Three winners for the stairway phantom

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DISGRACED trainer Darren Weir was conspicuous by his absence at Caulfield on Saturday as his four-year-suspension came into sharp focus but his horses were still winning, says chief writer RON REED:

Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away. When I came home last night at three, the man was waiting there for me. But when I looked around the hall I couldn’t see him there at all., Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more.

AMERICAN poet William Hughes Mearns didn’t have Darren Weir in mind when he penned that well-known rhyme in 1899. But it popped up in my mind on Saturday. Whenever Caulfield was hosting the gallops, the now-disgraced master trainer had always made a habit of stationing himself at the top of the staircase leading down into the winning owners and trainers bar, the jockey’s room and the media bunker to watch his horses pile up the prizemoney at a phenomenal rate, two, three or four winners at a time not unusual.

This time, he was the man who wasn’t there.

The man who won’t be there – or at any other racecourse – for at least four years.

The man who may never be there on a racecourse again.

Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more.

Time will tell whether Weir will ever make a comeback to the sport-cum-industry that he has come to dominate for the past decade, until disqualified last week for possessing devices used to inflict pain on the animals who were the basis of his booming business, as well as other dubious practices.

But on a damp, grey day that ushered in the autumn carnival with the first Group 1 race of the year, the Orr Stakes, not much time was required for the modest crowd to realise that Weir was not in his customary spot at the top of the stairs.

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he first of nine races was impressively won by Yogi, one of the many Weir horses now under new management, in this case with the partnership of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, who were quick to find the money – perhaps at a bargain price – to relieve Weir of his state-of-the-art Ballarat training establishment, the epicentre of what had become an empire and which he is no longer permitted to even enter.

More or less in the blink of an eye, a changing of the guard had been undertaken and symbolically consummated.

For both Weir and Maher – and the little-known Eustace – this was the first day of the rest of their lives. No matter what calamities come and go the world always moves on, and racing is no different.

No, Weir wasn’t there. Not in person, But the horses he used to train were, in their usual prolific numbers – and making their customary heavy impact. There were 15 now in the care of several other trainers and three of them saluted, Yogi for Maher and Eustace, Nature Strip for Chris Waller and Hawkshot for the David Hayes triumvirate. A treble from 16 runners – and $472,850 prizemoney, 10 per cent of which he would have trousered – is about the norm for Weir on an important day like this.

He was also “there” in another sense, in that, naturally, he remains the No 1 topic of conversation, with a lively debate progressing about whether there should be any degree of sympathy or do you simply take the uncompromising view that you do the crime you do the time, that he has got his right whack.

I’d lean toward the latter but not without acknowledging that there is a certain amount of human tragedy at play – it is never a simple matter to watch a man’s world crumble around him, for a high-flier to be brought crashing to earth, especially when his sins are far from unprecedented and not so egregious as to have cost or even ruined lives other than his own.

Those who were at Racing Victoria headquarters during the week when he was sentenced and who saw him shake and quiver and fail to hold back tears say it was a harrowing sight. “I wanted to give him a hug,” said one veteran observer.

Of course, precisely what the full range of those sins are is not yet clear. Weir is still being investigated by police who have not said why, exactly. When this elephant in the room is finally escorted out with full disclosure of what might really have been happening ,the sympathy vote might dry up entirely.

That’s if one or two rumours doing the rounds are even remotely on the money.

What has made this such an enormous news story is the sheer scale – set against the fairytale rag-to-riches, country boy made good storyline – of what Weir had created.

An early school leaver who initially seemed to have a rare gift for horsemanship but nothing much more substantial, Weir was not educated in the complexities of big business.

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So managing an empire of such size might have had him wondering at times if he had bitten off more than he could chew. If that’s the case, perhaps hidden somewhere deep in his psyche there is a skerrick of relief that he doesn’t have to wrestle with that demanding aspect any more.

That would be cold comfort, a drowning man clutching at straws, but there are some claiming to be aware that is the case.

Will he be missed? Well, there are certainly an army of punters big and small – count this column among the latter – who have gladly embraced the “back Weir, drink beer” slogan who will find the hunt for a winner a little more complicated now. But if nothing else, Saturday was a reminder that as much as he had come to dominate the winning lists, Weir is far from the only big-shot trainer on the scene.

As if to underline that point, all the cracks gathered to the fray, as Banjo Paterson would say. Maher, Waller, Gai Waterhouse and her partner, Mick Price, twice, Anthony Freedman, twice, David Hayes and his son and nephew and Tony McEvoy – big names one and all – queued up to make their presence felt with winners.

Now, the spotlight will focus strongly on Maher, who at 37 is still very much on the rise. Like Weir he is a country boy – from Warrnambool – made good in a big way and in a pretty big hurry. With his distinctive mop of frizzy red hair he is instantly recognisable, while Eustace, a decade younger, is still pretty much anonymous, having taken up the partnership only last August after  moving from his native England five years ago and spending two years as Maher’s assistant.

With their new acquisition the pair are perfectly poised now to inherit the vacant seat at the top of the training table.

Such partnerships are all the go these days, as Hayes, Waterhouse, John Hawkes and others will testify. Perhaps that was what Weir needed – a wise head to keep it altogether, apply a brake or two, spread the load that was becoming too weighty.

We’ll probably never know now.

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Author: Ron Reed

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.

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