Given she fought a life-and-death battle to survive birth, a Matas victory in today’s epic three-mile Jericho Cup at Warrnambool would be a fitting result – and a first for South Australia.
Revived by Victorian businessman and philanthropist Bill Gibbins in 2018, the modern-day Jericho Cup honours the Aussie soldiers and horses involved in the first-ever Jericho Cup, held in the deserts of Palestine in 1918 as a ruse to distract Turkish soldiers ahead of a planned offensive.
Now in its third year, the contemporary cup’s 4800m distance matches the wartime race and is designed to test the strength and courage of rider and beast.
On that front alone, Matas – trained at Murray Bridge by Michael Hickmott – is already a winner, given she was orphaned at birth, and almost died herself.
“She’s had a few setbacks along the way over the years,” Hickmott told Channel 10.
“(But) she’s a lovely big horse and everyone around the stable loves her.”
Matas took out the Gawler qualifying heat to book her spot in the Jericho Cup, which is worth a cool $300,000. She failed at her next start at Moonee Valley, but Hickmott is hoping she can bounce back in today’s ultimate test.
“It’d be an honour to win a race named after the Anzacs,” Hickmott told Channel 10.
All starters in today’s race will be ridden by jumps jockeys, with Matas to carry the minimum 66kg for Clayton Douglas. Top weight Frenzied – trained by Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott – will lug 72kg for Arron Lynch.
The inaugural Jericho Cup was taken out by Bill the Bastard, regarded as Australia’s greatest wartime horse.
When sent to the Middle East, “Bill” was an irredeemable buckjumper, but was eventually ridden by a Queenslander, Major Michael Shanahan, and become a major contributor to the campaign.
Legend has it that Shanahan rode Bill up and down the battle line, while under fire, to rally the troops and that Bill kept going for hours longer than any other horse.
According to one account Shanahan and Bill “found four Tasmanian soldiers stranded next to their dead horses and under gun fire”.
“Shanahan said to them, ‘Get up on Bill, get up! One on each stirrup, two on the back, we will get out’.”
The rogue horse subsequently carried the five men (a collective weight of approximately 380kg) to safety.
Sunday’s Jericho Cup is race eight on the Warrnambool card and will be run at 4.55pm local time (4.25pm SA time).
IMAGE: Matas racing to victory in the Gawler qualifier for today’s Jericho Cup at Warrnambool.