Group One glory for a Group One bloke. Why a trainer’s first big win is always the sweetest.

March 3, 2012

We all have our favourite sporting moments. Those spine-tingling events that the grandchildren will hear about one day.

Remember those times that made you punch the air. Special feats that gave you goose bumps.

If they really mean something, you shouldn’t have to think too hard. The memories will be locked away, in a place easy to access.

The Shane Warne ball that Mike Gatting still has nightmares about. Steve Waugh’s ton against the Poms at the SCG, against all the odds, and the experts.

I can remember cheering Jeff Fenech twenty-five years ago. Like it was yesterday. He battered Thai champ Samart Payakarun to win a world title. The leagues club erupted.

Big Mal Meninga’s try for the Kangaroos in 1980 at Old Trafford. An SAS unit wouldn’t have stopped him that day. A wrecking machine in green and gold.

We racing folk have so many great memories. The sport is littered with golden moments.

Kingston Town’s Cox plate. Any one of them. Makybe Diva’s Melbourne Cup. Any one of them.

How did Belle de Jour win the 2000 Golden Slipper? Even now, I can’t work out how she made that run. But I still love watching it.

Now, I have another. A memory that I’ll keep forever, and bore people with whenever they get stuck in a corner with me.

Last weekend, Rob Heathcote claimed his first Group One victory. The 2012 Oakleigh Plate. When the mighty Woorim swooped from a seemingly impossible position, it seemed all of Queensland cheered.

Even better, Damian Browne was in the saddle. The jockey has so much metal in his crook leg he sets off airport alarms just getting out of the car.

Such a reward, for Brisbane’s Premier trainer. Years of ridiculous alarm clocks and early morning cold, now don’t seem too bad.

It’s easy for punters to forget just how hard these people work. The trainers, and the jockeys. Stablehands and strappers. Sure, you might hear them complain every now and then. But they love the game.

Heathcote trains hundreds of winners every year. On tracks all over the land. You’d think such a successful operator would have nothing to prove.

But champions need to climb the highest peaks. Grand Finals, and Grand Slams. Gold medals and world records.

Trainers, rightly or wrongly, are judged on Group Ones. And not just because such a win attracts more business, and extra publicity. They’re just so hard to win. Unless your first name is Bart.

Blokes like Rob want to beat the best. It’s taken a while. And now he has.

For those who know him, it’s even more satisfying, because he’s such a bloody good bloke. Hard, and demanding, and ultra competitive. But just a great fella.

He’s part of the new breed of trainers. Communication is the key. Owners big and small feel like they’re part of the stable. It’s a genuine connection. Go out early on any given day, and you won’t want to leave. Everyone involved in the team lives and breathes racing.

Now that he has his first, the Group Ones will keep coming. It’s funny how these things happen. No excuse not to be on.

He’ll end up with plenty more. Trust me on that.

But nothing will compare to Woorim’s breathtaking victory last weekend. A lucky few will never forget that orange cap flashing home. Another favourite sporting moment. I can’t wait to tell the grandkids.

The perils of change. And replacement jockeys. Another way for punters to do their dough.

September 24, 2011

I loathe change.

Call me a creature of habit. And proud of it. At home, and work, and on the punt.

Giggle if you like. I don’t mind. I’m old and I can take your barbs.

I just think there’s something to be said for routine. And nowhere is it more important than the sporting arena.

My heart sinks when a halfback pulls out of a footy team. There goes the game plan.

Watch a decent cricket side when a new wicket keeper comes in. Nothing is smooth, no matter how talented the gloveman might be.

In the racing game, I would suggest that change should be avoided whenever possible. Or you’ll end up with loose change.

Late switches? Disastrous. Avoid like the plague. If it involves a jockey, run from the room and wave your arms in the air.

You know where I’m heading here. Although we’ve gone around the block to get there. Smart Missile today at Caulfield. Minus an injured Glen Boss.

His replacement is one of the world’s best. Brett Prebble is a gun. I’d back him anywhere he’s riding. But not today.

Here’s my theory. Based on absolutely no scientific evidence. Horses get to know their jockeys. They relax just that little bit more with a buddy up top. Especially the good ones.

Think Greg Childs and Sunline. Nolen and Black Caviar. Boss and Makybe Diva. Cassidy and Might and Power. They go better for those they know.

I can hear you chortling. Yes, they were champions anyway. Yes, they had other jockeys ride them. But you’re missing my point. And yes, I have one.

Smart Missile, the 3-year-old with a mind of his own, will be looking for Bossy this afternoon. His voice, and his touch. Instead, he’ll get Prebble. A bloke who was in Hong Kong yesterday.

I can hear you screaming examples to prove what a fool I am. Well, save your breath. I have my own painful story.

Yes, this policy has brought me unstuck big time before. Guess who the jockey was? G Boss.

It was the 1995 Golden Slipper. In the weeks before, I’d been following an unpredictable Freedman colt at long odds. Flying Spur.

