By Kristen Manning
Owner Simon O’Donnell has had a dream for decades of winning one particular race, a special race.
On Nov. 4, 2008, he sat in the grandstand for the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I), surrounded by a 107,000-strong crowd, watching his horse fight out the finish. Heads up, down, a battle to the line and a photo finish.
The camera man focused on his horse—the winner! Words left him. The joy indescribable; the emotion sheer elation.
Ten seconds later, the numbers went up and the camera man immediately changed allegiance. Not a win, a second.
Many owners would feel instantly deflated but not O’Donnell, whose lifelong passion for the Thoroughbreds leads him year after year to the famous first Tuesday in November. There isn’t a person involved in Australian horse racing who doesn’t have that race—the world’s richest handicap—as the ultimate goal.
Looking back at such a defeat—Bauer beaten only a nose by the Bart Cummings-trained Viewed—O’Donnell still considers it his greatest racing moment.
“For 10 seconds I knew what it was like to win a Melbourne Cup,” he said. “And to go so close, it was my biggest thrill in racing so far. It fuels the desire to stay in racing, to keep trying—and hopefully one day the photo will go our way.”
Describing the Melbourne Cup as “always an iconic race in this country—and now one that has international appeal,” O’Donnell has raced horses “since I was legally allowed to”—getting into partnerships with his father as soon as he turned 18.
“I have been infected by racing ever since I was a kid, and once you have that infection there is only one cure,” he joked. “Death.”
O’Donnell could not recall a time when winning the Melbourne Cup was not his dream.
“It has always been a special race. Its history, its uniqueness—a two-mile handicap, a race that stops not only the nation but much of the racing world,” he said.
The challenge of getting a runner to the start of a Melbourne Cup is also something that inspires O’Donnell.
“It is the combination of at least many months, sometimes years, of work by many people,” he said, “That is a big part of the beauty of it.”
Considering himself very lucky to have had a number of Melbourne Cup runners over the past decade, O’Donnell is looking forward to cheering on at least two, maybe three, of his horses Nov 1.
The fully qualified imports Drunken Sailor, a son of Tendulkar and a group winner in England, and Manighar, a French-bred son of Linamix, are ready to take their place whilst Bauer, now 9, hovers on the edge of the ballot (as he did three years ago). It won’t be known until Saturday night if has earned a spot.
It will be, O’Donnell admitted, a nervous few days.
“Outwardly I try to appear as calm as possible, but inside I will be churning,” he said. Especially when the horses are going into the gates.
“You know at that moment that in three minutes time you could experience a life-changing event.”
In the meantime, O’Donnell is enjoying the lead-up with his fellow owners, always keen to involve large numbers in his syndicates.
“Having a Cup runner is something you like to experience with others,” he said. So on Oct. 31 O’Donnell will attend the traditional Melbourne Cup Eve Parade—a procession of past winners and racing personalities that brings the city centre to a standstill—before having lunch with his co-owners.
“We will sit around and talk about the race and the horses and really enjoy the atmosphere and the build-up. To have a runner in the Cup, well it is a second-to-none experience—we just love it, it is an enormous thrill.”
HOOFNOTES: O’Donnell’s three Melbourne Cup hopefuls are Bauer, Manighar and Drunken Sailor. Whilst not yet assured a run, Bauer earned plenty of fans with a third-place finish in his last start, the Centrebet Geelong Cup (Aus-III). Manighar was an encouraging fourth in the Caulfield Cup (Aus-I), whilst Drunken Sailor was not far away when seventh in the same race—doing his best work late.