John Allen from Araglin, Kilworth, Co Cork arrived in Australia in 2011 primarily as a jump jockey, and has built an impressive career Down Under, writes Jack Anderson
On Tuesday, the Melbourne Cup was won, for the first time, by an English-trained horse. Cross Counter led home an English trifecta, reminiscent of the Irish 1-2-3 in last year’s Melbourne Cup, won by the Joseph O’Brien- trained Rekindling.
The build-up to this year’s race was dominated by a debate on the number of internationals now entering the event and how the Cup’s future might no longer feature fairytale victories by local Aussie ‘battlers’.
The ownership of both the pre-race favourite for this year’s Cup, Yucatan, and the eventual winner, Cross Counter, epitomises this gap between what Melbourne Cup day represents for locals and what it has become for the racing elite globally.
In a complex deal brokered by the Magnier family and Coolmore Stud, the Australian media reported that Yucatan was owned primarily by Lloyd Williams (a multimillionaire property developer seeking a record seventh winner of the race) in conjunction with other Australian ‘Rich List’ racing enthusiasts such as Brian Singer (founder of surf clothing giant Rip Curl), Alan Green (founder of Quiksilver) and the family of the late Greek shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos.
The winner, Cross Counter, ran in the Godolphin colours, the racing and breeding empire owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.
The perception that flat racing is only for the elite is, of course, a problem for flat racing globally.
The build-up to this year’s Melbourne Cup also had a distinctly Irish flavour featuring the presence on track of former Irish champion jockey Michael Kinane, who rode the Dermot Weld-trained Vintage Crop to victory in the Cup 25 years ago.
The Australian media’s reflections on Vintage Crop’s win in 1993, the first international victory, gives an interesting three-dimensional insight into the racing and sporting psyche Down Under.
First, Dermot Weld’s feat in transporting Vintage Crop to, and then preparing the horse in, Australia was a phenomenal achievement. This week, every feature on Weld referred to him as a ‘wizard’, revealing the staunch (and, in part, arrogant) Australian view that only something magical, only the very best from elsewhere, could have been the first to defeat the best at home.
In contrast to Weld, the perspective on Aidan O’Brien in the Australian sporting press is, bizarrely, less favourable.
In part, this relates back to an incident during the 2008 Melbourne Cup when O’Brien was recalled by stewards to explain the running of his three horses in that year’s Cup.
The O’Brien trio of Septimus (Johnny Murtagh), Honolulu (Colm O’Donoghue), and (Alessandro Volta (Wayne Lordan) finished 18th, 20th and 21st in the 24-race race after being five lengths clear at the halfway stage.
The Flemington stewards implied that O’Brien’s pace-making tactics, and particularly his instructions to Lordan, should have been left behind in Europe.
The normally quietly spoken O’Brien mounted a robust defence, explaining that the “concrete” hard surface had not suited his horses; that if he truly wanted to set the pace he’d have “brought a miler”; and concluding with the question, “do you think we were running our horses for Bart Cummings?”
Cummings, a legendary Australian horse trainer who died in 2015, won that year’s Cup with Viewed, the last of his record 12 Cup winners.
Cummings was famously sniffy about European horses who he felt were generally too lightly raced in artificially paced races and thus overrated by international handicappers.
On that day in 2008, O’Brien, who hasn’t been seen on track at the Melbourne Cup since, gave us a rare flash of his competitive streak. When asked to congratulate Cummings on his win, O’Brien remarked: “As I’ve said before, he [Bart Cummings] is unbelievable, perhaps I should come down here and work for him.”
Two years later, O’Brien’s handling of Australian import and multiple Group 1 winner, So You Think, attracted severe criticism in the Australian media.
So You think had been trained by Cummings and in 2010 won the Group 1 Cox Plate, the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes, and came third in the Melbourne Cup all in the space of 10 days.
The horse was then bought by Coolmore and given to O’Brien.
Despite the fact the Aidan O’Brien trained the horse to win two Tattersalls Gold Cups, an Eclipse, an Irish Champion Stakes, and finally a Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Ascot in 2012, the residual feeling in Australia was that So You Think had not trained on nor realised its full potential with the Irish handler.
The above relates to the second element of the Australian racing psyche that can been seen in events surrounding the Melbourne Cup — the feeling that Australian racing is not taken seriously enough globally.
The marquee horse of Australian racing at present is Winx, who recently won her fourth Cox Plate in a row which was the mare’s 29th consecutive stakes race (including a world record 22 Group 1 wins). At a pre-Cox Plate event last month, English racing journalist Matt Chapman was asked to comment on how Winx was viewed in England and internationally. Chapman replied: “It’s hard when you’ve got a whole room of Australians ... to tell you exactly what it’s like back home with Winx. Back home we feel Winx is beating fairly moderate horses.” The inevitable barrage of criticism culminated in Winx’s trainer calling Chapman a “dickhead”. When criticised, Australians tend more towards succinctness than eloquence.
Less emotively, international horse racing handicappers have long rated Winx highly and Chapman was merely being honest about the fact that, unlike horses such as Enable, two-time winner of the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe and winner of the Breeders’ Cup last weekend, Winx has never raced outside Australia.
In a wider context, this chip on the shoulder attitude in Australian racing is misplaced. Horse racing here is in robust financial health. In
August, Racing Victoria announced that for the financial year 2017/2018 it had a net surplus of Aus$5.645 million (€3.58m), on par with any sporting organisation in the country.
The various state racing organisations in Australia constantly market the sport — the attempts last month in New South Wales to promote the Everest, the world’s richest race on turf and worth an astonishing $13m, by using the Sydney Opera House as a virtual billboard, is an example of this.
Irish racing could usefully tap into Australia’s marketing expertise.
The third and final reflection from the Melbourne Cup, which tragically saw the demise of Cliffs of Moher, is how good, how truly world class, Irish trainers and jockeys are in the global sport of racing.
One recent example encapsulates the strength of both Australian and Irish racing.
Last Saturday, a mere three days out from the Melbourne Cup, a spectacular crowd of 91,194 flocked to Flemington race course to see Extra Brut win the 2018 Victoria Derby (with prizemoney of €1,27m). Extra Brut had been given a typically classy ride by John Allen. Allen, who arrived in Australia in 2011, primarily as a jump jockey, is from Araglin, Kilworth, Co Cork.
Two and a half centuries and more since that part of Ireland gave us the first steeplechase (between Buttevant and Doneraile and arranged for a bet, naturally), Corkonians are still giving the world lessons in sport, horse racing, and how to win.
Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne