Trip of a lifetime
Ciaron Maher, who can now proudly call himself a Melbourne Cup-winning trainer, remembers the day he was introduced to Australia’s greatest race.
He can’t recall who won, but he remembers a mock sweep done in class at his primary school in the early 1990s and how it expanded his horizons to horsepower of a different kind.
“I remember I was at primary school and we had a Cup sweep,” Maher said when asked to describe his first recollection of the Melbourne Cup.
“I didn’t know then I was going to be a jockey, I didn’t know I was going to be a trainer and my family weren’t into racing.
“We were all into motorbikes at the time, but I do remember that everyone was glued to the race.”
Just as most of the country was on Tuesday, when Maher joined Lee Freedman, Chris Waller and Danny O’Brien as the only active trainers in Australian to have won the Melbourne spring’s ‘Big Three’ – the Melbourne Cup, Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate – by producing Gold Trip to win the $8 million Group 1.
Maher won the Caulfield Cup with Jameka in 2016 when training ‘on his own’, but shared the spoils of Sir Dragonet’s 2020 Cox Plate success with a man who has been his training partner since the start of the 2018/19 season but had been a valued member of the team for a couple of years before that.
David Eustace’s upbringing is different to Maher’s, being raised in Newmarket in England as the son of a horse trainer, but he also recalls being addicted to the Melbourne Cup from the moment he learned about it.
“My first one was Bauer getting beaten,” Eustace said thinking back to that 2008 edition
“Obviously he was an English-trained horse, Luca Cumani trained it and it just got touched off.
“We grew up with them (the Cumanis), so we were gutted for them, but that was the first one and I’ve watched every one since.”
Eustace could not have picked a better man to align with, with Maher having quickly risen through the ranks since bursting onto the scene with Group 1 success, at the age of 26, with $101 shot Tears I Cry in the 2007 Emirates Stakes.
The man who proudly calls Warrnambool his home town now operates the biggest stable in the country, with three training centres in Victoria – Ballarat, Cranbourne and Fingal – plus a stable at Warwick Farm in Sydney.
That set up is a long way from the jockey who tortured his body to ride over the jumps for as long as he could in an attempt to prolong a riding career he knew was going to end before his contemporaries.
One of them was Mark Zahra, who partnered Gold Trip to his two-length win over Emissary and High Emocean.
Maher and 40-year-old Zahra are similar in age and their connection goes back to not long after Western Australian Zahra crossed the Nullarbor to try his luck in Victoria when he was apprenticed to the Lindsay Park regime.
“He was the jumps jockey and I was the flat jockey at the little hut at the end of the straight there,” Zahra said from the makeshift media centre pointing up towards Lindsay Park’s Flemington stable.
“To picture where we were then compared to where we are now, you couldn’t dream about it. It’s amazing.”
Gold Trip, the 57.5kg topweight, etched his name into Australian racing history with his two-length win over Emissary, with the winner’s stablemate High Emocean back in third.
It atoned for being ruled out of the previous year’s spring carnival due to Racing Victoria’s stringent veterinary protocols shortly after arriving from France, where he was purchased by Jamie Lovett and Luke Murrell’s Australian Bloodstock, having run in some of Europe’s biggest races, including a fourth placing in the famed Group 1 Arc de Triomphe (2400m).
Undeterred, they persisted with the son of Outstrip who had his first Australian run in the 1500m Winter Challenge at Rosehill on July 30.
He finished third in that event, as he did at his next start in the Group 3 Naturalism Stakes (2000m) before a luckless fifth placing in the Group 1 Turnbull Stakes (2000m).
He then contested the other jewels in the spring crown, being nabbed late when second in the Caulfield Cup (2000m) before a Cox Plate (2040m) ninth placing when he encountered a chequered passage.
All bar the Turnbull Stakes were run on Soft or Heavy tracks, which Maher conceded were to his advantage, but he is already looking forward to returning to Flemington next spring with the entire who is a six-year-old by Southern Hemisphere time but was having only his 16th start on Tuesday.
“He really enjoyed the conditions of this spring, he’ll have a break now and target some races in the autumn, but I can’t see why he wouldn’t be back,” Maher said.