In any other year an announcement by Racing Victoria and the Warrnambool Racing Club on 1 April that the May Carnival will be limited to two days might have been seen as an April Fool’s Day joke. However, the announcement on 1 April this year gave notice of a very necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the world was last impacted by a pandemic the carnival almost did not go ahead at all. In 1919 the Spanish flu caused postponements of the main autumn race meetings in Melbourne and Sydney. When the flu appeared in Warrnambool shortly before race week some local people were strongly opposed to the races being held. An appeal was made to the Premier, but he declined to intervene. The three-day meeting went ahead, but with people worried about becoming infected the attendances were well down on prior years.
Racing continued during the world’s next major crisis – the Great Depression, although generally with significantly reduced prizemoney. Several years later World War II had a drastic impact on racing, and the carnival was not held from 1942 to 1946. When the carnival resumed in 1947 it was limited to Wednesday and Thursday, with the Warrnambool Amateur Turf Club (which had always raced on the middle day) not rejoining the fray until 1951. The break due to the war meant that Mentone trainer Duncan McRae, who had great success with jumpers, has the unique distinction of winning successive Grand Annuals six years apart: Brightello in 1941 and Quixotic in 1947. High Flash (1948) was the only horse to win the Brierly-Grand Annual double in the four years that those races were run on consecutive days.
As the two feature steeplechases are to be run on the same day this year no horse will be able to complete the double. It is a long time since horses were permitted to race twice on one day, and it was always rare for jumpers to do so (leaving aside races run in heats). However, there were exceptions. In 1877 (which predates the May Carnival) Herring Girl won the Maiden Steeplechase and the Selling Steeplechase and is probably the only horse to have won two steeplechases at Warrnambool in one day. In 1884 All Serene, “fresh” from becoming the first horse to win successive Grand Annuals, was sent out for the Selling Steeplechase later in the day. The old horse did not like that idea and, having had enough, stopped at the stone wall in front of the grandstand.
Ingleside is the most notable winner of two races over fences in one day in the Western District. At Coleraine in 1864, ridden by his owner Bob Learmonth - one of several talented amateur riders around that time - Ingleside again proved the toughness and jumping prowess of the stock of his sire King Alfred in winning the famed Great Western Steeplechase over four miles (defeating Adam Lindsay Gordon’s Modesty), and the Maiden Steeplechase. The Great Western was the leading steeplechase in the Western District until shortly after the inauguration of the Warrnambool Handicap Steeplechase (now the Grand Annual) in 1872.
Although the first steeplechase at Warrnambool was held 170 years ago, the town did not have a feature jumping race until 1872. That first steeplechase was run on the old Jetty Flat course on Wednesday 3 April 1850. A horse that did not initially start, ridden by a rider who had started the event on another horse, won the race. The first attempt at the race was abandoned when neither of the two runners could be persuaded to take the fourth fence. The stewards decided to reopen entries for the event. James Jellie, who had ridden another horse the first time, entered his own horse, Woodbine, and rode it to an easy victory.
This year will see some firsts at Warrnambool, and some things that have not happened for up to almost a century and a half:
- For the first time since 1950 the carnival will consist of only two days. The only time since then that racegoers were not able to enjoy a three-day feast of racing was 1971 when the second and third days were washed out.
- This will be the first time the Grand Annual and the Brierly are run on the same day.
- For the first time since 1880 the Grand Annual and the Cup will be run on separate days. Around that time the feature steeplechase was known as the Grand National Steeplechase. Greystanes won the race in 1880, and as with his win in 1878 took over 11 minutes to complete the journey of four miles on a heavy track. Harry Chifney rode Greystanes in these victories. Chifney won the 1863 Melbourne Cup for his master, Samuel Waldock, on Banker, which carried only 5.4 (33.5kg) in a field of seven. His real name was Harry Dawes, but he took his riding name from the famous English jockey Sam Chifney.
- This will be the first time that the Warrnambool Cup and the Wangoom Handicap are run on the same day.
- For the first time since 1876 the Grand Annual will be run as part of an all jumps programme, but on that day there were only four races: Amateur Hurdle Race, Handicap Steeplechase (Grand Annual), Selling Hurdle Race, and Selling Steeplechase. Tommy Corrigan, one of the Warrnambool district’s greatest racing exports, won the second of his four Grand Annuals - on Aeneas.
- This will be the first time that that the Warrnambool Cup, which was instituted in 1873, is run as part of an all-flat programme.
- For the first time since 1897 neither the Grand Annual nor the Cup will be run on a Thursday – in that year the carnival concluded on a Saturday.
This will certainly be the first time that Warrnambool’s feature races have been run with no patrons present - the result of Racing Victoria’s action to ensure racing adheres to government guidelines and can continue throughout the COVID-19 crisis. There will be no flood of visitors to the seaside town, no trek up the famous hill immediately after the race before the Grand Annual, and no roar of the crowd if Patrick Payne or Ciaron Maher join John Wheeler’s record of five Grand Annual wins. However, a win during Warrnambool Week will still be very special. That is best summed up by champion jumps jockey Steven Pateman, who remarked after winning the Annual last year, “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.”
Mark’s book, “The ‘Bool – The history of racing in Warrnambool from 1848”, is available at books.slatterymedia.com/store. If you would like a signed copy contact Mark on firstname.lastname@example.org