All roads lead to Warrnambool in May as carnival crowds return

After last year’s May Racing Carnival was played out in front of empty grandstands, the famous Warrnambool roar will be back in 2021 with up to 12,000 spectators set to be allowed on course on each of the three race days.

With less than a month to go until Australia’s premier jumps carnival gets underway with Brierly Day on Tuesday, 4 May, Warrnambool Racing Club officials have confirmed that their sales figures and membership applications have been extremely strong, with tickets selling fast for the three-day extravaganza.

In 2020 COVID restrictions forced racing officials to reduce the event to two days in order to minimise the movement of horses and contact between racing participants, but this year the format will revert to its traditional three days with Brierly Day followed by Galleywood Day on Wednesday (5 May), before the prestigious Grand Annual Day brings the curtain down. 

The carnival features 23 flat races and seven over Warrnambool’s renowned jumps course, including the time-honoured Grand Annual Steeplechase (5500m), which was first held in 1872 and remains the most celebrated jumps race in Australia.     

The unique course featuring 33 obstacles – the most of any steeplechase in the world – was conquered last year by Ablaze, one of the country’s most versatile performers. His emphatic win over Gold Medals marked a third win in the great race for Ciaron Maher, who saddled Regina Coeli to victory in 2015 and 2017, after which she was retired.    

The Maher-Eustace stable will again send an arsenal of gallopers to this year’s carnival, with Ablaze aiming to defend his title and relative newcomer Yensir announcing himself as a live contender with a thrilling win in last week’s Von Doussa Steeplechase (3250m) at Oakbank.

In scenes which could be repeated at The ‘Bool on Thursday, 6 May, the eight-year-old British import jumped beautifully and, in a driving finish, just got the better of Patrick Payne’s grand old warrior, Zed Em.    

It was a masterful training effort by Maher, with Yensir winning on his jumps debut for the stable more than two years after he arrived on Australian soil. Maher and training partner David Eustace have showed plenty of patience with the chestnut, with niggling tendon injuries having ruled him out of the entire 2020 season, but that patience was handsomely rewarded with a hugely gutsy effort which will see his connections – including former MRC Chairman Mike Symons and current AJRA Chairman Sandy McGregor – heading to Warrnambool full of confidence.  

“If that win doesn’t get you excited for Warrnambool, then nothing will,” said Eustace, who watched the race from the owners and trainers lounge at Sandown.

“A lot of our staff have done a great job with this horse, because he’s had a few issues since he joined us, so to see him win like that would’ve given everyone in the stable a huge thrill.

“We’ll have to see how he comes through the race before we make any plans. I’ll leave it to Ciaron to make the final decision because he’s had a fair amount of success at Warrnambool down the years, but all being well I’m sure we’d love to have a crack at the Grand Annual with him.”   

Zed Em, who was unbeaten in his five previous visits to Oakbank, lost no admirers with his gallant runner-up finish. Zed Em’s victory in the 2019 Grand Annual Steeplechase came at the expense of local hero Gold Medals, who had completed the fabled Brierly Steeplechase-Grand Annual double one year previously for Warrnambool trainer Symon Wilde.

Having chased home Ablaze 12 months ago, Gold Medals is being set for his fourth successive appearance in the Grand Annual and Wilde is eagerly anticipating the biggest three days of the year for the locals, particularly with the return of crowds to the carnival.

“I always get excited in the build-up to the May Carnival anyway, but this year the anticipation is even bigger after the year we’ve just had,” he said.

“The big crowds are a massive part of the carnival, the atmosphere definitely makes it a unique event on the calendar so it was a weird feeling without any crowds on course last year.

“You can tell the locals are getting ready for it as there’s already a bit of a buzz in the town, even though we’re still a month out. And the local trainers are definitely ramping up their preparations, the fields for the jump outs and trials at Camperdown have been well up recently, so we’re all readying the troops.

“It’s such an exciting time of the year down here, I grew up in the area so I’ve got some great memories of the carnival, one of my earliest was picking up discarded slips in the betting ring in the hope that one of them was a winning ticket.

“Growing up, I just wanted to be part of it so to have horses good enough to compete in and even win races over the carnival is a dream come true. As a kid, winning a Grand Annual was a bigger dream than the Melbourne Cup or any Group 1, so to do it with Gold Medals in 2018 was just incredible.

“I’d love to win the Galleywood Hurdle this year, because it’s probably the only major race at Warrnambool we haven’t managed to win yet. But any time you have a winner at the carnival it’s always really special, so hopefully we can have another successful week.”