Cox Plate tour a reminder of Kiwi influence on famous race

By Dennis Ryan

14 Jul 2022

Cox Plate tour a reminder of Kiwi influence on famous race1991 Cox Plate winners Lance and Dave O’Sullivan, flanked by the MVRC’s Ben Caluzzi and Troy Rat

“The other thing that left an impression on us was to see so many of the public taking in the Phar Lap display.”
It’s been a decade since New Zealand tasted victory in the W S Cox Plate, but a whistle-stop tour over the past week by a Moonee Valley Racing Club delegation has been a timely reminder of the cross-Tasman influence on the famous race.
The 2022 edition of the weight-for-age classic marks the centenary of the first Cox Plate won by English-bred import Violoncello. Seven years later Nightmarch became the first Kiwi-bred winner, followed in 1930 and 1931 by the horse described by some as the greatest ever in the history of the race, South Canterbury-bred Phar Lap.
Over the past week the MVRC delegation has got up close and personal with the mighty chestnut and various other Kiwi contributors to Cox Plate history. That began with a visit to Timaru’s Phar Lap Raceway, where a magnificent bronze sculpture of the South Canterbury Racing Club’s namesake dominates the landscape.
On their way up the South Island, the delegation stopped in at last Thursday’s Ashburton race meeting and caught up with former multiple champion jockey David Walsh, whose all-the-way win on Solvit in the 1994 Cox Plate still takes pride of place in his raft of achievements.
Then it was across Cook Strait to Wellington, where the visitors got another perspective of Phar Lap at Te Papa Museum of New Zealand and the chance to view the mighty horse’s glass-encased skeleton.
“Phar Lap’s skeleton gives you another idea of the sort of horse he was,” MVRC marketing manager Troy Ratcliffe commented when RaceForm spoke with him earlier this week. “The other thing that left an impression on us was to see so many of the public – parents, kids, everyone – taking in the Phar Lap display. It’s great to know that he still resonates with a wide cross-section of the community.”
Up to the Waikato and Saturday’s Te Rapa race meeting, Cambridge trainer Frank Ritchie reacquainted himself with the race that saw him and the second “Big Red” to put their names alongside Phar Lap on the Cox Plate honour roll. In the words of legendary commentator Bill Collins, the Ritchie-trained Bonecrusher “raced into equine immortality” with his 1986 tooth-and-nail victory over fellow Kiwi Waverley Star.
The main players in the other half of that epic finish, Waverley Star’s trainers Dave and Paul O’Sullivan and jockey Lance O’Sullivan, had to settle for second again in 1988 with their subsequent Japan Cup winner Horlicks. The winner was Poetic Prince for another Kiwi combination, John Wheeler and Noel Harris, but the O’Sullivans wouldn’t be denied, finally getting their Cox Plate reward with Surfers Paradise in 1991.
Dave and Lance O’Sullivan and Noel Harris were on the must-see list when the MVRC delegation were in the north this week, as was Graeme Rogerson, the trainer of 2004 Cox Plate winner Savabeel, and the horse himself, who has forged his own dynasty as a multiple champion sire standing at Waikato Stud. Another Group One-siring member of the Waikato roster is Ocean Park, who was prepared by part-owner Gary Hennessy to win the Cox Plate in 2012, the last time that New Zealand celebrated victory in the great race.
Graeme Rogerson harbours hopes of another attempt at the Cox Plate with his classy rising three-year-old Sharp ’N’ Smart, who resumed training on Monday with that and other Australian spring features on his agenda.
Optimistic to his very core, Rogerson’s aspirations cannot be dismissed. When Savabeel set out on his second season campaign he had a very similar profile to Sharp ’N’ Smart – one win and a Group One placing at 1600m from four two-year-old starts. Rogerson’s Redwood gelding was a Listed winner at Pukekohe in just his second start and then went down narrowly in the opening race of his Queensland carnival campaign before an unlucky fourth in the Gr. 1 JJ Atkins.
“Cox Plate history is littered with some of the great characters of the turf,” said the MVRC’s Troy Ratcliffe. “Graeme Rogerson is one of them and it was great to catch up with him and hear him talking up the race. It would be fantastic to see a horse like Sharp ’N’ Smart turn up on the day and take on the older horses.
“It’s disappointing to learn that Incentivise’s spring campaign has been scrapped, but on the other hand there’s any number of local hopes being targeted at the race. We’re excited that Aidan O’Brien has confirmed last year’s winner State Of Rest will be back to defend his crown.
“He’s a true international performer – a Group One winner in North America and Australia last year and in his last two starts he’s added Group One races in France and at Royal Ascot. You can’t get better than that and it speaks volumes for our very own race.”