The Roar
The Roar

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Beyond football codes, it's racing that stirs the country's soul

John Marshall takes the Cup to Quilpie, Queensland (photo: Andrew Lemon)
Expert
3rd September, 2014
7

If the Melbourne Cup is the heart of Australian racing, then the soul resides in the country. Without a soul, even a heart as big as Phar Lap’s is just a relic in a big glass jar.

We’ve just passed the big day: the First Tuesday of September. That’s when we learn who the entries are for the Melbourne Cup. In two weeks’ time the handicap weights will be allocated.

The international hopefuls hog the headlines. Fair enough in one way – the race has modernised itself by becoming part of the world racing scene. We are lucky to have the prospect of seeing some of the globe’s best racehorses on the Australian turf.

But there is also pride, excitement and optimism at a few rural stables in obscure corners of Australia, at least in the early days of spring.

Memories stir and plenty echo the refrain, “Wouldn’t it be great if an Aussie horse could win the Cup this year?”

Ah, they mean a real Aussie horse, not just interlopers that are owned or even trained in Australia. Older animosities are melting; plenty would be content now if it were a Kiwi.

The last home-bred horse to win the race was Shocking (2009). Let’s not mention his Irish sire Street Cry or British mother with the Spanish name Maria di Castiglia. At least the boy was born here.

Viewed (2008) was also bred in Victoria, from a New Zealand mum.

For the past several years I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Victoria Racing Club’s annual Emirates Melbourne Cup Tour. It’s a chance to take the current year’s trophy to regional Australia and New Zealand ahead of the week leading into the First Tuesday in November.

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It’s an occasion for people who might never get to visit Melbourne and see the big race to get close to the 18-carat gold trophy, even to hold it and get the photo, and to meet some of the jockeys and personalities who have become part of the story.

We take the 2014 trophy to retirement villages, schools, hospitals, shopping malls, art galleries and charity dinners. This past week alone it’s been to the Big Prawn at Ballina and to the Banana Festival at Murwillimbah. The CWA turned on high tea and country scones first thing in the morning at the Bowling Club at Lismore, NSW.

John Marshall (Rogan Josh 1999) was on board. This week Bob Skelton (those old enough will never forget the his ride in the wet on Van Der Hum in 1976) did the honours at an event at Bendigo. Next week after Canberra it will be in Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra and Grenfell with racecaller Bryan Martin.

If you think it’s a cynical marketing exercise, you would be soon disabused by seeing the emotion it generates. On this tour, there’s already been one successful marriage proposal made, courtesy of the Cup. (He, at his photo opportunity, surreptitiously slipped the ring into the Cup before passing the trophy to her. Happily she said yes.)

One year, thanks perhaps to the irrepressible John Letts, we saw a hospital patient emerge from a coma to greet the trophy on its rounds through the wards.

“G’day mate, we’ve brought you the Melbourne Cup,” Letts announced, propping the Cup on the pillow. And the man woke up.

We’ve seen the disoriented elderly come into focus to share early memories of the Cup.

Last year, after meeting Glen Boss’ grandma at a retirement home in Queensland, I had my sleeve tugged by a gent in a wheelchair who confided that his dad had ridden Phar Lap.

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Proved to be a true story – his dad was Sydney jockey J. Brown who rode the champ in three races in 1929 (including a narrow second to Mollison in the Chelmsford Stakes) before Jim Pike started the winning sequence and got the glory.

Apart from the stories we swap on these tours, and the chance to bring a good news event to regional Australia, the visits allow some vital interchange between heart and soul.

In other words, a healthy Melbourne Cup is vital for Australian racing. A healthy national racing scene – especially in the country – is vital for the Melbourne Cup.

Nor does the Melbourne Cup compete with our other great races in Australia. It helps them. It’s good for racing in all other capitals and in Victoria itself. It adds value to the Caulfield Cup and the Cox Plate, while they build the drama for the Flemington spring.

The Melbourne Cup generates interest in Australian racing that no other race has ever been able to match. We learn on our Cup Tour of all the parties, lunches, once-a-year bets on the TAB, of all the rural and regional race meetings that will be scheduled nationally on a working Tuesday in November.

If economists think this is bad for national productivity, they need to go back to school to relearn basic arithmetic. Think hats, fashion, travel, accommodation, food and drink and the whole equine economy.

Racing can fairly claim to be, historically, a truly national sport on this continent. More so than our competing codes of football. It has taken English racing of the nineteenth century and fashioned it into its own style.

I can’t think of any part of Australia with a settlement of any significance where at some time there wasn’t a racetrack and where racing wasn’t a key part of the community. Even when the tracks have gone, memories and sometimes open space remain.

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In recent decades we have seen many country centres lose their bush tracks and once-a-year meetings. There are often reasons why this has happened, but each closure breaks a link with the past.

A town that loses its race meetings loses a bit of its soul.

A varied circuit of racetracks also adds variety to the sport for the spectator. Distances that used to isolate communities are now disappearing. You can drive to Ballina to see Friday week’s Ballina Cup in less than an hour from the Gold Coast.

Brisbane is closer to Lismore by road than Melbourne is to Warrnambool. The Lismore Cup is happening on September 25. If you live in Brisbane, what’s stopping you?

Murwillimbah had its annual Cup back in June but there is a Melbourne Cup Day fixture scheduled for November 4 at the picturesque track.

Events such as these have their own proud history. Chris Munce who won the Melbourne Cup in 1998 on Jezabeel had won the Lismore Cup four years earlier, on Seattle Gleam. He’s one of four Lismore Cup winning jockeys in recent decades who went on to win a Melbourne Cup, along with Glen Boss, Scott Seamer and Michael Rodd.

Munce is a little package of athletic energy, still one of our top jockeys with dozens of Group 1 wins to his name. He was born in Lismore 45 years ago, and grew up at nearby Casino before his riding career drew him north. He has experienced the downside of Hong Kong justice and knows more about the precariousness of racing than most.

But at a dinner at Lismore Turf Club to welcome the Emirates Melbourne Cup Tour last Friday, Chris Munce spoke eloquently of just two things. Of how great it had been to have had the opportunities to learn to ride in the country. Of the transformative power, for a jockey, of the Melbourne Cup.

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After sharing a ride on the Murwillimbah Banana Float with Banana Jim and the Tweed Valley Banana Queen, John Marshall and I met the rotund and dynamic Bernie Quinn who has recently stepped down after forty years as chairman of the local racing club. He is a patriot of his town.

“You must call in and see our beautiful racetrack on the way out,” he said. So we did, late in the afternoon, just on our own.

Like many country courses on a windswept day it looked a bit forlorn and deserted when we found it among the cane fields. There is a training stable on track, and a few horses looked out lazily as we drove up. No-one around, so we walked across for a photo with Marshall and trophy by the winning post.

As we returned to the car, an apprentice jockey rushed up.

“Is that the Cup? Is that the Cup?”

Isabella Rabjones has ridden in five race trials since Anzac Day in her quest to obtain her apprentice jockey race-riding licence. She wasn’t able to get into town to see the trophy at the Banana Float. A touch of good fortune had brought the trophy to her instead.

Munce and Marshall both say it is every jockey’s dream just to ride in the Melbourne Cup. It’s Isabella’s dream, and that of all the others we meet on the Tour who may never make it to Flemington, that animates the soul of the Melbourne Cup.

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