Magical Milestones: Vintage Crop
30 years ago Vintage Crop rewrote the history books and opened the world’s eyes to the Melbourne Cup.
It was hailed as the internationalisation of the Melbourne Cup when Vintage Crop, a chestnut gelding with three white socks and a white star, won in 1993. Irish businessman Michael Smurfit bought Vintage Crop as the yearling son of the Irish mare Overplay, to be trained in Ireland by Dermot Weld. The horse came to Melbourne after winning the Grade 1 Irish St Leger. His victorious rider in the Melbourne Cup was Michael Kinane, born in County Tipperary.
Vintage Crop’s win at Flemington was a great day for the Irish, but the fine detail shows that internationalisation in racing is complicated. The breeders of Vintage Crop were Americans, Bernard and Diana Firestone of Upperville, Virginia. The foal was born in England, so he was British-bred. His first big win was the marathon Cesarewitch Handicap at England’s Newmarket. His sire was the US-bred stallion Rousillon whose wins had been in France and England. Dr Smurfit himself, English-born, holding dual British and Irish citizenship, was knighted by the Queen in 2005.
This was the first time a northern hemisphere racehorse had travelled directly to Australia to compete in a Melbourne Cup, along with trainer and jockey, just for the purpose. Then they returned home, where Vintage Crop won the Irish St Leger a second time, yet they made two more flying visits to Melbourne to compete in subsequent Melbourne Cups. These were both gallant, unlucky runs, for a seventh to Jeune and a fast-finishing third to Doriemus.
Dermot Weld in 2002 repeated his Cup triumph with Smurfit’s US-bred Media Puzzle, though this time, memorably, with local jockey Damien Oliver as rider.
Proven racehorses imported from the northern hemisphere but prepared here by Australian trainers had figured in Melbourne Cups long before Vintage Crop – indeed long before Jeune, At Talaq and Beldale Ball. The Irish bred Backwood won the 1922 King Edward VII Stakes at Ascot before coming to Australia by sea and winning the 1924 Melbourne Cup for his new trainer, Richard Bradfield.
Vintage Crop certainly changed the Melbourne Cup and opened the gate to other would-be northern raiders.
Swift air travel was the key. Many found the challenge difficult. Some secured a share of the big prize money with minor placings. And others broke through: Japanese trainer Kastuhiko Sumii won the 2006 Melbourne Cup with Delta Blues, Alain de Royer-Dupré with Americain in 2010, Mikel Delzangles with Dunaden in 2011, Andreas Wohler with Protectionist in 2014, Joseph O’Brien with Rekindling (2017) and Twilight Payment (2020), while Englishman, Charlie Appleby’s, Cross Counter won in 2018.
In the years after Vintage Crop’s victory, Australian owners, often in syndicates, roamed northwards searching for Cup winners. Homebred victors were few. In all the commentary about internationalisation, New Zealanders sometimes have to remind Australians that theirs is not the same country. New Zealand-bred horses have won 53 of the past 162 Melbourne Cups. Maybe it was Kiwi, with his hit-and-run win a decade earlier, who was the true precursor of Vintage Crop.