The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s most famous race, and on Tuesday, Geelong will have a runner to call its own.
Runaway, bred and part-owned by Gnarwarre’s Rosemont Stud, won the Geelong Cup 10 days ago to effectively book his spot in Tuesday’s $7.3 million race.
At one stage, champion trainer Gai Waterhouse was fed up with the horse’s inability to win, and was even prepared to geld the stallion prospect to change his fortunes.
But in just over six months, Runaway — who still has his package intact — has transformed from a 62-rated sprinter-miler into a Melbourne Cup contender, set to fly the Australian flag against a contingent of internationals.
This is the story of Geelong’s Melbourne Cup fancy.
ANTHONY Mithen has been pinching himself, ever since he bought the mare Catshaan — Runaway’s mum — at a broodmare dispersal sale in 2014.
The rising 15-year-old was in foal to Manhattan Rain at the time — a three-quarter brother to champion stallion Redoute’s Choice, who had sired Oaks-winning filly Absolutely out of Catshaan seven years earlier.
While Rosemont came home with 15 broodmares from that Gold Coast Magic Millions sale — ranging from $7000 to $300,000 — only one of them had already produced a Group 1 winner.
“We bought her for $160,000 and were pinching ourselves really,” Mithen said.
“Catshaan was probably 13 or 14 at the time and probably a bit long in the tooth for the commercial buyers looking for the new shiny toy, as she’d been around the block a few times.
“But myself and Nigel (Austin) love those mares that have actually produced a really good horse once, based on the theory that lightning can strike twice in this game and often does.
“We both scoured the catalogues for those older mares that had thrown a good horse.”
None — not even Nobody Gets, who Rosemont paid $300,000 for and had Encosta De Lago and Flying Spur in her pedigree — impressed like Catshaan.
“She was already the mother of Absolutely, who won the Oaks, and the other attractive part of the puzzle was she was in foal to Manhattan Rain,” Mithen said.
“We both thought, ‘We’re carrying a very close relation to an Oaks winner’, so we were really attracted to the foal inside that happened to be Runaway.
“We all aspire to own the mother of an Oaks winner or breed and Oaks winner, and now we can take her home and get the Manhattan Rain out and see what’s next.”
The rest as they say is history — Catshaan threw a stunning chestnut foal that turned into a stunning yearling colt.
Julian Blaxland remembers seeing Lot 227 ahead of the 2016 Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale.
An unnamed bay colt by Manhattan Rain, his pedigree page in the sales catalogue read well — a half-sister to Group 1 winner Absolutely, while the dam Catshaan was herself a half-sister to Kinshasa No Kiseki, a dual Group 1 winner in Japan.
Blaxland, who works predominantly with Gai Waterhouse as her bloodstock agent, really liked what he saw, and when they snared the colt for $150,000, it looked a bargain.
But that value only increased when another half-sister named Abbey Marie won the South Australian Oaks a month later.
“I remember him well. He was a big, strong Manhattan Rain colt with a lot of length,” Blaxland said.
“He certainly looked like a horse that was bred to get over ground and while his father Manhattan Rain was primarily a sprinter-miler, he did run a place in a Cox Plate.
“He went from being a half-brother to one Group 1 winner to being a half-brother to two Group 1 winners within a few weeks of buying him.
“He was of the same kind of mould as his two talented sisters.
“He gave me every indication this horse could be a Guineas-Derby type horse, certainly get over ground.”
Blaxland said he was rapt when he and Waterhouse were able to snare him for $150,000, which nearly covered the price Rosemont paid for the mare.
“I thought he was a bargain at the time,” he said.
“The Easter sale in Sydney averages over $300,000 and he was a really nice horse.
“There’s been a lot of talk about Australia’s concentration on sprinters and the Golden Slipper.
“He was not expensive, but he certainly looked cheaper a couple of weeks later.”
Blaxland and Waterhouse contacted clients of theirs to take up the ownership, but Blaxland lays claim to convincing the Rosemont team to buy back into him.
“Anthony and Nigel sold the horse to Gai and I, and I convinced them a couple of days later to buy back in,” he said.
“That’s how they’re back in the horse; I bet they’re thankful they did.
“They bred the horse and all credit to them; they got a good share in him and run him in their colours.”
Gai Waterhouse admits there were thoughts of gelding or even selling Runaway earlier in his career, such was his inability to win.
The champion trainer never doubted his talent, but after 10 starts from 1100m to 1600m, the late three-year-old had just one win to his name.
“I liked him enough to buy him and he’s just always been very athletic,” Waterhouse said.
“He just didn’t have much idea early and we were even thinking about selling him at one stage.
“(We considered) a million different things — gelding him, selling him, anything because he was wallowing.
“He came down to Melbourne from Sydney and we were thinking of selling him because he was running in a Benchmark 70-something.”
But a conversation with Mithen at the 2018 Easter Inglis Sales put forward the idea of trying him over ground, out to a trip where his two sisters won Oaks.
Two weeks later, up in distance from 1600m to 2200m in a Benchmark 64 at Geelong, Runaway claimed his second win and he hasn’t looked back.
“Just like Cismontane last year — he won the Lexus — he grew just a leg once we put him over much further,” Waterhouse said.
“As he got more mature and a bit stronger, he was able to find his feet, as often stayers do.
“He improved out of all knowledge and in three races went on to win the St Leger.”
Waterhouse said it was a thrill to get an Australian-bred yearling into the Melbourne Cup for a passionate, local group of owners.
“I think it’s so important,” she said.
“In the Cup, he’s probably a 25-1 shot, but as Michael Kent, the senior part-owner said, ‘You’ve just ticked my bucket list. I’ve never had a Cup runner and I’ve always wanted one’.”
Stephen Baster had the choice of Northwest Passage or Runaway in the Geelong Cup, but after winning the St Leger and running third in the SA Derby, the underdog was his preferred ride.
“I had the choice of the two and I chose Runaway because I thought he was the horse on the up,” Baster said.
“I thought he was a good chance but I thought a couple of the internationals might have outclassed him, considering he was only third-up.
“It was a blessing for him to win it.”
Baster rode him last prep, over 1200m and then again over 1600m, but immaturity got the better of him
“We were obviously a little bit worried,” he said.
“He was a little bit immature but obviously once he got out over a trip he found form and he’s gone on in leaps and bounds since.
“He’s obviously a deadset stayer, so he’s done a great job.”
The win in the Listed St Leger at Flemington was the making of Runaway.
“He did it quite tough in that race and was still strong to the line, so obviously we knew then we had a pretty handy horse,” he said.
With a light weight on his back for the Melbourne Cup, Baster has the last word.
“He’s tough, will be on speed and fingers crossed,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to it. He’s only got 52kg on his back, so I think he’ll run really well.
“It’s huge for the guys down at Rosemont — ‘Mitho’ and ‘Nige’ have been good to me over the years, so it’s a big thrill to be riding one for them.”
Copy: Damien Ractliffe, Geelong Advertiser