I started my stable life at Flemington with trainer Mick Cerchi. If you ever want to meet one of the best blokes out there, he is the man, absolute champion bloke and also one of the best horsemen around. I am very privileged to have learned what I do from this legend. Back when he was based at Flemington Lodge (before VRC’s redesigned layout), he was one of the only trainers at Flemington breaking his babies in on the members car park every lunchtime, that was a sight . At this time I was working alongside his son, and now training partner Luke, and also Saab Hasan. Just before he held his training license.
It was mid October in 2002, just like any other day. Right alongside Mick’s stables were his brothers stables, Jim Cerchi. A lot of Queensland trainers liked staying at Jim’s stables whenever they were down in Melbourne and this year was no exception. Danny Bourgoune had Falvelon and Scenic Peak, I’m positive Gillian Hiendrich had a couple there at the time also and then there was Noel Doyle with his “excited” mare Palidamah. It was on a Friday, the day before Cox Plate Day, and Lukey and I were raking the stable entrance when in walked Noel. We have said gday to each other, talked a bit of shit before he turns to Luke and asks if he could strap his mare the next day at the Valley in the Tesio Stakes. Whenever Noel ran a horse in Melbourne it was Luke usually strapping his horses. Luke told him that unfortunately he couldn’t, because he was asked from Danny if he could strap Scenic Peak in the following race from her’s, only the day before. Lukey then looked at me and said “He’ll do it”.
Now I had only met Noel the day before when they arrived, so he knew nothing about me. He looks me up and down and says something like
“So, can you handle a firecracker with a calm head?”, or something along those lines. I’m standing there looking at him.
“Uhhhh, I guess I can now I’m tipping”
“Correct answer, I’ll see you in the morning fellas” was his reply before leaving. I’ve continued raking before asking Lukey what he “exactly” meant by that. “He’s just testing ya” was his reply before laughing……………… Hmmmmmmm.
The big day comes and we travel to the Valley I’ve got Palidamah and Luke has Scenic Peak and all the Queenslanders are in the same area of the stalls. Before I go on, I’ll just remind you that this is only 12 months after 9/11, so every event was peaking with heavy security. Even owners weren’t aloud in the stalls. There were some big security changes this season.
It was an hour or so before the race and the mare started getting restless. I asked Noel if he’d like me to walk her and he said to try take her for a piss. I put her mouth bit in, clip her up on the lead and we’re off to the empty out box. Well f#ck me sideways, I was about to find out what the “firecracker” term meant. A few strides out of the stalls and she was off. Our first attempt was to test my reflexes out with a jump forward, followed by a cowkick (only the “pricks” play these games, testing the handler out). I’d seen it happen a couple of times before, and it doesn’t end well for the handlers ribs, trust me. Once she leapt forward I sensed what she was doing and launched with her, but pulling against the lead and trying to swing out of the way at the same time. Just as I was landing myself, it came. The near hind has come swinging around and has just clipped my hip. “F#ck that was close” I thought, before bringing her to a stop……… for a few seconds anyway. On the way up the the box, all I got was rearing, striking, pig rooting and cowkicks. Someone was feeling full of themselves. As you could imagine the crowd were shoulder to shoulder and the ones watching were yelling and screaming. That wasn’t helping her settle. Anyhow we got to the box finally (thinking how lucky that there weren’t owners all around the stalls on the way here), she’s had her piss, we give her a quick wash down after her performance and went back to the stalls.
All was good in the mounting yard, she has raced and ran an enormous 5th placing after being posted 3-4 wide on the pace, at the Valley, over the mile. BIG run. I’ve quietly told myself straight after, that I was crunching this thing if she ran over 1800 next start after that run. The following day once all the stable work was done it was coffee/lunchtime. As we sat down to chat, Noel walks in. Mick makes him a coffee and he looks at me and comments on the job I’d done yesterday with Palidamah. “You handled that pushy bitch very well young man, would you like to strap her on Cup Day?” I think my reaction was something like “You want me to strap on Cup Day, at Flemington?”, because he looked at me quite odd. “Shit yeah. Please. I sure will” I finally clearly said. Shit, I thought. The only places where I’ve strapped so far is Mildura, Swan Hill, Echuca etc. I think I’d strapped only once in town,at Sandown, before the Moonee Valley race. Now I’m strapping on Cox Plate Day, and Melbourne Cup Day. This is what all the hard work was for, I thought with a big smile.
The Sunday before the Cup comes, and we get the form for Tuesday. This, I’ll remind you, is well before smartphones. The only place you could bet before race day was going into a tab. We are doing the form for her race, which was 1800 metres (you beauty), but Brian Mayfield Smith had a $2 favourite in it, Dane River. This bloke was going to be VEEERY hard to beat. Oh well, I thought. You only live once. So Luke and I hop in the car and head to the tote. We go and have a look at her price. $38. Niiiiiice. I am thinking $100 ew, but this Dane River is an absolute beauty. I slightly crumble and drop it down too $50 ew. Will still be an awesome win if it gets up I thought.
Tuesday morning finally arrives and the morning work is riddled with butterflies in the stomach with nerves. We are plugging through, with 927 blaring away in the background, when the infamous scratching music starts up. Race 8, Number 2 Dane River, scratched. WHAT? YOU LITTLE RIPPER. I look at my watch and it’s around 11 o’clock. Damn, can’t get to the tote in time with this traffic to whack another $100 ew on her. SHIIIIIIIT. After asking Saab and Mick, no they haven’t got time either. Oh well, it’s only $50 ew. Definitely won’t have time on track. The time comes, we board the float, hang tight for 2 minutes around a few bends and we arrive. She is a picture of health. Absolutely glowing. And relaxed. “Thank f#ck for that, cause it’s too f#cking hot for your antics today girl” was my first thought. We get to our stall and wait patiently.
