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Veteran Cup winner still turning heads on the Emerald Isle

February 24, 2012

Next year marks twenty years since the rebirth of Australia’s greatest race, the Melbourne Cup.

Although the race still managed to “stop the nation” throughout the 1970s and 1980s, for thoroughbred enthusasts the lustre belonged in a bygone era. It was a race contested by plodding handicappers, with only the odd class runner (think At Talaq, Empire Rose and Let’s Elope). But in the twinkling of an eye, the wily Irish wizard Dermot Weld changed the nature of the race.

His gelding Vintage Crop cannot be labelled the most talented international galloper to have run in the race in the last 20 years. In fact, he probably wasn’t the most talented import in 1993, with the majority of foreign experts favouring Lord Huntingdon’s Drum Taps on class. And yet he won so decisively, making the Australian staying crop look rather inferior in the process.

Today, Vintage Crop is 25 years old. He has retired to a paddock at the Irish National Stud in County Kildare, about 45 minutes west of Dublin. For nine months of the year, anyone can visit him. Time has wearied him, and the striking chestnut is showing his age.

Nevertheless, the son of Rousillon still has a remarkable personality. He’s cheeky and he hates being touched on his head. But give him a scratch just past his neck, under his rug, and you will make a friend for life.

If you were a tourist with no interest in horses at all, it would be hard to imagine that this paticular thoroughbred is special. He stands in a paddock with three other horses – top class steeplechasers Moscow Flyer and Florida Pearl and a pony named Soccer – and there is nothing to distinguish him from the others.

But he is special. An American equine student, completely oblivious to the Melbourne Cup prior to her visit to Ireland, left the stud in raptures that she had met the great Vintage Crop. She saw his victory inside the wonderful Horse Racing Museum on site (which also features the skeleton of the very popular chaser Arkle). She saw memorabilia from his victories. And now, she has vowed to go to Melbourne to experience the race that stops the nation for herself.

And so, 19 years after his remarkable victory, Vintage Crop is still an advertisement for the wonder of the Melbourne Cup – even though he is more than 17000km away from the scene of his greatest victory.

While it is easy, especially as an Australian, to concentrate firmly on the one time Melbourne Cup winner, the Irish National Stud is an amazing equine attraction. Anyone taken by the majesty of the horse must add the stud to their bucket list. It is not the biggest stud in Ireland by any means – it ranks fourth, the largest being the behemoth Coolmore Stud. However, it is the only stud open to the public.

It is a fantastic opportunity to see inside a working breeding operation. This writer visited early in the northern hemisphere breeding season, so foals on the ground were scarce. However, the stallions were on display, fresh for a new season. Each had their own quirks, their own characteristics which stood them out.

There was high profile stallion Invincible Spirit (the sire of Australian Group 1 winner Yosei and Group 1 placegetter I Am Invincible), who strode around as though he were invincible. Golden Jubilee winner Art Connoisseur, a remarkable looker, seemed placid and content in his surroundings. German Group winner Big Bad Bob, who has had limited runners to date, made tourists laugh with his “eagerness” to get to work. Also standing at the stud were Group 1 winners Amadeus Wolf and Lord Shanakill, as well as the Group 1 placed Jeremy.

Located a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of flat racing in Ireland, The Curragh (home of the Irish St Leger and the Irish Derby), it is the ideal attraction for the equine enthusiast. And for the Australian racing fan, it is a chance to reflect on the enormity of our greatest race.

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