When patience pays off with Lunar Flare
When Lunar Flare won the golden ticket to a Lexus Melbourne Cup spot in The Bart Cummings on Turnbull Stakes Day, trainer Grahame Begg booked his first-ever runner in the great race.
Grahame Begg hesitates when asked to describe himself as a trainer.
He takes his time before settling on a word.
“Patient,” he says.
It is a short answer in a sport that thrives on big promises.
Pushed for more, Begg agrees to elaborate – slightly.
“Patience and planning,”
“I think that’s the vital thing. You’ve got to read the horse and where they are at, you know. They will tell you.”
Begg is a man prepared to bide his time – the sort of trainer that listens to his horse before succumbing to outside pressures or unrealistic demands.
But sometimes patience is not a virtue. While he has trained 15 Group 1 winners, including sprinters Written By and All Silent, Begg has had to wait until now before having his first Melbourne Cup runner.
The reason is simple, he says.
“I’ve never had a horse good enough to run in one,” he explains.
That all changed with Lunar Flare. Begg’s seven-year-old mare booked her spot in this year’s field after winning last year’s Group 2 Moonee Valley Gold Cup (2500m ) and cemented her credentials by taking out this year’s gold ticket qualifying race The Bart Cummings (2500m) at Flemington.
Securing a berth on this first Tuesday in November was not as straightforward as it sounds. If ever a horse was sent, or bred, to test the trainer’s renowned fortitude and composure it was the Fiorente-My Fair Lago mare.
Begg prefers to take the story back to the start.
Lunar Flare began her career at another stable (Lindsay Park), he says.
She won her third race by six lengths and then hit the skids. She flopped at her next four starts – 11th of 13 runners, 4-4, 10-12, 10-13.
The advice to the owners was to send Lunar Flare to stud. She was not going to make it on the track.
Thankfully, it was never going to wash. Senior owner John Valmorbida had different intentions. He already owned Lunar Flare’s mum, My Fair Lago, and wasn’t ready for another brood mare. So he sent Lunar Flare to Begg.
“Look, to be truthful, she wasn’t straightforward back early,” Begg says.
“She had a few temperamental issues. I think she had to go back and get re-educated, breakers sort of thing, twice. So she wasn’t straightforward.
“Even when I first got her, she was up on her toes. She could have gone the wrong way, you know what I mean.”
What Lunar Flare needed most, he decided, was time. She did not race for eight months. She returned under the methodical eye of Begg and was taught to relax and settle back in races rather than be ridden on the speed.
Her first race back was deliberately low key, running on for a sixth of 12 in a 1400m benchmark 64 on the synthetic at Ballarat.
In her third start for Begg, she won over 2100m at Sandown in July 2020. The decision to delay her breeding career was paying off.
Lunar Flare was steadily improving, but Begg only began to understand her ceiling when she won last year’s Moonee Valley Gold Cup.
“It gave us a base to think, ‘well, ok, … we can put in place a plan to aim her up for the Melbourne Cup,” he says.
Begg says he doesn’t train Lunar Flare hard – the furthest she gallops is over 1000m – and likes to change up her environment with spells in the water walker or time at the beach. “Look, she’s great to train now because she accepts everything,” he says. They initially planned to run her in this year’s Caulfield Cup on the way to the Melbourne Cup, but figured Lunar Flare was not suited to the “sit-sprint” style of racing at Caulfield.
Instead they opted for The Bart Cummings and this year’s Moonee Valley Gold Cup. It is surprising Begg has never had a Cup winner considering the length and success of his career. He started with his father Neville in Sydney before taking over their Randwick operation in 1990 when his father moved to Hong Kong.
Begg then took an 18-month break from training in 2014 as he plotted a move to Singapore, but when his application was denied, he decided instead to set up a Victorian base. He started with just six horses in 2016. He now runs a boutique operation out of Cranbourne, training no more than 30 horses at a time.
“We’d always had success down here over the years, bringing horses down from Sydney – bringing a lot of good horses down here and winning good races over the spring carnival. So I thought let's give it a crack,” he says.
“I’ve been very fortunate over the years because when I worked for my father I used to do his travelling – a travelling foreman, so to speak.
“I used to be able to go to all the major carnivals – see the best horses, the best trainers. You know, the guys like George Hanlon, Bart Cummings, Colin Hayes, all those trainers over a long period of time.
“You watch and you learn. You never stop learning.”
Begg has trained horses for Valmorbida in the past, a link that stretches back 35 years.
He says Valmorbida owns the dam, My Fair Lago, and “breeds to race”.
Another part-owner, Jack Bongiorno – who is a friend of Valmorbida’s – part owned Lunar Flare’s sire Fiorente when the UK import won the 2013 Melbourne Cup.
The connection is not lost on Begg.
“She is doing now what she was bred to do,” he says.
“She’s out of an Encosta De Lago mare who had staying blood through her pedigree. It’s the same old thing – people ask them to go too early.”
Begg is confident his mare can make an impact on this year’s Melbourne Cup. “She’s no oil painting, but her aerobic capacity is unbelievable,” he says.
“Look, obviously it is the same as anything – she has won at 2500m but that extra 700m is the big thing, isn’t it? It’s like, can you run the marathon or not? That’s the burning question.
“Things come into play on the day – the way the race is run, the ground, barrier draws. But if the stars align, I’m certain she’s got the tenacity. Or to run very prominently is probably a better way of putting it.”
So just exactly how does he feel after all these years about finally having a runner in the Melbourne Cup?
You’re not going to believe this: He can’t wait.