Nov 10, 2015

The Great Australian Story

Ed Dunlop is British ruling class. He went to Eton College. Yearly tuition costs up to $75,000 at Eton College. 19 British Prime Ministers and generations of British aristocracy attended Eton. Dunlop’s father, John, was also a horse trainer. Dunlop the elder served his apprenticeship in the Duke of Norfolk’s stables and went on to train over 3000 winners. John Dunlop played an instrumental role in establishing the influence of Middle Eastern owners in British racing. Ed Dunlop takes his horses all over the world trying to win big races. Australia, France, Dubai, Hong Kong, South Africa, Japan – if there is a big race to be won, Dunlop will be there.

Horses prepare for a race in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Yoshitada Munakata operates out of Miho Training Center in Japan. The eight artificial training surfaces at Miho are given extra bounce to reduce the strain on horses’ legs. The calming sound of birdsong is piped over the compound by speakers. There is a 60m indoor pool with special fans to dry horses off after their dip. Baroque music is played over the speakers in the pool hall. The state-of-the-art facility includes a dedicated horse hospital. The average horse at Miho is worth around $120,000 while some of the champions are worth over $2,500,000. Safe to say, Munakata is not bringing an average horse to the Melbourne Cup.

Gai Waterhouse is a former model and actress who was born in Scotland. The daughter of leading horse trainer Tommy J. Smith, Gai married now-disgraced bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse. You may have seen their son, Tom, on an ad or two. If you wanted to send your daughter to the same Sydney school as Gai, expect to pay nearly $30,000 a year. After inheriting her father’s stables, and with the assistance of funds from bookmakers, Gai has built an impressive reputation as a trainer. Gai is also an “Australian Living Treasure” as decided by the National Trust.

Aidan O’Brien is a trainer for the Coolmore Stud in Ireland. Despite a modest upbringing in County Wexford, O’Brien is now employed by the world’s largest breeder of thoroughbred racehorses. Coolmore has studs in Ireland, USA and Australia. The USA branch paid nearly US$14,ooo,ooo for the breeding rights to a horse in 2014. With the backing of Coolmore, O’Brien has trained winners in Australia, Ireland, USA, UAE, Italy, Great Britain, Canada and France.

The horses approach the string to start the race at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the Emir of Dubai, and is also the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. He is the founder of Godolphin Racing. The wealth of Godolphin is unfathomable. The stable has had a staggering amount of winners – over 3000 in fourteen countries. Godolphin run 3 stables in Australia and 2 in the United Kingdom. These are on top of its main stables in Al Quoz, Dubai. Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s familial wealth is estimated to be in excess of US$4billion.

With their collective wealth, expertise and resources, it is simply amazing that the only Melbourne Cup winner from the aforementioned group is the former actress and model Waterhouse. In 2013, Fiorente saluted in the race, finally rewarding Waterhouse for her years of expenditure and effort. The others, meanwhile, continue to try each year.

The above group arrived at the 2015 Melbourne Cup armed with an impressive quiver of equine speed. Munakata brought pre-race favourite Fame Game. Dunlop brought another favoured horse in Trip To Paris, along with thrice runner-up and crowd favourite Red Cadeaux. After winning the Lexus Stakes on the Saturday prior to the Cup, Waterhouse declared her horse Excess Knowledge would win the big race. Irish Bondi Beach traveled with O’Brien to Australia expecting to be a big chance. Similarly, Godolphin didn’t ship Hartnell from the UK to be an also-ran.

Horses in the stables at the Wycheproof races

Darren Weir grew up in the Mallee, on the family farm in Berriwillock. He worked for noted Mallee horse-racing luminaries such as Jack Coffey in Birchip and John Castleman in Mildura. Weir worked as a farrier and broke-in horses in Stawell before his business outgrew modest beginnings. He now has three stables – one near Ballarat and two near Warrnambool. In the next week Weir has horses running at races in Swan Hill, Bendigo, Dunkeld, Donald and Echuca.

Michelle Payne is the youngest of 10 children. When Michelle was only a few months old, her mother, Mary, died in a car accident. Father Paddy was left raising the 10 kids on a farm in Miners Rest near Ballarat. As an apprentice in 2004, Michelle fell during a race and fractured her skull. Payne’s older sister, Brigid, tragically died in 2007 as a result of a race fall. Michelle returned to racing to be only the fourth female to ever ride in a Melbourne Cup.

Mr Majestic sprints to the line through the mist

Michelle Payne and Darren Weir work together at the stables in Ballarat. Their story fairytales with the arrival in Ballarat of a New Zealand bay gelding called Prince of Penzance. The horse was good enough in prior races to earn a start in the 2015 Melbourne Cup. Yet few thought it would win and its odds of $101 suggested it didn’t have a chance.

