Ad Leilani ridden by Peter Cook. (News Ltd / Newspix)

Leilani: The one that got away

4 July 2024 Written by Andrew Lemon

In 1974, Leilani, a dark brown New Zealand mare, captured the hearts of racing enthusiasts as she finished a close second in the Melbourne Cup to Think Big. This year marks the 50th anniversary of that unforgettable race and we continue to honour her legacy through the Leilani Series this Flemington Finals Day.

The Hon Andrew Peacock AC, GCL, former Federal Cabinet minister, and Ambassador to the United States, twice leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, passed away on 16 April 2021, aged 82. Like his political nemesis, Bob Hawke, he was a knowledgeable racing enthusiast.

A few years before, he spoke with good humour at a symposium at the National Museum of Australia. 

“I have had a lot of fun in my life. I have had a lot to do. I even got 52 per cent in an election once and lost it. I have had a few disappointments. I can tell you there is no more distressing, depressing moment than having the favourite that runs second in the Melbourne Cup.

“Whatever the tribulation in life may be, nothing is quintessentially as bad as that. It was 1974, and I still feel pissed off about it. You put on a brave face and go through life saying, ‘Well that’s it,’ but it is part of that great allure that Les Carlyon calls “‘chasing a dream’.”

The fact checkers say Andrew Peacock lost the 1990 election to Hawke with 50.1 per cent of the vote.

Leilani. (Artist: Michael Jeffery 1975)

In the 1974 Melbourne Cup, the margin of defeat was a good length, beyond dispute. The beaten favourite that day was the brown New Zealand mare Leilani. She finished second to stablemate Think Big, giving trainer Bart Cummings his fourth (of twelve) Melbourne Cup victories. Andrew Peacock raced Leilani in partnership with his then-wife Susan and friends Ian and Liz Rice.

Susan Peacock – later Lady Renouf – had her taste of Melbourne Cup glory when her second husband Robert Sangster and his Swettenham Stud Syndicate won the 1980 Cup with Beldale Ball.

Despite her Cup defeat, Leilani earned her place in the Australian Racing Hall of Fame with 14 wins and 12 placings from 28 career starts. Her biggest wins included the AJC Oaks, Turnbull Stakes and Mackinnon Stakes, the Toorak Handicap and Caulfield Cup – all in 1974 – and the Australian Cup. She was voted Australian Champion Racehorse of the Year. Her winnings at the time eclipsed those of any mare in Australia.

So highly did Bart Cummings rate the champion that he named his Randwick stables ‘Leilani Lodge’. Bart’s son Anthony trains out of Leilani Lodge to this day.

The VRC has combined with metropolitan and country clubs to create the Winter Race Series, with finals at Flemington in July, honouring such racing heroes as Mahogany, Santa Ana Lane, Taj Rossi, former VRC Chairman Sir Alec Creswick and poet Banjo Paterson. It’s fitting that the division for fillies and mares honours Leilani, the champion who chased the dream.