They’re three little words that mean so much.
Melbourne Cup Day.
And one fleeting moment that will last a lifetime.
“It was all so surreal. I just remember walking into the mounting yard and looking up,” Billy Owen says.
“Cause everyone was telling me, just relax and enjoy it and take everything in.
“I’d done a couple of laps in the mounting yard actually, I was coming back around and I looked up and seen the whole… The whole crowd. The grandstand. Everything.
“You wouldn’t have been able to fit another person in there, you know.”
In the early afternoon of the first Tuesday in November last year, the boy from Gundagai led the bonny little mare, Single Gaze, into the mounting yard at Flemington.
“I’m walking around with these other giant horses and I’ve got this little ‘pony’ from Canberra.
But she had such a cult following, so people are yelling out to me and you wouldn’t have a clue who they were,” Owen recalls, with a quiet chuckle.
“It was something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.”
The Daily Advertiser is catching up with Owen, the former strapper and trackwork rider of Single Gaze, for an insight into what it means to be in the middle of arguably Australia’s biggest annual event.
“It certainly does open your eyes,” Owen says.
“It makes you think back to those times when you were in school and you’d turn on the radio or the TV, just before the end of school, and you’d all sit down and watch it. Watching it back then, you’d never think, I’ll be strapping one in the Melbourne Cup one day or anything like that.”
Twelve months has passed quickly but somehow it also feels like a lifetime ago to Owen.
What felt even longer though was watching the race. Single Gaze was badly knocked about in the first couple of hundred metres, her chances dashed before passing the winning post the first time in the two-mile classic, and the team was gutted.
“That’s the exact word you’d use. Our race was over after two furlongs (400m). It felt like the race went for a month after that. Because we knew our race was over and we still had to stand there and watch it,” Owen says.
“We were just all concerned about her and how she come back. She was really battered and bruised. That took a bit out of us, to see her like that.
“But, you know, that’s racing. That’s what happens…”
It is racing. And it is what can happen. But it was still a nightmare to those who had been living the dream as Single Gaze captured the imagination of the public and the media in the spring.
After Single Gaze’s brave second in the Caulfield Cup, Owen and the owners Martin Hay and David Tout, also from Gundagai, along with Owen’s boss, Canberra trainer Nick Olive, and jockey Kathy O’Hara, were almost celebrities.
Owen keeps bringing it all back to a horse he had so much time for, and loved seeing others take the same delight.
“People like stablehands and what not, they’d come over and look at her in the stable. They just loved her,” he says.
“Everything had the feel of a good story. She was small. She was so tough. And even the Gundagai story behind it, it was pretty unreal.
“It certainly got my name out there a little bit and the Gundagai boys. And Nick Olive especially… Just to think that we had a runner in the Melbourne Cup and with a horse that meant so much to a lot of people, it was unreal.”
In an era of increased internationalisation of the Cup, here was a story to warm the hearts of Australian racing fans. Not to mention Owen and Hay themselves.
“We were staying in South Yarra, a bit of an upper class area and Marty’s as country as they come – he had his flannelette,” Owen says with a laugh.
“We’d go out to a flash breakfast place and he’d just get his bacon and eggs, you know. That’s what made it what it was. It was just a big laugh.
“Marty was down there a lot of the time, Nick would come down and we’d get in the car and be having a laugh going to the track. It wasn’t like work anyway, but it became more like a boys’ trip. Everyone was just laughing and enjoying themselves. And our little horse just kept stepping up for us. Which made it even better.”
Single Gaze finished 17th after her brutal baptism in the big one.
Still, true to form, she recovered and returned in February for an autumn campaign and ran second in two more Group Ones (the CF Orr at Flemington and the Ranvet at Rosehill) before she was sold.
“Looking back now, we’ve got so many good memories but it’s just like a big blur. And it’s over. You know? Same as anything I guess. We had a good ride. But everything’s got to come to an end,” Owen says.
“With the owners that were involved, it was one heck of a ride, that’s for sure.”
(Single Gaze, whose solo Group One win was in the three-year-old fillies’ Vinery Stud Stakes at Rosehill was supposed to be retired when sold, however the new owner brought her back for a spring campaign with Chris Waller. She finished last in her two starts in Sydney).
The end of the Single Gaze era at Olive’s stable made the foreman, Owen, take stock of his own life. He decided to return to professional race riding and, three months in, couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve loved it. I wouldn’t change it for anything at the moment. I think it’s probably what I’ll do for the rest of my life now, until I retire. Or it’s what I want to do anyway.”
Now 26, Owen has been with Olive for almost a decade. One of his best memories as a young apprentice was riding three winners on a six-race Melbourne Cup Day card at Canberra in 2010.
This year, that’s where the pair will be again.
“We’ve got a good association and understand each other really well. (Nick’s) giving me tremendous support at the moment and we’ll team up with four on Tuesday,” Owen says.
“Ask any jockey and one of the days they’d love to ride a winner is Melbourne Cup day, no matter where it is….it’s the one day when you want to get a winner.”