Sunday 15 December 2019

Michael Verney's Diary from Down Under: From Jim Stynes to Subzero, Melbourne Cup controversy and everything in between

The Irish Independent's Michael Verney with Subzero
The Irish Independent's Michael Verney with Subzero
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

When the Australians dubbed it a carnival of racing, it was more than just a fancy marketing slogan and it perfectly sums up the atmosphere around Melbourne during a special time of the year.

The Spring Racing Carnival engrosses the people of the city much like an All-Ireland final weekend with the Melbourne Cup parade on the Monday prior to "the race that stops a nation" something to behold.

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The city centre shuts down for a few hours as a cavalcade of cars carrying the connections of each of the 24 runners makes its way through the streets to the acclaim of ardent racing fans who turn out in huge numbers.

The incessant rain was a reminder of home, as was a chance meeting with Galway man Pat Qualter, who is celebrating the year of his 50th birthday by taking in some of the finest equine action around the globe.

Johnny Allen was front and centre for the festivities having assured Joseph O'Brien's Downdraft of his place in the Cup two days previous with success in the Group Three Hotham Stakes.

A journey man jumps jockey back in Ireland, the 35-year-old has made quite a name for himself Down Under since answering an advertisement in the paper for National Hunt riders at the start of this decade.

A handful of Group One victories on the flat have followed and while things didn't go to plan in the Cup, there's no sign of Allen returning home any time soon as his star continues to soar.

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Jockey John Allen aboard Megamar leave the parade ring before the start of The John Harney Bookmaker Handicap Steeplechase at Tipperary Races back in June 2007. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

No amount of rain could wash away the hum of excitement on the eve of the Cup and with an annual public holiday in the state of Victoria organised around the famous race, things kick off early for racing fans.

With flag fall for the first of a ten-race card at 10.55, it's almost like that famous scene in D'Unbelievables where they wanted a good run at the day and had at the dinner at half eight in the morning.

Trains to Flemington – Melbourne's public transport is top-class with trams operating throughout the city – are jammed with punters and the connections of Southern France are expecting a big performance in the Cup as they make the short spin up from the city to the track.

That didn't materialise but over 80,000 made their way into the racecourse and soaked up the welcome sunshine with the pageantry before the Cup a sight to behold.

The Melbourne Cup is the Australian Superbowl and it is treated as such with all the bells and whistles building up to a remarkable crescendo in the final strides of the 159th renewal.

With just metres to travel in the 2m showpiece, it looked like Joseph O'Brien was going to land a second Cup in three years with Master Of Reality pushing the buttons from the front but Frankie Dettori's mount tired with the line approaching.

2018 third Prince Of Arran is flew home once again while Aidan O'Brien's Il Paradiso came from a mile back to get into the reckoning in the shadows of the post only to be impeded by Master Of Reality.

All the while, Vow And Declare enjoyed a smooth passage along the running rail to prevail by the narrowest of margins and provide legendary Australian jockey Craig Williams with a first Cup success.

All the talk was of the O'Brien family but in the end, it was the other O'Brien, the Australian version Danny, who is left celebrating his first Cup success as a trainer having overcome hard times following a doping controversy in recent seasons.

For all the excitement around international raiders heading Down Under to contest the Cup, it's clear that the home team was crying our for a winner having already watched five renewals being landed by the visitors this decade.

Much of the talk post-race was still of the Irish raiders, however, with connections of Master Of Reality and Il Paradiso called after a protest (the Australian term for an inquiry) by the stewards around a chaotic finish.

To be inside the cramped stewards' room surrounded by Dettori, Joseph O'Brien and Wayne Lordan watching the final moments from every available angle on a host of screens is quite surreal.

It was clear from Dettori's demeanour that he couldn't fathom how his miserable wait for a first Cup triumph was being compounded by this drama and after a brief debate, the places are altered.

Prince Of Arran was bumped up to second, Il Paradiso was a most unlucky third while Master Or Reality was relegated to fourth and Dettori hit with a nine-meeting ban for careless riding, a sour note on an extraordinary season for the flamboyant Italian pilot.

