Annuals: Episode 7 - 1993/94, They've arrived

5 min read
TDN Australia and New Zealand’s podcast series moves on to a season of transition in Australian racing and breeding. The bloodstock world has a shakeup in store as the first southern crop by a star European galloper named Last Tycoon (Ire) enter their classic year. Meanwhile another European visitor is being readied for an historic mission.

The Melbourne Cup’s position as a ‘nation stopper’ had been unchallenged for decades, but while star mares Empire Rose (NZ) (Sir Tristram {Ire}) and Let’s Elope (NZ) (Nassipour {USA}) had provided lashings of class, it was thought the race may lose its status without some intervention.

Les Benton was the racing manager for the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) during this period. The dynamic executive observed the way the race was trending, but more importantly, was cognisant of the increasingly global nature of the sport.

“Around about 1990, we were being overshadowed by races like The Japan Cup (G1, 2400 metres) the Hong Kong International meeting… and we were looking at the Melbourne Cup becoming quite stagnant… these other races on the world stage were booming,” he explained.

Subzero winning the 1992 Melbourne Cup | Image courtesy of Sportpix

“So I thought, we must do something about this and increase the exposure of what I believe was the best racing carnival in the world.”

Race meetings like the Breeders’ Cup had proven that if the prizemoney was good, connections of the best horses could be tempted, and there was no race like Flemington’s showpiece in the 3200 metre range, globally.

An attractive pot of money was one thing, but there were other factors to consider. Benton engaged with trainers in Europe, who voiced concerns.

"The big question that everyone asked… was the quarantine,” he recalled.

“In those days… the quarantine was three weeks in England, three weeks in Australia and the flight path must come through America-New Zealand-Australia. The flight path was a 36 hour travel time! We couldn’t come through the Middle East because of African Horse Sickness.”

"The flight path was a 36-hour travel time! We couldn’t come through the Middle East because of African Horse Sickness.” - Les Benton

Benton worked tirelessly with departments of government to reduce both the weeks of quarantine required and the amount of time actually spent in the air and, with the help of the business now known as Instone Air, was able to knock a fortnight off the process.

But there was another problem.

“We didn’t have a quarantine facility in Australia for racing horses,” remembered Benton.

“In those years I went to places like Pakenham, Benalla, Cranbourne… nothing came up to standard… and right under our noses we had Sandown Park.”

Benton goes onto explain how they were able to get a metropolitan racetrack sufficiently fit for use as a quarantine facility, while still being suitable to use for exercise for the animals ensconced there. All while it was also being used as a car racetrack!

With quarantine and travel concerns assuaged, Benton set about recruiting the international contenders themselves.

Pioneers no plodders

It became very obvious, very quickly that Vintage Crop (Ire) (Rousillon {USA}) should be a prime target.

Vintage Crop winning the 1993 Melbourne Cup | Image courtesy of Sportpix

“Vintage Crop was nominated in ‘92,” Benton revealed.

“He was given 49.5 kilos in that year and we received letters from Dermot Weld… and he was our main target.”

Vintage Crop subsequently had claimed a G1 St Leger S. in his home country and his trainer, an enterprising and adventurous horseman who had spent time working in Australia under the legendary T.J Smith, felt he may have missed his chance at the weights.

However, he pressed on and was joined by Lord Huntingdon, the conditioner of Drum Taps (USA) (Dixieland Band {USA}) which had claimed victory in The Gold Cup at Ascot that year.

“So, William Huntingdon and Dermot Weld prepared their horses in England for two weeks… they put them on the plane, and with their grooms and their staff, they came to Australia, and they arrived one night in late September, and it was midnight.”

Throughout the podcast, Benton goes on to explain the feeling he got when the two stayers landed, an extraordinary meeting with jockey Mick Kinane and the backlash he experienced from local participants as the spring unfolded.

Not the only vintage crop

The spring of 1993 was significant for another visitor from Ireland, though this horse’s racing days were almost a decade gone. Last Tycoon (Ire) had shuttled for a single season to Segenhoe Stud in 1989, before eventually winding up at Arrowfield after a hiatus.

Last Tycoon (Ire)

That Segenhoe-conceived crop had popularity in a depressed market and yielded two Australian juvenile Group 1 winners; Lady Jakeo and Mahogany, who Tony Bott remembers as a standout.

“As a yearling, of the ones that we took to the sale, (he had) the closest resemblance to the sire,” confirmed Bott.

“Last Tycoon was a fine, refined very classic-looking European horse. A lot of Australians were still used to the Star Kingdom, heavy boned… horses and he might have slipped through the net. Henry Plumptre purchased him at the sales.”

“It was the first year I had bought a significant amount of yearlings for Lloyd Williams,” recalled Plumptre.

“It was the first year I had bought a significant amount of yearlings for Lloyd Williams." - Henry Plumtre

“He said, ‘The market’s down 60 per cent, it’s a good time to buy yearlings’ and he was particularly interested in the progeny of Last Tycoon.”

Plumptre and vet John Peatfield go on to relate their first impressions of Mahogany, the reason he was gelded and relive that incredible Horse of the Year season in 1993/94.

The podcast also explores the wider impact of Last Tycoon’s first southern crop, both in Australasia and abroad.