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Written by Mark McNamara

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PICTURE: Pat Scala Racing Photos

The stunning win of Zed Em in the Grand Annual Steeplechase (5500m) cemented his reputation as one of the best-performed steeplechasers to have ever raced in Australia and was the highlight of another magical week at the’ Bool. The win brought the eight-year-old’s overall jumps record to 20 starts for 13 wins and five placings. Incredibly, in his past 13 jumps starts Zed Em has won nine steeplechases and finished second four times. The Grand Annual was tailor-made for the $2.70 favourite as he was able to take a sit behind the leader Newbury for much of the race. With his clean jumping and renowned stamina Zed Em was able to surge to the lead about 700 metres from home, and not even last year’s champion Gold Medals could catch him at the finish.

Zed Em’s 70kg is the heaviest impost carried to victory in the Annual since champion jumper The Feline carried 11st 7lb (73kg) in 1950, and betters the metric weight-carrying records of Al Garhood (69kg, 2011) and Planet Hollywood (68.5kg, 1999). Since Agricolo became the last of seven horses to have won with 12 stone (76kg) or more in 1926, only four horses had won with 11 stone (70kg) or more – and until this year none had done so since The Feline.

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PICTURE: Pat Scala Racing Photos

The compressed weight scale, which saw Zed Em carry only 6kg above the minimum, meant that many punters considered him to be something of a good thing at the weights. However, this is to take nothing away from his achievement in an era when compressed weight scales are the norm in handicap races, including Group 1 flat races. This is a far cry from the sensational 1909 Grand Annual, in which every runner met with some sort of mishap, when Pilot carried the heaviest weight in the history of the race, 13st 4lb (84.5kg), but failed to finish.

It takes a special horseman to win the Annual, and the winning trainer is often someone who has an obsession with the race. Patrick Payne has constructed a mini-replica Grand Annual course on his property and he now joins Ciaron Maher and Jim Houlahan as four-time winners of the race. Payne and Maher have “owned” the Annual in recent times, having won eight of the past 10, and next year we might find out which of them can become the first to equal John Wheeler’s record five wins.

Champion jumps jockey Steve Pateman was thrilled to again win the Annual, saying after the race “The Grand Annual is the most special race to win for a jumps jockey. It’s our Melbourne Cup and it’s bigger than that with me.”

The other feature jumping races were again highly entertaining. Ciaron Maher, now training in partnership with David Eustace, won his fourth Brierly Steeple with Bit Of A Lad, to go with his quartet of Grand Annuals. Having grown up in the area and started his training career at Warrnambool, Maher loves to win the feature jumps races at the carnival. Bit Of A Lad’s win had a dramatic prequel, when one of his part owners collapsed earlier in the day and had to be flown to Geelong for surgery. His only complaint was that he did not get to see his horse run in the Brierly!

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PICTURE: Pat Scala Racing Photos

The following day Maher scored his first win in the Galleywood Hurdle, with Big Blue. The gelding, which had won a 3000-metre listed race in France and last October won the $500,000 ATC St Leger (2600m) at Randwick, was only Maher’s third starter in the race. Maher is only the third trainer since the inception of the Galleywood in 1995 to have won the Brierly, the Galleywood and the Annual – putting him in the elite company of Jim Houlahan and Eric Musgrove.

Musgrove supplied the placegetters in this year’s Galleywood and earlier in the day won the BM120 Restricted Steeplechase with the $61 outsider Pentomatic. This restricted race has provided a thrilling spectacle and dramatic finish in the two years since it was reinstated to Wednesday’s programme. It was Musgrove’s 29th carnival winner, more than any other current trainer.

With the jumps races over, the win of Furrion in the feature flat event of the carnival saw John Allen become the first rider to have won more than one Grand Annual and more than one Warrnambool Cup. The success of this year’s carnival and the planned $4.9 million Matilda Room extensions bode well for another wonderful week at the ’Bool in 2020.