Michael Cox



Paparazzi at the pub: The story of Universal Prince and his brilliant jockey Justin Sheehan

Universal Prince is unfairly remembered for the race he didn’t run in and the media circus before the 2001 Melbourne Cup, but he was good enough that Justin Sheehan was willing to go through hell to ride him.

Justin Sheehan returned to the tie-up stalls after winning a trial by four lengths at Kembla Grange in February 2000 and told trainer Bede Murray “that is the best horse you will ever put a bridle on, I want to ride him.”

The two-year-old colt was Universal Prince and Murray was taken aback, but knew Sheehan – a heavyweight jockey and highly regarded horseman – was a good judge and had ridden some top horses as youngsters.

“I had a system for rating unraced horses and I would give them a mark out of ten,” Sheehan told Asian Racing Report this week. “I gave Tie The Knot nine and I got that one right. I made a mistake with Saintly, I gave him nine but took half a point off to 8.5 because he didn’t have much of a pedigree – clearly that was a mistake. I gave Universal Prince 8.5, but took half a point off because he wore blinkers. He was right up there with those two.”

The other reason Murray was shocked was that Sheehan wanted to ride the horse. The jockey was making a slow return from a broken arm he sustained in a car accident and weighed 65 kilograms. He would need to lose ten kilograms in 17 days to make the weight required to ride the horse in a maiden at his home track.

Sheehan made the sacrifice, won that maiden and finished that two-year-old season having won two from three on the horse. When it came time to return at three, another accident – this time on the track – meant Sheehan would again need to strip weight.

In July 2000 Sheehan was sitting outside the leader in the Ipswich Cup when his horse Mushtak broke both forelegs, sent his rider spearing head first into the turf and caused a eight horse pile-up.

Sidelined again, Sheehan’s weight ballooned, and he could not shed the kilos in the colder climes of the New South Wales South Coast. “So I went to Darwin to melt away and get back down to the 55.5kg, I wanted to ride him so badly in the three-year-old races,” he said.

Once Sheehan did get back aboard Universal Prince, for his first G1 win in the Spring Champion Stakes, no other jockey would ever ride the horse in a race.

Bede Murray’s son Paul recalled Sheehan’s brilliance.

“It was a shame Justin had weight problems, because he could ride and he could just read a race so well,” Murray said. “He could be a bit fiery, but probably because he had to waste so hard. On the ground he could be a loose cannon but put him up on a horse and he rode like George Moore. Just a freak.”

That three-year-old season included a second in the Victoria Derby and, in the autumn, brilliant wins in the Canterbury Guineas and Australian Derby.


Justin Sheehan comments on whether Universal Prince will run in the Melbourne Cup. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/ALLSPORT via Getty Images)

Given that brilliance, it is manifestly unfair that Universal Prince is remembered most for a race he never ran in, but in some ways, that is the mark of just how good a horse he was.

The 2001 Melbourne Cup was meant to be the crowning moment for Universal Prince, he had won the AJC Derby by four lengths that year and returned in the spring to run second at weight-for-age to champions Northerly and Sunline.

Reports at the time had bookmakers standing to lose AU$10million in pre-post bets but he was denied a chance at his defining race when he was withdrawn by the order of vets on race morning.

In another era the scratching would have sparked conspiracy theories, given the bookies’ liability, but in 2001 it sparked a media circus.

The scrutiny started after he ran in the McKinnon Stakes and struck his stifle on jumping, finishing unplaced under a concerned Sheehan.

Murray pleaded with stewards, trotting the horse up on bitumen roads to prove he was sound in front of the media throng on race morning.

Bede Murray dealing with the disappointment of Universal Prince's late scratching in the Melbourne Cup. (Photo: Courtesy of Illawarra Mercury)

Murray died in 2016, aged 80, and his son Paul recalled his father’s devastation at the horse’s scratching.

“He was furious, absolutely furious,” he said of a trainer well-known for his geniality. “They said he was lame in front, but he had a terrible action in front, he had a real crabby action. We tried to argue but there wasn’t much we could do.”

What the Murrays – who had been standing to win a far chunk of pre-post money themselves – decided to do was go to the pub, but Australia’s obsession around the Melbourne Cup meant they weren’t alone.

“We just went to a little pub to watch it but there was paparazzi everywhere,” Murray said. “So we went to another, and then another. We went to three pubs, everytime we pulled up at a pub they were there. It was freakish.

“They were following through the pubs as well, so in the end we just stayed there and there were photos of us in the paper the next day.”

Bede Murray and Universal Prince. (Photo: Courtesy of Illawarra Mercury)

The Murrays were also denied a big payday by bad luck in Singapore.

Sheehan had ridden a beautiful race in the S$3million Singapore International Cup to have Universal Prince trucking behind the leaders, ready to explode.

He looked certain to win but as he went to push between the leading pair, a slight shift by Yutake Take aboard Godolphin’s second stringer Atlantis Prince caused Universal Prince to clip heels and fall.

What happened next was another example of both Sheehan’s superb horsemanship and self-sacrifice he had shown to Universal Prince.

Sheehan had been flipped hard, head first, into the Kranji turf, but he was able to put self preservation aside and grab back hold of Universal Prince’s reins while the horse was still sliding, preventing further injuries.

“You see jumps jockeys do that a bit, but not so much on the flat,” said Sheehan, who now rides work for top Sydney handler Joe Pride. “I had gone head first, but I could hear him sliding behind me and I was able to grab him before he could get up and run away. Of all the things I did on him, that might be the thing I was most proud of, that I was able to bounce up to my feet and keep him safe.”

The winner was Godolphin’s first choice Grandera, a horse Universal Prince had finished ahead of three weeks earlier when fourth in the QEII Cup at Sha Tin.

Again, it was a case of what could have been, but Murray, who still trains at Kembla Grange, prefers to look at the positives, as does Sheehan. 

“He was freakish the way he would just go past horses like they were nailed to the fence,” Murray said. “That Canterbury Guineas win, coming from behind on a leader’s track, was something to behold.” 

Sheehan added. “He was beaten by some champions. Second to Sunline, beaten a short half-head by Northerly and a nose by Ethereal in the Tancred Stakes. He was a super horse.”

Universal Prince in Bede Murray's stables. (Photo: Courtesy of Illawarra Mercury)

Universal Prince stood at stud, first at Inverness in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, and then in Western Australia, siring two stakes winners, but never gained enough support to be commercially successful.

Small-time breeder and hobby trainer Sue Nolan, sister-in-law of Universal Prince’s part owner Terry Hogan, took the horse to her property at Murray Bridge, South Australia, where he has retired from stud duties and enjoying life, aged 25.

“He has a lovely temperament,” Nolan said. “He has an acre paddock, is fed and rugged everyday and has a good life. The horses get worked past his paddock and he just watches them go by.”




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