Damien Oliver: Final farewell to Flemington

26 February 2024 Written by Brad Waters

Accumulating 30 Group 1 victories at Flemington, Damien Oliver boasts an impressive record. Concluding his stint at Headquarters during Cup Week 2023, Oliver clinched three additional wins, expanding his remarkable tally to 88. While he may have completed his last lap as a jockey, Oliver’s presence in the racing scene is far from over.

Singer Joni Mitchell asked, “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” in her 1970s hit Big Yellow Taxi.

But the question doesn’t apply to Damien Oliver, who rode in his last Melbourne Cup Carnival last year.

Oliver announced his retirement in August 2023, initially wanting to walk away quietly, before embarking on a deserved farewell tour featuring another spring of battles with his long-time rival Craig Williams and new stars including James McDonald and Jamie Kah.

“I kind of felt I owed it to people to say goodbye and it’s nice to give something back to the sport that has been so good to me,” Oliver said.

Williams summed up the jockeys’ reaction to Oliver’s decision.

“No one is actually parallel with Damien Oliver in the current time; he’s the benchmark for all riders,” Williams said.

“He makes us as good as what we are.”

With him gone, racing won’t see his champion qualities of meticulous preparation, professionalism, planning and a sometimes inexplicable second sight on what was about to unfold in front of him in a race.

Apprentices won’t have the walking textbook on riding to show them how it’s done.

Established stars won’t have the legend reminding them of the level they need to reach to enter the conversation surrounding the identity of Australia’s greatest ever jockey.

But we’ll have countless videos of Oliver’s sublime skill for continuous reminiscence.

And we’ll have the chance to honour the Perth-born legend every Derby Day with the running of the Group 2 The Damien Oliver over the Flemington 1400m course.

Fittingly, the Victoria Racing Club honoured Oliver with a race named after him with his unsurpassed riding record over the four days of the extremely competitive Melbourne Cup Carnival.

Six Victoria Derby wins, three Melbourne Cups, seven VRC Oaks triumphs and five Mackinnon Stakes (now Champions Stakes) triumphs were among more than 30 Group 1
victories at Flemington.

But having the race named after him didn’t guarantee Oliver a win in The Damien Oliver. He finished sixth on the James Cummings trained Vilana in the inaugural running of the $500,000 event.

A tricky barrier consigned Vilana to a wide run. But sentiment went missing in the chase for the $300,000 winner’s cheque.

“I had Jamie Kah (on Cause For Concern) inside me and I said, ‘any chance of letting me in?’,” Oliver recalled soon after.

“She wasn’t giving me anything, I could tell that.

“So about 200m later, I said, ‘you let me in because you’re not getting out’.

“She ended up getting a gap on the inside and won the race anyway.

“That’s just how competitive jockeys are.”

Thankfully for the huge Penfolds Victoria Derby Day crowd, Oliver had previously provided a last glimpse of magic with an exemplary front-running ride on Kalapour in the Lexus Archer Stakes (2500m), providing connections with a Lexus Melbourne Cup start.

Kalapour (IRE) ridden by Damien Oliver wins the Lexus Archer Stakes on Penfolds Victoria Derby Day, 2023.

Oliver also wound back the clock to win the Furphy Sprint on Queen Of The Ball for Michael Freedman, one part of the famous Freedman brothers’ operation that welcomed Oliver as a 16-year-old apprentice in 1988.

Lexus Melbourne Cup Day provided Oliver with his last Melbourne winner when he won aboard South Australian visitor Wiggum in The Schweppervescence Plate, giving him three
wins at his final carnival.

Sports fans around the globe won’t forget his iconic 2002 triumph on Media Puzzle, days after his brother Jason died from injuries sustained in a barrier trial fall in Western Australia.

Oliver rising in the saddle to salute the heavens as Media Puzzle crossed the line is one of sport’s greatest images, subsequently inspiring a film and book to mark the unbelievable achievement.

He was unable to add to his tally on Oaks Day and TAB Champion Stakes Day, finishing his Flemington career with a guard of honour from his fellow riders and a champagne shower.

Now we’ve had our chance to say thanks for Oliver’s racing deeds, his wife Trish and children Zahra, Luke and Niali will have more time to enjoy their husband and father.

Oliver is set to take up an ambassadorial role with a wagering company in the coming months while considering whether to work in bloodstock selection or race programming for
various stables.

He might also find himself at AFL venues in a few years’ time as Luke has established a reputation as a talented footballer, catching the eye of astute judges.

And there will always be time for golf and surfing. 

Get on board with Damien Oliver and relive his last race at Flemington.