little influence on Australian racing, other than Lloyd Williams and a few others buying European stayers to have a crack at the big cups.

      We still breed for speed, we are still aiming to win the slipper not the cup, we are still shortening black type races nothing has really changed.

    • October 14th 2013 @ 1:44pm
      Gary M. said | October 14th 2013 @ 1:44pm | ! Report

      Indeed Andrew the quality of the Cup has grown immeasurably since that unforgettable win of Vintage Crop in 1993. It is probably worth mentioning that during the following 20 years the influence from overseas may have been even more far-reaching than the wins of Media Puzzle, Delta Blues, Americain and Dunaden. Imports Green Moon and Jeune both raced overseas before winning the Cup and that magnificent mare Makybe Diva who of course saluted on three occasions was bred in the UK and imported to Australia to race. Excluding NZ bred horses that’s 9 out of 20 Cups won by northern Hemisphere imports (unless I’ve missed one).

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