How Vintage Crop and a racing genius changed the Melbourne Cup forever

Mon, Nov 5, 2012, 00:00

TIPPING POINT:Want to know how old you really are? Those of a certain age, think back to your youthful pomp, say a couple of decades ago. Feels like yesterday, right? Then imagine your youthful self doing the same sum. The result might as well be a sepia-tinted age of bowler hats and steam.

Such a date felt like deepest history. Well, that’s how you look to youngsters now: fossilised and f****d. Good morning/good morning!

Such thoughts have occurred because in the early hours of tomorrow, the Melbourne Cup, the race that famously ‘stops a nation’ takes place on its traditional first Tuesday in November date. Thus it is 19 years since yours truly watched first-hand the face of Australia’s most coveted sporting prize being changed forever by Vintage Crop.

That’s 1993 baby: 19 years prior to that was 1974. I can childishly remember bits of 1974. Heffo’s Army caught Cork at their most hubristic in the football. Kilkenny won the hurling wearing black and white stripes on the telly. Mick O’Connell still played for Kerry. John Giles’s only European Cup final was still a year away.

By 1993, though, all of that might as well have been Waterloo or Marengo for all the relevance it had to a callow hack on the trip of a lifetime.

It doesn’t do to get too Christopher Columbus about how a small but, ahem, select pack of journos travelled Down Under to watch how the first European-trained horses ever to contest the Melbourne Cup got on. But neither should its expeditionary nature be ignored.

Dermot Weld sent Vintage Crop. England’s Lord Huntingdon trained Drum Taps. If each camp represented a Nina and a Pinta, then being among a handful of British and Irish hacks felt a bit like skulking in a tail-gating Santa Maria. That is until we got there.

For Weld and Co, the focus of Aussie interest must have been oppressive. Media wise, the Cup is omnipresent on the front and back pages for weeks beforehand. Thus, with acres of newsprint to fill, even us trailing seagulls were being flung copious amounts of attentive sardines.

We were new and exotic. What did we think of Oz, of Melbourne, of how everything Aussie’s best – uggie-ugggie-uggie. There were invitations to Government House garden parties. Interviews on Melbourne radio. Polite inquiries from top Victorian officialdom as to our sexual well-being – “Gettin’ much, mate?” It was intoxicating stuff for those more used to suspicion and disdain.

Even basic terminology was different. Stable lads were ‘strappers’. The parade ring a ‘mounting yard’. There were betting terms like ‘quinella’ that might have been an exotic coffee for all we knew. And the racing norms were insane.

Not in the self-consciously egalitarian land of the ‘fair-go’ were there indulgent month-long lead-ups to the big event. Instead most of the Melbourne Cup hopefuls ran the weekend before, all seemingly trying desperately not to win in order to not pick up extra weight for the Cup.

And in the midst of it all the one thing no one took seriously was the chance of either visitor actually winning. No way could a bunch of poofy Euros not run for six weeks beforehand and stuff the best of Australia.

Until of course Vintage Crop actually did.

And if everything had been new to us beforehand, the sense of incredulity that enveloped Flemington 19 years ago was like nothing else ever seen on a racecourse down under. After a hundred years of just the odd Kiwi jumping the Tasman to lift the Cup, the world suddenly didn’t get a window into Australian racing so much as a garage door.

And Weld was an invading Commodore Perry sailing into history.

He did it again with Media Puzzle in 2002. Then the Japanese won the Cup. French horses have won for the last two years. Twelve months ago, 11 European-trained horses lined up, almost half the entire field. Only a single Aussie runner, in third, made the top seven across the line.

Both Dunaden and the 2010 winner Americain are back again tomorrow amongst a comparatively restrained pack of eight Europeans that includes the latest Weld-trained horse to follow in Vintage Crop’s hoof-prints, Galileo’s Choice.

Even to the most militantly ‘ocker’ Aussie, the Irishman has become a reassuring presence, a revered figure for initiating a process that has transformed the quintessentially Aussie institution, the reverberations of which still provoke some unease among locals so long used to having their own ball to play with.

Nowadays a race at the other side of the globe is as straightforward an option for the owner of a staying racehorse in Europe as venturing a couple of hundred miles down a motorway. For ordinary punters here who want to bet on it, daily Australian racing is readily available, channels filling their night-time schedules with action from faraway places such as Doomben and Port Macquarie.

It’s all a digital miracle. If you feel like getting up at four tomorrow morning, you can boil the kettle, watch Aussie TV coverage of the Cup and bet on your laptop, all in the comfort of your couch.

It’s certainly a different age to shouting exultant copy about Vintage Crop and history down a phone and a satellite delay. And if I maintain that was less than 20 years ago, well, that’s a lifetime to many of you. Depressing.

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