Costa Rolfe



Marasco versus the Ascot running rail: the blow heard around Australia

Owner-breeder Neville Duncan and jockey Link Robertson recall the day Western Australian star Marasco bounced off the Ascot rail and 'got up off the canvas' to record a mind-boggling win.

Good horses have a habit of announcing themselves. That one, transformative run that forever distinguishes a lightly-raced prospect from its cohort, attaches new-found authority to its name in subsequent racebooks, and redefines the expectations of punters, bookmakers and connections alike. 

When a Western Australian gelding named Marasco emerged as a contender however, rather than fend off the customary Hong Kong offers synonymous with promising younger horses, owner Neville Duncan might instead have fielded a call from the ‘super promoter’ Don King himself, such was the pugilistic theatre that transpired at Perth’s Ascot Racecourse on Anzac Day, 2006.  

For Marasco’s ‘announcement’ was about as showtime as it gets: more ‘Money’ Mayweather, less clandestine Friday afternoon news dump. 

The Fred Kersley-trained three-year-old came into career ‘bout’ number five with a middling 1-3 record, having run some eye-catching races before breaking his maiden over the Ascot 1400m three weeks prior. But the horse’s potential was becoming more evident with each outing, and the Anzac Day pencillers marked the son of Scenic the $2.10 favourite.  

As the gates sprung back for the 1200m assignment, jockey Link Robertson – having his first sit on the hulking heavyweight – allowed the big gelding to find his rhythm in a rearward position in the early stages. And as the field approached the final bend, Robertson and Marasco made their move. The tape tells the rest of the tale:    

Carrying the famous yellow colours with the black maltese cross of Duncan’s Oakland Park Stud, the pair cruised past their Class 6 opposition with ominous ease, the thickset Marasco – all neck and chest – on the bit and trucking as he cornered.

Exploding to the front upon straightening on the back of some truly savage acceleration, the still green Marasco – victory all but assured – suddenly ducked in at the 100m, cannoning into the Ascot running rail. 

Miraculously, Robertson managed to stay in the saddle, recover his horse’s composure and win – or as astonished racecaller Darren McCauley described, “hit the running rail, bounced off it like Mike Tyson, got up off the canvas and won by four thank you very much!” – having absorbed a hammer blow that, from Duncan’s point of view, would have unseated virtually any other jockey.  

In what was a rare day trackside, the studmaster was present in the Ascot grandstand to observe the horse he had bred’s unique take on ‘rope-a-dope’. 

“I don’t go to the races often, living 250km south of Perth, the horse studs mean I’m a busy working bloke,” Duncan told Asian Racing Report. 

“But I was there that day and I dare say, if it wasn’t for Link Robertson being on board I think the jockey would have fallen off. 

“Link wasn’t at the top of the premiership list at any stage of his career, but he was just the consummate horseman, as good as it gets in that regard. 

“If he hadn’t have been on, I’m convinced that the alternative would have fallen off, whoever they were, because it was just such a freakish event.” 

That Duncan had been lured to the track in the first place suggested that hopes were high for the son of Scenic. 

“He’s the most exciting horse I ever bred, by a long stretch,” said Duncan, the absence of any mention of Australian Horse of the Year and dual Cox Plate-winner Northerly, altogether telling. 

‘The Fighting Tiger’ was of course famously born at Oakland Park, without a pulse and with crooked legs. Marasco on the other hand showed quality from his earliest days, causing Duncan to place a towering reserve on him as a yearling. 


Northerly defeats Defier in the 2002 Cox Plate. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

But with no sales ring takers at the price, Duncan and eventually trainer Kersley were more than happy to race the youngster themselves.

It didn’t take long for doubts to creep in, however.  

“Prior to him getting to the track I genuinely thought he was the type of horse that could be extremely exciting. And then he trialled twice in small fields and didn’t do much, and I started to wonder what was going on,” Duncan recalled. 

“When he debuted and raced back in the field and finished eleventh, I said to Fred, ‘I really thought he might have been a bit better than that’ and he just said ‘I don’t think he’s woken up yet, but I think he’s about to’.”

Link Robertson clearly remembers his part in that ‘awakening’, having arrived at Ascot that day with little inkling of his booking’s true potential. 

“It happens often in racing, you turn up for a ride and you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into,” Robertson told Asian Racing Report. 

