When our iconic race went international
The great Northern Hemisphere challenge aimed at the Melbourne Cup took shape around a small coffee table in the Executive Lounge of the Hilton Hotel on Queen’s Road Central Hong Kong in April 1993.
Seated at the table were David Bourke, the chairman of the Victoria Racing Club, and Rod Johnson, who filled the position known in those days as Secretary, a role now carried out by the chief executive. Also joining the gathering was myself, an expatriate Melburnian racecaller and journalist based in the UK.
I was there to act as a friendly observer, having been asked to gauge whether any interest in Melbourne racing had been shown by owners and trainers in Britain and Ireland. I had known the chairman through family connections and met him several times when he visited the UK.
Hong Kong in 1993 was vastly different. For starters, both the famous Hilton, with its elaborate Dragon Boat Bar, and the Hong Kong Cricket Club ground directly opposite, across the tram lines, and smack in the middle of high-rise office blocks, have long been demolished.
All three of us were in Hong Kong for an international race meeting that had been postponed due to a local outbreak of Equine Influenza late the previous year. It was to serve as a convenient meeting place for the beginnings of what was to prove an historic event six months later.
Up to that point, there had been feelers put out by several interested parties in Europe to race in Melbourne, but nothing more. Essentially, the quarantine was always the stumbling block. Protocol dating back to the days when stallions were shipped from Europe on a one-way ticket had never changed. The concept of flying horses in for one or two races and then departing seemed a million miles away.
David Bourke and Rod Johnson both listened as I told them that Drum Taps, the winner of two Ascot Gold Cups, might be a Melbourne Cup type and that he should be given every encouragement to make the trip. I had an inkling that his connections would travel.
Drum Taps raced in the colours of Japanese owner Yoshio Asakawa, who had bought the horse privately from Lord Carnarvon, the Queen’s racing manager. He was trained by Lord Huntingdon, who had an affiliation with Australia from his days training at Warwick Farm in Sydney as William Hastings-Bass, before he assumed his family title.
There was little else to be achieved in Europe by the grand stayer with the American pedigree – he was by Dixieland Band – and despite the inevitability of getting a big weight in the Cup, Drum Taps was worth an approach, in my opinion.
The previous year, Dermot Weld had taken the relatively unexposed Vintage Crop from his base on the Curragh in Co Kildare to Newmarket, the headquarters of British racing, to contest the 2m 2f (3600m) Cesarewitch. Sent off the 5-1 favourite, he completely destroyed his rivals, winning by 8 lengths. He was winning his fifth race in eight starts and was clearly a bright prospect.
Weld revealed post-race that his previous efforts in trying to get Vintage Crop to Australia had failed. Following that comprehensive win at Newmarket, however, his efforts in seeking a breakthrough doubled.
Quarantine and flight schedules were issues that had to be tackled. It was a long, involved process which stretched the resources of government departments and racing administrators for several months, but eventually, they cracked it. The Northern Hemisphere-trained horses got the green light to travel.
Bourke was a key figure in making it possible for overseas participation in the Cup. He signed off the proposals to encourage the visitors, while Les Benton, who headed the racing department at the VRC, proved an enthusiastic promoter of the Cup as he visited countless trainers in the months leading up to the nominations deadline for the 1993 Melbourne Cup.
Vintage Crop did his part by bolting in by three lengths, after always travelling like the winner. Drum Taps finished ninth. That race opened the door for the wide variety of horses and racing personalities from other countries to come to try their luck at the Melbourne Spring Carnival.
Since Vintage Crop’s triumph, there have been another 177 horses from overseas stables lining up in the Cup ... and a further eight Cups added to the honour board for the foreign raiders. The versatile and courageous Irish stayer, who started it all 30 years ago, will never be forgotten.
Jim McGrath is an internationally acclaimed broadcaster, journalist and talent scout for Racing Victoria.
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