How big a part can luck play when there is $3.8 million riding on a race? BRIAN MELDRUM looks at how good fortune favoured the Prince:
The Oxford Dictionary describes a fluke as being “an unlikely chance occurrence, especially a surprising piece of luck”. Now, I’ve heard many descriptions relating to 100-1 outsider Prince Of Penzance’s unforgettable (there’s one) win in the 2015 Melbourne Cup – history-making, incredible, heart-warming, ground-breaking, bloody marvellous – the list goes on and on.
But the one thing I’d never heard it described as was, a “fluke”. That is, until a week or so ago, at Friday pub lunch put on by the Ormond Football Club.
Before a crowd of about 100 “Monders” (not the most imaginative of nicknames) and their friends, including a part-owner of the Cup winner, the guest speaker stated it quite simply. “It was a fluke,” he said. “A pure fluke.”
Sacrilege, I hear you say. How do you “fluke” winning a Melbourne Cup? Well, the comment came from the one person best placed to make such a judgment, Prince Of Penzance’s trainer, Darren Weir, and a clinical view of the facts would suggest he’s right.
Remember, this is coming from a bloke who, in recent weeks, has been rewriting the record books as far as trainers are concerned. In mid-June he became the first trainer in Australia to have trained more than 400 winners in a season, having earlier broken Lee Freedman’s record for the most Melbourne metropolitan winners in a season.
Weir’s pronoucement came after it was put to him that everything had gone right for the six-year-old and his jockey, Michelle Payne, during the running of the Cup. “Everything went right for him from the very start of his preparation,” Weir replied. “And that doesn’t happen very often.”
In any sporting pursuit luck, good and bad, is a factor, and in horse racing it is quite significant. It will have a major bearing on the prospects of the hundreds of horses that, around about now, are being brought back into work with an eye to the millions of dollars on offer at the spring carnival.
Injuries will see some gone before they’ve even started, while others will suffer the same fate in their lead-up races. Many will suffer minor injuries, not so bad as to banish them from the action, but enough to cause unwanted setbacks to their preparations.
Barrier draws can make or break a horse’s chances, and the barriers themselves often spook them, and they scramble and kick to get out of gates, and become non-starters. Once they fly open there are a million unexpected things that can happen. A horse can miss the start, get bumped off its stride, run into a dead-end, get carted off the track, or clip heels and stumble. A jockey can tangle the reins, have the saddle slip, lose his whip, or generally just stuff it up, and when the race is run the occasional sounding of the protest siren will signal that it ain’t over yet.
It so often is “the luck of the draw”, and this essentially was what Weir was saying when he described Prince Of Penzance’s Cup win as a fluke. The bay gelding was a good, honest stayer, a brave one too, having come back from two operations for bone chips. But on paper he didn’t appear quite good enough to win a Melbourne Cup. Weir thought he might get into the top 10.
His targeted race in 2015 was the Moonee Valley Cup, a race he’d won the previous year. He had four runs going into it, and according to Weir came through them all in mint condition.
Ridden a bold, front-running race by Michelle Payne, Prince Of Penzance made it a true staying test, and only Lloyd Williams’ imported stayer, The United States, was good enough to run him down in the last 80 metres.
Weir admits he was “gutted” by the result, but said in light of what was to come it could have been a blessing. It’s unlikely Prince Of Penzance would have been penalised if he’d won at the Valley, but as Weir says, “he might have been”. And could he have won the Cup with a half or a kilo more?
The solid run did him no harm; in fact it had him rock hard fit for the challenge to come. And at the Cup barrier draw on Derby night, when strapper Stevie Payne declared he was going to pick barrier number one for his charge, and did exactly that, the planets were aligning like nobody’s business.
On Cup Day Prince Of Penzance wandered around the mounting yard like an old hurdler, and was so relaxed in the barrier he missed the start by two lengths. Amazingly nothing crossed in front of him for the first 300 metres, enabling Payne to slide up along the rail and be forward of mid-field at the post the first time.
Weir points out that had the horse drawn out beyond seven or eight and missed the start, the horses coming across in front of him would have pushed him back into the ruck, from where he would have had no hope.
Payne found herself on the back of the Irish nag, Max Dynamite, with Frankie Dettori up, and bowled along at her leisure until the 1,000 metre mark, when at exactly the right time a two-wide gap appeared on her outside, and in a smart piece of riding she was able to take Prince Of Penzance three wide into the running, leaving Max Dynamite bailed up inside runners.
Just before straightening she found herself momentarlily blocked, but the Godolphin runner Sky Hunter obligingly veered away to the right, allowing Prince Of Penzance to move out and get a clear run to the line. A couple of seconds later Dettori, in a desperation move, hauled Max Dynamite sideways to the outside and in doing so knocked down a half a dozen or so runners, many of them poised to make a run at the leaders (Dettori was fined 20 grand and got a month).
It took Max Dynamite a few strides to get balanced but by then the bird, in the shape of Payne and POP, had flown. Weir said he could barely believe it was happening. “Max Dynamite should have won the race, no doubt. But to the very end everything went right for my bloke, and he won.”
It WAS a fluke, but who cares. Certainly not Weir and his team, certainly not the 20 owners with shares in Prince Of Penzance, and certaintly not Michelle Payne, the first women jockey to win the world’s greatest staying handicap.
After all, when it’s said and done, how often do you “fluke”winning $3.8 million.
Author: Brian Meldrum
Brian Meldrum has been a racing journalist for more than 47 years, and is a former Managing Editor – Racing, at the Herald Sun.