VRC Oaks 2014: Ciaron Maher chases that lucrative Cup week rush

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4 Dec 2018

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For a fleeting moment on Tuesday, Ciaron Maher looked to the darkening western sky and thought, just maybe. But realistically, he knew Mr O’Ceirin’s long odds were about right when his rainy day prayers went unanswered.

He returns to Flemington on Thursday with genuine optimism for Set Square in the Oaks, and the prospect of revisiting the career high of a major Cup week success that announced his arrival as a trainer seven years ago.

Maher was 26 and based in Warrnambool with barely 10 horses in work, a motley crew of jumpers and tried gallopers nobody else wanted, when Tears I Cry changed his working life by winning the 2007 Emirates Stakes. “As a young trainer it definitely puts you on the map,” he says. “On the back of that I started to get some younger stock, some better bred stuff. It just opened doors.”

The industry was in the grip of equine influenza, with the public segregated on race days from those who had contact with horses. He fondly remembers asking his father if he had backed Tears I Cry not long before they jumped, and sending a mate to help him get on at a TAB machine in the trainers’ room.

Nikita Beriman booted the gelding home at 100-1. Vision of Anne McGrath going absolutely bonkers in the stands has become the template for where racehorse ownership can take you. “It was a good day,” Maher recalls.

He reckons he’s been lucky pretty much throughout his nine years as a trainer to always have a good horse, be it a jumper or a country cups winner. Now based at Pakenham and training out of Caulfield, his stable has enjoyed a good year thanks to jumpers Palmero and Bashboy, and the likes of Akavouron and Light Up Manhattan, which was a flying fourth in last Saturday’s Derby.

Set Square is a tantalising prospect, and enters just the fourth race of her career a $7.50 chance in Oaks betting.”She’s just been one out of the box really,” Maher says. “Every time we put a saddle on her she keeps improving.”

In her first start at Donald barely seven weeks ago, she was on and off the bit, raw and green when running third. Three weeks later she came from three deep at Ballarat 700 metres from home and was strong through the line in her maiden win. Then on Caulfield Cup day won again in the 2000-metre Ethereal Stakes.

Her improvement has emboldened Maher, and principal owner Ken King.

“Ciaron tells us she’s still improving, that she’s come on again since then,” King says. “He thinks she’ll run the 2500. If she’s still on the improve I think she’ll give it a very good shake from the gate [barrier two] with Hughie [Bowman] on board.”

King likes Maher’s straightforwardness, says having a good horseman who can communicate with owners ticks important boxes for a syndicator. He had Rinky Dink win an Australasian Oaks for Rick Hore-Lacy and Bon Hoffa a Rupert Clarke Stakes, but would dearly love to remember Cup week for something other than Skalato’s fourth in the 2000 Derby, after he had the Caulfield Guineas taken off him after a positive swab for an anti-inflammatory.

“It would be nice to grab an Oaks. That would satisfy my need after the Derby disappointment.”

Maher now has about 100 horses on his books, including 30 in work at Caulfield. He reflects on his first Melbourne Cup as “room for improvement”, and knows Set Square holds the potential to increase traffic to his door even further.

“[Tears I Cry] was great for getting my name out there, getting known in the industry amongst owners. To claim one of the big features over Cup week, now being based in Melbourne, that’s what you need to do,” he says.

“I’ve been training for nine years now. If I didn’t have some idea of what I’m doing by now, I probably never would.”

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