is called "the race that stops a nation." And rightly
|Melbourne Cup does more than dominate
Thoroughbred racing Down Under; it mesmerizes all of Australia.
Cup Day, which, as any Aussie will tell you, falls on the first
Tuesday in November, is a holiday throughout Victoria. And judging
from the number of empty offices and unanswered phones in Sydney
and Canberra, it is a national holiday in everything but name.
What sort of numbers are required to "stop a nation?" If attendance
at the 2003 Super Bowl had been proportionate to the throng of Australians
at the 2002 Melbourne Cup, more than a million spectators would have descended
upon San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium to watch Tampa Bay thrash the Raiders.
ABC's ratings would have tripled on Oscar night if a similar-sized TV
audience had tuned in for the Academy Awards. And in this country of 20
million the total betting pool on the race? A cool $150 million.
Twain said, "Nowhere in the world have I encountered a festival of
people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation. The Cup
Like the Tour de France, Victoria's Spring Racing Carnival is a lengthy
affair that encompasses six weeks of races at Melbourne's four principal
tracks. Even the smaller, regional ones pitch in. The result is that,
although Sydney is clearly Australia's commercial hub, the state of Victoria
and its capital, Melbourne, retain their position as Australia's horse
At no time is this more evident than on Cup Day. Since the Cup's first
running in 1861, no war has pre-empted it; no calamity has postponed it.
It is this rare combination, revelry and permanence, that attracts the
vast majority of race goers. No doubt a few of the models and moguls and
college kids can read a racing form, but most fans at Australia's most
popular sporting spectacle are there simply to celebrate the country's
favorite rite of spring.
The most recent running of the Melbourne Cup, however, was before
a more pensive, cautious crowd. Three weeks earlier, on October
12, a series of deadly bombs destroyed two crowded Bali beach
clubs. Given the resort's popularity with Australians, it quickly
was apparent that the island nation would bear the brunt of
the casualties. Months later, Indonesian officials determined
that more than 200 people had perished. Almost half were Aussies.
On arrival at Flemington Racecourse on November 5, race goers were greeted
by Kevlar-clad policemen, many armed with automatic weapons. Security
cameras and plainclothes personnel anxiously eyed the crowd. But few nerves
were as frayed as those of the trainers slated for the seventh race. Each
busied himself by pacing alongside his mount or counseling his jockey
as all anticipated the race that would stop a nation.
Although the Melbourne Cup is one of the world's premier stakes races,
U.S. trainers rarely enter. Not only does it conflict with the all-important
Breeder's Cup, but winning this race requires a breed of Thoroughbred
that is almost extinct in the States: a stayer.
The Kentucky Derby and the Preakness barely eclipse a mile. The Belmont
Stakes, which has derailed Triple Crown bids by Bold Venture, Alysheba,
and Spectacular Bid, is considered grueling at a mile and a half.
Melbourne Cup is a two-miler. And as the zenith of Australian racing,
it is the overt goal or unspoken ambition of every breeder, every trainer,
and every jockey in the land. This homefield advantage is so pronounced
that only once in 141 years has an international entry claimed the Cup:
Vintage Crop in 1993. Three years earlier, American trainers had lost
their stranglehold on the Triple Crown when Go and Go became the first
foreign entry to win the Belmont.
Both were trained by Dermot Weld.
News of the Irishman's decision to race for the 2002 Cup electrified
Australia. At 54, Weld is already the winningest trainer in Irish history.
His 1993 campaign with Vintage Crop was a tour de force that stung Australia's
racing community. Schooled as a jumps jockey and trained as a veterinarian,
Weld nurtured Vintage Crop through stomach ulcers and a painful sacroiliac
condition, all the while playing down his horse's chances. In light
of his performances both on and off the track, Australian journalists
bestowed upon Weld a telling nickname: the Irish Wizard.
Of this gifted horseman one reporter wrote, "He raises guile to
an art form." But Weld had little chance of sandbagging the press
in 2002. From his stables in the Curragh he mustered a formidable pairing:
Europe's champion stayer, Vinnie Roe, a winner of three Group 1 races,
with Pat Smullen, a two-time Irish jockeys' champion.
Weld also sent a six-year-old American horse by the name of Media Puzzle. Compared
with his stablemate, however, the chestnut gelding was anything but
a favorite. With no major victories and the lingering effects of a fractured
pelvis, Media Puzzle was rated a 140-1 long shot by savvy oddsmakers.
Australia's top jockey, Damien Oliver, had the unenviable task of qualifying
Media Puzzle in the hotly contested Geelong Cup. If the horse finished
in any place but first, it was back to Ireland. A win, however, and
Media Puzzle would race for the Cup.
Ollie, as Oliver is known throughout Australia, not only triumphed at
Geelong, but he guided Media Puzzle to a new track record in the 2,400-meter
race. The long shot and his Aussie jockey immediately became a favorite
of the fans. Bookies took notice, too, as did Australian trainers such
as 11-time Cup winner Bart Cummings and the venerable George Hanlon,
dean of Australian racing. So did HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,
crown prince of Dubai and Defense Minister of the United Arab Emirates.
