Golden Trip shows way forward for Cup that had to change

It took three minutes and 24 seconds to run this Melbourne Cup. And for not much more than three minutes and 24 seconds, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and the sun finally shone on a race that has weathered its share of storms.

After two years of plague and two weeks of floods, after overhauling the rules and make-up of the Cup to stop horses dying in pursuit of its riches, this was the first time since 2019 that we had heard the full roar of Flemington’s towering grandstands.

VRC chairman Neil Wilson, standing in the mounting yard as the connections of Gold Trip leapt and hollered around their winning horse, was relieved to learn every runner had safely returned to their stalls, and elated to see the course come back to life.

“Just seeing the crowd and hearing that noise again when the gates opened … everyone is just up and about and enjoying the racing life,” he said.

Not everyone. For more people every year, the Melbourne Cup is an event now staged under sufferance. The morning of the Cup, talkback radio was filled with callers questioning why the event is still run. Hours before the race, a protester managed to evade security and empty a trailer load of oil on the back straight.

Yet, for those still moved by this quixotic sport – and the VRC will tell you that one in two Australian adults stop to watch it – this Melbourne Cup told a timely story of where the race has been and where it has little choice but to go.

For the principal owners of Gold Trip, Australian Bloodstock’s Jamie Lovett and Luke Murrell, and the accomplished training team of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, the last spring carnival delivered the harsh but necessary medicine of the VRC’s new vetting rules.

Two days before the Cox Plate, Gold Trip was scratched after a panel of independent vets judged the imported horse to be lame, despite the owners and trainers insisting he was fit to run.

Maher describes it as a debacle; Murrell says it was frustrating to have to explain to his clients why the most expensive horse he had ever bought couldn’t reach the starting gates.

A year later, with those same rules in place, Gold Trip has delivered its connections a bigger prize than the one they originally dreamed of and Maher and Eustace their first Melbourne Cup. The Melbourne- and Ballarat-based training team is now intent on expanding their Sydney operations.

This time last year, jockey Mark Zahra was in the doghouse, both with stewards and his wife. A decision to join other jockeys at an Airbnb party in Mornington – in breach of the sport’s tight COVID restrictions – cost Zahra a four-month suspension and potentially, the ride on last year’s Cup winner, Verry Elleegant.

While his ride that might have been was storming down the home straight, Zahra was drinking to forget in Byron Bay, to the chagrin of his wife, who’d hoped for a little more help with the kids from her out-of-work husband.

This year, Zahra knew he was on the winner from the top of the straight. After cruising through the early running, Gold Trip surged to the lead with 300 metres to go and held on from and from Emissary in second and High Emocean, third.

“You just think, you’ve won a Melbourne Cup!” Zahra said. “That’ll be forever in history for years to come. The amount of emotions going through your body is huge.

“It’s a massive turnaround.”

Lovett said the other connections of Gold Trip included astute, experienced horse owners, some of whom had been trying to win the Melbourne Cup for most of their adult lives. “They have forgotten more about owning racing horses than I’ll ever know,” he said.

One of them is Neil Wherrett, a VRC board member who pushed for Racing Victoria to take a tougher stance on protecting horses after the death of Anthony Van Dyck in the 2020 Cup. He was reduced to tears as they led Gold Trip back to the mounting yard.

The best news for the Cup was not that Maher and Eustace’s most-fancied horse won, but that Interpretation, another of their five runners on the day, was cleared of serious injury after pulling up before the finish line.

Maher said he feared the horse might have experienced heart troubles, but the vets found no irregularities in their post-race examination. This Cup, like last year’s, finished with a clean bill of health. The only post-mortem still pending is a review into a flood wall built by the VRC, which may have contributed to the inundation of neighbouring houses.

The strict vetting rules for this race, the bane of some international trainers, were introduced after six horses – all international raiders – died in seven Melbourne Cups. The VRC, Racing Victoria and leading Australian trainers such as Danny O’Brien and Chris Waller accepted that, if the Melbourne Cup wanted to preserve its social licence, it had to change.

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