Ten things you might not know about racing down under
To mark Australia day, here are a few interesting facts about the great racing nation
1 With a variety of top-class courses throughout the country and the allure of great races and phenomenal runners, it is unsurprising that horseracing is the third-highest attended sport in Australia, eclipsed only by Australian-rules football and rugby league. They boast almost 400 registered courses down under, where those in Victoria, Tasmania and in the south and west run left-handed, while tracks in New South Wales and Queensland go right-handed.
2 Racing in Australia originates back to the 18th century when the Lady Penrhyn, a ship transporting convicts, sailed from Portsmouth to New South Wales, arriving in 1788. The ship is believed to have brought over a stallion, three mares, a colt and two fillies from Cape Town in South Africa, the first horses to arrive there. From then on a number of sires were imported from around the world to increase the population of horses in the Oceanic nation. In the 1830s more horses from England were brought in as racing became more popular.
3 Long before the days of Black Caviar and Winx, Australia had another superstar in the form of Malua, arguably the most versatile horse in the sport’s history. Foaled in 1879, he proved himself as a sprinter by winning the 1884 Oakleigh Plate at Caulfield, ran over around six furlongs, before going on to capture the Melbourne Cup over two miles later that year. Impressively, five years later he would continue to prove his stamina and win the Grand National hurdle over three miles. Malua sired another Melbourne Cup winner in Malvolio, who earned success in 1891.
4 The first Melbourne Cup was ran in 1861 with £710 and a gold watch up for grabs – these days the winner earns a mammoth $4 million. It was won by the five-year-old Archer, who would go on to win it the following year as well. He was expected to bid for the hat-trick in 1863 but due to a public holiday his trainer’s acceptance form arrived late and he was unable to race. This led to a number of trainers withdrawing their entries out of sympathy, resulting in just seven running that year.
5 The record crowd at a racecourse in Australia came in 2006 when around 130,000 people entered Flemington to watch the Victoria Derby. The highest attendance on Melbourne Cup day was 122,736 for the 2003 renewal, when Makybe Diva won the first of her three consecutive cup victories. The crowd size has seen a general decline over the years with Cross Counter’s 2018 victory seen by just 83,471, the lowest since 1995. However, this was largely down to bad weather that plagued the meeting.
6 Racing popularity was booming in the 2000s to the point that video game developers Sidhe Interactive released ‘Melbourne Cup Challenge’ for PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2006. The game proved to be a success across Australia and New Zealand and gave players the opportunity to play as a jockey, owner or punter. It was released in Europe a couple of months later, under the name ‘Frankie Dettori Racing’ to boost its appeal.
7 There have been many great trainers in British Flat racing over the years, but nobody has dominated quite like Tommy Smith did in Australia. For 32 years he won every single Trainers’ Premiership, from 1953 until 1985, earning 282 Group 1 wins along the way. He died in 1998, but his legacy lives on in the $2.5 million TJ Smith Stakes ran at Randwick in the Autumn. He is the father of 2013 Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Gai Waterhouse.
8 Vegas Showgirl is well known in the world of bloodstock as the dam of Winx, but the queen of Australian racing isn’t the only Group winner the 16-year-old has produced. El Divino was born in October 2013, two years after Winx, and has gone on to compete in a number of Group races in Australia. In April 2016, he was a dead-heat winner alongside the Godolphin-owned Astern in the Group 3 Widden Kindergarten Stakes at Randwick.
9 Very few horses have the distinction of claiming victory over Winx, but First Seal has the honour of boasting four occasions in which she bettered the world’s joint-best turf horse. Wins in two Group 2s and the Group 1 Coolmore Flight Stakes all came at the superstar’s expense, before a hoof injury placed First Seal on the sidelines. When she returned to battle Winx once again, the narrative was very different. The wondermare bested her by four and three quarter lengths in the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes, before First Seal finished more than 13 lengths behind her rival in the Doncaster Mile. They never faced off again, and First Seal was retired in April 2017 after finishing sixth in the Group 1 Coolmore Legacy Stakes.
10 Damien Oliver is one of Australia’s greatest ever jockeys, riding over 100 Group 1 winners since the start of his career in 1988. Perhaps more remarkable though is that less than 24 hours after winning the 2002 Melbourne Cup with Media Puzzle, Oliver attended the funeral of his older brother, Jason, who had been killed the previous week after falling from a horse at Belmont Park. Oliver wore his brother’s jodphurs as tribute and was seen with tears in his eyes as he went past the post.
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