Despite the many and well-publicised foibles of horse racing, the Melbourne Cup still persists in the Australian psyche. Perhaps this has much to do with the image of well-to-do trainers flying business class back to Sydney, Dubai and London plotting their next expensive assault on our great race. All the while, a trainer climbs into his dusty Holden Commodore and drives the 3 hours up the Calder to place the Melbourne Cup on his parents’ mantlepiece at a farm in Berriwillock.

Aug 20, 2015

The Central Australian Sun Sets On A Football Career

It has been a busy few months for the Bugler. Despite the protestations of Mrs Bugler, the football boots and mouthguard were freighted from down south to Alice Springs. A chance encounter with a neighbour enticed me to train with the Federal Demons and I jogged down during pre-season.

Federal Demons train in preparation for a game in the Central Australian Football League

In my spirited defence to Mrs Bugler, my motives were pure. I merely wanted to meet some friends in our new town and I thought playing a couple of games in the Central Australian Football League Bs would be a good way to do it. In retrospect, turning up to pre-season training not long after completing a marathon gave some people the wrong impression of my intentions. Most of the lads, more than 10 years my junior, had enjoyed the summer months as I once did. So the 4km time trial turned into a bit of a farce. What better way to make an impression than by streeting the field?

As pre-season continued, I became a regular attendee. Despite never having seen me play, my new club seemed to over-inflate my abilities. I was a lock for the As. But I also did not know what to expect. I had barely seen a quarter of footy up here and did not know if I would be capable of participating at the standard. There were no pre-season games and we had the bye in round 1. On the Thursday evening prior to our first game in round 2, the coach basically asked me where I wanted to be picked. Not being comfortable with naming my position, I awkwardly tried to describe where I could be of most value considering the players we had. I was named at centre-half forward.

I can’t remember when I have been more nervous before a game. I had never played with any of my team-mates. Some I had barely met. I had never played or seen an entire game of the competition. We were taking on South Alice Springs Kangaroos – last season’s premiers. I was acutely aware of my lack of height to be lining up as a key forward. As I stretched with a team-mate, Trig, we related our fears and worries. He was in the same circumstances as me albeit at centre-half back. But I drew strength from the conversation and the knowledge that one of the beauties of team sport is that we end up being better as individuals due to the support of each other.

Preparing for a season of footy in Central Australia

The game went as games do. The intensity ebbed and flowed. Each team had good periods and bad. Ultimately the game was decided in the third term when Souths kicked a run of goals and we could not stem the tide. The game was even aside from this but Souths were deserved victors. In hindsight, my nerves were of benefit in that I worked harder to overcome them. I ended up with a few goals and managed to use some of my wiles to catch my direct opponent out a couple of times. While we were disappointed, there was cause for optimism in the Feds camp. Against a strong opponent, we were more than competitive despite our lack of match fitness and team coherence. Moreover, a few new players showed some form.

I can’t remember being as sore following a game of football. My calves were stiff. My groin was aching. My throat was hoarse. A younger me would have recovered in a week, but the next game against Pioneer I could barely run and struggled to pick up the ball below my knees. Early in the game the runner came out asking me to ruck. I had to refuse. Not the best way to impress my new coach. It mattered not as we recorded our first win of the season.

The season continued against Wests but I sat the week out. Young players in the AFL are often “managed”. In the CAFL, this old player “managed” himself. After dominating the competition in the early 2000s, Wests have battled in recent times. We recorded our second win to give us some momentum. I returned to the field against Rovers and was serviceable in the 40 point victory. With only 5 teams in the Premier division, we had played all teams for 3 wins and a loss. We still had to play each team twice more but there was cause for optimism at Feds.

A beauty of small towns is how intertwined lives become. In the city I would play footy against people and literally never see them again. The coach of Souths and I work together. Feds overcame a half-time deficit to beat Souths in our second meeting and I had a hand in the second half turnaround. On Monday morning Talbot was a bit upset when I cheekily asked why he didn’t bother sending someone to stand me. Feds had now beaten all teams in the comp and we were firming as a premiership chance. A week later we torched Pioneer in the wet and installed ourselves safely atop the ladder.

Kicking a goal for the Federal Demons in a big win over Pioneer

And like that, my season and career are over. I took a couple of games off for a mid-winter break, missing our wins over Wests and Rovers. I returned and thought I should get some fitness in my legs. On a pre-dawn ride I got knocked from my bike. My gluteals were torn from their attachment on my cracked femur. Despite a dream of returning for a finals tilt, my life can no longer be dictated by a football schedule. Instead, my recovery is dictated by a need to pick up after a small boy and a desire to bend over to a baby girl.

This is not quite how I thought it would end. In my mind’s eye I saw Feds on an irresistible charge toward the CAFL premiership with mine one of many hands on the wheel. I was supposed to finish holding a premiership cup with my new teammates and friends. Instead I’m in no man’s land – not quite a spectator but neither am I a participant. I will be the guy who hovers at the fringes of the team. The guy who people hug and high five awkwardly. The difficult reminder that it will all end. And it might all end suddenly and with no romance.

