DARREN WEIR CONTINUES to dominate racing on a grand scale, as Chief Writer RON REED discovers as the spring carnival gets under way:
CAULFIELD hadn’t quite put winter behind it for the first day of spring racing. It was cold, grey and damp, but for one familiar figure there is now no such thing, it seems, as a day at the races when the sun doesn’t shine, figuratively speaking. But even by Darren Weir’s stupendous standards, this was a red-hot occasion.
The master trainer won five of the nine races and was runner-up in three of the others with two other third placings. He actually trained six winners if you count the dead-heat between Mrs Gardenia and Bellaria in the Hocking Stuart Handicap as two wins, which he virtually did when he said: “Well, it keeps two sets of owners happy.”
He won the first Group 1 race of the spring, the Memsie Stakes, with Humidor, who paid better than $20. And only in the last race, when he scratched two of his four runners, did he not figure in the placings.
As well, his stable foreman in Warrnambool, Jarrod McLean, won one race with one of his own horses. And two of his regular jockeys, Damien Lane and Dean Yendall rode four and three winners respectively. To top it off, Weir also won a good race in Adelaide, the Penny Edition Stakes, with Theanswermyfriend.
This is domination on a grand scale – and it is no longer surprising.
It was more irrefutable proof that this knockabout bushie has become a phenomenon the likes of which Australian racing has probably never seen. He is the human equivalent of Winx, the wonder horse who cannot be beaten. Racing is lucky to have them both gracing the big stage at the same time. Weir is so prolific that big days out – two or three winners, say, which is huge for any other stable – have become almost ho-hum. It’s just expected of him now. He rarely seems to get excited himself, leaving that to the myriad owners who have flocked to him in such numbers that he now counts his horses in the hundreds at his multi-pronged training establishments at Ballarat, Warrnambool and elsewhere.
But even he couldn’t hide how much he was enjoying himself on Saturday, and didn’t attempt to. He was in a jovial mood from the outset as he lined up for two separate TV interviews after each of his wins, with Channel Seven presenter Jason Richardson eventually pinning a Seven badge on his lapel and declaring him part of the commentary team. Weir laughingly inquired what the pay scale might be for such an appointment. “It’s certainly not as much as you get paid,” Richo retorted in what was a prime candidate for understatement of the day.
As winner followed winner, it started to feel like Weir was the only identifiable presence in the mounting yard as other trainers and most of the jockeys – with the possible exceptions of Lane and Yendall – all took back seats, mere extras in the one-man show. That doesn’t happen often when all the cracks gather for the fray in spring. He is instantly recognisable, of course. At the bush races, Weir dresses down in jeans, weather-beaten shirts and old boots but here it was a blue suit of a brighter hue than anybody else was wearing, making him even more recognisable, and with his distinctive gait he took up the same position to watch every race, adjacent to the staircase leading down to the jockeys room, the media centre – and, appropriately, the winning connections’ bar.
From this vantage point, he rarely shows much emotion regardless of the result. But that changed when Humidor saluted at the big odds, giving him his 31st Group 1 winner. He pumped his arms and laughed every bit as much as the elated owners who were quickly by his side. Even though he is a proven good horse who had won at Group 1 twice before and would have collected last year’s Cox Plate but for the presence of Winx, few expected the six-year-old gelding to prevail over this classy field at 1400m, when all his seven previous wins have been over longer distances. But Weir didn’t seem surprised. He rarely is, although when Native Soldier caused a boilover at $15 in the previous race, he admitted: “I didn’t see that coming.”
Obviously, jumping on board the Weir bandwagon is a potentially profitable strategy for mug punters and professionals alike, except for one problem. He has so many starters at most meetings, with multiple chances in many races, the trick is to assess them in the right order. On Saturday he had 25 listed starters, with two of them scratched from the last race. The leviathan David Hayes stable was well behind with 17 starters, followed by Mick Price and James Cummings with seven each. Weir had multiple starters in seven of the nine races. It is not impossible to hear suggestions that such saturation may not ultimately be good for racing for one reason or another, but it obviously is not an issue for him. After the dead-heat he said: “I don’t worry about them running against each other. I just treat them as another horse.” In other words, they’re all trained separately and are all trying their best.
If anyone is waiting for the Weir whirlwind to blow itself out, they should settle in for a long vigil. Last year he trained a record 491 winners, and, according to the racing.com website, with the new season just a month old he has added another 51 from 329 starters for a career total of 3,508. He wins about 15 per cent of the time and recently that has grown to 18 per cent. At last count his vast team had collected $131,979,130 in prizemoney.
What the army of punters who now hang on his every utterance have collected, is anyone’s guess. But this column is here to say that it is certainly one way to make a wintry day feel very much warmer.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.