1994, the Sheikh's Godolphin Stables has won an astounding 95 Group
1 races in Europe, Asia, the United States, and his native Dubai. The
Melbourne Cup, however, is noticeably absent from His Highness's trophy
case. And with Vinnie Roe and Media Puzzle emerging as a formidable
dual entry, an even greater challenge now awaited his three hopefuls:
Pugin, Beekeeper and Hatha Anna.
Yet with only a week to go, a much different horse completely changed
the complexion of the raceand this one wasn't even in the running.
Woefully named, Savage Cabbage was an untested two-year-old. More to
the point, during a trial race at Perth's Belmont Park, the colt broke
a foreleg and crashed to the track.
BEST FRIEND & BROTHER
too, did its jockey. Thrown headfirst beneath the tumbling horse, Jason
Oliver was rushed to Royal Perth Hospital. His brother Damien immediately
left Melbourne for Perth to join their mother, Pat, in a bedside vigil.
As the family endured, all of Australia sympathized.
Over the past eight decades, the Oliver family has earned a distinguished
place in Australian racing. The patriarch, a West Australian by the
name of Gerry Oliver, first mounted a Thoroughbred in the late 1930s.
Respected as a jockey, Gerry Oliver went on to win hundreds of races
and even rode to victory in the 1965 Kalgoorlie Cup. But he was nowhere
near the horseman his son Ray became. In his rookie season Ray took
home top honors as West Australia's champion apprentice jockey. He repeated
this feat the following year, won the Perth Cup twice, and created quite
a name for himself on the West Australian racing circuit. Then came
the Boulder Cup in 1975.
Ray's death at the track was a harrowing accident. Five horses at full
gallop toppled end over end after the frontrunner, Dream Merchant, stumbled
while rounding a turn. A chain reaction ensued, snaring Catch A King
and then Chicago Morn, Honey Isle, and finally Ray Oliver's mount, Yandanooka.
Four jockeys survived. Ray Oliver didn't, as Australians soon learned,
and left a widow and two sons: Jason, 5; and Damien, 3.
Ray's widow, Pat, knew better than to dissuade her boys from following
the family's calling. Jason was particularly adamant and began riding
professionally at the age of 13. He won rookie honors in Perth in his
first full season, just as his father had done decades before. Then
he moved to Melbourne, where he signed on to ride for one of Australia's
top trainers, Freedman Stables.
But Melbourne wasn't a good fit for the Perth jockey. After three months
he returned to West Australia. There, over the next two decades, he
brought home 690 winners, many at tracks where his father and grandfather
But Jason Oliver had made his mark in Melbourne. He had taken his career
further than any Oliver before him. He knew, though, that someone would
take it further still. Before he left Melbourne and returned to Perth
he asked Lee Freedman to give his younger brother the same opportunity
that he'd been offered at Freedman Stables.
In his words, "My brother will be a champion one day."
A HEAVY HANDICAP
Damien Oliver so idolized his older brother that he literally followed
in his footsteps when he left Perth for Melbourne. There, he was welcomed
at the same Freedman Stables where his brother had apprenticed, and
began a rise to the top of Australian racing that can best be described
as meteoric. The culmination came in 1995, on the first Tuesday in November.
Thanks to a brilliant effort on Freedman-trained Doriemus, Damien and
the Oliver family won their first Melbourne Cup. He was 23.
with a week to go before the 2002 Melbourne Cup, Australia's finest
jockey had abandoned all thoughts of a second Cup as Jasonhis
mentor, his best friend, his brotherlapsed into a deathly coma.
Hospital specialists offered little hope; no miracle would save the
young man. Soon after Jason was taken off life support, his vital signs
faltered, and the 33-year-old succumbed. Millions of shocked racing
fans grieved with the family. Millions more speculated whether Damien
would ride for the Cup. By midweek he announced that he would return
to race in the Victoria Derby that Saturday and the Melbourne Cup the
following Tuesday. Would Jason have wanted it any other way?
Stunned by the same tragedy that had robbed him of his father, Damien
had no way of knowing how closely his countrymen would follow his quest.
Australia's own loss, the murder of 88 of its sons and daughters by
still nameless terrorists, had not even begun to heal. The nightly news
regularly reported the status of the many survivors of the Bali bombings
as they struggled to stay alive in burn centers and hospitals nationwide.
courageous return to the track said something about Australians; on
a more visceral level, it said something to Australians about themselves.
Three days prior to the Melbourne Cup, a crowd of more than 100,000
cheered his return to Flemington on Victoria Derby Day. Not only was
Damien's bravery laudable, but he was also the defending Derby champion.
Yet in race after race, it became all too evident that the heartbroken
jockey could no longer coax home a winner.
In seven outings on Derby Day, Damien finished no better than sixth.
