Set Square repays trainer Ciaron Maher’s faith with Victoria Oaks triumph

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9 Oct 2019

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Ciaron Maher, with those unmistakable long curly locks and sunglasses straight out of a highway patrol officer’s console, is never going to be missed in a crowd.

As unconventional as he looks, some will say it is nothing compared with the unfashionable horseflesh which thrives under his care. Stayers, jumpers, anything he can patch together and he get over some sort of trip is the Maher forte.

But cuddling a horse from a Donald maiden in September to win a Victoria Oaks over a gruelling 2500 metres at just her fourth start, surely that is about as funky as it can get?

“She’s been one out of the box,” Maher said, with more than a hint of understatement after nabbing his second group 1 win seven years after his first. “I didn’t actually think she would get to the races this time around, because as she started getting into her preparation she started to lighten off a little bit.”

As Maher tells the story, he was close to pulling the plug on Set Square’s maiden preparation without even booking a float to take her to the races.

“I told that to [part-owner] Ken King and as soon as I did she just thrived,” Maher said. “It’s unbelievable.”

And what is even more unbelievable is how the least experienced filly, in an Oaks field brimming with depth if the main protagonists were to be believed, just kept on running away from her rivals on Thursday.

So meteoric has been the rise of Set Square, Maher had not even bothered to pay up for the Oaks and later had historians scrambling for the record books. But after the daughter of Reset streaked away with the Ethereal Stakes last start, he thought they better fork out the $55,000 for the late-entry fee.

How that looks like chicken feed compared with the $600,000 bounty in the bank on Friday morning.

“We obviously didn’t enter her and we thought if she could win the Ethereal Stakes [we might], but the way she won that race and the way she came on from there [made it an easy decision],” Maher said. “Every time we put a saddle on her she just seems to get better.”

The win capped a Flemington roller-coaster for jockey Hugh Bowman, who chalked up his second Victoria Oaks win after Samantha Miss sizzled in 2008.

Bowman was set to miss most of the most important week of the year after being outed for improper riding on the Maher-trained Moonovermanhattan in the Caulfield Classic. He appealed and had the ban reduced.

It did not prevent him from losing the Victoria Derby-winning ride on Preferment, but Nick Hall’s decision to abandon Set Square in favour of eventual Oaks favourite Lumosty was small compensation.

“Racing is a funny game and you’ve got to keep putting yourself in the positions and it’s an honour to get the opportunity,” Bowman said. “I’ve had limited opportunities this week, but I thought I had some nice rides today. I thought she was a really good chance and she delivered.”

Opting to settle his filly well back in the field, Bowman weaved a passage when the tiring leaders turned for home at the top of the straight.

Hall looked to have a lapful of horse underneath him with Lumosty, but once she got to the lead could not let down. It allowed Bowman and Set Square to pounce, eventually sinking John Sargent’s bid for back-to-back Oaks with Wakeful Stakes winner Thunder Lady.

She was 1-1/2 lengths away in second, while Robbie Laing’s Golconda snuck up the inside to be a further neck back in third.

“There was no question at all [she would stay],” Maher said of the winner. “I train a lot of stayers and jumpers … and she always had a good constitution. She breathed [well] and had that real staying type action. There was never any question with the trip, it was whether she had the experience to win a race like this.”

As for Smerdon’s highly spruiked trio, led home by a tiring Lumosty in sixth, in front of more than 64,000 racegoers?

“It was clear Lumosty didn’t stay, but we can’t forget she had very good two-year-old form and we’ll look forward to the autumn trying her at 1600-metre events,” Smerdon said.

“And you can’t forget she raced through the end of the winter into the spring, so she’s done a good job and so has Crafty. She, too, has had a long campaign and just felt the ground today. But she will go to Sydney for the Oaks and there’s always the likelihood of a bit of cut in the track, which will help her no end.”

Meanwhile, Damien Oliver’s week took a turn for the worse after he was banned for 10 meetings for careless riding after his winning ride on Onemorezeta in the third at Flemington on Thursday.

Oliver, who had a group 1 double on Derby day and also booted home Vain Queen on Oaks day, will miss the Sandown Cup meeting next week. He will be able to return for the stand-alone Ballarat Cup meeting.

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