My favorite racehorse: Northerly

Northerly and jockey Patrick Payne at Rosehill Gardens. Photo: Bradley Photographers.

Everyone has a favorite racehorse. As part of a new series, we've asked contributors to write about theirs. Today it is the turn of Melbourne-based Steve Moran, who has worked as a racing journalist for 35 years, in print, radio, and television and is a former racing editor of Melbourne's Sunday Age.

Northerly was no Frankel. No Black Caviar. Not even a Man O'War or a Zenyatta both of whom were beaten once, respectively by horses named Upset and Blame as if by intervention from a twisted racing god.

The dual Cox Plate winner Northerly was beaten lots of times, 18 to be precise. Mercifully, for this Northerly tragic however, that was one less than his tally of wins. 

Northerly may not have been unbeaten but he was practically unbeatable in his genre and when it counted - even though he wasn't lengths above the quality opposition he faced in the early 2000s. 

Something other than raw ability got him home more often than not. He wasn't simply faster or stronger than his rivals like the celebrated performers mentioned above.

He was much loved - but not at first sight. It was easy to fall for Frankel or Black Caviar. A little harder with the gelded ugly duckling from Western Australia who had an ungainly and inefficient stride.

I'm not sure I subscribe to the fanciful racing notions that some horses “know how to win”' or “know where the winning post is.” In fact, I'm pretty sure they don't.  But I accept that some will give a little more when called upon or challenged, and a little more is often enough in a game of inches. Some perhaps have the desire to assert their supremacy above the herd, and some will run through the pain barrier a little longer. 

That was Northerly.

Northerly was just another “nice” horse until he blew his rivals away in the G1 Railway Stakes (1,600 metres) in his home state in December 2000 - on just his sixth start. Ten weeks later he'd travelled to the East and claimed the G1 Australian Cup, which won him the acknowledgement of the entire racing nation, not just of those parochial punters from Perth, Western Australia.

Northerly raced 19 times from 1,600 to 2,000 metres between December 2000 and March 2003. He won 15 of them; nine at G1 level and another two that now have G1 status. Only four of those wins were achieved by more than one length. Five times he won by a head. “He was relentless,” recalled jockey Damien Oliver, “he could be off the bit and on the wrong leg (lead) 600 metres from home and just keep coming.”

He was a winner, this Northerly. Aptly dubbed “the fighting tiger” by race caller Greg Miles. And, better still, unlike Frankel et al, you could back him. 

Now the punt isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of horse racing. But if you don't accept that it's the raison d'être for the vast majority of enthusiasts then you might as well be preparing your pooch for a best of breed ribbon (and you're probably not reading this). 

I'm not sure that I quite agree with broadcaster and politician Clement Freud who said that you've never had a bet until you've had one of an amount that you couldn't afford to lose. But the point is you could back Northerly and go and collect the cash. You didn't back him to frame a betting slip as a memento of the day he defied the handicapper and won the Caulfield Cup at 9-to-2, beating another dual-Cox Plate winner Fields Of Omagh despite conceding him 4.5 kilograms under the handicap conditions.

And you collected again, just seven days later, when the bookies miraculously bet 3-to-1 against him winning the Cox Plate. In all, a modest $10 outlay each start on Northerly through his golden run would have netted you a profit of $317.

All you had to do was keep the faith. His only four defeats, in the right distance range at his peak, were all excusable. Many, including me, believe he simply didn't see Old Comrade coming when narrowly beaten in the 2002 Australian Cup, which cost him three straight wins in the race.

Northerly was twice beaten in a race called the Victoria Cup - the final lead up to his two Australian Cup wins. Now I'm not saying that his wily and hallowed trainer Fred Kersley had him less than fit for those engagements, but the Australian Cup, worth 12 times as much, was the primary focus. And the great Northerly was beaten in the 2001 Railway Stakes, when I suspect the trainer ran him against his better judgement but as a favour to his home town racing industry.

Kersley is a remarkable fellow. Conservatively dressed and groomed and yet he sports an age-defying stud in one ear. A legend of Thoroughbred racing and harness racing in the West and feted Australia-wide for his skills as a horseman. 

Kersley describes Northerly, who died in 2012, more eloquently than any scribe. "'He did not need a race to suit him. He took on all comers on all tracks. He asked no favours and gave none; there were no ifs or buts, no excuses, from any barrier on any track. There was no talk of track bias; no discussion of good or bad fortune. He didn't need luck to win. He made his own. He did it tough and never quit. Northerly made a difference wherever he went. For there will never be another Northerly. He stands alone.”

Known by his breeders as Norton, and born without a pulse and with crooked legs, Northerly inspired this description from noted author and passionate racing man Les Carlyon: “He fools you every time he races. He has the body language of a loser and a heart as big as the Nullarbor. He invariably looks to be struggling, a shambles of a horse blundering around on memory while his jockey pumps and blusters. Then he gets going. One instant Northerly looks beaten, the next he looks unbeatable.”

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