Feb 20, 2015

A Dead Ball Winner

Picture this. The World Cup Final at the MCG. Nearly 100,000 people sit enthralled in the brisk autumnal air as New Zealand try to chase down Australia’s formidable total. With a solitary ball remaining in the match, New Zealand are a measly one run behind. Kiwi captain Brendon McCullum is on 98 and facing a fired-up Josh Hazlewood. The crowd is on their feet and baying.

Bowling over the wicket, Hazlewood runs in and bowls a full ball on McCullum’s pads. The ball drifts in slightly, skids through and thuds into the batsman’s back pad before trickling away toward fine leg. McCullum and non-striker Corey Anderson scamper through for a run, ignoring the Aussies appealing for LBW. Umpire Marais Erasmus, as is his wont, takes his time to respond to the appeal. Finally, the finger is raised. McCullum is out for 98.

 A cricket bat rest in the kit bag

Amidst the frenzied noise, the New Zealand batsmen are too busy running and don’t realise that McCullum’s wicket has fallen. They see Glenn Maxwell chasing the ball and turn for a second run. Maxwell collects the ball, turns, sees his team-mates beginning to celebrate and nonchalantly tosses the ball to square leg umpire Richard Kettleborough. All-too-late, the Kiwis realise what has happened. The World Cup is Australia’s.

McCullum touches his bat behind the crease and immediately advances toward umpire Erasmus. He creates a ‘T’ with his arm and bat, signalling that he would like the decision reviewed. The umpire obliges and third umpire Kumar Dharmasena begins to review the footage. Sections of the otherwise delirious crowd boo.

Firstly, it is clear that Hazlewood’s foot is behind the popping crease. A legal delivery. A cheer from the stands. Dharmasena zooms in on the ball hitting the pad. McCullum’s bat passes awfully close to the ball. Perhaps too close. Close enough for an audible collective intake of breath from the capacity crowd. Dharmasena checks the infra-red cameras. In slow-motion the evidence is indisputable. An obvious white hot spot appears on the inside edge of McCullum’s bat the moment the ball passes by. The ball then hits the pad and disappears toward fine leg. The crowd sighs.

An unorthodox cricket stroke to a wide ball at the Big Day Not Out 2012

The New Zealanders begin to celebrate. McCullum and Anderson hug and jump, celebrating not only a World Cup victory, but a century to the captain. Recalling a similar incident, Australia’s captain Michael Clarke quickly walks toward umpire Erasmus signalling a dead ball. The International Cricket Council admitted that England’s James Anderson should not have been given out in similar circumstances in an earlier match. The ICC stated the ball is dead the moment the umpire signals that the batsman is out. The umpires confer. The crowd simmers.

Both sides have a case to make. New Zealand can rightfully claim they were unaware of the umpire’s decision as McCullum knew all along he had hit the ball. All the batsmen did was try to make the two runs required for victory. Umpires Dharmasena and Aleem Dar concluded similarly when they gave Anderson out in the group-stage match between Australia and England.

Equally, Australia’s Maxwell could comfortably claim he would have thrown the stumps down at either end had he believed the match was still alive. Maxwell’s claim would appear to be supported by the ICC’s statements following Australia and England’s game. They quite clearly stated the umpires had made an error and the ball should have been called dead the moment James Taylor was signalled out by Dar.

It is easy to blame the umpires. Marais Erasmus made a demonstrable error. He gave McCullum out when video evidence clearly shows that the batsman was not.

Nick slogging one over square leg

Admittedly the particulars of this hypothetical incident are somewhat fanciful. For a start, one of the sides would have to get past AB de Villiers’ South Africa to make the final. And would Dharmasena have been forgiven by the ICC for being involved in the ‘error’ earlier in the tournament? Be that as it may, the real problem in this incident and the incident involving Hazlewood, Anderson, Taylor and Maxwell in the opening round is the imposition of the Decision Review System.

India were widely ridiculed on Channel Nine’s test coverage this past summer for not allowing the use of the DRS. But there was little effort to debate the particulars of the system and how they apply in the game. There is no doubt that the ability to review decisions to eradicate umpiring howlers has some merit. But undermining the authority of the deliberating umpire causes havoc with a central tenet of any sport. Perhaps by trying to understand the Indian’s position, a better system could be implemented.

The most recent statement from the ICC would lead us to believe that Australia would win the World Cup in the given scenario. The dead ball was in fact not entirely deceased, but a dot. In limited overs cricket a dot ball has value. McCullum would board a plane and fly across the Tasman empty handed, knowing he had hit the winning runs in a World Cup final. Thanks for nothing DRS.