Steve Moran

This crisis may bring much-needed change, but racing’s treasures a tale as old as time

What to write about given the current circumstances?

A prediction, perhaps? Surprise Baby wins the 2020 Melbourne Cup by six lengths – in the absence of Vow And Declare who’d already emulated Northerly’s Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate double and was bound for the Hong Kong international meeting. 

The Horsham-trained gelding won the Cup, defeating 17 other locally trained horses and six New Zealanders, before a record crowd of 150,000 after the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) opened the entire infield to spectators following unprecedented demand in the wake of the government’s waiving of the ban on mass gatherings.

The TAB reported record turnover and estimated that one in every two adult Australians had a flutter on the Cup.

“We’re shocked,” said one senior VRC official. “We really thought Australia’s race was all about the overseas runners.”

This probably won’t happen and I fear that little will change when, or if, this coronavirus pandemic is contained. 

Everything will return to self-interest. It always does. 

However, the current situation has demonstrated that where there’s a will there is absolutely a way (a fast-tracked one) and heightened a collective approach to our health and prosperity. 

So if we can hope, can be a little less sceptical for a moment, then let’s pray that Richard Freedman’s comments last week will be paid some heed. He said: “We are being forced to rethink everything because of an external force that we never saw coming, but we should take the opportunity to reset the way we do things for the good.”

But, for now, with so much noise about what’s going on – from a general health and not just a racing perspective – I really don’t think it’s appropriate to be indulging in too much self-absorbed editorialising. 

Rather, we should be thankful that – at least at the time of writing – racing is continuing and providing a huge level of distraction and interest for a large percentage of the populace.

It has certainly reminded me that, while at one level, racing is indeed an industry and critically a massive one which is a huge employer; it is good old-fashioned fun for the vast majority of people who follow the sport. 

They are not necessarily the needy or the greedy and certainly not professional punters. They are mums and dads and accountants and chippies who like to have a look at the form, or follow their favourite competitors or work out their system runners – with red and blue scrawls over the form guide – and then validate their opinion with a couple of dollars; two or five or ten bucks. 

They’re not much interested in sectional timing data or speed maps. Nor the pattern or prize-money but they know a good race when they see one and could probably refine our black-type system better than any panel of handicappers or race club officials. 

They’ll have a wager at Narromine if need be, as was certainly the case last week when the Victorian meeting was abandoned and turnover on the NSW meeting increased 180 per cent. 

They’ll be punting up a storm this weekend regardless of the prize money cuts for the Championships races and they couldn’t care less if The Everest and the Melbourne Cup are worth “only” $2 million this year. And it won’t stop them buying a small share in a horse if they’ve got the “readies” at the time – although I’m sure a wider spread of prize-money would precipitate greater investment at the lower end, if not across the board.

They don’t mind going to the ‘picnics’ so the kids can see the horses and they can “bring their own”. 

They love a last-start winner backing up in seven days. They love Ollie (Damien Oliver) going to the bush to ride two for Danny O’Brien. Just as they did, in days gone by, when The Professor (Roy Higgins) went to Werribee to ride two for Angus Armanasco.

They love bragging to their mates that they nailed the last trifecta, for a $12 outlay, even if it only paid $70. 

They love tipping a winner, almost regardless of how much they happened to win. They’ll smile through gritted teeth and mutter, “yeah, did OK” even when they haven’t backed the horse they tipped at the pub the night before. 

They’ve invariably got a favourite horse of all time and no amount of reasoned argument will persuade them otherwise. 

They invariably had 50 cents each-way on the Melbourne Cup winner when they were 15 and that, as they say, was end of story. 

And no, this is not autobiographical but I did have five bob each way on Light Fingers, at 15/1, in the 1965 Melbourne Cup. I was eight. And like many before me, and many since, I thought: “How long has this been going on?”

I did win around $3000, a bloody fortune then, when Bonor Bridge won the second leg of the daily double at Flemington – about ten years later when I was in Year 12 at school. The TAB agent was a family friend and it was no problem getting on, at lunchtime, after pedalling the pushbike from school. 

That was the day the mighty Reckless won his first race – at his 34th start from memory and he won the first leg of the double. Reckless, of course, in 1977 became the only horse to win the Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane Cups in the same year and the fairytale was almost completed when he finished second to Gold And Black in the Melbourne Cup.

He was trained by Aaron Treve “Tommy” Woodcock – who, of course, had been the strapper for the mighty 1930 Melbourne Cup winner Phar Lap and had accompanied the champion Australian galloper in his win at Agua Caliente, in Mexico, before his mysterious death.

Reckless was bred by the two women that owned him – Jean Godfrey and her daughter Joan Walker. 

You can Google a recent and wonderful Michael Felgate interview, on RSN 927, with Joan Walker. Or you can search for Phar Lap’s Agua Caliente video or perhaps Crisp’s gallant but almost tragic performance in the 1973 Grand National at Aintree, which is getting some social media airplay at present as we endeavour to amuse ourselves. Particularly with no Grand National this weekend.

It is these stories, these people, these horses and the joy of turning a few bob into a few more bob – aside from all the other machinations of the game – which provide inspiration and do so arguably more so now than at any other time. May we continue to race.