Kennedy Oaks Day Champions
It’s the horses, the champions and future champions, first and foremost that draw us each year to Flemington Racecourse. They are the reason for the celebration, the party, the fun and fashion, the crowds, the roses, lawns and the gardens.
Some historical lists of winners of the VRC Oaks at Flemington date back only to 1861, the year of the first Melbourne Cup. The Victoria Derby validly traces its origins further to 1855, making it the oldest continuing classic race run in Australia, so on this basis the Oaks should actually date its beginnings to 1859. The winner Birdswing admittedly won in a one-horse race – the correct meaning of ‘a walkover’ – but she was a valid entry and she took home the prizemoney.
Every year since then there has been an Oaks race for three-year-old fillies at Flemington, and mighty champions figure on the winning list. But it is fair to say that the VRC Oaks achieved proper status only in 1875 when Oaks Day was awarded its own feature Thursday in a revamped Melbourne Cup week. This was quickly tagged Ladies’ Day.
The Oaks has often attracted small fields, but always furnished a quality winner. In that 1875 race in a field of three, the filly Maid of All Work, trained by James Wilson of St Albans Stud, Geelong, was the winner, ridden by his sixteen-year-old son William. Her daughter Royal Maid won the race six years later. Royal Maid is the only Oaks winner whose dam also won the Oaks.
It’s a well-known Oaks fact that the late Bart Cummings holds the training record with nine winners, stretching from the 1965 Melbourne Cup winner Light Fingers (she won the Oaks in 1964) through to Faint Perfume in 2009. What has been forgotten is that Bart shares this record with the same James Wilson of St Albans.
Wilson’s Oaks winners were My Dream (1868) who also won a Victoria Derby; Sunshine (1872), and then in successive years from 1875 to 1879 Maid of All Work, Briseis, Pardon, Melita and Petrea. Royal Maid’s win was in 1881. The last of the nine, sometimes wrongly attributed to the trainer’s son, was Nitre in 1899.
Briseis, as is widely recognised, was an exceptional filly who that week also won the Derby and the Cup, a unique treble. Twenty years later the South Australian Auraria came close to repeating the feat: third in the Derby before winning the Cup and the Oaks.
It is hard to single out the best of the rest. Frances Tressaday (1923) has to be one of them, the last filly to win the Victoria Derby, after Furious did the same in 1921. Carlita (1914), Wilari (1911) and Lady Wallace (1905) all won that double. Evening Peal (1955), like Light Fingers, won her Melbourne Cup a year later. Chicquita (1949) was a champion and crowd favourite who ran third in the 1950 Melbourne Cup. Amarco (1957) became the dam of champion Tobin Bronze
In recent decades we have been spoiled with VRC Oaks champions including the half sisters Spirit Of Kingston and Rose Of Kingston, along with Surround, Research, Miss Finland and Jameka.
Because it has always been Ladies’ Day, the Oaks as a race has happily shared the day with fashion, especially women’s fashion, at its best. At first, in fact for years, this was often treated with delight but sometimes with a whiff of male condescension. As in the 1870s:
‘One of the great features of the Spring Meeting is the lawn and its occupants, the ladies, who in a great measure contribute to the success of the November reunion. Without those beautiful butterflies that flutter about the promenade, Flemington would indeed be dull.’
Damien Oliver after winning his fourth VRC Oaks aboard Jameka. (Racing Photos)
Since the advent of the original Fashions on the Field promotions sixty years ago, the milliners, the dressmakers and the women who elegantly wear the clothes have become an intrinsic part of this day of champions. For the past thirty years the Victoria Racing Club has proudly hosted – through Melbourne Cup Week, the Oaks Club Luncheon and Oaks Day itself – the biggest names in the business including Zandra Rhodes, Frederick Fox, Renato Balestra, Perri Cutten, Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy.
The emergence of champion women trainers and jockeys has added another modern element to the evolution of Ladies’ Day into Kennedy Oaks Day as we know it today. While still awaiting the first woman to ride a VRC Oaks winner, we celebrated Gai Waterhouse becoming the first to train an Oaks winner, with Pinot in 2017.