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Given the recent excitement Verry Elleegant created winning the 2021 Melbourne Cup we look back at one of the greats who was unparalleled when it came to the great race. Makybe Diva

A statue of three time Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva

Makybe Diva - From Humble Beginnings

When John Foote, the UK agent for Australian Tuna fisherman, Tony Santic, purchased a horse called Tugela, already in foal, at the Tattersalls' bloodstock sales in late 1998. few people could have anticipated the greatness this as yet unborn foal would achieve. True, Tugela herself had champion connections in her own bloodline with Derby winners and thoroughbred sires featuring strongly, and the sire of this foal being one, Desert King, had won both the Irish Sweeps Derby and the Irish two thousand Guineas – but nothing to suggest the stellar career which this foal would enjoy. Tugela was taken to the Britton House Stud in Somerset in the UK to await the “arrival” of the foal and she, for the foal was a mare, duly arrived on 21st March 1999. There she would remain until August 2000. Indeed, it’s worth noting in passing that the foal was offered for sale at the Tattersalls' Newmarket Foal sales in 1999, but no one was prepared to pay the asking price – a price which would have been repaid many times over had someone been ready to take the gamble. Fortunately for Santic, however, she remained with him and together with her mother, was transported to Australia the following August.

The name for this soon-to-be legend of the track was arrived at in a most unusual way. Quite often the name given to a horse is chosen to reflect its’ parentage or its’ origins but not in the case of this foal. Santic rather quirkily  decided he would create her name by taking the first two letters of each of his female employees first names – these being Maureen, Kylie, Belinda, Dianne and Vanessa, and in this way the great Makybe Diva was “christened”

Early Racing Career of Makybe Diva

Her early career on the track gave little indication of the greatness which was to come, indeed, some had written her off as an also-ran by the end of her first season on the track. However,  this was attributed by those in the know, to the fact that Makybe Diva was foaled in the UK, where horses age up on the 1st of January each year, unlike in the Southern hemisphere where the ageing up process dates from August 1st each year. In other words, in any age-classified race, she was bracketed with horses anything up to almost eighteen months older than her, in true time.  Her first outing, as a three year old, came in a maiden race at Benalla in rural Victoria in July 2002. She finished a disappointing fourth and did not race again until the following season, which because of the ageing up calculations, meant she was back on the track two weeks after her first appearance – but this was now August and Makybe DIva was now “officially”  a four year old.

Wangaratta, again in rural Victoria , was the setting for this second appearance and was to be celebrated with a fine win over 1600 metres

A month later, in her next appearance, the Diva was to chalk up another win, this time in a class 1 race at Sale, over 1700 metres. Over the next three months between September and November, win after win was the order of the day as Makybe Diva appeared to be invincible.  Her run of six consecutive wins concluded with victory in the Group 3 Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Flemington on November 9th over 2500 metres. 

Her reward for this win was automatic entry into the Melbourne Cup the following year (2003) thus allowing her stable to give the Diva a relatively easy second half to the season with only two run-outs in April at Caulfield and Flemington over shorter distances. Both of these outings saw her unplaced and tended to reinforce the view that the longer the distance the better Makybe Diva would perform. The next season, 2003/2004, despite spectacular success would not fully confirm this opinion.

A Growing Career and First Melbourne Cup

The Diva’s first race as a five year old came in over 1400mm at Caulfield, and whilst she only finished fourth, she did come home only  two lengths behind the winner, a performance she would repeat in her next race at Moonee Valley, over a similar distance, trailing the eventual winner again by two lengths. Next up came the Turnbull Stakes, a race over a distance of 2000 metres, to which, according to those in the know, she was more suited. Certainly the distance seemed better for her, improving as she did by cutting her distance to the eventual winner to only one length, but unable to improve her placing.

Two weeks later, now entered in the Caulfield Cup as an 18/1 outsider over 2400 metres, she was paired with Sydney jockey Glenn Boss, who maintained her consistency and brought her home once again in fourth place. 

Although positionally Makybe Diva had not improved, once the pairing with Boss had time to settle things began to change and on the 4th of November, with him the saddle she lined up to race in her first Melbourne Cup. Starting as an 8/1 second favourite she showed little interest in the early stages of the race and as the field turned into the home straight, she lay dawdling at the rear of the field. And then it was almost as if Boss had lit a fire behind her, as she scorched and danced her way to the front, winning with a length and a half to spare. 

This first Melbourne Cup victory over 3200 metres represented the most convincing win of her career to date, and certainly emphasised her ability as a stayer rather than a sprinter.

Except for one race, over 1400 metres, in which she was to finish a rather embarrassing seventh, Glenn Boss remained in the saddle for the rest of the season, claiming three third places in races of 2000 metres and over, before going to Sydney to run in the Sydney Cup at Randwick, over 3200 metres. Following her usual pattern, the Diva dawdled around at the back of the field for the earlier stages of the race, but then roared through the field to win by half a length. In so doing, Makybe Diva brought her five year old season to a triumphant close with an enviable double – the first mare to win both the Melbourne Cup and the Sydney cup in the same season, and indeed, only the fourth horse ever in history to achieve this double! 