“But right from the outset, as soon as they jumped he just gave me an incredible feel. The way he rounded them up out wide as we cornered and then that turn of foot, it was just absolutely push-button. 

“I think I gave him one with the whip when I probably shouldn’t have, I didn’t realise I was so far clear, he just skipped away that quickly that it was hard to gauge.” 

And as the man best qualified to assess the subsequent level of contact between horse and rail, Robertson is unequivocal in grading it as ‘high impact’. 

“He just completely bent-in the running rail. The head on confirmed it, you watch the footage and he absolutely just caves it in, it was no brush that’s for sure. 

He just completely bent-in the running rail.

“I was just grateful that I was able to execute a decent piece of riding and keep my balance on him, and then eventually get him straightened up again and secure the win.” 

News of the extraordinary victory quickly reverberated among Australian racing fans, with some dubbing Marasco ‘the next Northerly’. 

“We got back and I couldn’t believe the response. Everyone tends to get around you when you ride a winner but this was next level, he really made such a big impression,” said Robertson. 

Duncan’s own initial reaction had been one of glorious bemusement. 

“Sitting in the stand I just looked over at Fred Kersley and didn’t even say a word, I just mouthed an expletive at him.”

But looking back on the race some sixteen years on, Duncan is better placed to articulate his perspective. 

“It might sound silly to say but part of his win actually reminded me of Secretariat winning his Belmont Stakes by 29 lengths – you just don’t see horses come wide around a corner and make up so much ground, even if it was a lesser class race, it is still relevant. 

“The relevancy is that the speed he just showed was freakish. You ponder the question how much he would have won by if he hadn’t hit the running rail?”

As for what made Marasco so good? 

“He had the biggest forearms I’ve ever seen on a racehorse, and that includes right up until this day,” said Duncan. 

“I think he used his forearms to drag his body forward rather than using it as a pivot, horses will pivot on their front legs in their action, but his forearms were enormous and I thought he used that as an extra source of propulsion.”

Marasco runs second behind Pompeii Ruler in the 2007 G1 Australian Cup, run at Caulfield that year. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The next summer Marasco would of course go on to win the then G2 Winterbottom Stakes, the first of 12 career stakes wins and $1.7 million prizemoney. And despite campaigning brilliantly in the eastern states – including finishing second in Pompeii Ruler’s G1 Australian Cup and El Segundo’s G1 C.F. Orr Stakes – 11 of those stakes wins would be achieved in his home state. 

“It was fantastic to see him competing in those big races out east, it’s hard to believe that he never won a Group One but I genuinely think that if not for a few soundness issues he would have landed one for sure,” said Robertson, who ultimately rode Marasco five times for four wins, before making way for names like Oliver, Childs, Beadman and Rodd. 

It’s always a real privilege to get on a good horse like him but that’s the game, the experienced higher profile jockeys often end up with the rides and I’ve got no issue with that.” 

For Duncan, hindsight suggests that Marasco may perhaps have been campaigned over distances beyond his optimum. 

“Looking back now I feel like he was never a 2000m horse, he was never even a mile horse – he had no right to run second in the Australian Cup but that’s how good he was. He was a sprinter with a very high cruising speed and he was very effective. The day he beat Apache Cat in the Makybe Diva, he doesn’t even look like he’s moving, he was such an efficient horse.” 

Marasco and Darren Beadman defeat G1 star Apache Cat in the Makybe Diva Stakes. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

As for any soundness issues, Duncan feels Marasco’s niggles were simply a result of his immense frame, one nurtured under the patient guidance of Kersley. 

“If you weigh-in at 550kg race day that’s 600kg going into work, you can be perfect and still have issues. He ran 33 seconds or less for the final three furlongs on 10 occasions I think. 

“When you’re travelling at that speed and you’re built like he is, you only have to put your hoof in a rough patch to put extra stresses on it.

“But Fred Kersley was very good at minimising the impact of those sorts of dynamics in his horses.”

And in the same week that Northerly assumes naming rights for Western Australia’s 1800m Group 1, the former Kingston Town Stakes, Duncan can’t resist a cheeky reference to his great champion.

“Fred and I had horse who won a couple of Cox Plates whose name I forget now.

“He was ill-conformed, and a less patient trainer would likely have pushed too early and broken him down too.” 



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