Magnificent mare

As the Sydney Spring Carnival came to an end, with Desert War winning its second Epsom in a row and Railings taking the Metropolitan (races that date back to the 1860s), the Melbourne Carnival began. Back from Hong Kong, David Hayes led in the two-year-old I Got Chills which landed a huge plunge and won by six lengths. It would win again three weeks later, and then go amiss, perhaps never to start again. The Turnbull Stakes went to the champion mare Makybe Diva, warming up for the Cox Plate to come at Moonee Valley.

But first the action swung to Caulfield for the Guineas. It has been a vexed race, won by ordinary horses—Procul Harum at 250/1, last year Econsul at 40/1—but by outstanding ones as well: Vain, Redoubte’s Choice, Lonrho. As rain began to fall heavily, the Bart Cummings-trained God’s Own was knocked sideways twice, but came on to win decisively from Paratroopers. Amazed he should have been, but Cummings only ventured ‘very good’. That laconicism did not reprove the gibbering spokesman for Carlton at the presentation who extolled its ‘big beer’ ad.

Earlier on in the program some of the international horses were out in the 120th running of the Caulfield Stakes, but it was done brilliantly by a relative newcomer, El Segundo, with Darren Gauci up. It could only manage sixth in the next week’s Caulfield Cup, but watch for this horse in the autumn. The Cup went to Railings from the unlucky Japanese runner Eye Popper whose jockey covered an extra furlong. Traditionally the best pointer to the Melbourne Cup, this race sent those two to near the top of the market. A gallant third-place getter, the Lee Freedman-trained Mummify, which won the Caulfield Cup three years ago and won a Group One at Dubai last year, broke down and had to be destroyed.

The Cox Plate was a showdown for Freedman’s mare Makybe Diva, which had never won at Moonee Valley and faced a field of imponderables. How good were the three-year-olds? The foreign horses? In the end, not good enough. Glen Boss sent the mare home for a bold win after the field had fanned eight wide on the turn. But would she run in the Melbourne Cup? She had appeared spent at the end of the Cox Plate. Ten days later she would have to carry a record weight for a mare of 58kg in the Cup and attempt to do what no horse had ever done—win three times.

In between was Derby Day. Last year’s winner, the Western Australian horse Plastered, had been a mystery this spring. Was it injured? Would the owners’ partnership be dissolved and the horse go to Freedman to be trained? In the end, back west went the enigmatic Plastered, to be set for the Perth Cup. On Derby Day, Cup contenders such as Confectioner and Mr Celebrity were making their last bids to get into the Cup field via the Saab Quality (formerly known as the Hotham Handicap). As it was, Cummings’s horse Strasbourg had its first win for 34 months. It would run and so would the third horse, Mr Celebrity, for Gai Waterhouse.

Meanwhile I celebrated five winners in a row, including Serenade Rose at 14/1 in the Wakeful (not the Wakefield, as the trophy-giver thought), Benicio for Freedman at 10/1 in the Derby and Glamour Puss at 9/1 in the dash down the Straight Six. This used to be called the Craven ‘A’ after racing folks’ fag of choice. In 1970 Vain won by 12 lengths. By day’s end most good judges still thought that Makybe Diva would not run on the following Tuesday. We were wrong. Although connections worried about how hard the track might be, as did the Irish mob with Vinnie Roe, and 31 degrees Celsius was promised, the mare was paid up to start. When they jumped, Boss worked her across to near the rail. Mr Celebrity led and compounded. Eye Popper loomed and then vanished in the ruck. The New Zealander Xcellent (first Cup runner to start with X) came on, but so did the mare, sprinting faster than any stayer has, carried into the race as the leaders flagged and spread. Although he rode superbly, Boss still made his run a touch earlier than he wanted. On a Jeune swooped at long odds, but Makybe Diva won magnificently by more than a length. ne of the largest-ever Cup Day crowds saw, simply, the greatest win in the race for three-quarters of a century, since 1930, and Phar Lap. The owner retired Makybe Diva at once and Freedman promised that he meant it: ‘She may be a Diva but she’s not Nellie Melba.’

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature  at James Cook University, Cairns



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