A COUPLE OF familiar faces were nowhere to be seen at the Warrnambool races but that didn’t worry anyone, says chief writer RON REED:
IT TOOK until the 29th of 30 races for the ghost of Darren Weir to be formally identified at Warrnambool’s three-day May racing carnival, but the disgraced mega-trainer had been there in spirit all week – it’s just that nobody seemed bothered enough by his absence in the flesh to make an issue of it.
Certainly not the 60-odd other trainers who brought one or more horses to the seaside track that is home to the most popular country race meeting in Australia, by far, because it guaranteed the spoils would be more evenly split than has been the case for several years.
Weir had become an extraordinarily dominant force at the ‘Bool’s big week, bringing teams of up to 40 horses and winning 26 races in the past two years, including 14 – almost half the program – last year. Incredibly, he had won the Cup five years in a row.
So if anyone was going to miss him this time, it would have been the army of punters who have followed him religiously everywhere, in the city and the bush, toasting him with the slogan, “Back Weir, drink beer.”
That ended after dramatic raids on his stables, including one in Warrnambool, earlier this year found him in possession of illegal “jiggers,” which are used to electrically shock horses into performing better.
He was disqualified from taking part in racing in any way for four years, and almost certainly hasn’t heard the last of it yet. A police investigation into unspecified matters is on-going and at least one usually well-informed source said during the week that there was a good deal more to come.
Weir is now working with cattle on his farm, having purchased a lot of stock since his downfall, and there appears to be no reliable information available – only guesswork – about whether he intends to return to racing when his time is up. He has plenty of time in which to make the decision, of course.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of horses he had in work – the best of them, anyway – are soldiering on with other trainers, some with Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, who have taken over what used to be Weir’s headquarters at Ballarat.
The pair won two races on the first day, including the feature event, the Brierly Steeplechase with Bit Of A Lad, one of Weir’s, but when this column suggested to one of Maher’s closest associates that the shaggy-haired former local might now be viewed as “the new Weir” we were met with a mock-horror “No, no, no, don’t say that.” It is a sensitive topic.
Then, late on Thursday, four-year-old gelding Furrion – another from the Weir dispersal – won the Warrnambool Cup for David Hayes and his team. Or, if you prefer to look at it another way, making it six in a row for Weir.
Owner Gerry Ryan was not on the course and was represented at the presentation by former top footy umpire John Sutcliffe, who used to be a link man between Ryan’s large racing operation and Weir.
Sutcliffe thanked the club and the sponsors and then made a deliberate point of adding that Ryan would also like to thank Weir for his input into the win, making sure the week would not end with the controversial exile being completely frozen out.
Weir wasn’t the only high-profile absentee, of course, with another former high-flying trainer, Robert Smerdon, who had his own years of dominance at the ‘Bool not so long ago, having been thrown out of the sport for life exactly a year ago for egregious doping offences. He used to be almost as hard to beat as Weir at the ‘Bool and just as popular among punters, but if his name was spoken at all this week it was well out of our earshot.
Did the carnival suffer in any way from the absence of either former star performer? Not one bit. In fact, it was one of the better editions in recent memory, blessed by perfect weather, the usual enthusiastic crowds, a plethora of tight and exciting finishes and a cracking Grand Annual Steeple, in which the two favourites, Zed Em and Gold Medals, fought out the finish as they had last year.
Zed Em – expertly piloted by veteran jumps jockey Stephen Pateman, who existed all week on a single omelette cooked by his wife to ensure he could make the weight not only for that horse but also Bit Of A Lad on Tuesday – reversed the result of their previous thriller.
Importantly, all nine starters finished, meaning that seven jumps races were run with only one fall, and no fatalities. It is only 10 years ago that after a disastrous Grand Annual and an increase in fatalities generally, jumps racing was officially declared as being within a year of being banned, which would have wrecked the carnival and hugely damaged the economy of the town and district.
The people who fought so hard to save it haven’t forgotten, of course, but that’s what the crisis is now – just a memory, hopefully never to be experienced again.
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.