During those couple of hours waiting, I can only guess that there would have been close to 100 people who came up to ask how she would go. A couple where close friends who happened to be there drinking, another couple introduced themselves as the owner’s friends and I didn’t know anyone else. But I told them all the same thing. Back her each way all day, she will nearly win. The Cup has just been ran and won by Media Puzzle, and Noel takes off too get the saddle. A fair amount of time goes by and still no sign of Noel. I look around and see the clerks of the course starting to round up the runners for our race, and we haven’t even got a saddle on yet. Shit!
Finally after what felt like an age, Noel appears out of the crowd. Casually walking our way. He arrives and by this stage we have two clerks on their horses watching us. As we are tightening up the girth I say to Noel “I think they are a bit pissed off with us holding up the race”, with a little chuckle. He looks at them, looks back at me and says “F#ck em”. I start giggling as I’m tightening the girth onto the last hole. Noel then pulls, still with an enormous gap between the girth and her. “Right” I hear from Noel. “I’m done mate, top hole” was my reply. All I heard was “Oh fuck, we have a problem”. Now, the girth should be tight enough that you can SQUEEZE one finger between it and the horse. I put TWO fingers in, and still had room. SHIT, wrong girth. If you know Flemington, you will know that the stalls are a LONG way from the mounting yard/jockeys room. Noel looks at me and says with a cheeky smile “You know your next job”. So I was off. I have ran around virtually the whole stalls, as we were the furthest away from the path that takes you to the mounting yard, finally hit that path and the approximate 200 metre sprint to the mounting yard starts. Get to the yard, into the scales room and onto the jockeys room.
As mentioned before, security was ramped up through the roof and there were two security guards at the door of the jockeys room. “Gday guys. I’m strapping in the next race but I have been given too big of a girth so I need to change it with the jockey please?” I asked.
“No, only trainers and foreman” was the answer.
“But I need to change the girth, and we are already holding the race up” I replied. “No”. Just then the Head Steward, Mr Gleeson, walked past.
“Excuse me Sir. I am strapping Palidamah in this race, but Scott (Seamer) has given us too big a girth and I need it changed. Quickly. But I’m not aloud in”. He looked at the security straight away and said
“Let him in please”. He then looked at me and said
“And you hurry up please”. So I go in and jockeys everywhere. Where’s Scotty?, where’s Scotty?…… there. I go over and he is sitting down talking to an older gentleman. As I am waiting for a chance to interrupt, I notice Scott with some jockey pants draped over his thighs. They happened to be the riding pants of Jason Oliver, the late brother of Damien, which had just been worn and won with by Damien on Media Puzzle. All 24 jockeys from the Cup signed them after the race for Damien.
As I worked all of that out whilst waiting, it just made that interruption more harder to do under the circumstances . After about 30-40 seconds I just had to unfortunately interrupt. “Excuse me guys, Gday Scott, the girth you gave us for Palidamah is too big. Can we get your medium please?”He just starts laughing. “Has she lost weight since The Valley? There you go mate” he says as we swap girths. So I head back out and I’m off back down the straight.
I remember I was roughly half way back to the stalls and I heard someone yelling out at me “Run Pharlap, Run” (I imagine in reference to the movie when he was late for the cup, or just because he was drunk ) as I run past the members. He got the quick bird with a quiet “Get fucked” as here I am running more than the fucking horse has, on a hot day, while you are there necking them you bastard . I get back, we saddle up very quickly (with the clerks giving real daggers by this stage, sorry Patto ) and trot all the way back down to the mounting yard. I’ve earned a good drink tonight was all I’m thinking. The others were all out on the track already, with Scott standing right at the entrance of the mounting yard. He jumps on and they are straight off onto the track, and to the barriers.
I head off, forgetting I’m still wearing the bib, and head off for a well earned cig. I venture out of the yard, down into a little alcove literally below the crowd and light up. The 100,000 plus crowd are absolutely buzzing, whilst I’m still puffing away just dreaming about winning and collecting a couple of grand. As I’m finishing off the smoke to go and find Noel to watch the race, I hear “Excuse me”. I look up and it’s a VRC gate worker. She looks down at my bib, looks back up and says “Congratulations luv”. WHAT!!! What is she talking about. It literally felt like a couple of minutes, but it must have been more because sure enough, she’d already bloody won. (And still paid $37 after the scratching)Well, fucking adrenaline. It’s nearly knocked me out it hit me that hard. I took off looking for Noel and see him there looking around. As I get to him he spots me and charges me with a huge hug.
WHAT. A. MOMENT. We gather ourselves after a few seconds and wait for the winner to return. They return, we unsaddle, do the presentations (eerie feeling seeing your mullet on the big screen going around the world, trust me) and head back to the stalls. Upon arrival was something I will NEVER forget. There would have been approximately 20 people wide along the fence in front of our stall, and also about 4-5 deep all along. Every single one of them was going ballistic. It was such a great feeling to have played a part in filling up so many people’s pockets. She had a huge drink, Noel gave me instructions for back at the stables before heading off for drinks with the owners, and we headed off for our urine sample. That done, onto the float for the HUUUUGE 2 minute float trip back and into the stables. By now everyone had left for the arvo at both Cerchi stables. I boxed her up, prepared her feed, went and grabbed 2 stubbies from the fridge, grabbed a bucket and went and had a couple of beers with my new best mate as she ate her dinner.
Added note. As the owners rightly so took the winners rug home (sometimes the strapper keeps the winners rug), this “owners” print turned up to my house a few weeks later made for me. I still don’t even know who organised/paid for it to this day. Everyone who I ever asked involved, all just smiled and played dumb. Thank you very much to whoever you are . It will ALWAYS be my personal treasure.