It all began with Dulcify

21 March 2024 Written by Andrew Lemon

How the Australian Cup became a champion race.

Dulcify. Are you old enough to remember when he set the racing world on fire with his brilliance in the year the Australian Cup first became a weight-for-age contest at Flemington? It was more than four decades ago, but for those who saw the young horse in action, the memories remain fresh.

As a feature on the national racing calendar, the Australian Cup at Flemington is much more ancient than that. It has been part of our autumn since 1863, just eighteen months after the inaugural Melbourne Cup. The first winner, Barwon, was one of the best of his day, and the race has many greats on its honour roll. They include early Melbourne Cup winners Tim Whiffler, Nimblefoot, Warrior and Malua.

The Australian Cup began life as a long-distance handicap of around 2¼ miles (3620 metres). That was a crowd-pleasing formula but did not always mean that the best horse won. One hundred years later, as locally-bred stayers seemed fewer, the distance was dramatically shortened (to 1¾ miles 1963 and then 1¼ miles in 1964, adjusted to 2000 metres from 1973).

Then in 1979, the Victoria Racing Club made the bold move to change the conditions to a weight-for-age championship, doubling prize money to $101,000. Over the next forty years the Australian Cup became a theatre of drama featuring some of the greatest equine champions of our time.

Dulcify was precocious, a phenomenon, a horse with the potential to match Carbine or Phar Lap. We will never know what heights he might have reached. A freak accident during the running of the 1979 Melbourne Cup cost him his life at the age of only four. He already had 10 wins to his name, 8 at Group level. The 1979 Australian Cup was the second in that sequence.

The name of Dulcify is always identified with his Australian Hall of Fame trainer and Legend, the late Colin Hayes. At the end of his long career Colin Hayes nominated Dulcify as the best horse he ever trained. He purchased the Decies colt cheaply (a mere NZ$3250) at the New Zealand yearling sales and, with his wife Betty, retained a one-third share. Two businessmen, Alan Maller and Bill Rigg, took the other two-thirds.

Certain facts attach themselves to the Dulcify story. He won his first race as a three-year-old gelding at Morphettville from an outside barrier at odds of 300 to 1, one of the longest of long-shots in Australian racing history (he paid $75.10 for a 50 cent win ticket on the Victorian TAB). That was in September 1978. Two months later, at only his sixth start, he won the Victoria Derby.

Rich summer races were on offer in Perth, home city of co-owners Rigg and Maller. Dulcify misbehaved on the plane and underperformed in the WATC ‘Australian Derby’. He had to be driven home across the Nullarbor to South Australia for a short spell. His poor performance in Perth partly explains why he started at 80 to 1 in the Australian Cup, barely two months later.

There were other reasons for the long odds. The field was classy in the extreme. His competitors included Melbourne Cup winners Arwon and Think Big along with Family of Man, Stormy Rex, Double Century, Lloyd Boy and Turf Ruler – not to mention the odds-on favourite, the incomparable Manikato. And Manikato would have won had it not been for the finishing burst of the three-year-old Dulcify, ridden by John Miller replacing the suspended Brent Thomson.

Dulcify now proved his credentials as a rising champion with wins in the Sydney classics, the Rosehill Guineas and AJC Derby – the latter awarded on protest when his old sparring partner, Double Century veered out in the closing stages of the race.

In September 1979, now as a four-year-old, he scored a dominant win in the Craiglee Stakes on a heavy track at Flemington, followed a month later by the Turnbull Stakes.

Another enduring part of the Dulcify legend is his seven-length win in the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley. With Thomson in the saddle he surged to the lead 800 metres from home and was never troubled. Thomson agreed with Hayes: Dulcify was the best.

A week later Dulcify returned to Flemington on Derby Day to take the Mackinnon Stakes. This means that five of the gelding’s Group wins were at famous Flemington. He has a special place of honour at this racecourse. He was a short-priced favourite in the Melbourne Cup, when disaster struck. He was humanely euthanised hours after the race. The untimely death of Dulcify was a lasting grief to Hayes and his co-owners, as it was to everyone in Australian racing.

It was Dulcify’s victory in the Australian Cup earlier in the year that changed the nature of this time-honoured contest. The following year the dual Caulfield Cup winner Ming Dynasty won the Australian Cup for the second time, having first won it in 1978 under handicap conditions carrying top weight. Hyperno, the 1979 Melbourne Cup winner, took the Australian Cup in 1981.

From 1983 to 1986 the Australian Cup reverted to a handicap: with respect, the winners in those years were not champions. So again the decision was made to return to weight-for-age conditions. Look at the list of subsequent winners. It includes Bonecrusher, Vo Rogue (twice), Better Loosen Up, Veandercross, Octagonal, Dane Ripper, Northerly (twice), Lonhro, Zipping and Harlem (twice), and the Melbourne Cup winners Let’s Elope, Saintly, Makybe Diva (in track record time), Shocking and Fiorente.

No less than nine of the 70 horses in the Australian Racing Hall of Fame are VRC Australian Cup winners since the race became a weight-for-age champion race. Dulcify blazed the trail.