Jo McKinnon Column

Caulfield’s quiet did not diminish its loud tradition

Caulfield Cup day was crowdless and Randwick was rocking on Saturday.

Like many, I watched the whole incredible day of racing unfold on television and the contrast in the ambience of the two race meetings was extreme.

James McDonald and the hulking red sprinter Nature Strip (Nicconi) stirred thousands of Sydney siders, who were trackside bathing in the sunshine and celebrating freedom from lockdown, with a stunning victory in The Everest (1200m).

Soon after all the hype and excitement was over, the coverage then took us south for the running of the Caulfield Cup (Gr 1, 2400).

It was a typically bleak Melbourne day and there was barely a person in sight around the racecourse due to Covid restrictions. 

It looked like doomsville and my heart went from bursting with joy after all the great theatre we had just witnessed in the harbour city to feeling heavy. 

By the time the Cup field jumped, it seemed as though a race steeped in tradition had been left floundering in the wake of it all. 

It made me sad and I wondered if the glittering dash for cash that is the $15 million Everest had gazumped the Melbourne Racing Club’s signature race for once and for all?

A non-racing person, with no idea about industry politics, happened to be sitting alongside me watching the broadcast and suddenly piped up and said: “Why do they have these two races on the same day? It doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

I had a little giggle to myself, and, preferring not to enter into the contentious debate, I kept my eyes glued to the screen with the time-honoured Caulfield Cup now already several furlongs in.

As the horses wheeled around the home turn my heart began to soar again. Incentivise (Shamus Award), the freakish bay from the Darling Downs, was full of steam.

As he started to surge clear 400 metres from home, a plain, dark brown gelding launched out of the labouring pack behind him. 

Nonconformist (Rebel Raider), a cheap homebred, owned by mother and daughter Denise and Danielle Henwood, was trying desperately to catch Australian racing’s latest star but he failed.

“He was nothing short of incredible. It’s absolutely amazing just to have had him there on Saturday and to run second to a superstar is amazing.

“I could never in a million years imagined we would be where we were on Saturday,” said Danielle Henwood. 

Her reaction proves that winning isn’t everything. It’s the journey. Not only did she breed the horse, she also strapped him on Saturday.

“It’s hard to put into words the feeling you get. It’s overwhelming and you are proud of how far the horse has come,” she continued.

“The feelings are of complete emotion and they are memories I will cherish for a lifetime. Moments like Saturday you cannot buy.”

Big bucks and a diamond-encrusted trophy might have been won in Sydney, but in Melbourne, the meaning of tradition in our sport held plenty of weight for Henwood, whose authenticity and humbleness in defeat are both relatable and inspiring.

Iconic and long-standing black type handicap races like the Caulfield Cup provide the platform for these types of stories that are good for racing and prove that from humble beginnings you can make it all the way to the “majors” and give them a run for their money.

There is no doubt that a brilliant, new-age concept like The Everest is building its own unique place in Australian racing tradition but there’s a way to go before running second in that race holds quite the same level of meaning as it does in finishing the runner-up in a race like the Caulfield Cup.