The great Manikato was named Australian Horse of the Year 1978-79 season

The show of speed before the heavyweights do battle

By Mick Sharkie

If the racing Gods sat down to create the perfect prelude to one of the finest weight-for-age races in the world, they would probably come up with something that looks and feels a lot like the Manikato Stakes.

The Manikato is the show of speed before the heavyweight battle in the Ladbrokes Cox Plate; fast, furious, dramatic and all played out under the glow of The Valley lights. The Manikato Stakes night crowd is fever pitch and frothing with an appetite for excitement as the Cox Plate carnival hits top gear.

That is just the sort of reaction that Manikato himself inspired in racing fans when he tore up tracks around Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At The Valley, Manikato won the then named Freeway Stakes twice, once in 1979 and then again in 1982, as well as incredible five William Reid Stakes and a Moir Stakes.

Manikato is buried at The Valley and his memorial grave features in the new Tote Park precinct, ready for racegoers to visit when crowds return to the track. A fitting tribute to an incredible horse whose race has witnessed a superstar honour roll of its own.

Think back to the great performance of the mighty Hay List who won his first Victorian Group 1 in the 2010 Manikato in a brute show of force before meeting his match against the incredible Black Caviar. Then, there is brave Buffering in 2013 who fought like a tiger to deny Hong Kong star Lucky Nine by a nose with the raider charging late and hard at Queensland’s heroic speedster.

Lankan Rupee had but a whisker up his sleeve in what was arguably the best Manikato Stakes finish in history when he won the race in 2014; at the winning post that night just 1.5-lengths separated the first nine horses across the line, with half a length splitting the first six home.

Then of course, there was Chautauqua. Jaw-dropping in 2015 as he rounded up his rivals from last on the turn to win running away from the field, with jockey Tommy Berry nearing G-Force acceleration as the grey flash let go with his trademark turn of foot. It was the night that Chautauqua announced himself as the premier sprinter in Australia.

Two years later though, Chautauqua was a sensational late scratching just moments before the running of the 2017 Manikato owing to a barrier mishap. It was an incident that many believe was the beginning of the end of his famous career, as a string of barrier misadventures plagued the superstar for the remainder of his career.

Jockey Luke Currie remembers that famous night at The Valley all too well. Currie was aboard longshot Hey Doc and vividly recalls the moment that Chautauqua was withdrawn from the race.

“I can remember it so clearly because the crowd went off. I reckon they were in shock, it was a real sensation,” Currie recalled.

“Then it dawns on you, the favourite and the horse to beat have just been scratched. I remember getting a real lift, I looked around and all the other jockeys were thinking the same thing. Suddenly it was game on, we’ve got a chance here now.”

Hey Doc had been tried as a miler that spring but after failing in the Makybe Diva Stakes at Flemington, trainer Tony McEvoy elected to freshen his Australian Guineas winner and revert to a sprint race. Was the horse a sprinter or miler? The Manikato was Hey Doc’s fork in the road.

“He was an amazing horse like that, a Group 1 winner at a mile and a multiple Group 1 winning sprinter, he was so tough, such a genuine racehorse,” Currie said.

“It was all against him that night and the way it all happened was so dramatic. Coming back to that crowd, there’s nothing like it. The Valley is so unique like that, everything is so close and the crowd is right on top of you and on those big nights it’s even more special.

“I think every jockey in Australia would love to come back a Group 1 winner under lights at The Valley. My favourite racing photo from my career was taken coming back that night with Hey Doc, I’ve got my whip in the air saluting the crowd and they’re right there stacked up on top of me.”

Hey Doc retired in April this year as an eight-year-old, but not before amassing over $3.1million in prize money from his 10 wins including four Group 1 victories, the Australian Guineas, Winterbottom Stakes and a brace of Manikato Stakes.

Hey Doc joined the likes of multiple winners Spinning Hill (2002/03), Spark Of Life (2004/05) and of course the race’s namesake Manikato himself, with his second success in the race in 2020 during the COVID pandemic, and Currie remembers a very different feeling on a clear night at The Valley.

“When you’re actually riding in the race you don’t notice the crowd so much because you’re in that race head space, but when you come back, that empty stand…it was really eerie,” he said.

“Personally, that moment with Hey Doc was one of the most significant in my career, not only for the partnership I’d had with the horse but because I’d just returned from a serious injury.

“It was such a satisfying feeling and emotional too, but not being able to share that with a Valley crowd, it was very strange. A special night but a strange one with those empty stands.”

Fit and in form on the cusp of a Spring Carnival that presents unprecedented opportunity to jockeys and horses in the right place at the right time, Currie has his sights set on a third Manikato Stakes with a Group 1 winning colt that will be targeted specifically for The Valley’s premier sprint race.

Trainer Matt Laurie’s Oakleigh Plate winner Portland Sky has a real liking for The Valley’s contours, a winner of the Group 1 Red Anchor Stakes on Cox Plate Day in 2020, second in the Group 1 William Reid to Masked Crusader and then second in the Group 2 McEwen Stakes to Singapore speedster The Inferno.

Victory in the Manikato would all but assure Portland Sky a future at stud as a bright young stallion prospect and would elevate Currie into elite company alongside jockey Gary Willetts as a three-time winner of the race, bettered only by Frank Reys who won the race four times.

“I’ve ridden him before and won on him, he’s a fast horse with a lot of talent. I’d love to make it three wins in the Manikato and fingers crossed we have a crowd and that great Valley atmosphere again this year,” said Currie.

Valley crowds love a fast horse, but they may never see a sprinter quite like the great Manikato. His legend will forever live on at The Valley as new heroes are added to the already glittering Manikato Stakes honour roll.