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Stewards’ room drama: Australian racing’s five most controversial protest decisions

As a rule punters tend to have long memories, but never so long as when they lose a race in the stewards’ room…

For students of the turf, and perhaps more specifically, punters, there’s nothing quite so triggering as the topic of protests in big races.

Mention the fine state of Western Australia and it is enough to teleport some normally contented eastern seaboarders to dark, unsettling places. A lengthy, expletive-laden rant will often follow, heavily populated with the phrase ‘hometown decision’, and more often than not concluded with the apparently altruistic lamentation: ‘that could’ve cost He’s Remarkable a stud career, you know?’ (more on that later).  

Similarly, Viscount sympathisers are quick to pull-up anyone attempting to get all misty-eyed over Northerly’s racetrack feats: ‘Didn’t deserve that first Cox Plate though, did he?’.   

In a sport already characterised by chance, uncertainty and plain old bad luck, the additional theatre of the protest room – where the difference between victory and defeat can rest on the angle of a pork pie hat – is, for many battle-hardened punters, the ultimate test in faith. 

So, in a hot field of broken dreams and retracted payouts, which five protests incited the most ire, boiled the most blood, and continue to live longest in Australian horse racing infamy?

5. Churchill Downs vs Magic Jet, 2006 G2 Bill Stutt Stakes

Sometimes barristers are forced to get creative when prosecuting cases based upon a flimsy brief of evidence. And so it was that jockey Craig Williams reached deep into his bag of tricks and successfully developed a brand new precedent in getting the result of the 2006 Bill Stutt Stakes at Moonee Valley overturned.

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A knowing look from Churchill Downs beneath his jockey and advocate Craig Williams? (Photo by Bruno Cannatelli/Ultimate Racing Photos)

Although the race vision revealed that no contact was made when first-past-the-post Magic Jet veered out when a length or so clear with 50m to go, Williams sensationally argued that the Stephen Theodore-trained gelding had “intimidated” his 500kg stallion prospect Churchill Downs in the concluding stages – and was duly awarded the race. 

It didn’t take long for Williams to fall victim to his own creativity however, with jockey Sam Hyland successfully mounting an ‘intimidation’ argument against Williams in being awarded a race in the stewards’ room at Sandown just five months later. 

4. Trissaro vs Cossack Prince, 1983 G1 Underwood Stakes

The vision really tells the tale on this one. Things certainly got tight on the fence with Trissaro and Harry White angling for a run, but was there ever a run there to begin with? 

 

Regardless, the manner in which Cossack Prince went to the line – and with such a comfortable margin back to the second horse – makes the decision to award runner-up Trissaro the race a still vexing one, some 39 years hence. Commiserations to those punters who’ve had the best part of four decades to stew over this one. 

3. Planchet, Blur vs Choisir, 2003 G3 L’oreal Plate (now G2 Danehill Stakes)

“I would just like to know when Darren Gauci is going for an Academy Award.” 

Glen Boss might not have been impressed by ‘the Gauch’s’ performance but the Flemington stewards certainly were, with Sydney colt Choisir’s 1.3-length winning margin not sufficient to retain the race at the conclusion of an at-times fiery inquiry. 

Another decision that perhaps failed to pass the eye-test, most punters were of the steadfast belief that in giving both Planchet and Blur both a bit of a bump – and a severe case of windburn – in the 1200m scamper, Choisir was merely exhibiting some of the raw speed that would see him go on to win Group One sprints in both hemispheres. 

Choisir sees off the challenge of Airwave to land 2003 The Golden Jubilee Stakes. (Photo by Julian Herbert/Getty Images)

However, it was not to be for supporters of Choisir, who was backed in from $6.00 to $4.60, with the stewards accepting Gauci’s assertion that the lost momentum brought about by the contact had cost him the race, especially given his mount had to carry 59kg (interestingly the same weight carried to a dominant victory by Choisir himself). Gauci and Planchet were elevated to victory, Steven King and Blur were also promoted into second, with the big chestnut relegated to third in an event still talked about more than most Premier League demotions. 

2. Marwong vs Our Poetic Prince, 1987 Caulfield Guineas

A length margin, eased down, the barest of interference and winning like a bloody good thing in the ‘stallion-making’ Group 1 Caulfield Guineas. 

