Steve reminisces about some of the fascinating tales surrounding past Oakleigh Plates
I suppose, this fine Saturday, I could write about the ongoing Aquanita saga in my beleaguered home state.
However, nobody’s leaked any information to me and the hearing is not until 30 April – some time hence.
At the moment, the allegations centre on one and one only group of trainers who are linked. Not the entire band of horsemen in the state. It’s not the end of the racing world as we know it. At least, not yet.
As Victoria’s racing minister Martin Pakula said this week: “Racing is very resilient, it bounces back from these sort of things.”
I’d rather write about the Oakleigh Plate.
It is, in my view, one of Australia’s greatest races. Along with its handicap brothers – the Newmarket, the Toorak, the Stradbroke, the Doncaster and the Epsom.
I’ll probably add, now, the Cantala (Stakes) as it has – like the others – reverted to its registered name.
This is important. We refer to them in joyously simple terms. The Doncaster… the Toorak… the Stradbroke. They have longevity and the glorious uncertainty of handicap conditions and, almost invariably, capacity fields. These are the special names of hallowed races.
Naturally, we add the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups to the list. Honestly, the Cox Plate is the only weight-for-age race on the calendar which genuinely floats my boat.
This list of much loved handicaps would I suspect (perhaps hope) be fairly representative of the opinion of most Australian racing fans. South Australians would probably want to add the Goodwood although it’s conditions have been tampered with. They could argue, I guess, same about the two big Cups which does distress me.
These are races which have no particular rhyme or reason. They’re won by leaders and swoopers, top weights and lightweights. Trained and ridden by household names and ‘unknowns’. Owned by sheikhs and sheet metal workers.
They can be any old price the field rather than the typically stifled markets on most set-weight or weight-for-age races. That’s alluring.
And they generate fantastic stories. There’s no shortage of them when it comes to the Oakleigh Plate.
My favourite involves former jockey Dale ‘Spike’ Short who won the race in 1981 aboard the Theo Howe-trained Gleaming Waters. He was number 18 and drawn barrier 18 with 47.5 kilograms. They were fair dinkum handicaps back then.
Short had been a very successful apprentice in Melbourne but had been going through a lean patch, which had him seek greener pastures. He’d spent three months in Perth and ventured to Sydney where he rode work for Jack Denham, and was planning to head back there after the Caulfield race in which he’d picked up the Gleaming Waters ride by chance. And by virtue of the fact that he could ride that light.
He was so taken aback that finally some luck – and the photo finish – had gone his way he reportedly said – when asked about his reaction to number 18 being posted: “I thought it was a dead-heat between one and eight.”
“That’s true,” Short told me this week. “I said it on World Of Sport the next morning, with Jack Elliott. World Of Sport was an institution in those days with the wood-chop, the handball competitions and all the prize giveaways. Think I went home with some Tosca luggage.”
Reports at the time noted that Gleaming Waters “scored one of the biggest upsets of the racing season when he led all the way to win the $76,000 Oakleigh Plate… Short had experienced a run of losses before yesterday and bookmakers and punters could see no end to his drought with Gleaming Waters sent out at 66-1.”
Short, who now trains in his own right and assists Shea Eden at Cranbourne, also had the distinction of winning another of the aforementioned races. That was, in the same year, the 1981 Toorak Handicap aboard the Brian Ralph trained Penny Edition.
But, and with no prompting from the writer, he has one misgiving about that. “That year it was called the IXL and that just doesn’t have the same ring to it as winning the Toorak,” he said.
The Oakleigh Plate win was Short’s first at Group One level which is something he shares with Stephen Baster, John Didham, Peter Shepherd, Robert Scarlett, Jason Patton and – almost certainly – Matt Pumpa, Mark Riley and Stephen Burridge.
In my early racing consciousness, I can recall the Oakleigh Plate being the race for the rogues – won by the likes of Iga Ninja, who had a propensity to veer to the outside fence in his races; Hartbalm, who had a mind of his own, and Turf Ruler, who was described as a ‘former rogue’ when he came from virtually last to score in 1980.
Short priced stars including Snippets, Schillaci and Weekend Hussler have won the race but there’s been plenty of fairytale, longshot winners to match Gleaming Waters.
Prominent among them is another with a strong Cranbourne connection. Laurie Cleary, described as a Cranbourne ‘hobby’ trainer and the man who mentored current trainer Michael Kent, won the race with Sans Rival in 1983.
Cleary’s primary focus, that day, was to get to his daughter Marilyn’s wedding in Essendon (scheduled two hours after the race) although he’d have surely been excused for being late given that Marilyn bred Sans Rival who was the outsider of the field at 50-1.
Sans Rival was ridden by then 18-year-old apprentice Robert Scarlett, who now rides work for Anthony Freedman. He’d previously ridden just 11 city winners in his two-year career.
“I remember it very well,” said Kent, “Laurie actually forgot to nominate the horse on the Monday and made a frantic phone call, which I reckon was after the deadline but they accepted his entry.
“I was riding at the picnics in those days but took the day off to strap Sans Rival for Laurie, who was a champion bloke. I used to ride the horse every day. And I drove the horse home with Laurie and the family heading off to the wedding. I reckon we watched that race so many times that Robert’s sister Suzie could call it from start to finish.”
Suzie Scarlett was then ten years old. She’s now married to former jockey and steward Dion Villella. “Michael might be slightly exaggerating but it was etched in my brain for a very long time and I could still call the finish for you,” she said. And promptly did.
“Not so long ago I filmed the old VHS copy of the race on my phone and sent it to Robert. It still is a great memory for the family,” she said.
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