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JAMES PACKER NOT THAT FUSSED ABOUT OWNING POTENTIAL DERBY WINNER
FANCY a share in a soon-to-be champion racehorse possibly worth millions? Here, have James Packer's. He's not that fussed.
"I am obviously not an active owner of the horse," says Australia's third richest man of Hampton Court, the raging favourite in Saturday's Victoria Derby. "Being a silent partner is probably overstating my involvement."
ANDREW WEBSTER reports for FAIRFAX MEDIA that popular with British aristocrats and royalty in the 18th Century, racing became the sport of kings and lords.
Not here in the colony. It's the sport of any man.
Last Saturday, the story heading into the Cox Plate was The Cleaner, the $10,000 horse trained by a battler who lives in a demountable building on the side of his stables near Launceston.
A week later, the story is a $500,000 Redoute's Choice colt prepared by the country's most prominent trainer, part-owned by its most influential broadcaster and one of its wealthiest men.
The trainer is the walking sound bite, Gai Waterhouse. The broadcaster is Alan Jones.
"That doesn't help the horse!" Jones roars when told of the interesting juxtaposition. "He doesn't know any of that!"
It's also likely to be completely lost on Packer.
The humble casino operator, who a few weeks ago took half ownership of South Sydney rugby league team alongside good mate Russell Crowe, is overseas on business and isn't expected to be at Flemington on Saturday.
While he's been a regular racegoer at the Cup carnival over the years, he doesn't share the same passion for thoroughbred racing as his late father, Kerry, one of the country's most feared punters.
Yet he does share his father's indifference towards ownership.
In the 1980s, the young emerging trainer Lee Freedman noticed Kerry Packer owned two of his horses. He'd been sending his bills to Australia's then richest man, and they were being paid.
"I'm going to ring Kerry Packer," Freedman said to one of his staffers one day.
"You can't ring Kerry Packer," the staffer replied.
"You watch," said Freedman.
The trainer called and when one of Packer's underlings heard Freedman was a horse trainer, he promptly redirected the call to Kerry's million-dollar bungalow at Palm Beach on Sydney's northern beaches.
"Hello?" grunted Kerry.
"My name's Lee Freedman, I've got a couple of racehorses with you."
"Really? What are they?"
Freedman told him.
"Well, how they going?"
Freedman then started to go through the form and health of the horses.
"Stop wasting my time son."
About a decade later, Freedman is in the mounting yard at Randwick before the AJC Derby. He has a superstar in the race: Mahogany, who is owned by property tycoon Lloyd Williams, and Kerry Packer.
Freedman, in his own right, is a superstar by now, but had still never met Kerry.
"You probably don't remember me, Kerry," he said.
"I f--king remember," Kerry barked. "You called me at Palm Beach and wasted my time."
A year earlier, Mahogany had won the 1993 Victoria Derby, but don't think for a second that means James Packer is concerned about chasing the same slice of history as his late father, according to Jones.
"No, no, no, no, no," Jones says. "And he'd be embarrassed about seeing his name mentioned about Hampton Court because he's peripheral in the whole thing."
Despite all the headlines evoking the Packer name this week, it wasn't until six weeks ago Packer even knew he had a share in the horse.
Jones had texted him "wherever he was in the world" and informed him the horse had won the Spring Champion Stakes at Randwick.
"Is it a stallion or an entire?" Packer texted back, seeing dollar signs. "It might be worth something."
"No, we're not selling it," Jones fired back. "Stick to your business!"
Says Jones: "That's how we operate. One of the first horses we had together was Manifest. I had an arrangement where I said, 'Forget about it. You're in the book. I'll pay all the training fees but I'll keep all the prizemoney'.
"The only problem is the horse had 49 starts without even getting near the finishing line. I was well out of pocket.
"There's a picture on my wall here of the first time it won a race. Where did it win the race? Narromine. We had to send it there for a win in 2002. Owners: A.B. Jones and J.D. Packer. Oh God."
Jones has a long affinity with racing, having owned the likes of Golden Slipper winner Miss Finland, Snitzel and It's A Dundeel, who claimed the Queen Elizabeth Stakes earlier this year.
When Jones saw Hampton Court as a yearling, with his big head and perfect conformation, he had to have it.
The horse is bred by John Muir at his boutique Milburn Creek stud, which is near Jones' home in the Southern Highlands.
"The credit all goes to John Muir. He and his wife Trish treat their horses like family," Jones says. "Buying this horse was just a bit of fun. We put a few people in. I got the neighbour up on the hill …"
One of the owners was to be Jones' friend, the businessman and philanthropist Paul Ramsay, but he died of a heart attack in May while in Spain. "Ram was on the other side of the world and he's dead now," Jones says. "Poor Ram."
They sent the horse to Waterhouse, who might not have a Melbourne Cup runner this year after The Offer was taken out of the field, but can make up for it with Hampton Court.
Waterhouse has long held a high opinion of him. The colt's commanding win in that race confirmed it, not least because it lowered the long-standing 2000 metre record at Randwick.
Jones has had horses with Gai before, but nothing like this one. "The horse must be OK," he says. "We'll find out on Saturday. I never got nervous before putting the [Wallabies] Test team on the paddock, but I will be before this race."
Having the favourite in the Derby this year is easier than being caught in the middle of the feud between Waterhouse and fellow 2GB shareholder John Singleton that erupted last year over the More Joyous affair.
"The so-called feud between Singo and Gai Waterhouse, there's going to be a stewards inquiry on Friday and apparently it's going to be bigger than Gone With the Wind," Jones told his devout listeners at the time. "For those of us who know them both and love racing it's just sad."
Singleton, who seems to have his tongue firmly planted in his check when it comes to his leisurely pursuit of horse racing, told Channel Seven: "If Gai and Alan Jones had a kid it would have been absolutely perfect on every subject at all times."
It was Kerry Packer who convinced Jones to become a broadcaster, not a politician.
"What do you want to be son - the prime minister or a millionaire?" Packer senior is said to have asked him.
When Jones was celebrated at a special function in 2010 for reaching 25 years behind the microphone, Packer junior became emotional.
"Alan, no one will ever take your place. You are without peer, my friend," Packer said, appearing to tear up.
He mightn't care if Hampton Court wins the Victoria Derby. He mightn't even watch the race. But he wants it to win for Jones.
"Alan is one of my favourite people in the world," he says. "I'm just happy to be supporting him on this venture."
ONE OF THE OLDEST MELBOURNE CUP FIELDS EVER ASSEMBLED FACES THE STARTER ON TUESDAY
SOME of Australian racing's most powerful voices have lamented what looms as one of the oldest Melbourne Cup fields ever assembled, with no less than four nine-year-olds likely to get a start in the $6 million race.
ADAM PENGILLY and CHRIS ROOTS report for FAIRFAX MEDIA that no nine-year-old has ever finished among the placegetters - let alone won the race - but it has not stopped the blue-rinse brigade queueing up for a shot at next Tuesday's spoils.
While much has been made of the fact that only one Australian-bred horse, Lloyd Williams' Fawkner, is likely to take a spot in this year's field, much less has been said about the ageing horde of Cup runners.
As the current order of entry stands, Bart and James Cummings' Precedence - along with European-trained Red Cadeaux, Cavalryman and Royal Diamond - will form an historic nine-year-old quartet in 2014.
Red Cadeaux, Cavalryman and Royal Diamond are eight-year-olds by northern hemisphere time, but are considered in the nine-year-old vintage by Australian standards.
According to the records of Racing Victoria's chief handicapper Greg Carpenter, the most nine-year-olds ever to run in the Cup in one year was two in 2009.
Cups king Bart Cummings, looking for a 13th success in the great race, said the reasoning was simple.
"We just do not breed stayers any more," he said. "That's why we have no [younger] runners. Even New Zealand is starting not to breed them as much as they used to and if you don't have a horse you can't have a runner."
But perhaps even more glaringly, the staying stocks at the other end of the spectrum have thinned out so badly that
Kris Lees' Lucia Valentina is the only four-year-old safely in the field, with overseas raiders Protectionist and Au Revoir to fly the five-year-old flag.
Six-year-olds have won the last four Melbourne Cups, but the influx of more seasoned European stayers into Australia means the profile for a Melbourne Cup winner is only likely to get older.
"It is a stark statement about the Australian breeding industry that our biggest race is full of these older horses that are mostly bred overseas," said Arrowfield supremo John Messara, one of Australia's largest breeders and Racing NSW supremo.
"We all know stayers take a long time to come through, but it is obvious that we are not breeding enough of them. It really is genetics and culture that leads to something like this happening. In Australia we want a quick return and speed and we aren't prepared to be patient like they are in Europe.
"Any staying stallion doesn't get the support because you're going to have to wait a few years for the horses to come through."
Last year's Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Gai Waterhouse, who had her hopes of a repeat dashed when The Offer was withdrawn on Tuesday, has been vocal about making it easier for classic-winning three-year-olds to transition into the Cups.
"It just shows even the older European stayers are still superior to the Australian horses," she said. "They are getting older and older and they are a bit like warhorses these stayers, aren't they?
"All the better horses get sold off early to stud because most of them are entires. Anything that's got a bit of sex appeal, eg Adelaide, he'll be lucky to race on one more season because he will be at stud.
"You go to a fabulous sale like Karaka ready-to-run sale, which is on in the middle of November, and you've got to almost twist peoples' arms and you shouldn't because that's where your derby and oaks horses come from."
Lees said the Caulfield Cup had always been the target for Lucia Valentina, which now has to ward off the ever-increasing threat posed by her older rivals.
"You've got to remember horses aren't as hearty as they used to be," he said. "Even with her we were concentrating on the Caulfield Cup and the Melbourne Cup was there, but you don't want to gas them early."
Zipping (2010), Kiwi (1986), Magistrate (1980) and Donald (1930) have all run fourth in the Cup as nine-year-olds. Magistrate, an 11-year-old in 1982, is the oldest ever entrant in the Flemington two-miler.
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