INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS

The Lark Hill sand dunes that harboured a Perth Cup secret

The story of the incredible training performance behind 1999 Perth Cup winner King Of Saxony, who made history in winning the two-miler first-up off an eight-month break.

The benefits of beach work were on full display in the 1999 Perth Cup. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)

In late-1990s Western Australia, the long quiet stretch of beach at Secret Harbour was a special place to work a racehorse. And for a horse with ongoing leg issues? The perfect place. 

In 1998 it was here, where Lark Hill’s undulations met the restorative salt waters of the Indian Ocean between Rockingham and Mandurah, that a careful long-range plan was being enacted: slowly and determinedly, on ‘furlongs’ of largely unoccupied dawn sand. 

“Back then you could work a horse for miles and miles on that beach at Secret Harbour, there were no restrictions,” former jockey Stephen Miller recalled to Asian Racing Report.  

“It was that good a beach you could work for twenty miles straight if you wanted to.”

Among the thoroughbreds tuned up on that beach by Miller was an injury-plagued stayer named King Of Saxony, trained by Miller’s cousin, the Australian Racing Hall Of Famer and Melbourne Cup-winning rider of Galilee, John Miller. ‘Johnny’, to his cousin, ‘JJ’ to most everyone else.

The Miller family’s rich contribution to the history of Western Australian racing is well documented. But this chapter is surely one of their most fabled.  

The horse at the centre of this story King Of Saxony had emerged as a stayer of distinction as a three-year-old, a big lump of a thing who finishing powerfully to pull away from his rivals in the 2200 metre Melvista Stakes before running the outstanding staying filly Beaux Art – later third in Doriemus’ Caulfield Cup – to a narrow second in the G1 Western Australian Derby. 

A better ride, Stephen Miller admitted, and “I’d have beaten her”. 

Tendon problems also emerged in that three-year-old year of 1994, essentially reducing Miller’s charge to a day-to-day proposition. When physically able he was a very serious stayer however, as evidenced by a successful Flemington raid in the summer of 1996 when an impressive 2500m winner with Patrick Payne up.

King Of Saxony’s last run in 1998 took place on April 25, Anzac Day, when the gelding finished second in an 1800 metre open handicap at Ascot. 

His legs failing him once more, the son of American stallion Spartan Valley would not race again until he appeared over eight months later at Perth’s premier racetrack Ascot, on New Year’s Day, 1999, to tackle the Perth Cup.

The then 3200 metre Perth Cup, that is. First-up. And he won. 

Not only had King Of Saxony not raced for the eight months prior to the Perth Cup, according to Stephen Miller he hadn’t even set foot on a racetrack during that entire period. 

“Due to his legs there was a lot of time and work put into him to try to get him right for that one run on Perth Cup day, and virtually have him as well as what we could have him,” Miller recalled.  

“He worked exclusively on that beach. He’d done miles and miles of work on that sand, long slower pace work over a lot of ground, and the beauty was he was able to wade in the water straight after his workouts.”

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King Of Saxony's trainer John 'JJ' Miller. (Photo by RWWA Hall of Fame)

King Of Saxony’s path to the Perth Cup was of course unheard of. First run in 1887, no horse in the race’s history had been able to win without a lead-up run. 

Presenting a horse first-up for a long distance target race simply wasn’t, and largely still isn’t, the done thing in Australia. A multiple run preparation, usually kicking off over 1400 metres before gradually stretching out in distance with the campaign culminating in that final test, was the prevailing pathway to two-mile features. 

Further, the most effective instiller of thoroughbred stamina of all was of the belief that a stayer needed 10,000 metres of race fitness in their legs to be on point for a 3200 metre tilt. 

In a way though, King Of Saxony had more than satisfied Bart Cummings’ legendary requirement. It had just been conducted on sand, not turf, and at a sedate tempo nothing akin to raceday pressure. 

Miller combined with King Of Saxony for a roughly 2400 metre gallop as the Perth Cup drew nearer, one of the horse’s only serious pieces of work during his spell. 

“Johnny actually had a couple of companions that would work in with him,” Miller said. 

“It was a bit like interval training, we had the beach mapped out pretty well right, we had markers out and we could do virtually what we wanted. 

“We were always so steady with him, it was a gradual build up of pace, we’d have two horses working with him and they’d join in say at the 1000 metres, and another pair would join in with him at the 600 metres. You’d have horses ready on points and he’d catch up to them all.” 

Despite this highly unorthodox preparation, there was still a bit of a tip around for the 25-1 King Of Saxony on track at Ascot come Perth Cup day. 

Speaking to Miller 24 years on, the origin of that push perhaps reveals itself. 

“I was actually brimming with confidence leading into the race. Knowing the horse as I did, knowing his ability and the work that we’d put into him, he’d done enough to warrant getting the two-mile journey. 

“To me I felt like I was on the best horse in the race, which for a jockey is a big thing leading into a big feature race like that. If he doesn’t break down I know I’m on the best horse.” 

Ranging up powerfully after travelling sweetly during the run, King Of Saxony cleared out to fight out the finish with Bunbury galloper Rogan Josh, Miller windmilling the whip in his mount’s peripheral vision to prevail by a short-neck. 

“I was mainly showing him the whip, trying to con him into getting there without actually hitting him with it,” said Miller.  

Winning trainer John Miller, who of course knew a high-class stayer when he saw one due to his association with many of those outstanding Cummings-trained distance horses, paid his remarkable Perth Cup winner the ultimate compliment in comparing him to one of the greatest of them all. 

“I’d put King Of Saxony in the (same) class as Galilee. It’s a shame that leg problems have prevented him from producing his best,” Miller said after the race. 

Cummings himself was on track to watch King Of Saxony’s victory, reportedly departing with his long-time friend John Miller’s autograph in his racebook, and an enduring impression of the Perth Cup runner-up, Rogan Josh. 

From Bunbury to Flemington: Rogan Josh wins the Melbourne Cup for John Marshall. (Photo by Mark Dadswell)

Transferred to the stable of the ‘Cups King’ from Colin Webster that spring, Rogan Josh would of course famously land Cummings Melbourne Cup number 11.  

Seeing the runner-up go on to scale the heights that he did in Melbourne confirmed to Stephen Miller a belief he’d formed two seasons prior, long before any Perth Cup heroics. 

“He would have been a definite Melbourne Cup horse, which is a pretty big statement but I have no doubt that if he’d have had sound legs, he would have done what Rogan Josh did.” 

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