Ad 2003 Melbourne cup winner Makybe Diva with strapper Donna Stewart. (Sebastian Costanzo/Nine Publishing)

Meet Donna: Makybe Diva's first Cup strapper

31 October 2023 Written by Celia Purdey

When Donna Stewart prepared Makybe Diva for her inaugural Melbourne Cup appearance in 2003, little could she have foreseen the remarkable journey that lay ahead for this iconic mare. We had the privilege of speaking to her about her experience working with the champion two decades ago.

You were Makybe Diva’s strapper for Cup Day in 2003. How did that come about?

Whenever her original strapper Sarah Berry was away for the day or on annual leave, I was entrusted with the mare’s care. When Sarah decided to leave [trainer] David Hall’s to further her career elsewhere, the Diva was given to me on a full-time basis.

What qualities or characteristics did you see in Makybe Diva that showed she could be a star?

I think every strapper is quietly confident and hoping that the horse in their care can win on the day. But a large portion comes down to luck that things go their way in such a large field. The qualities I saw in Makybe Diva to be able to run such a distance was her ability to switch off and relax through any race. When Bossy asked her to go, she had the endurance and turn of foot to do so.

Can you share any memorable anecdotes or experiences you had with Makybe?

Diva wasn’t one to like being fussed over with grooming and that sort of thing, but she did enjoy getting out and about. She could stare off into the distance for minutes at a time, not moving on until she was finished, and analysing whatever happened to catch her eye.

One thing – or should I say, horse – that often caught her eye was Lonhro. For example, we would be at the swimming pool and she would literally turn her head when he entered. At times she would turn herself in almost a circle, just to position herself so she could stare at him. Diva could even pick him out in the hustle and bustle on course at a race meeting, was extraordinary. So you can imagine how amusing it was to me years later, when I read that she was being sent to be covered by him! Their offspring Taqneen then started his race career at Lindsay Park where I work.

(Image courtesy Donna Stewart)

How did you feel watching her win the next two Cups and become a legend of Australian racing?

To be honest it was mixed emotions watching her continue to win, a little bit of sadness, but at the same time excitement watching her wins under the Freedmen's guidance and training, not to forget her strappers Bernadette and Christine. I looked forward to seeing her when strapping at the same meetings, and was amazed at how she continued to blossom, growing still bigger and stronger physically as she aged.

You work for Lindsay Park. What is your role there?

I have been working for the Hayes family for almost 18 years now. I moved from their Flemington stables up to the farm property in early 2011, when they remodelled into the facility it's become today. I have done various roles over the years with Lindsay Park. Currently, I’m part of a small team who cares for the horses spelling (holidaying) on property, as well as the retirees.

Do you always watch the Melbourne Cup?

I do try to watch the Melbourne Cup, the race is a big part of the industry. But funnily enough, for something I’ve worked in for the best part of 35 years, it’s more about getting to work with animals everyday than the sport itself.