Champion stayer Let’s Elope for Hall of Fame induction

Let’s Elope, one of the great racemares in Melbourne Cup history, has earned induction to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame.

Already a member of the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, Let’s Elope will take her place alongside fellow New Zealand-bred greats of the turf at the Hall of Fame induction dinner in Hamilton on the evening of May 2. Previous inductees with the Melbourne Cup on their CV are Carbine (1890), Phar Lap (1930), Rising Fast (1954), Might And Power (1997) and Ethereal (2001), but like 1991 winner Let’s Elope, victory in the great race wasn’t their only notable achievement.

During a glorious 1991-92 season, Let’s Elope became only the second mare after Rivette in 1939 – and the eighth all told – to complete the Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double. In an unbeaten seven-race streak, she won the Turnbull Stakes, Caulfield Cup, LKS Mackinnon Stakes and Melbourne Cup, followed in late summer-autumn by further success in the CF Orr Stakes and St George Stakes, before capping those performances in the Australian Cup.

Let’s Elope had begun her career in New Zealand, winning on debut as a Christmas three-year-old for trainers Dave and Paul O’Sullivan and in the penultimate start of that six-race campaign adding the Gr. 3 Centaine Stakes at Awapuni. She had originally changed hands for $20,000 at the 1989 Magic Millions Trentham Yearling Sale, consigned by her breeder Brent Gillovic’s Highview Stud.

“We had bought a share in Nassipour when Keith Wright imported him as an American Group One winner to take up duties at Redoubt Park in 1986,” Gillovic recalls. “We sent two mares to him, Sharon Jane and Constella, and we got a chestnut filly and a bay colt. They turned out to be Let’s Elope and (Brisbane Cup winner) Grooming.

“Let’s Elope was always a good type, a big filly, very deep-bodied with a nice walk. She was bought by the Fleiter family from Adelaide and they sent her to the O’Sullivans.”

The early 1990s was to prove a landmark period for Highview Stud. As well as Let’s Elope and Grooming, another subsequent Australian star in Grosvenor filly Richfield Lady was bred at the west Waikato nursery, having been sold to Bill Borrie and winning four of her five starts at two for Canterbury trainers Peter and Dawn Williams. In the autumn of 1991, then New Zealand-based horseman Anton Koolman was commissioned to find some likely breeding investments for Australian interests, and Let’s Elope and Richfield came onto on his radar.

“She was a decent sort when I spotted her at the sales down at Trentham, the best on type from what I saw even allowing that she was going to need time,” says Dave O’Sullivan taking up the story. “Towards the end of her three-year-old season her owner told me there was an offer of $150,000 on the table – and back then in the early 90s that was quite a bit of money.

“She had developed into a pretty fair sort of galloper, but the one chink in her armour was that she was nowhere near as effective right-handed as she was left-handed. It was one of those situations where I felt I couldn’t say one way or the other whether to sell or whether to keep her, so in the end it was their decision to make.

“The rest is history; all I can say is I trained two Melbourne Cup winners – Let’s Elope and Brew. The only problem I wasn’t training either of them when they won the race!”

In the case of Let’s Elope that supreme pleasure belonged to the Cups King, Bart Cummings, who in the winter of 1991 had taken delivery of two New Zealand-bred fillies on behalf of their new owners Dennis Marks and Kevin White, Richfield Lady having changed hands for $250,000. The Victorian spring carnival was to prove a windfall with eight Group One and Two races between the pair. Richfield Lady’s haul comprised the Gr. 1 VRC Oaks and VATC One Thousand Guineas and Gr. 2 Wakeful Stakes and Edward Manifold Stakes.

For all that, the star of the show was Let’s Elope, who hit winning form in the Turnbull Stakes and went through the carnival unbeaten as she added the Caulfield Cup, Mackinnon Stakes and Melbourne Cup. In the big event she beat her stablemate, fellow Nassipour four-year-old Shiva’s Revenge. She returned from a break for a fresh-up win in the Orr Stakes, St George Stakes and ended the season on a high in the Australian Cup.

Cummings’ Sydney stable foreman at the time of her acquisition was Englishman Nigel Blackiston, who still clearly recalls Let’s Elope’s arrival at Flemington, having been sent south in the absence of Melbourne foreman Leon Corstens, who was on a rare holiday break.