It’s little wonder New Zealanders are still upset about the John Wheeler-trained star Our Poetic Prince losing the Guineas to Marwong in the stewards room. Speaking of discontentment across the Tasman… 

1. Luckygray vs He’s Remarkable, 2011 G1 Railway Stakes

This one got messy, with legal action even being threatened in the aftermath of perhaps the most sensational Australian protest of all in the 2011 Group 1 Railway Stakes.

It had been a day for the bookies for many, with three of the four winners of the Moonee Valley quaddie starting double-figures. And so, as can so often be the case as the shadows lengthen on another Saturday, eyes were turned out west in a bid to ‘get a bit back’. 

Western Australia’s biggest race had attracted some quality visiting horses, with Victorians Spacecraft and Avienus and the Kiwi visitor He’s Remarkable flown over to clash with local stars Ranger, Luckygray and Playing God. 

Ultimately, it was the Roger James-trained He’s Remarkable ($5.50) who held off the fast-finishing favourite Luckygray ($4.00), with the grey looking decidedly unlucky strung up for runs in the straight. Unlucky, but not due to anything untoward, was the general consensus, as is the fate for many backmarkers.  

But the race didn’t end there, with jockey Shaun O’Donnell lodging a protest alleging that Kerrin McEvoy and He’s Remarkable shifted out at the rather vague, distant juncture of ‘approaching the home turn’, so causing a chain of interference that in turn impacted Luckygray. There’s no doubting that McEvoy did cause a chain reaction when working off the fence, with Waratah’s Secret clipping heels and falling back into the lap of Ranger, but the effect on Luckygray to Ranger’s inside did seem negligible.  

 

Indeed, if not for Waratah’s Secret’s rider Paul Harvey lodging an objection after the duo rallied for fourth, O’Donnell himself would have not buttered-up with a second objection, later revealing that he had been unaware that the winner had been involved in any of the argy-bargy until he learnt of Harvey’s circumstances. 

It felt like every punter in Australia had some skin in this stewards’ room game, with the eventual verdict of ‘upheld’ some half an hour later causing widespread disbelief in the camps of both well-supported runners.  

Despite the fatalistic outlook of those who backed him that day, He’s Remarkable did in fact manage to find a home at stud without that Group 1 win on his CV, going on to sire two stakes winners. 

There are some among us who still consider this to have been a great decision, and commend the Perth stewards.

Honourable mentions

Taufan’s Melody, 1998 G1 Caulfield Cup

As the above list demonstrates it is normally the protests that get upheld that cause the most consternation, but the eruption of collective outrage that followed the dismissal of the objection against 1998 Caulfield Cup-winner Taufan’s Melody was very much fuelled by a perceived ‘turning of a blind eye’ in the stewards’ room. 

Despite causing massive interference to subsequent Melbourne Cup quinella Jezabeel and Champagne, Lady Anne Herries’ visiting charge was permitted to keep the race, with the more conspiratorially minded believing the decision to have been made with future international spring carnival participation in mind. 

Winning jockey Ray Cochrane would receive a $20,000 fine for causing the carnage, with Taufan’s Melody cementing a place in history as the Caulfield Cup’s first international and first female-trained winner.

Taufan's Melody's handlers absorb some of the Caulfield Cup day tension. (Photo by Allsport via Getty Images)

Gold Coast Stewards vs No Looking Back, 2012 Magic Millions 2YO

Tommy Berry, the rider of second past the post Driefontein didn’t even bother lodging a protest, but the stewards’ had other ideas. Once that happened, No Looking Back’s fate was somewhat sealed and the Gai Waterhouse-trained filly was relegated in favour of her stablemate. 

 

Viscount vs Sunline, Northerly, 2001 G1 Cox Plate

The cerise ham in the 2001 Cox Plate sandwich, three-year-old Viscount launched a double protest against two of Australasian racing’s greatest champions. Neither objection stuck, but let’s just say if it wasn’t a Cox Plate, they probably would have. 

 

Anamoe vs State Of Rest, 2021 G1 Cox Plate

Hmmmm… Might need another 40 or so years to ruminate on this one. As above. 

 

Honor In War vs Takeover Target, 2008 G2 Villers 

There’s no honour in war but there’s arguably less in denying Australia’s favourite taxi driver-trained sprinter another stakes win!

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