Like many champions before him, the plucky three-year-old, under the guidance of the brilliant and meticulous Craig Williams, took off at school.
Three wide and out in clear space with just a feather on his back, it seemed around the famous tight Valley turn that Castelvecchio was off and gone for all money.
Another Group 1 for Williams was seemingly in the bag and a life changing result for 30-year-old NSW trainer Richard Litt, whose heart must have been nearly beating out of his chest. His rising star was about to etch his name into the history books and earn his connections a massive windfall, not only in prizemoney but his residual value as a colt.
But in the blink of an eye it was over. Enter Lys Gracieux.
The LEGENDARY race had its second international winner after Adelaide’s triumph in 2014 and the power and might of Japan, giants dominating the racing landscape the world over, had claimed another Group 1 just a week after Mer De Glace took out the Caulfield Cup.
Lys Gracieux, the horse with a number of different pronunciations and even more fans both local and abroad, was now entered into the folklore that makes up ‘The Race Where Legends Are Made’.
Her swansong saw her line up in the world’s biggest betting race, the Group 1 Arima Kinen in Japan, where many thought she would acquit herself well against the domination of Almond Eye, who received a staggering 110,000 votes in the fan-voted field.
How wrong we were.
A simply devastating display by horse and rider saw Lys Gracieux fan wide on the turn and claim the race with consummate ease, with Damian Lane again showcasing his class on the big stage.
While October 26, 2019 will be long remembered by many as the date their conquering queen from the dominant Carrot Club syndicate and Northern Farm stamped herself as one of the best we have ever seen on our shores, there is another date that won’t stick long in the memory bank of many, but was just as important.
August 20, 2019, a mere 67 days before the gates would crash back open in the 99th running of the W.S. Cox Plate and after years of negotiations between the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and Racing Victoria, Lys Gracieux was granted an exemption to travel to Australia after having competed in Hong Kong earlier that year, requiring a break of 180 days before travelling to Australia.
The Moonee Valley Racing Club had secured its big name international raider and to top it off, major partner Ladbrokes had just launched the Ladbrokes Cox Plate International Series Bonus, significant given Lys Gracieux had won the eligible Group 1 Takaruzuka Kinen in Japan over 2200 metres in June, meaning an extra $2M bonus on top of the $3M first prizemoney pool was on offer if she was to be successful.
While the local trainers were nervous about her arrival, Ladbrokes started to see an avalanche of money hit their bag that saw her ultimately start a short priced $2.50 favourite on the day.
While the astute punters had done their form, Lys Gracieux enjoyed a relatively relaxed preparation out at her Werribee Quarantine facility, with no lead up run in Melbourne required for the 6YO mare given trainer Yoshito Yahagi was confident she had residual fitness from her Takaruzuka Kinen win.
“In an ideal world I would have preferred to have a run before the Cox Plate, but she always runs well first-up so it doesn’t concern me at all”, Yahagi said in the week leading into the race.
Yahagi is no stranger to the Cox Plate and has a rich and deep understanding of the race and its LEGENDARY status as one of the world’s best weight-for-age races.
“Back in 1981, when I was 20 years old, I witnessed Kingston Town winning the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley and it was always one of my dreams to bring a horse for the race”, said Yahagi.
It was at the Barrier Draw Breakfast that many thought Lys Gracieux may have received her first bump in the road that might have just made it too tough an ask for the travelling star, having drawn barrier 15 in the field of 15. The unflappable trainer, wearing his Crocodile Dundee style hat that forms part of an impressive collection he is know well known for, didn’t bat an eyelid.
“I certainly would have preferred to be a little bit more inside, but it is better than drawing one or two," he said with a wry smile.
“Because Moonee Valley has such a short straight, I guess everyone will make an early move, but my horse is very versatile, and I’m not worried about how the race is going to pan out”.
The other half of the equation is the equally unflappable jockey Damian Lane, who’s short stint in Japan earlier in the year was reaping benefits far beyond his wildest dreams and long after he left Tokyo Airport bound for home.
