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On the eve of the 2001 Group 1 Australian Cup, Fred Kersley received a call from his Perth mate Ted Hodgkinson telling him that Kersley’s Forrestdale property on the outskirts of Perth was sold … all he had to do was sign the papers.
For Kersley it was a bittersweet phone call as he loved the farm from where he trained many great harness horses and, until that stage, some more than handy thoroughbreds, but times were tough and he needed the coin.
Hodgkinson was keen to get on the first plane to Melbourne to get the deal sealed, but Kersley said he wanted to concentrate on preparing Northerly (b g 1996, Serheed-North Bell) for the Australian Cup, the paperwork could wait.
Thankfully, Kersley’s delay was rewarded because Northerly, half-owned by Kersley’s wife Judith and coming off a defeat (third) when $1.90 favourite in the Victoria Cup (2024m) at Caulfield, set Flemington alight with one of the most memorable performances seen in a big race at headquarters.
Kersley eventually did sell the property, not long after Northerly had retired with a bankroll $9.3 million (nine Group 1 wins), for eight times the original offer. Northerly changed the Kersleys’ lives.
Northerly was a fighter from the day he was born, when his breeder and part-owner Neville Duncan had to revive him after he was born “dead”. Racecaller Greg Miles named him “the Fighting Tiger”, which was such a perfect fit even if the horse himself was not what you’d expect a champion to look like—he was light-framed, carried his head too high and could easily have understudied for the Man From Snowy River’s pony.
Damien Oliver, who rode Northerly to win his first of two Cox Plates, in 2001, said the little horse was different. “He was often the first horse off the bit, unlike so many other great horses, but he just kept going. He is right up there with the best I have ridden, but what made him special was that (like Oliver) he was from Western Australia.”
Kersley loved his horse, so much so that he refused to succumb to pressure to run him in the 2002 Melbourne Cup with 60kg despite the champ winning the Caulfield Cup, beating Fields Of Omagh, with 58kg and backing up a week later to win his second Cox Plate. “I don’t mind flying the flag, but I don’t want to break the flag pole,” was his wonderful summation of his decision.
Les Carlyon wrote in The Age: “(Northerly) fools you every time. He has the body language of a loser but a heart as big as the Nullabor”.
Late on May 9, Northerly, after battling with colic for most of the day, lost the most important fight. He will be buried on the Duncans’ Busselton property upright, like the warrior horses of Egypt.
Northerly’s battles with the great mare Sunline were legendary, but he had the wood on her in two Cox Plates. Significantly, Sunline also died in May, but three years ago. Northerly’s death came within 24 hours of the loss of Vo Rogue, aged 28, setting social media abuzz with tributes.
New Zealand journalist Michael Guerin summed it up perfectly with this tweet: “Sunline, Vo Rouge and now Northerly all gone… geez, it’s going to be tough winning a weight-for-age race in Horsey Heaven next few seasons.”
The final word on the great horse goes to Fred Kersley, when asked immediately after Northerly won the 2002 Caulfield Cup (2400m) if it was the best two and a half minutes of his life: “The Mrs says I don’t know what love is, but God I love that horse.”
Photo: Northerly, with Damien Oliver, in an exhibition gallop at Moonee Valley in 2010.
One of the joys of working at The Herald in the late 1980s was attending trackwork with the knowledge that what happened in the early hours would be in the first edition on the streets of Melbourne by 11am.
I made Flemington from 5am to 8am my round, and in a five-year period met and watched some amazing horses, jockeys and trainers.
There was nothing like Vic and Vo—oddball Queensland trainer Vic Rail and his incredible horse Vo Rogue.
My lasting memory of walking beside the pair after a track gallop as they headed back to Phil Burke’s stables—me with pen and pad in hand, and Rail chatting incessantly while dragging Vo away from the next grassy pick. It was not the sheer size and strength of the horse, with veins pumped thick and sweat trickling under his belly, nor the knockabout character of Rail, that tickles the memory, but the smell.
Yes, Vo Rogue stunk. Like no horse before or after him.
The stench was a legacy of Rail’s passion for horses to be trained as close to nature as possible. Vo Rogue never saw a hose— “in the wild they don’t wash, they roll in the dirt to stay clean, so why is there a need to wash him?” Rail said.
Sometimes, after Vo Rogue had rolled in the sand, Rail would harvest a clump of grass and rub the gelding down to remove any excess dirt and grim.
Rail also had a running battle with officialdom over wanting Vo Rogue to race barefoot—as nature would expect—before a compromise was reached for him to wear only tips. In contrast, Rail was rarely seen without his Mexican high-heeled cowboy boots on, whether in a suit or shorts.
We lost Rail, aged 49, to the Hendra virus in 1994, but old Vo Rogue batted on until May 8, 2012, when old age took him at 28.
Vo Rogue was a champion horse in a champion time—he won 26 of his 63 starts and more than $3 million his prizemoney. His bold, relentless front-running style made him a crowd favourite and tough horse to beat, even for the likes of Bonecrusher, Better Loosen Up and Campaign King.
The Ivor Prince gelding cost owner Jeff Perry $5000 as a weanling. Perry sold a slice of Vo Rogue late in his career to punter Gary Roberts for $180,000. For everyone connected with the horse it was a wonderful ride.
Little-known Queenslander Cyril Small built a career on the back of Vo—23 winning rides and six Group 1s. He steered Vo Rogue to wins in two Group 1 Australian Cups, three Group 2 C F Orr Stakes, two Group 2 Turnbull Stakes and a Group 1 William Reid Stakes.
Small, who returned to Victoria to ride at Warrnambool last month, spoke to RSN Radio after Vo Rogue’s death: “Instead of fighting him, I let him stride and he just ran them off their legs.”
The next time we reminisce this great horse is when he’s inducted in the Hall of Fame. Not before time.