Michael Bailey Deputy editor

Michael has been a business journalist for 12 years. He has extensive experience editing magazines covering funds management, commercial property and the travel industry. In 2011 he won a Citi Excellence in Financial Journalism award for a BRW cover story on economic indicators.

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Melbourne Cup win changed jockey’s life: “Coming out of the strait, the guy next to you is telling you your breeding’s not very good”

Published 23 August 2013 12:11, Updated 29 August 2013 08:16

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Melbourne Cup win changed jockey’s life: “Coming out of the strait, the guy next to you is telling you your breeding’s not very good”

Piping Lane, ridden by John Letts, pips Kiwi mare Magnifique to win the 1972 Melbourne Cup. Photo: Percy Spiden

The Emirates Melbourne Cup trophy is on its ninth annual tour of Australasia and it’s being shadowed by a jockey whose recollections of winning in 1972 and 1980 recall a time before the big race became a big international business.

The trophy started in Rockhampton, Queensland on July 20 and will next week head to Auckland. Made by Hardy Brothers from 18-carat gold, it contributes $175,000 of the $6 million-plus prize money up for grabs at Flemington Racecourse on November 5.

The Melbourne Cup Carnival generated direct revenue of $483 million last year, according to IBISWorld. The Victorian Racing Club estimates its contribution to the national economy will approach $800 million in 2013.

The richest handicap race in the world these days attracts horse owners from around the globe, not to mention BRW Rich 200 members such as Gerry Ryan, whose French import Puissance de Lune is this year’s favourite. The selection of a jockey is usually part of a well-appointed campaign that begins months in advance.

Different times

Not so in 1972, when 29-year-old John Letts, who’d never ridden outside his native South Australia nor been to Melbourne, picked up a ride on 80-1 shot Piping Lane six days before the race. “I never talked to the owner, never talked to the trainer. I slept in both days I was in town so I never saw the track either until I walked out there in front of 110,000 people,” Letts tells BRW as the trophy toured Sydney from August 19 to 23.

Letts has been an ambassador for eight years on the trophy tour, which began three years after Emirates Airlines’ sponsorship commenced and includes towns big and small. In July the trophy, still based on the three-handled design conceived by James Steeth in 1919, attracted 800 people in Karumba, Queensland – population 500. “People get to touch the Cup, get their photo taken with it, and you can see that a lot of people will go on to watch the race who otherwise might not have,” Letts says.

The jockey’s own family rated his chances so poorly in 1972, that none of them bothered to watch the race, he recalls.

“It was good in a way. I had no instructions, no expectations, so I couldn’t do anything wrong.”

Letts didn’t conceive of a plan until he was aboard Piping Lane and in the barrier prior to the race.

“I looked over and the horse next to me was Gunsynd, ridden by Roy Higgins. I thought, ‘If I follow him I can’t go too wrong, Roy’s won a couple of these.’ Problem was Gunsynd missed the jump and I was in front of him.”

Odd, surreal and (mostly) very noisy

Letts describes riding in the Melbourne Cup as “surreal . . . there’s this odd silence just before the jump, then you’re straight into 800 metres of 110,000 people screaming their heads off. That’s why a lot of horses pull very hard,” he says.

“Then out of the strait it goes quiet again, and the guy next to you is telling you your breeding’s not very good. Then it’s into the last 600 and another wall of noise.”

After overhauling New Zealand mare Magnifique in the final 50 metres to win, Letts says the magnitude of what he’d just achieved rang home when the press interviews started after he’d left the mounting yard.

“I was just a nobody from Adelaide, and suddenly you’re it. People forget the horse; everyone in the place wants to talk to you. I was free to do lots of interviews because I hadn’t even been able to pick up another ride that afternoon.”

Letts went on to ride internationally, suffered the ignominy of running last in the 1973 Melbourne Cup, but returning to the winner’s circle in 1980 aboard Beldale Ball.

“They call it the loving Cup, but I refer to it as the life-changing Cup,” he says. “Like they said about Makybe Diva when she won her third Cup in a row – ‘a champion becomes a legend’. There’s magic in this race.”

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