Widely known as ‘Frosty’ for his ice-cool nature both on and off the track, Lane knew what he had underneath him from his association in Japan and was on board for the win in the Group 1 Takaruzuka Kinen. Having won the Caulfield Cup on Mer De Glace just a week before, he had an even higher opinion of Lys Gracieux and was beaming from ear to ear after getting off the mare following her Valley track gallop on the Wednesday a week before the Group 1 race.
"Coming into this Cox Plate, if we get to choose the jockey from anywhere around the world, he's the one, so he's definitely the number one jockey to put on and we’re very happy to have him," Yahagi said.
They had the horse and their jockey; it was just a matter of the perfect plan now being executed.
The build-up to this year’s edition was dominated from the outset around its final make up, with the start of the MVRC Committee meeting on the morning of the Breakfast with the Best beamed across the nation on Racing.Com. Doors were closed as discussions began, with racing Twitter alive with chatter on who will make the final field.
The Committee took some bold steps and elevated 3YO Castelvecchio and New Zealand’s rising star Te Akau Shark above Cox Plate stalwarts Humidor and Gailo Chop and while the headlines the next day read of a poor decision made, time ultimately told that it was the right one given the second and third placings respectively.
The dreamers were hoping Tasmanian mare and reigning All-Star Mile champion Mystic Journey would land a blow for the locals, while the script writers saw Kings Will Dream returning from near death the year before as an even bigger story in waiting. But as the imposing Japanese contingency arrived at The Valley hours before the race in their brash and dazzling outfits, both handlers and horse, something suggested that the 24,646 people on course were about to witness something special.
What we have all witnessed in the last four Cox Plates with champion mare Winx will live in the collective minds of those who saw it for the rest of their lives. How does one possibly follow that? With 400 metres to go, Lys Gracieux was six lengths off the rampaging Castelvecchio with only four horses behind her, and as she took to the corner, it reminded many of a crab scuttling across the sand down at the local Altona Beach.
Upon straightening and under some quiet urging from Lane, it was beautiful to watch. The blaze of white on the mare’s face stood out like a beacon as she swept down the straight, with race caller Matt Hill again nailing the call with the ‘Land of the Rising Sun wins the Cox Plate’.
Legendary Channel 7 broadcaster Bruce McAvaney has seen it all across the sporting spectrum and as usual summed it up perfectly, as he so often does.
“What do we do after Winx? Well, that’s what happens after Winx. Extraordinary… absolutely extraordinary performance”.
As trainer Yoshito Yahagi and connections embraced and Lys Gracieux's strapper Hiroyuki Kitaguchi wiped away tears, many in the crowd stood in awe of this amazing animal’s strength in what she had just achieved. Here again, another chapter was written that could reverberate many times over in years to come as many from abroad seek to follow in her footsteps.
“I honestly thought she wasn’t going to make it from there,” Yahagi said when quizzed by Channel 7’s Jason Richardson about his feelings at the 800 metre mark.
He needn’t have been concerned.
“Lys Gracieux had won two other Group I races in Japan (Takarazuka Kinen and QE2 Cup), while she lost closely twice in Hong Kong, so we really wanted her to have a title outside of Japan,” says Dr Hiroaki Akita, Carrot Club CEO.
“Winning the Cox Plate, one of the most prestigious middle distance races in Australia, is really an honour and the joy of winning the Cox Plate is the same or even more than the other two.
“The way she won was really sensational and I will never forget in my life for how the race finished,” says Akita.
Lys Gracieux is now heading into retirement post her win in the Arima Kinen and a breeding career awaits at Northern Farm, with Japanese media reporting that she will be served by Lord Kanaloa.
Hall of Fame trainer Colin Hayes once famously said that the future belongs to those who plan for it and the Carrot Club is a living example of that ethos.
“There are no specific candidates at the moment, however, if there would be any horses that could possibly be competitive to challenge in the Cox Plate, we would like to aggressively challenge, which of course will not limit to Cox Plate 100, but also every year potentially,” says Akita.
Lys Gracieux’s name now sits proudly on The Valley’s Wall of Champions in the Octagonal Lounge, and with the rise and rise of Japanese racing, her name won’t be the last we see from the Land of the Rising Sun.