Three days later, on the first Tuesday in November, he rode in five
races prior to the Melbourne Cup. Not one of his mounts finished in
As 3:10 p.m. approached on Cup Day, 23 jockeys on 23 horses made their
way to the starting gates at Flemington Racecourse. At the same time,
four out of every ten Australians put down whatever they were doing
to be in front of a TV. For the 142nd time since 1861, the Melbourne
Cup stopped the nation.
flash. Racing!" Track announcer Greg Miles's call heralded a clean
start as the crowded field broke from the gates and thundered down the
turf toward the packed grandstands.
Despite 12 lackluster performances, or perhaps because of those dozen
gutsy rides, Damien Oliver had gone off as the favorite at the betting
windows, with Media Puzzle's odds slightly better than those of his
stablemate, Vinnie Roe. Distinctly Secret, one of seven New Zealand
contenders, was third favorite, followed by two of the three Godolphin
horses, Pugin and Beekeeper. Rain Gauge, at sixth, topped the list of
Typical of a two-mile race, none of the favorites broke quickly. Two
long shots, Sandmason and Requiem, did the dirty work and set a blistering
pace as the pack passed the grandstands and went into the first turn.
Just before the halfway mark, however, the opening game ended and the
better horses moved up. With 1,600 meters to go, Pugin and the third
Godolphin, Hatha Anna, began pouring the pressure on Sandmason down
the backstretch. By the 900-meter mark, Hatha Anna had taken the lead
into the back turn as Sandmason slacked off and Pugin and Vinnie Roe
As the frontrunners went into the home turn, the Cup became a showdown
between Dubai's Godolphin Stables and Ireland's Rosewell House. Despite
his race-high handicap, Vinnie Roe failed to tire. At the front of the
pack, Europe's champion stayer hugged the rail and moved into first
with Pugin and Hatha Anna challenging right behind him. Coming up on
the outside, Media Puzzle and Beekeeper accelerated into contention.
With just 400 meters to go, all five were poised to claim the Cup.
THE HOME STRETCH
As Vinnie Roe turned into the straightaway, a roar bellowed from the
grandstands at Flemington and echoed across Australia as Ollie and his
once-crippled mount pulled even with the champion Irish jockey and his
With 350 meters to the wire, Damien asked Media Puzzle to go to the
front. The chestnut gelding lunged forward with such a burst of speed
that his jockey later confessed that he thought he had lost the race
by sending him too soon.
The Irish Wizard's two horses dueled down the stretch, then a neck became a length, and then two lengths, and then three as all 22 horses trailed Media Puzzle.
When Vinnie Roe finally faded, Beekeeper and George Hanlon's Mr. Prudent
closed in for the kill. With less than a furlong to go, both stormed
past Smullen's mount and gained ground on Media Puzzle. Their furious
strides shortened the distance to the frontrunner, yet from high in
the press box the outcome was obvious to track announcer Miles:
Damien Oliver, riding with the spirit of Jason, has broke free on Media
Puzzle. I think he's got the Cup won. Beekeeper, Mr. Prudent are running
on from Vinnie Roe. But it's Media Puzzle clear. Media Puzzle, Damien,
and Dermot have done it!"
As Media Puzzle streaked past the winning post in 3:16.9, his jockey
stood out of his saddle, put a hand to his lips, and blew a kiss to
the heavens in gratitude to his brother.
"My boy, my boy," Damien shouted, as he thrust his crop skyward
again and again and again. It was a moment that would be played and
replayed on Australian television countless times in the days and weeks
following the Cup and is still played to this day. As horse and rider
loped back toward the grandstands, Damien's trademark toothy grin found
its way back on his face for the first time in a week. And, for the
first time in more than a month, the same could be said of Australia.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Less than 24 hours after it graced the awards stand, the 2002 winning
jockey's Melbourne Cup trophy traveled across Australia to Perth.
Before more than 2,000 mourners in attendance at Redemptorist Monastery
Catholic Church, it adorned Jason Oliver's casket along with a photograph
of the jockey in a photo finish, a West Coast Eagles jersey, one of
his ties, and the cell phone he never turned off. And a set of Jason's
riding silks. As everyone who had watched the Melbourne Cup knew, Damien
had worn his brother's riding silks to victory, complete with "Jason
Oliver" on the leg.
after the momentous race, as he rode to the Winner's Enclosure, Damien
had been interviewed. Awkward in the best of circumstances, the media
intrusion was dealt with in typical Aussie fashion; Ollie was forthright
and direct, saying, "Melbourne Cups don't mean a thing to me anymore.
I'd give it back right now to have my brother back."
In Perth, Pat Rudland had been spared the intense scrutiny her son had
to endure. In 1975, her 34-year-old husband, Ray, had been killed in
a Thoroughbred race. In 2002, her 33-year-old son, Jason, was lost to
the same fate. According to close family friend Neil Pinner, on the
Tuesday that Jasons life support was turned off, Pat made her
way to a chapel. There, she made a dealwith her late husband,
"Pat said to Ray, 'I have had 33 wonderful years, and now it's
your time to look after him and love him.'"
Following the service, an honor guard of jockeys, led by Damien himself, accompanied both casket and Cup to the cemetery. There the fallen rider was united once again with his father.