The idea that a horse trained by Joseph could have cost his father Aidan a first Melbourne Cup success – one of the rare omissions from his glittering CV – is another interesting sub-plot to a crazy day.

It wasn't all bad for the Irish – ex-Irish to be precise – as Shared Ambition (formerly trained by John Joe Murphy and a winner at Killarney and Down Royal earlier this year) scored on the undercard for Chris Waller.

Next year seems a long way off but Shared Ambition is definitely a stayer to keep an eye on over the next 12 months with the 2020 Melbourne Cup already being mooted by connections.

Jet lag hit hard in the aftermath of the Cup but when rested and ready to rock again, the enormous Crown Casino (a sure fire place to find the Paddys) was still going strong in the early hours with blackjack and roulette the game of choice for most patrons.

Australian racing festivals operate a little different than Ireland/England with a day between the Cup and the Oaks and another off before the Stakes (Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday) and it gives punters a chance to regroup.

Danny O'Brien was again the man on top in the Oaks with Miami Bound coasting home under Damien Oliver but the day was all about Subzero, the horse of a lifetime which has etched his way into the hearts of a nation.

Having performed with actor Hugh Jackman and met prime ministers, sheikhs as well as pop star Kylie Minogue, the 1992 Cup winner is no ordinary horse having raised $10 million for charity in retirement.

Watching the affection being given to the loveable grey by his army of fans among the 58,000 spectators highlighted everything positive about racing with the 31-year-old having his very own Make A Wish Foundation.

Such is the demand which 'Subbie' is in from the ill and the lonely, he is regularly invited to schools, hospitals, weddings and funerals and makes around 100 guest appearances each year. An amazing animal which has overcome several illnesses and is an inspiration to all.

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Australian football league star Jim Stynes, pictured during training at Croke Park as his side's prepares to take on Ireland in the Coca Cola International rules series on the 11th and the 18th October. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Friday brought a visit to the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) – a must-see tour for a measly $20 – and it brought into even sharper focus the legendary status which Jim Stynes holds in Aussie hearts.

A pedestrian bridge named in his honour built over the Yarra River at the Docklands precinct is accompanied by a bronze statue depicting him in his Melbourne Football Club garb outside the MCG.

Inside the 100,000 capacity stadium which doubles up a cricket/AFL arena,the tour guide boasts of the Jim Stynes Grill where hundreds of names are on a waiting list to get a seat on match day.

Conversations about the late Stynes show just how much the 1991 Brownlow Medal winner – the sport's highest individual honour – means to the people of Australia and how his brave fight with cancer touched people all over the world.

Free tickets to see Melbourne City – the Melbourne version of Manchester City – at AAMI Park that night results in a 3-1 victory for the home team as they stand top of the A-League after five games.

As one fan says loudly, they are "top of the League but bottom of the attendance league" with no more than 4,000 making the short trip for their defeat of the Central Coast Mariners.

Saturday brings a close to the carnival and it's fitting that the Irish go out with a bang. Having narrowly missed out on her spot in the Cup, True Self lands the Group Three Queen Elizabeth Stakes in good style.

A first Australian winner for Willie Mullins – who flew in that morning and back out the next evening – left the Closutton maestro dreaming of what might be with the exciting mare in next year's Cup.

Aidan O'Brien would also get compensation as the durable filly Magic Wand made it 17th time lucky in a Group One to land the Mackinnon Stakes as Ryan Moore doubled up having earlier scored on True Self.

O'Brien has not visited an Australian racecourse since an incident following the 2008 Cup where he was summoned back to the racecourse from his dinner table in a city hotel and quizzed on the riding tactics employed by his misfiring trio.

That pushed travelling head lad TJ Comerford – the Kilkenny native who has worked for O'Brien the past 22 years – into the spotlight and his emotions in the final furlong shined a further light on what these thoroughbreds mean to those at the coal face.

Magic Wand's retirement will be delayed after her finest hour and the filly is likely to head to Australia with another battalion of Irish challengers next season. Expect more fireworks as the carnival continues to live up to its name.

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