By Mick Sharkie
Horses have a habit of saying “I told you so” in the Cox Plate.
Pinker Pinker didn’t have the class, Fields Of Omagh was too old, Super Impose was past his best and Kingston Town couldn’t win; but they all did win, and in the most memorable of circumstances.
On the score of vindication then, surely Humidor is the horse with the point to prove in 2020. Humidor, the New Zealand warhorse pensioned off for retirement by the Twitterati, his paper’s stamped – until a single spark lit a most unexpected flame.
“There’s always a special story in the Cox Plate, every year there is – and this year it’s us,” said Brae Sokolski part-owner of Humidor.
“We didn’t plan for him to be here again, after last year I didn’t think he’d ever get back to this race, but horses have a strange habit of proving us wrong.”
The 2019 Cox Plate barrier draw was a tough moment for Sokolski and Humidor’s swag of owners as they were left out of the final field at the discretion of the Committee, the most public of cuts at the peak of the Spring Carnival.
“We knew it was line ball, the drums were beating that morning from the committee that there were three horses fighting for two places – it was a game of musical chairs and one of us was going to miss out,” said Sokolski.
“We just had to accept the jury’s verdict and move on, but it didn’t make the race any easier to watch.”
The expert view was that Humidor had not returned to his best after a suspensory ligament injury suffered in 2018 and after seven unplaced runs in 2019 the weight-for-age regular was considered to be well past his use by date. The horse’s owners made the decision to try a different path and relocated the horse from Ciaron Maher and Dave Eustace to Lindsey Smith.
“It was a lateral option but ultimately it didn’t work out and that is with no disrespect to Lindsey Smith as a great trainer or a person; by his own admission his training method didn’t work for Humidor,” said Sokolski.
Humidor was ridden “upside down” at his first run for Smith in the Group 3 Belmont Sprint and that was the point at which the West Australian experiment fell apart as far as the horses’ owners were concerned.
“Things can go wrong in a run and that’s fine – and not every horse responds to every trainer, but it was unsuccessful and glaringly so and for whatever reason the horse didn’t fire. We found ourselves at the fork of the road – do we retire him, or do we try once more?”
As the connections mulled over their next move that question became the topic of social debate, with every sports fan with a passing interest in racing weighing in with their opinions, the bulk of which decided that greed was to the fore if the owners decided to push on.
Sokolski and major part-owners, Mark and John Carter, discussed the merits of the decision long and hard but could not better a 50 – 50 split when it came time to vote.
“The most important priority to the ownership group was protecting the horse and his legacy. He had given us so much and the onus was on us to make the right call and the horse’s performance and the public would judge that decision accordingly.
“We asked the opinion of a couple of very close confidants and they encouraged us to try again with Chris Waller, the idea was that Chris races them into fitness and that the horse would appreciate that.”
But Waller needed time to think. Sokolski made the initial approach “and probably expected a bit more enthusiasm,” but Waller was guarded and asked for some time to think it through.
“After two days he called and said ‘OK, I’m up for it – under the proviso that the moment the horse was uncompetitive in work we would stop’ we were more than happy with that,” Sokolski said.
The decision to push on was never about squeezing blood from a stone, far from it. For Sokolski and many of his fellow owners, there was a great emotional tie to Humidor and a deep pride in the horse’s performance and legacy – they wanted to give their champion the chance to go out on top, to at least have the chance to.
Humidor surprised them all by starting out on top on his return in the Group 2 Feehan Stakes, the only ballot exempt race into the 2020 Ladbrokes Cox Plate.
“It was a phoenix-like resurrection and none of us, least of all Chris Waller, expected it,” said Sokolski.
“He is the first proper horse that I’ve owned, to see him do that, to come back and win when everyone had written him off, it was an incredibly special moment. He wasn’t even supposed to run there – Chris had him booked for the Chelmsford, but COVID meant that he couldn’t travel so we changed focus to The Valley, it was meant to be.”
“We really just hoped that he would be competitive. But when he was trucking on that home turn, he let down like the Humidor of old – it was validation and vindication for the horse, we did cop it, but for the horse it was his moment to stand up and he did like a true warrior.”
Just as a steely battle-hardened centre-half back stands and waits for the first bounce on Grand Final day, so stands Humidor, ready to race and ready to fight around those all too familiar contours of The Valley.
He won’t be the prettiest horse in the field on Ladbrokes Cox Plate Day, but few will have a resume that runs as deep, and few will have earned the stripes that the eight-year-old son of Teofilo has during his career.
“He’s got such an affinity for the track, it is really hard to see him missing the top four given the form he’s in,” said Sokolski.
“He’s in the race up to his ears and twelve months ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d say those words again.”
Right him off at your own peril.
Mick Sharkie can be heard on Racing Pulse on RSN927 every Friday morning.