Melbourne: A Year in Racing

This year, and this racing season, has been spectacular.

If you’d told me that when I landed in a rather fresh and chilly Melbourne last July that within a few months I’d see Winx annihilate a Cox Plate field surrounded by racing fans and new friends… I’d say you were dreaming. But it wasn’t a dream; she really did do just that and we really were right there to witness it.

Yet my year began cold, on my own, wandering around Flemington with knowledge only of the few European imports. I hadn’t thought I’d need my winter racing coat, a frequenter of Cheltenham, Newbury and Aintree… how wrong I was. I hoped a ‘Best Bets’ would help the new CommBank balance – a book sold to me for $5 (the pen extra) – but it didn’t, I drew a complete blank. Cold, disheartened and fair to say a little lonely, I returned to the comfort of 1am, watching Glorious Goodwood. Oh, Big Orange, perfect.

Later, a little warmer, I dragged two friends to Caulfield for the G1 Memsie Stakes. They drank and wanted to leave before the Memsie. It wasn’t the same.

Then called and my year abroad truly began. It’s taken me twenty-one years, but it was who finally forced me into a suit at the races. Australia, my British bosses thank you.

Caulfield kicked us off with brave Black Heart Bart and Jameka. What a marvel the horse with a heart on his head is, I’d recognise him anywhere in the world. Yet the joy of Bart’s success was scuppered slightly by my Real Love love-hate relationship… can you believe I’d find a cliff horse so quickly? Yet he never won for me and I backed him often enough. He also caused a slight embarrassment when I, an Aussie racing newbie, mistook him for a bay horse on Instagram… safe to say, relief flooded my veins when Weir announced his retirement.

Before I knew it I was onto Moonee Valley. The best racecourse in the state, I’ll tell you that now. Don’t change it. The sole track that isn’t a boring watch all the way round, where anything can happen – and anything does.

I was informed Chautauqua was quite good on Manikato night, but the grey flash looked like he was no more… that opinion took about six months to appropriately amend.

The next day, as the rain slowly died down, colleagues informed me that some guy called Daryl Braithwaite was kind of a big thing, whoever he was. Why would the best race of the season need a popstar to make it? Little did I know.

That was my favourite hour of my year abroad, period. Forget bungee jumping, skydiving, swimming with turtles. Any racing fan lives, survives, just for those electric days. Hearing thousands of passionate racing fans singing The Horses just minutes before Winx stormed to a nine-length success was simply sublime. I’m sad that Australian racing only gave me that one day, one day I was exactly the same as everyone else there, but they just don’t get the attendances. There’s little clapping, there’s little screaming and there’s generally not much of an atmosphere – that’s flat racing for you, I suppose. But for that one day it was a melting pot, as if the season had been saved up just for that one hour of emotional explosion.

A word on Winx, particularly to those from far away shores. She’s the real deal. Yes, those who thought Hartnell was within touching distance before that day were clowns, but nine lengths could have been twenty. A ‘respectable’ Group winner in the UK could’ve easily been floored twenty lengths. It’s a shame she won’t come to the UK, but why should she? If you don’t respect her, she doesn’t care. A country down under loves her, and they’ll put a hell of a lot more into her prize pot, too.

The Melbourne Cup is pretty special, Almandin is very special and the Cup racegoers are allotted a slightly different definition of the word. As I announced Almandin the winner, some TV personality with a camera – Aussies would know better than I – asked me who won and swore profusely at the answer. At least Heartbreak City’s owners were happy.

To many, that was the end, the Spring slunk off for another year. But the Internationals stayed behind for that extra day, including the bravest of them all: Big Orange. Egg on my face after the Cup, a race in truth that would never suit him, we got to see the real Orange at Sandown. You’d say he’d cracked before the top of the straight, but his terrier-like tenacity toughed it out all the way to the top, denied narrowly by Suroor. You can’t breed attitude like that.

Christmas came – and it was weirdly warm – but it was Catchy that caught the cameras come Autumn. That Blue Diamond was electric, it’s excellent to see the forward two year-olds meet for one big bash – the UK’s timetable doesn’t cater for that, with options to avoid opposition available until three.

The business in the Lightning Stakes with The Quarterback confirmed something I already knew. No matter what, no matter where you are in the world, the love this industry and these people have for their horses is overwhelming, intoxicating – his wellbeing was the biggest news that escaped the track that day.

Next up, it was farewell to Miles and felicitations to Matt, who moved onto the mic smoother than anyone could’ve imagined. We were lucky there.

Chautauqua did that thing too. I’m not entirely sure how, but he did something few horses can do. I’ll watch the replay again soon and once again I’ll expect him to get beat. Sensational.

Warrnambool came in May and the jumps brought out the best in loyal fans. I mentioned the inability of racegoers to put their hands together in the Spring, but most yearned to do just that as they saw Zed Em courageously lift the Brierly, Renew saunter to a silly-margin success and Regina Coeli turn back the clock. Flat races? What flat races?

Brisbane shone in the swamp, Jungle Edge the notable hero to rise out of the bog. A small trainer takes on the big boys with the most willing of partners, it’s written in literature somewhere.

And then the season closed off with a century like little others, I still look back and smile at the rare winter buzz Extra Zero created with that utterly inconceivable victory on his one hundredth start. Once again, a dramatic script few ever thought would be used.

Then it was all over, flight booked, bags packed and taxi waiting. Melbourne, Australia in general, has an incredible racing scene. Lifelong friends made, unforgettable memories secured and treasured pictures saved. I’ll be back… and I’ll be in a hurry.