We remember Northerly’s 2001 Cox Plate win

Where has the time gone? It has been 20 years today that our boy Norton (Northerly) was lining up in the 2001 Group 1 Cox Plate. What a race and what a field.

Below is a wonderful story by WA’s leading sportswriter Mark Duffield that appears in today’s West Australian newspaper.

Mark Duffield: Memories of Northerly and an unforgettable Cox Plate

It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years go (ago) that horseracing fans in Western Australia had to hold their collective breath for 15 minutes as stewards at Moonee Valley heard the protest that would ultimately decide the winner of the 2001 Cox Plate.

We had skin in the game. Our champion, the Fred Kersley trained and Damien Oliver ridden Northerly, had been first over the line but Kerrin McEvoy, on third placed Viscount, had lodged protests against Northerly and second placed Sunline. Greg Childs, on Sunline, had lodged a protest against first placed Northerly.

The three horses had come together in the shadows of the post. McEvoy reckoned Sunline had shifted out and Northerly had shifted in leaving his horse with racing’s equivalent of a dead end sandwich in the middle of two superstars.

In the end, the calm and clear words of Kersley at the hearing probably did as much as anything to settle it. When you looked at how they were travelling, he told them, he reckoned his horse was entitled to win.

It was a hard argument to beat. All three horses copped a fair old shunt. Oliver stayed balanced in the saddle and got riding again quickly and Northerly got to the line comfortably ahead.

No WA horse has been closer to our hearts than Northerly and it wasn’t just about the big races he won, it was the way he ran them. No horse tried harder, no horse was fiercer and no horse had a better idea of where the line was and when to get your nose out and stretch for it like a sprinter at the Olympics.

I was blessed to write what journalists call ‘colour’ for Northerly’s 2002 campaign, when he won the Caulfield Cup and backed up to win a second Cox Plate against an all star field.

‘Blessed’ because what I knew about horse racing you could have put on a postage stamp and still had room for the picture of the queen.

But I spent Cox Plate day in the company of colleague John “Matchie” McGrath, who, before he wrote footy was one of Australia’s truly great racing writers.

A run of the mill recipe can be saved by great ingredients and some help in the kitchen. My copy that weekend was saved by a great horse who made great subject matter and a bloke alongside me who knew the lay of the land in horse racing.

One of the great quirks of horse racing for a novice like me was that your friend one race could be your foe the next.

Childs, one of the jockeys who protested Northerly’s win in 2001, was the jockey on him when he went to the front a long way out in the 2002 Caulfield Cup carrying the top weight of 58kg and dared the rest of the field to run him down. Fields of Omagh, carrying four and a half kilos less, came close but Northerly got to the line, neck stretched and nose out.

Fields of Omagh was no mean horse. Once Sunline and Northerly were off the scene after 2002 he won two Cox Plates himself in 2003 and 2006.

After the Caulfield Cup triumph Childs went back onto Sunline the next week for the Cox Plate.

The horses who ran at Moonee Valley in the 2002 Cox Plate accounted for six of the last 22 winners of Australia’s biggest weight for age classic. And that didn’t include Lonhro, sired by the great Octagonal, or Grandera, who had arrived in Australia with the reputation of being the best weight for age horse in the world.

Northerly beat them cold, stalking Sunline until the last turn. Childs tried to run his Caulfield Cup winner off his legs and succeeded only in running his Cox Plate horse of hers.

Northerly blew past the New Zealand champion like she was standing still up the straight and nothing else out there came close.

We loved Northerly. He was a horse not a person but he was everything we wanted West Aussies to be. He even raced in colours that looked like our state of origin jumper.

His total command of the Spring carnival in 2002 leaves an unanswered question: What if Kersley and the horse’s owners had pressed on and run him in the Melbourne Cup?

After his Caulfield win, the handicappers had penalised him not one but 2kg for the race that stops the nation and Kersley, always a horseman before a horse trainer with the welfare of the animal in mind, decided that was too much for the good of the horse over a two mile distance which was going to be a first for him anyway

“He races on his heart and I didn’t want to break it,” he would say later.

There was plenty to that Melbourne Cup even without the “fighting tiger”. On Cox Plate day at the Valley Matchie took me into one of the Moonee Valley bars and introduced me to Damien Oliver.

Two days later Oliver’s brother Jason was crushed under a falling horse in a trial in Perth and tragically killed.

Ten days later a still grieving Oliver rode the Dermot Weld-trained lightweight Media Puzzle to victory in one of the most heart wrenching cups in history.

They might call this the sport of kings but it is no place for faint hearts. It is why jockeys like Oliver belong – and a horse like Northerly was right in his wheelhouse and will be forever in our hearts.

Mark Duffield