Back the jumpers to beat the boredom

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FOR a while there, jumps racing looked to be doomed but as BRIAN MELDRUM reports it’s now back in fine shape:

THANK HEAVENS for jumps racing!

Bailed up inside with a cold for most of the week, and fed up with having to watch hour after hour, day after day of mindless flat racing, I actually contemplated taking up knitting.

Sunday dawned to soggy tissues and another coughing fit, but also to the realisation that at last there would be something worthwhile to watch on the racing channel. The jumpers!

Four jumps races, in fact, the first four on the program at Bendigo. It brought back long forgotten memories of time spent in England, watching on black and white TV, hurdles and steeplechases from Kempton Park and Newbury and Market Rasen.

You mightn’t know it, but jumps racing in England and Ireland is far more popular than flat racing, which over the decades seems to have evolved into the plaything of Arab sheiks and Irish industrialists.

Believe it or not there actually was a time when jumps racing existed pretty much at tracks all around Australia, but you’d have to delve deep into the history books to find evidence of it in the northern states, and in the west.

It disappeared from Tasmania a decade or so ago, and in South Australia it is hanging on by a thread, thanks to the enthusiasm and stubbornness of a few trainers and the good folk at Oakbank.

Ten years ago in Victoria jumps racing was on a cliff’s edge, dragged there by an ill-conceived  design of hurdles/fences that were actually death traps. They didn’t even look like proper jumps.

In the face of much hostility, not the least of it political, the jumping fraternity, led by the Australian Jumps Racing Association, closed ranks, worked through the issues, and assisted by Racing Victoria introduced a better designed, much safer and much better looking French obstacle, to gradually win back support.

And it is days like that at Bendigo on Sunday that sheet home the point: jumps racing in the winter is a point of difference, a much-needed contrast to the “groundhog day”aspect of endless and pretty much inconsequential flat racing.

The first three races were for hurdlers, one of them the $100,000 Brendan Drechsler Hurdle, named after the Bendigo Jockey Club president who worked tirelessly to bring jumps racing back to Bendigo a decade or so ago. The fourth race was another feature, the $100,000 Mosstrooper Steeple. All four races were absolute crackers, and would you believe, the winning margins in all of them totalled less than two lengths.

The contest for the Mosstrooper was as good as it gets, and in the end came down to a battle royal between two quality ‘chasers and two exceptional horsemen, one an Aussie, the other an Irishman.

Zed Em, a former Kiwi jumper sent to race in Australia last year by legendary Kiwi trainer Kevin “Dummy” Myers, came to the race having won or finished second at his previous five jump starts, including feature wins in this year’s Von Doussa Steeple at Oakbank, the Brierly Steeple at Warrnambool, and at his last start the Thackeray Steeple, also at Warrnambool.

Zed Em loves to lead, so his rider, Brad McLean, born and bred in the Western District, was happy to give him some rein and let him bowl along at the head of things. These tactics looked likely to pay off at the pointy end of the race, as the six-year-old fought off several challengers to still be in front over the last.

His last assailant though was the best performed jumper in the race. Bought as a cast-off from the Lloyd Williams stable some years ago, Wells took to the jumping caper like he was born to it, and in the capable hands of trainer Kathryn Durden, reached the pinnacle when he won the 2014 Grand National Steeple.

He was injured soon after and was off the scene for 18 months, but Durden performed some kind of miracle to get him back to win the 2016 Grand National Steeple. He was having his first jumps start for the season on Sunday, but had been well tuned up on the flat. Still it took all of Wells’ courage and Irish expat Richard Cully’s strength to get past Zed Em in the last few strides.

There were some pretty big names hovering around Wells when he returned to ther winner’s stall. Kathryn’s husband Craig, one of the best jumps riders ever to have ridden in this country, did the strapping duties, while the mauve, white and green colours gave away the identity of one of the part-owners, Sandy McGregor, who cheered them to victory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup won by Prince Of Penzance.

McGregor wasn’t the only one with 2014 Melbourne Cup ties to have a winning jumper on Sunday. Prince Of Penzance’s trainer Darren Weir, who recently broke the Australian record for the most winners trained in a season, saddled up The Narcissist to give another Irishman, his good mate John Allen, a win in the second race.

In the previous two years the Mosstrooper Steeple had been won by Sea King, another horse sent each season to race in Australia by Myers, and like Zed Em trained here by Patrick Payne.

He was to have tried for the hat-trick this year, but because he hadn’t raced overe fences, only hurdles, in New Zealand this preparation, was deemed ineligible to compete over them here without having schooled.

Not to be fazed, Payne opted to run him in the Drechsler, but said prior to the race he expected the opposition to prove a bit too slick for him. Patrick might have had his tongue in his cheek when he said that, because Sea King always looked to be travelling best, and when Brad McLean asked him to lengthen, he stitched the others up pretty quickly.

Payne is yet another outstanding horseman involved in jumping, having been among the best of Australia’s jockeys before weight forced him into training, his wins including a Cox Plate and an Australian Cup.

Sadly the end of the 2017 jumping season is looming, but there are a couple of season-ending blockbusters to come which, if Sunday’s racing is any guide, will be a “must sees”.

Sandown on August 6 will host the running of the $200,000 Grand National Hurdle and the final lead-up to the GN Steeple, the $125,000 Crisp Steeple.

Two weeks later, at Ballarat, the best ‘chasers, no doubt including Wells and Zed Em, will line up in the $350,000 Grand National Steeple, and the hurdlers will have one last crack for the season in the $125,000 JJ Houlahan Hurdle.

They aren’t with us any more but if they were two legends, doyen jumps trainer Jim Houlahan, and Australia’s English Grand National hero, Crisp, would be mighty pleased with the way things are going.

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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.

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