SHOP
Ad The famous hill cheer on Heberite (NZ) as he wins the 2022 Grand Annual Steeplechase at Warrnambool. (Brett Holburt/Racing Photos)

The 'Bool

2 May 2023 Written by Mick Sharkie

Nestled at the bottom of a hill on the windswept far west of Victoria is the most important country racetrack in Australia. And in autumn each year thousands of racegoers swarm that usually sleepy track as they make the annual pilgrimage to ‘the ‘Bool’ for the May Carnival, a three-day rite of passage for any true racing fan.

As a destination, Warrnambool is predisposed to drawing crowds. In summer school holidays families flock to the sunny beaches, local caravan parks and holiday houses. Come winter, thousands of nature lovers rug up and brave the cold to marvel at the annual whale migration as hundreds of whales take shelter along the coast.

But in May, Warrnambool draws a different sort of crowd, albeit perhaps the town’s most important of the year. The May Carnival celebrates horsemanship and strength, with determination and strength of will a prerequisite required by participants and spectators alike.

“It’s the people and the atmosphere that make the week,” said the voice of Warrnambool, race caller Rick McIntosh.

McIntosh’s high-energy commentary has become the soundtrack to many special moments over the years and in 2022 he made the 150th anniversary of the carnival one of his best.

“I’ve never been to a Melbourne Cup because I’ve always been calling somewhere else, but when I turned 50 I went to the Cox Plate to see Winx win for the fourth time. The roar of the crowd was amazing and it was a bloody good moment, but it only just rivalled Warrnambool for the noise and atmosphere, and I’m dead serious about that.”

“It’s the people and the atmosphere that make the week.” - Rick McIntosh

The May Carnival is rooted in history and built on mateship. The first Grand Annual steeplechase was run in 1872, with horse and rider winding their way through paddocks known as Brierly and Granters and along Tozer Road named after Francis Tozer, who, along with a group of mates, was instrumental in forming the Warrnambool Amateur Turf Club in 1873 at the Commercial Hotel – now the ever-popular watering hole The Whalers.

“A lot of people only see each other once a year at the ‘Bool, old mates and new ones too. That week is their anchor like it has been for 150 years, it’s a place to catch up and enjoy racing,” said McIntosh.

“A mate of mine took two friends along this year. Apart from the Melbourne Cup they have very little interest in racing. Well, they’ve had a ball and it’s now in their calendar as an annual event and they will be there with another car full of mates because the atmosphere is like that, it’s contagious.

“I’ve never seen a crowd more engaged in the racing, men, women, it doesn’t matter, everyone knows what’s going on. Hugh Bowman said that riding at the May carnival was a career ambition. Well, when he came to win the race with Flash Flood on the Wednesday the crowd saw him before I did and they were roaring, they knew he was coming. This was the man who rode the great Winx and now he was a part of the ‘Bool.”

William McCarthy on Heberite (NZ) delighted for his strapper after winning the 2022 Grand Annual Steeplechase at Warrnambool. (Brett Holburt/Racing Photos)

Jamie Kah, Damien Oliver, and even Gai Waterhouse are all a part of the ‘Bool, too, but it was local lad and Victoria’s champion trainer Ciaron Maher that took centre stage for the sixth time in the Grand Annual.

Any win at Warrnambool is special to Maher, who as a 26-year-old prepared 2007 Stakes winner Tears I Cry from his stable in nearby Winslow before rising to stardom. He shares the joy now with training partner David Eustace, and the pair watched Heberite and jockey Willie McCarthy win a memorable race this year.

Heberite became Maher’s sixth winner joining Ablaze and dual winners Regina Coeli and Al Garhood, other Grand Annual legends like Zed Em, Gold Medals and the great Galleywood.

“It’s an amazing race, a true test of stamina and horsemanship. I feel so lucky to be a part of it too, it’s a massive part of my life each year and it’s so good that I could share it again this year with a big crowd,” said McIntosh.

Back on their hallowed ground in strength once more, ‘Bool pilgrims rejoiced; wet weather and all, the view from the hill overlooking the track never looked so good.

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