“When she came off the float my first impression was that she was big and plain but good looking all the same. She settled in straight away and I remember reporting each day back to Bart in Sydney that everything was going well with her and most of all that she had a huge appetite. ‘Well just keep feeding her more and working her more!’ the boss would say.

“She was one of those fillies that was a delight to deal with. She wasn’t perfect, she could spook at little things every now and then, but she was so kind and genuine and always wanting to please you. She took a couple of starts to work into form, but better ground and blinkers made all the difference – that’s when she won the Turnbull.

“From then on she just kept stepping up. Her Melbourne Cup win was fantastic, helping to saddle her and Shiva’s Revenge up and Bart getting another quinella. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

The second half of Let’s Elope’s four-year-old season revealed further dimensions to her talent as she continued on her winning way over much shorter distances than her optimum and then at weight-for-age in the Australian Cup. She completely dominated that race, coming from a clear last to beat Shiva’s Revenge by four lengths in track record time of exactly two minutes for the 2000m. She was an easy choice for 1991-92 Australian Horse of the Year honours.

Let’s Elope returned at five to win a match race over 2000m at Caulfield against eight-time Group One winner Better Loosen Up, then after finishing second, only to be relegated to fifth for interference in the Cox Plate, she never raced in Australia again. A heavy track ruled out a defence of her Melbourne Cup crown and her next start was in the Japan Cup, but after suffering a bleeding attack, the decision was made to transfer her to United States trainer Ron McAnally and continue her career racing with the use of Lasix.

She was introduced to American racing with a soft win in minor company before stepping up to Grade One for third in the Del Mar Ramona Handicap and a win in the Beverley D Stakes at Arlington Park, only to be relegated to third for interference. She was to have one more placing, third in the Gr. 1 Santa Anita Oak Tree Invitational, before bleeding again and being retired with a record of 11 wins from 25 starts and stakes of A$3.2 million. The Beverley D Stakes relegation still rankles with owner Dennis Marks, who travelled regularly to the US to witness his pride and joy in action.

“I’ll never forget that, it was a shocking decision,” Marks said this week from his home at Mount Martha on the Mornington Peninsula.

By the same token, he hasn’t lost sight of the good fortune that befell him when he ventured to New Zealand in quest of broodmare material. “I had Anton Koolman looking out for me and he suggested I look at a couple of fillies as well. That’s how I ended up with two very good racehorses that Bart Cummings got the best out of.

“I had no idea of the potential Let’s Elope had, so I suppose it was amazing what she ended up doing. She was the only starter I ever had in the Melbourne Cup, and to end up with one winner from one runner is pretty good. I’ll never forget the celebrations at the Southern Cross Hotel on the night of the cup.

“Mind you, I thought I had some chance of winning another Melbourne Cup with a couple of the mare’s descendants. Her grand-daughter Let’s Make Adeal won the Bart Cummings and was all set to get into the Cup with 50 kilos, but she broke down, and the same thing happened to Outback Joe after he had won the Adelaide Cup. That’s racing though; you can’t do much about it.”

Outback Joe was the second-last of six winners produced by Let’s Elope, who went to stud initially in the United States when she produced minor winners by Danzig and Storm Cat before being repatriated in foal to Seeking The Gold. The resulting foal was Ustinov, who won the Gr. 2 AAMI Vase between finishing second in the Caulfield Guineas and fourth in the VRC Derby. Other Group One placings were his second in the AJC Champagne Stakes at two, and third in the Australian Guineas and Yalumba Stakes.

Ustinov was retired to stud at New Zealand’s Brighthill Farm, where he sired the Gr. 1 WRC Telegraph winner Vonusti, Group One-placed Victorian filly Antarctic Miss and Wellington and New Zealand Cup placegetter She’s Insatiable.

All six of Let’s Elope’s progeny to race were winners and after producing her last foal at 21, she saw out her days as a nanny at her long-time home, Lauriston Park, at Euroa in north-eastern Victoria. In her mid-20s her determined streak shone through again when she survived a debilitating neurological condition and she succumbed peacefully to old age at 29.

The mighty mare’s pending entry to the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame makes her a rare transtasman member, having been inducted to the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2012. “I think it’s wonderful that she’s finally going to be in your Hall of Fame,” observed Dennis Marks. “I was wondering if New Zealand had forgotten her, so it’s great that she is now being recognised.”'