Going For Back To Back Cups

For the 2004/2005 season, now that Makybe Diva had gained more race experience and had demonstrated where her strengths and weaknesses lay, the six year old was to enjoy a more structured year. Her long-time trainer David Hall had left at the end of the previous season and her care was now assumed by Lee Freedman. And it was Freedman who was to provide this structure, with the sole aim of winning a second Melbourne Cup. Starting with a gentle run out over 1400 metres in the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield she came home a respectable fourth. 

Next, in the Group two Feehan Stakes over 1600 metres at Moonee Valley a second place was achieved, followed by a seventh place in the Turnbull and a second place in the Caulfield Cup, both races being won by a horse called Elvstroem. Each race being over a greater distance than the last and each race showing an improvement on the previous performance. And so on to November 2nd, Flemington, and the Melbourne Cup. Despite a star-studded field including her nemesis, Elvstroem, an Irish St.Leger winner, Vinnie Roe and the 2002 winner of the Cup, Media Puzzle, Makybe Diva once again came out on top to win by two lengths.

Following this second triumph. The Diva was rested until the autumn, when she once again began her races with a short distance Grade one over 1400m, finishing seventh, and then the St George Stakes over 1800 metre where she achieved a second place, on both occasions Elvstroem being first home. After which, there came two first places in the Australian Cup and the BMW Stakes, over distances of 2000 and 2400 metres respectively. To finish her season as a six year old the Diva was shipped off to Japan to try her hand (or should that be hoof) on the tracks there. Despite the presence of Boss in the saddle, she could manage no better than a disappointing seventh in both the races in which she participated and returned home to try for a third Melbourne Cup. 

Chasing Greatness - Makybe Diva Melbourne Cup Hat Trick

And so to the 2005/2006 season, the last season in which the world would see the Diva race – and possibly also her greatest. Beginning at the end of August in the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield, Makybe diva came home in first place over 1400 metres. Two weeks later in the Dato Tan Chin Nam stakes at Moonee Valley she was to suffer her only defeat of the season, losing by a nose to Lad of the Manor. However, jockey Glenn Boss was to enjoy sweet revenge some three weeks later, reversing the finishing positions in the Turnbull Stakes, winning with an electrifying run through the field to triumph in a race where victory had previously eluded her. Moving on a further three weeks to the Cox Plate and Boss once again was victorious with the Diva once again. Following her usual tactics for longer races – the Cox Plate being 2400 metres – Maybe Diva dawdled around the rear of the field and then, on the finishing straight with a blistering turn of speed came through to win comfortably on the outside of an eight wide group of challengers. And so the scene was set for possibly the greatest race of her career -her third Melbourne Cup.

Her win in this race, though somewhat shrouded by controversy, eventually proved to be emphatic and underlined her position as a giant of the track. Prior to the race there had been much talk among “the experts' ' that Makybe Diva might not start the race, since an unseasonably dry spell had left the going very firm. However, before the final ante-post call, the Victoria Racing Club decided that the track should be watered, changing the going from firm to good – and Makybe Diva was therefore declared a runner. As was customary for the Diva, she settled at the rear of the field and only began to progress at the home turn, hitting the front some 300 metres from home. Her victory in the end was described as “comfortable” with the winning margin being a length and a quarter.

Several rival owners and trainers complained bitterly about the watering of the course and how this had helped Makybe Diva to her win, but the truth of the matter was simple. The course conditions, whatever they might be, were the same for all the runners. Makybe Diva  carried 58kgs – overweight for the age to weight scale for a race of this distance, and the winning time of 3.19.18 was one of the fastest on record. In simple terms the Diva was a champion horse, and as testament to this, she was awarded at the end of the season the title of Australian Champion Racehorse of the Year, Australian Champion Stayer, and Champion Middle Distance Racehorse. Moreover, as her third Melbourne Cup was presented, owner Tony Santic announced that Makybe Diva would retire from racing “this day” so that people would remember her at the pinnacle of her achievements.

Also at the moment of her triumph, trainer Lee Freedman remarked “Go find the smallest child on this course, and there will be the only example of a person who will live long enough to see that again” and as the statues and memorials to mark the greatness of Makybe Diva were being erected, this was a common and firmly held view….. until this current season, when a horse by the name of Verry Elleegant came home victorious in the 2021 Cup. With string of Group one race wins under her belt, this now six-year-old mare, carrying 57kgs (the last horse to win with this weight being the Diva) won by two and a half lengths to give trainer Chris Waller his first Melbourne Cup win, and immediately speculation turned to “is this the new Diva!” That question, of course, remains unanswered, and only time will tell. All we can say is that Makybe Diva, for all her humble origins at the stud farm in Somerset, proved to be a giant of the track. Perhaps Verry Elleegant will follow in her hoof prints. Who knows!

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