Lunar Flare's second chance

13 May 2023 Written by Danny Russell

When Lunar Flare won the golden ticket to a Lexus Melbourne Cup spot in The Lexus Bart Cummings on TAB Turnbull Stakes Day in 2022, trainer Grahame Begg booked his first-ever runner in the great race. Unfortunately they never made it to the barriers, scratched before the big race. Now the mare has another chance, winning another golden ticket via the 2023 Lexus Andrew Ramsden (2800m).

Grahame Begg hesitates when asked to describe himself as a trainer.

He takes his time before settling on a word.

“Patient,” he says.

It is a short answer in a sport that thrives on big promises.

Pushed for more, Begg agrees to elaborate – slightly.

“Patience and planning,” he says.

“I think that’s the vital thing. You’ve got to read the horse and where they are at, you know. They will tell you.”

Begg is a man prepared to bide his time – the sort of trainer that listens to his horse before succumbing to outside pressures or unrealistic demands.

But sometimes patience is not a virtue. While he has trained 15 Group 1 winners, including sprinters Written By and All Silent, Begg had to wait until 2022 before having the chance to have his first Lexus Melbourne Cup runner.

The reason is simple, he says.

“I’ve never had a horse good enough to run in one,” he explains.

That all changed with Lunar Flare. Begg’s seven-year-old mare booked her spot in this year’s field after winning the 2021 Group 2 Moonee Valley Gold Cup (2500m) and cemented her credentials by taking out 2022's gold-ticket qualifying race The Lexus Bart Cummings (2500m) at Flemington.

Securing a berth on the first Tuesday in November was not as straightforward as it sounds. If ever a horse was sent, or bred, to test the trainer’s renowned fortitude and composure it was the Fiorente-My Fair Lago mare.

Michael Dee with trainer Grahame Begg after his horse Lunar Flare won the The Lexus Bart Cummings at Flemington. (Brett Holburt/Racing Photos)

Begg prefers to take the story back to the start.

Lunar Flare began her career at another stable (Lindsay Park), he says.

She won her third race by six lengths and then hit the skids. She flopped at her next four starts – 11th of 13 runners, 4-4, 10-12, 10-13.

The advice to the owners was to send Lunar Flare to stud. She was not going to make it on the track.

Thankfully, it was never going to wash. Senior owner John Valmorbida had different intentions. He already owned Lunar Flare’s mum, My Fair Lago, and wasn’t ready for another broodmare. So he sent Lunar Flare to Begg.

“Look, to be truthful, she wasn’t straightforward early,” Begg says.

“She had a few temperamental issues. I think she had to go back and get re-educated, breakers sort of thing, twice. So she wasn’t straightforward.

What Lunar Flare needed most, he decided, was time. She did not race for eight months. She returned under the methodical eye of Begg and was taught to relax and settle back in races rather than be ridden on the speed.

Her first race back was deliberately low key, running on for a sixth of 12 in a 1400m benchmark 64 on the synthetic at Ballarat.

In her third start for Begg, she won over 2100m at Sandown in July 2020. The decision to delay her breeding career was paying off.

Lunar Flare was steadily improving, but Begg only began to understand her ceiling when she won the Moonee Valley Gold Cup.

“It gave us a base to think, ‘well, ok, … we can put in place a plan to aim her up for the Melbourne Cup,” he says.

Begg says he doesn’t train Lunar Flare hard – the furthest she gallops is over 1000m – and likes to change up her environment with spells in the water walker or time at the beach. “Look, she’s great to train now because she accepts everything,” he says. They initially planned to run her in last year’s Caulfield Cup on the way to the Melbourne Cup, but figured Lunar Flare was not suited to the “sit-sprint” style of racing at Caulfield.

Instead they opted for The Lexus Bart Cummings and the Moonee Valley Gold Cup. It is surprising Begg has never had a Cup winner considering the length and success of his career. He started with his father Neville in Sydney before taking over their Randwick operation in 1990 when his father moved to Hong Kong.

Begg then took an 18-month break from training in 2014 as he plotted a move to Singapore, but when his application was denied, he decided instead to set up a Victorian base. He started with just six horses in 2016. He now runs a boutique operation out of Cranbourne, training no more than 30 horses at a time.

“We’d always had success down here over the years, bringing horses down from Sydney – bringing a lot of good horses down here and winning good races over the spring carnival. So I thought let's give it a crack,” he says.

“I’ve been very fortunate over the years because when I worked for my father I used to do his travelling – a travelling foreman, so to speak.

“I used to be able to go to all the major carnivals – see the best horses, the best trainers. You know, the guys like George Hanlon, Bart Cummings, Colin Hayes, all those trainers over a long period of time.

“You watch and you learn. You never stop learning.”

Begg has trained horses for Valmorbida in the past, a link that stretches back 35 years. He says Valmorbida owns the dam, My Fair Lago, and “breeds to race”.

Another part-owner, Jack Bongiorno – who is a friend of Valmorbida’s – part owned Lunar Flare’s sire Fiorente when the UK import won the 2013 Melbourne Cup.

The connection is not lost on Begg.

“She is doing now what she was bred to do,” he says.

“She’s out of an Encosta De Lago mare who had staying blood through her pedigree. It’s the same old thing – people ask them to go too early.”

Begg was confident his mare could make an impact on last year’s Lexus Melbourne Cup, until sadly the horse was found to be lame in the off fore and withdrawn from the world’s richest handicap on the day of the race.

Now, Begg has another chance at the biggest race in Australia, and he can’t wait.