He drew the inside gate in the Slipper. Jim Cassidy had the ride. At the time, no-one was riding better than the Pumper.

I’d declared him to anyone silly enough to listen. A major collect was looming. Until disaster struck.

The Pumper was outed the day before the big race. The infamous Jockey Tapes affair. Replaced by a young bloke from Queensland.

It was too much for me. As much as I thought the horse was the best in the field, I couldn’t bring myself to embrace the late change.

You know the rest. Flying Spur, with Boss riding for his life, saluted at 25 to 1. Beat Octagonal. I watched the tragedy unfold in a Cairns pub. And cried.

Did I learn my lesson? No. And over time, despite that horrible mistake, I reckon results have averaged my way, whenever change has been in the wind.

So, no Smart Missile for me today. It will be Woorim’s day. With his trusted jockey, Damian Browne, up top. Snug as a pair of old boots. First Group 1 for Rob Heathcote. Start chilling stubbies at the stables now.

I’m happy for you to tell me how wrong I am. Just not right now. I’m reading the papers. And you can’t change routine.

The thrill of the chase. From Lang Park to the track, why we love a swooper.

July 1, 2011

There’s nothing like a big finish. A barnstorming end. Victory in the last seconds. Winning in the final bound.

A Warne wicket on the last ball. Steve Waugh smacking a boundary at day’s end to reach his ton and put the Poms in their place.

How many origins have we seen go down to the wire? Games won and lost in a final set of six. Coyne’s miracle try in ’94. Billy the Kid stealing it from Ricky Stuart’s mob in Game One this year.

Premiership deciders too. What about Andrew Johns in the ’97 grand final? I know, he’s a Blue, but credit where credit’s due.

Last throw of the dice, and he darts down a crowded blind side. No-one else would have done that. Joey finds Darren Albert, and with six seconds left, the Knights win their first premiership. Now that’s a finish.

Roar fans were crying into their plastic beers in this year’s A-League decider. Red hot favourites, and they were on the way out. Big time.

Two goals down in extra time, the Orange army members were heading for the exits. But as George Michael so elegantly put it – ‘ya gotta have faith’.

Not only did they level the score with seconds left, the Brisbane boys won the penalty shoot out. It doesn’t get much closer than that.

In racing, it’s a tight finish that gets the blood pumping. Especially when a crowd favourite is flashing home. We generally spot it late, back in the field. And then hope like hell that it’s ours.

There are some famous ones. Like the Golden Slipper in 2000. You don’t win Slippers by missing the start. Belle du Jour didn’t just miss the kick. She nibbled on carrots and applied lipstick before leaving the gates. Singo owned her. Naughty words were uttered.

Last into the straight, the filly couldn’t win. No way. Then Lenny Beasley started weaving a path. In and out, back and forward. Whoosh. She got there in the last stride.

It happened last year too. Not quite the Slipper. On the beautiful big track at Caloundra. The Sunshine Coast Turf club’s biggest Saturday of the year. The Glasshouse Handicap.

It was a ride I’ll never forget. Because the bloke who performed the miracle is no longer with us.

Woorim was way back. Last, cluttered up behind the big field. But then Stathi Katsidis got to work.

He waited. And waited. Then he weaved. We held our breath. In a flash, he had Woorim back on the inside, charging. Horse and jockey hadn’t missed a beat. What a ride. You won’t see many better.

In an age of great jockeys, only a handful could have done what Stathi did that day. As I’ve said on these pages before, we’re all so much poorer for his passing.

Rob Heathcote’s gelding returns to Caloundra tomorrow. And he has plenty against him to win again. A whopping five and a half extra kilos. He’ll get way back. And if it’s wet, forget it.

But all is not lost. The bloke up top, Damian Browne, is one of the few who could match Stathi as his best. Trust me, he’s a genius. No longer under the radar. For a long while the boys and I were getting over the odds every time he went around.

There are other threats. The McLachlan family has Phelan Ready primed. The local hope. They’d love to do it for dad, the late Big Bruce.

On his day, the other Heathcote horse, Gundy Son, can do anything. And Gerald Ryan is supremely confident with his last start Ipswich winner Adnocon.

Looking for a long shot? Keep an eye on Viking Legend. The bloke riding him, Chris O’Brien, is one of the most under-rated hoops in the game. He’s making the trip from Gosford, and he’s not coming for the pies. Trust me, this bloke’s as good as any of them.

As long as the rain stays away, I’ll be sticking with Woorim. Very unlucky in the Stradbroke. If you join me, be brave. Hold your nerve. If he gets up, it will be late. Maybe in the last stride. Like Warney, and Coyney, and Joey.

Remember, there’s nothing like a close finish. Unless we get beat. That falls into the category of “oh so bloody close”. You won’t be surprised to know I have plenty of those tales. Sad, painful, unfair stories. For another day.