After a solid result last week, Sydney racing takes a dip behind an exceptional Moonee Valley card.
Yes, there is a link between the Melbourne Cup and last week’s events at Royal Ascot and Wimbledon. Stick with me and I’ll explain.
The Ascot Gold Cup is one of the world’s great staying races. In last week’s running, two horses who did well in Fiorente’s 2013 Melbourne Cup at Flemington acquitted themselves well again.
Brown Panther is well known because he has a famous owner, Michael Owen (known to those of you who read the round ball section of The Roar).
The panther ran a meritorious fourth at Ascot. He’s an endearing plugger who put his ears out sideways as he galloped along but never really settled in the race.
Whether this was his choice or that of jockey Richard Kingscote I can’t be sure, but if he’d been able to relax a bit he might have just about won.
The original Simenon was a French detective novelist, inventor of Inspector Maigret. Why Simenon the horse was kept at the tail of the field and then sent out very wide on the home turn is a mystery to me. He finished a close fifth.
You may see these two again in Melbourne in November. Emissaries from Racing Victoria are at work in England at this very moment to lure them and other top horses.
The Ascot Gold Cup prize money of £375,000 translates to about AUD$687,000. This year’s Melbourne Cup is worth a total of $6.2 million – quite a few carrots.
In their sights too would be last year’s Gold Cup winner and this year’s runner-up, the esteemed Estimate who has an even more famous owner than Brown Panther’s – Her Majesty The Queen.
And on the shopping list would be the leading light, Leading Light, who won the Ascot race with a well-timed ride by jockey of the moment, Joseph O’Brien.
Accurately described by the cliché ‘gruelling’, the two-and-a-half mile race equates to 4002 metres, which is 802 metres longer than the Melbourne Cup. Kingston Rule’s 1990 Cup record was 3 minutes 16.3 seconds. This means that Leading Light enjoyed more than an extra 65 seconds to run those extra 802 metres.
Given the slow early pace, any of the starters could have won if ridden just a little differently. It was a very competitive race.
We in Australia should count ourselves lucky that the best English, European, Japanese and even American stayers are the targets of our celebrity recruiters so that we can see them in action in Melbourne.
Ambitious local trainers and cashed-up Aussie owners are making the talent scouts’ job easier as they buy up anything that looks as though it can run and stay and qualify for the Cup.
There will be plenty of top-level chances. The lesson from Royal Ascot is that if you are inclined to embrace an overseas horse for the spring, keep your pyjamas on for now. It’s still cold in Melbourne.
So where does Wimbledon fit in?
Last week, keeping an eye on Nick Kyrgios, I was sitting down to write an obituary for Douglas Reid, a former top tennis player who turned his sporting passion to racing and was for nearly 30 years a committee member of the Victoria Racing Club.
Doug died at the end of May, a few weeks short of his 80th birthday. Like Nick, he played at Wimbledon at the age of 19. But there the similarities stop.
Doug’s year at Wimbledon was 1954 when Australian tennis players were seeking world domination. It was the era of Hoad, Rosewell, Mervyn Rose and Ashley Cooper – hard to get your head above the ruck in that company.
It was also the era when amateur sport in Australia was about to lose its precedence over professional sport.
While Nick Kyrgios reportedly pockets $400,000 from his London visit, Doug (who didn’t get past the first round there) was a wealthy amateur being bankrolled by his family. He played in the French and US championships before coming home.
More than a decade later Australian tennis championships became ‘Open’ to amateurs and professionals alike.
In 1972 Doug and his tennis-playing older brother Jim became leaders in a sports promotion company called Tennis Camps Australia, while younger brother Wayne was – in the words of tennis historian Richard Yallop – the “progressive, commercially-minded new president” of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia.
TCA became the promoter of the Australian Open.
Under Wayne Reid’s regime the Open made its permanent home in Melbourne and hugely increased its revenues through sponsorship, private boxes, premium seating and television broadcast receipts.
Doug Reid meanwhile enjoyed early success in racing, setting up a stud farm near Melbourne and breeding Maybe Mahal, a little mare who became Australian Champion Racehorse as she retired in 1978.
His supporters in the local breeding scene propelled Doug onto the committee of the Victoria Racing Club.
Here he championed the sorts of strategic moves that had made tennis prosper: boosts to prize money, sponsorship, hospitality packages, slick promotion, big TV deals.
Doug was chief negotiator when the Melbourne Cup become the million-dollar Foster’s Melbourne Cup in 1985.
Purists didn’t like it, any more than they liked seeing Australian tennis going Open, but they were no match for this new commercial world. Through such initiatives the VRC retained the kudos of hosting the most coveted race in Australia.
It was the same world and the same era that saw Australian cricket forcibly refashioned into a professional sport by Packer’s World Series.
Part of the success of the Australian Tennis Open lay in ensuring two things: that it reasserted its international status and that, along with promoting local heroes, it recruited the best overseas players or loudest celebrities. Think of ‘Nasty’ Nastasie, Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, Björn Borg and then John McEnroe.
Unlike racehorses, these champions didn’t have to serve time in quarantine when they came to Australia. It took until 1993 before the VRC started bringing celebrity horses – and their connections – from the northern hemisphere just to compete in the Melbourne Cup. Doing so reasserted the race’s unique status.
Irish horse Vintage Crop, trainer Dermot Weld and jockey Michael Kinane made it happen. Since then, as with the tennis, the world’s best keep making their way to Melbourne.
So as we prepare to enjoy the celebrity horses and their entourages in the Australian spring this year, spare a thought for the passing of Doug the 19 year-old tennis hopeful from 1954 who, for better and for worse, helped make it all happen.
Nick owes him a vote of thanks too.