3 November 2015

Melbourne Cup 2015: Our Cup runneth over...

Held under the dark clouds of drugs, corruption and drive-by shootings, this year's Melbourne Cup turned out to be even beyond the horses. A history-making winner and her family showed us racing's capacity to be inclusive, accepting and empowering, writes Michael Hutak.

Did the Australian turf just get the shot in the arm it so desperately needs? Racing showed its human face this afternoon, as Michelle Payne became the first woman to ride the winner of racing's godhead, when she saluted on Prince of Penzance with one of the great the Melbourne Cup rides. In a complete boilover, bookies got the lot as the 100-1 outsider from the bush overcame the world's best thoroughbreds to write the proverbial fairytale in this 155th running of the event.

But it wasn't the race that won the crowd's heart; it was what happened directly after, as Payne and Prince of Penzance were led back to scale by the horse's strapper, her brother "Stevie". The joyous display by Steven, who has Down's syndrome, leading his history-making sister back to scale, were indelible images of a racing game that despite all the problems it faces, has a capacity to be inclusive, accepting, and empowering.

Beyond the hype, the huge prize money, the dark clouds of drugs, corruption and drive-by shootings, this year's event turned out to be even beyond the horses. Instead it was about family, and the people who live their daily lives with these noble beasts. The Paynes are a large and esteemed racing family: Michelle and Stevie are the youngest of nine siblings who include successful jockeys Maree, Therese and Patrick, who is now a trainer. Michelle said horses responded to Stevie's caring attention: "Horses just relax around him."

The significance of her win against 23 male jockeys wasn't lost on Payne, who told the crowd and broadcast audience that racing is "a very male-dominated sport, and we hear that (female jockeys) are not strong enough or good enough. Well I hope from now that this will help female jockeys get more of a go":
It's such a chauvinistic sport. I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off, and (owner) John Richards and (trainer) Darren (Weir) stuck strongly with me.

I put in all the effort I could and galloped him all I could because I thought he had what it takes to win the Melbourne Cup.

I can't say how grateful I am to them. I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.

Gai Waterhouse became the first woman to train the Cup in 2013 with Fiorente, and now Payne's effort demonstrates that racing can be gender-blind at the top, but it's in its everyday ranks that the culture must change.

Cutting cruelly against all the uplift, the courageous ten year-old Red Cadeux, running in his fifth attempt to win, failed to finish and was immediately rushed to the Werribee equine centre to treat a serious injury to his off fetlock. The horse's trainer Ed Dunlop was too distraught to comment after the race and we await news of the champion's fate.

Fifty years after the dearly departed Bart Cummings won his first Cup with Light Fingers, the 155th running of the Melbourne Cup saw one of the best fields in terms of thoroughbred class line-up with the breeding might of international powerhouses Coolmore and Godolphin among the 11 international runners.

Racing is often lauded as the great leveller, and on exposed form, Prince of Penzance would always start 100-1 against the likes of English charges Trip to Paris, second place getter Max Dynamite, or Australia's globetrotting star Criterion, who ran a great race for third. More than 80 international horses have flown into Melbourne straight into the Cup field since the trailblazing Irish horse Vintage Crop won in 1993. None of them have won the event, a hoodoo that still stands.

In a slowly run event, there seemed few hard luck stories as Payne simply rode the race of her career to salute for Ballarat trainer Darren Weir, a knockabout horseman from central casting who paid testimony to his staff : "You pinch yourself a bit, what an absolute thrill and credit to the team I have at home. We thought we were a real top 10 chance. But this is incredible."

Early in the day, the state of the Flemington track came in for harsh criticism with a strong bias towards runners near the rail. Yesterday Racing Victoria made the unprecedented call of announcing three track ratings: good on the fence then two slow lanes out wider.

Veteran race caller Greg Miles, who apologised for giving the worst call of his career in the Caulfield Cup, delivered one of his best in calling his 35th consecutive Cup, breaking legend Bill Collins's longstanding record. Miles, who began calling for the ABC in the 1980s, did his demanding profession proud.

Michael Hutak is a journalist and communications specialist.

First published at ABC Online, The Drum

By Michael HutakUpdated 3 Nov 2015, 7:14pm

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