Of all the country horse races run across this wide brown land, one stands out from the rest.
It is ‘The Race That Stops The Region’, the Wagga Wagga Gold Cup, to be run and won again today (5 May) at 4:25 pm.
First contested in 1873, the Wagga Cup has even – and not just once – upstaged that annual event they hold a little further south, the Melbourne Cup!
The man who heads the board of directors on the Murrumbidgee Turf Club (MTC) is the affable, hard-working Geoff Harrison. He runs a tight ship.
He gives his utmost and expects the very best from those entrusted with putting on the biggest and best show in town.
Mr Harrison is well aware of the weight of historic responsibility placed on the shoulders of all of those who have anything to do with the club and the cup.
There have been only 22 MTC Presidents/Chairmen since Mountaineer passed the post ahead of the other 14 runners in that inaugural Cup all those years ago.
In that same time, we’ve had 31 Prime Ministers, 41 New South Wales Premiers and 45 Mayors of Wagga Wagga.
Mr Harrison takes his role seriously. Some might say too seriously.
He took a tumble from his motorbike on his Yarragundry property just days out from a major milestone event in February to celebrate the 150 years of the Wagga Cup.
Undeterred by a trip to the intensive care unit at the local hospital, Mr Harrison, nursing a broken right collarbone, three broken ribs, a punctured lung and a right calf that had been impaled by the bike’s foot peg, fronted up at the momentous unveiling of a horse and jockey statue at the entrance to the racecourse to mark the sesquicentenary.
Don’t ask him to pronounce sesquicentenary but, as he bluntly explained to well-wishers who asked him why he wasn’t resting in a hospital bed: “You’ve gotta turn up!”
Country racing is the heartbeat of many regional centres and this club and this city are no different.
Over the years, the MTC has contributed mightily to local charitable organisations, as well as being one of the biggest employers in town.
Eagerly anticipated for months in advance, the Cup always draws a 10,000-plus crowd to this famous racecourse.
As for outshining the Victoria Racing Club, consider the following as a fascinating anecdote.
On Thursday (yes, Thursday) 6 November 1873, the VRC staged the 13th running of the Melbourne Cup.
Don Juan was the winner of the race advertised as a handicap sweepstakes of 20 sovereigns each, with 300 added, over two miles. The Australasian Turf Register reported there were “89 subs”.
Just 20 days later, the MTC held its initial Wagga Cup, which had attracted 68 nominations (with 10 sovereigns each added to the prize) and a final field of 15 vying for 400 sovereigns.
The MTC had outdone the VRC … for the first and not the only time.
Mountaineer, having raced twice for a win and a second at the Flemington meeting the same month of the initial Wagga Cup carnival, won the big Riverina two-miler in just his third start to begin a tradition that has stood the test of time.
Wagga Wagga will continue to host this marvellous social and sporting occasion, so if you have not already been to one, put it on your bucket list.
As for a tip, trainer Chris Waller has won four of the past nine Cups so a little flutter on one of the three he has in this afternoon – the imported gallopers Great House, Kukeracha or Wicklow – will give you a good run for your money.
For a local flavour, the Wagga Wagga trainer Gary Colvin reckons his stable hope Another One is primed for the event.
And if you’re one of those who bets on a horse on the premise “it’s about time”, consider this: no mare has won since Call Me Lily in 2002. There are only two mares lining up – Pink Ivory and Douceur. Both are quality thoroughbreds.
Michael McCormack is the Federal Member for Riverina and Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific.