Some men run wildly down the Randwick straight celebrating, others run frozen with fear at what they’re about to confront.
Trainer Nick Olive hadn’t stopped smiling for two weeks. He had just won his first group 1 with a horse no one seems to rate and she was making her move as the n Oaks field rounded the home turn and prepared to thunder down the famous stretch of grass.
A horse to the inside of his filly, Single Gaze, tried to edge out. It clipped her heels and her jockey, Kathy O’Hara, crashed to the turf. It was one of those moments when the world keeps moving and the race keeps going but everything just seems to stop.
“You care for your horse straight away, but for Kathy I thought …. there’s no way she’s going to come out of this,” Olive says. “I thought there was every possibility she could be dead.
“I remember running up the course proper and all the emotions – by the time you get up there – I had tears coming down my cheeks.”
It was the longest 400 metres of Olive’s life. His horse, remarkably, bounced back up to her feet and sidled up to the outside fence, where she waited for someone to collect her.
But O’Hara lay prone on the ground, a distraught Olive shoving his way past paramedics just hoping to find a pulse.
“When I got up there, Kathy had a million people around her and she was like, ‘Where’s Nick? Where’s Nick? Is the horse all right?’ That just blew me away,” Olive says.
“She’s literally lying there half unconscious, broken up and everyone’s working on her – and that’s all she cared about. It was pretty emotional.”
Says O’Hara: “I don’t remember saying that, but if I did, obviously I meant it. It wasn’t my first fall and it won’t be my last. And my injuries weren’t that bad.”
Most would beg to differ. O’Hara suffered concussion, chest and collarbone injuries. She required surgery and she was out of the saddle for months. Yet she knows she was lucky.
The horrifying tumble prompted Racing NSW’s then chief steward Ray Murrihy to describe her as the toughest rider in the Sydney jockeys’ room – and he wasn’t referring just to the female quarters. Never judge a book by its cover.
Horrifying: Kathy O’Hara is stretchered away after she came off Single Gaze during the n Oaks. Photo: AAP
Then there’s her horse, the one she hugged like her own daughter after it boldly hit the front in the Caulfield Cup inside the 200 metres a fortnight ago before clinging on for second.
The modern Melbourne Cup is a personal playground for squillionaires and sheikhs. Then there’s a horse that is cheered wildly in pubs and clubs in Canberra and rural Gundagai, a throwback to yesteryear.
She didn’t cost a lot, $70,000 to be exact. The Not A Single Doubt filly was the only horse Olive bought from the Gold Coast’s Magic Millions sale in 2014 and was bred to sprint, not stick.
Single Gaze was so far last in her first race start her part-owner, Martin Hay, who runs the Gundagai Tigers rugby league club with the horse’s other major shareholder David Tout, wondered what they had got into.
Yet the filly rocketed home and won at $81, with O’Hara in the saddle. Olive reckons some other riders might have given up, so hopeless was their mid-race plight.
“Four hundred metres after her first start, I looked at Dave and we said, ‘What’s he got us into here?’ Never in your wildest dreams do you think a couple of years later she’s going to be running in the Melbourne Cup,” Hay says.
Hay has barely left his mare’s side in Melbourne for the past few weeks. He’s put his earthmoving business in Gundagai on hold for a few weeks and is instead moving manure out of his horse’s box in the countdown to the Cup.
Olive has left his family for much of the past couple of months, his right-hand man and former jockey Billy Owen rarely straying from Single Gaze’s side since August in the hope of making it to the first Tuesday in November.
“The kids are bloody excited,” Olive quips of his two daughters, Jesse and Chloe. “They rang me after the Caulfield Cup and said, ‘Dad, does this mean we’re going to the Melbourne Cup?’ I said, ‘Yep’.
“They were running around the backyard screaming out and telling all their friends. They’re pretty excited. You start at the bottom earning crap money working seven days a week and to get here … it’s been a good journey for everyone.
“I never thought about giving [training] up. But I’ve thought, ‘This is so hard’. Sometimes it gets you down, but you learn to balance that a bit more as you get older. I’ve thought that a lot of times, but not one day have I thought I want to give this away.”
Days like Tuesday is the reason he hasn’t. It will be the first time Canberra has had a horse in the Melbourne Cup since Ain’t Seen Nothin’ ran in the 2003 race, Makybe Diva’s first of three straight triumphs.
Michelle Payne is the other famous female most etched in modern Melbourne Cup history, revealing after Prince Of Penzance’s shock win two years ago some of the horse’s owners didn’t want her to keep the ride in the Cup.
O’Hara was bumped from Single Gaze in the $2 million Magic Millions Classic for Damien Oliver at the start of last year. Olive and Hay are the first to admit they erred.
“They wanted to go with him and they tried a few other jockeys and luckily she didn’t really run for them,” O’Hara says. “[But] there’s never been any questions this preparation or last preparation. [Hay’s] always said, ‘She’s yours’. It fuels you with confidence and I want to do the right thing by them.”
She has and will now have her first Melbourne Cup ride.
To understand how unlikely this story is would be to consider only one horse in more than 20 years has run in the Golden Slipper scamper as a two-year-old and then taken their spot in a Melbourne Cup over the gruelling two-mile test. Single Gaze will be the second.
Olive’s red and blue colours are being used in cocktails in Canberra bars. Gundagai RSL hasn’t heard a roar like the one in the final stages of the Caulfield Cup. They love the Cup there, and they love their horse more.
Hay and Tout’s Group 9 rivals are also on the bandwagon, traditional arch rivals of Gundagai united by a chestnut mare they can’t know enough about.
“It just gets under my skin that these two blokes Billy and Nick don’t get the credit they deserve,” Hay says. “They’ve done a wonderful job with this horse. The horse has built its own reputation now and hopefully that will filter through to these two blokes. They deserve the credit they’re slowly getting.
“You can draw your own conclusions on how the public treats her. Everyone loves her, but she’s always 30-1. The racing enthusiasts don’t respect her yet, but that’s slowly starting to change. And after Tuesday hopefully that will change more.”
Adds O’Hara: “She’s always been an underdog. She’s always been underrated her whole career and she still is. She just keeps … proving everyone wrong. There’s no pressure on her and she continues to defy logic.”
O’Hara might have been talking about herself for a moment.
Some will argue O’Hara has been swimming against the tide for years. Just like Payne, no one will expect her to do much in the race that stops the nation. But we all know how that unfolded.
And as for the horse she will be riding?
“We know she’ll do us proud,” Hay says. “And I’ll be honest, after the fall I’m happy to see her go around and come back. If she wins it’s a bonus. But I’m just happy to see her competing again at this level.
“Winning’s not everything to us. We’re just proud of her. She’s 430 kilos and 230 kilos of that is heart I think.”