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Apprentice jockey Ross Coakley speaks to Mikey Stafford about the challenges of crossing the world to ride at Flemington
On Tuesday, Johnny Murtagh will endeavour to become only the second Irish trainer after Dermot Weld to win the Melbourne Cup.
The five-time Irish champion jockey saddles 8-1 shot Mutual Regard and Royal Diamond at Flemington and, other than the trainer himself and owner Andrew Tinkler, there is no one with a greater vested interest than apprentice jockey Ross Coakley.
The 20-year-old from Monasterevin has been Mutual Regard’s near constant companion since they touched down in Melbourne more than a month ago, on 27 September. Since then Coakley has taken the six-year-old’s temperature, exercised him, fed him and overseen a weight-gain program so that the Ebor winner regains the mass lost in transit.
After two weeks Murtagh’s head girl, Valerie Keatley and another lad, Ben Lewis, arrived with Royal Diamond, and the two Irish raiders have been training together in Werribee quarantine centre on the outskirts of Melbourne in preparation for “the race that stops a nation”.
Murtagh arrived early on Thursday to oversee the final preparations of the two horses for Tinkler’s big gamble. Between quarantine, transport and staffing the price of running a European horse in the Melbourne Cup is estimated to top $150,000.
After more than four weeks in the country Coakley reckons he is “nearly half Aussie at this stage”, as he gives an insight into the massive operation involved in attempting a raid on the highlight of the Australian racing calendar.
Before flying on 25 September Mutual Regard had to spend two weeks in quarantine in Newmarket in the United Kingdom.”They can use the Newmarket gallops in the afternoon but their only contact with other horses can be with ones going to Australia,” said Coakley.
While the apprentice was flying via Abu Dhabi and Sydney, Mutual Regard was travelling on a specially-designed transport plane, supervised and cared for by a groom from horse transport company IRT (an ATA member).
“The plane is divided in two, horses below and the people on top. They are lifted on to the plane in boxes or containers, they would be like transport containers, maybe half the size, some of it would be open-grilled so they can see through that,” explained Coakley, who arrived just three hours before the sixth favourite in the betting.
Tired and jet-lagged, he had to prepare the stables before Mutual Regard’s arrival and spent the next two weeks “trying to catch up with naps”.
“That was a long day,” said Coakley, who does not believe the horse was feeling the same ill-effects after his trip halfway around the world – the fact that horses only sleep for around three hours a day could explain why don’t appear to be affected by jetlag
“No, a horse doesn’t get jetlag. Well, not this time anyway, which was my first time with the experience. What I see is they don’t suffer too badly, any of the horses I saw get off the box at least. It can affect them in different ways like it can affect people, but our horses seemed fine.
“The big thing is they lose weight, on the average between five and 15kg. But when you take it that a horse weighs between 415 and 500 odd kilos, in the grand scheme of things it is not a lot,” added Coakley. “They are not drinking as much water, or not getting fed as much. When they fly they can be a bit more picky on drinking water.”
While Coakley had to adjust to long days and 6am starts, as he took the horse’s temperature every morning for the quarantine vets, every effort was made to make Mutual Regard feel right at home in Victoria.
“What we try to do is try and keep the same routine as we would at home, work the same way, feed them the same time. Horses are creatures of habit, it is best to try and keep routine, that is what we try do.”
After Japanese stayer and Melbourne Cup favourite Admire Rakti ($5.50) won the Caulfield Cup and Aidan O’Brien finally broke his Australian duck with the aptly-named Adelaide in the Cox Plate, there is genuine fear down under that foreign raiders could complete a clean sweep of the spring majors.
Having seen Admire Rakti and the German third favourite Protectionist ($7.50) up close in Werribee alongside the Irish pair, Coakley believes Australian fears are well founded.
“Looking at it, it is very much between the internationals,” he said. “Protectionist and Admire Rakti both seem to be in good form, Admire Rakti’s win in Caulfield was very, very impressive. It was a hard race. Protectionist, his work around Werribee is very, very impressive. Whether he would want quick, quick ground I’m not sure.”
Coakley rode Mutual Regard to an impressive victory in the two-mile handicap on Irish Derby Day at the Curragh but missed out on the big ride at York and had to watch Louis Steward guide him home in the Ebor after picking up a three-day whip ban when winning on Steuben at Southwell.
He will be watching from outside the rail again on Tuesday as Murtagh has handed three-time Melbourne Cup winner Damien Oliver the ride.
“I think lots of European trainers, they tend to want the service of Australian jockeys as they are on these tracks all the time,” said Coakley.
“It’s a different tempo, there’s no sustained gallop, the tracks are tight, they don’t like tracing too wide. They go quite slow and then sprint. It can catch out European horses – our stayers can get lost. You need a certain style of horse,” he added.”The best and most experienced of European jockeys can get caught out. They’ll go fast for the first furlong with the pace, then when the rest drop back they try to get back in position, pull up the handbrake, and can struggle to get back into contention.
“Hiring an Australian jockey can minimise the risk of that happening. They are less likely to get caught out. That’s not to say it can’t happen still.”
Employing Oliver and Royal Diamond’s pilot Steve Arnold helps, but how does Coakley assess the chances of either Murtagh raider emulating Weld’s history-making Vintage Crop (1993), the first northern hemisphere winner of the Melbourne Cup, or Media Puzzle (2002), Weld’s second winner in the race.
“At home Mutual Regard can be lazy,” said Coakley. “But at the races he has done the business time in, time out. He is very consistent. Other horses are the opposite, they’re world beaters in training but then bottle it in races. There’s no prize money in the gallops.
“I think Royal Diamond is overpriced in the sense he is a dual group 1 winner. I think his age is being taken against him,’ he added of the nine year old. “The ground being hard could come against him. He is a strong traveller, which should sort the racing here.”
It’s been a long journey for both Irish challengers, now all that remains is the 3,200-metre sprint to the Flemington post.
According to the Danish agriculture organisation, Landbrug & Fødevarer (Agriculture & Food; L&F), 22,000 trucks cross the Danish border every year with piglets and pigs that are sold abroad.
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