“Good luck…just be brave”. These were the finals word respected Melbourne form analyst Deane Lester spoke to jockey Jye McNeil before McNeil mounted the Joseph O’Brien trained gelding Twilight Payment for the 160th running of the race that stops the nation, the Lexus Melbourne Cup.
The words could not have been more prophetic, with McNeil taking all before him with a breathtaking front running ride that gave no other horse in the field a chance, as Twilight Payment became the first all-the-way winner of the great race since the legendary Might & Power held on by a lip some twenty three years earlier.
At 25 years of age, jockey Jye McNeil is a rising star of the Melbourne racing scene. Previously indentured to Gerard Egan as an apprentice, McNeil was the breakout star of the 2019/2020 racing season, landing the Victorian Jockey Premiership with 143 winners at a strike rate of 14.10%. McNeil was also fourth on the metropolitan premiership list, behind iconic jockeys Craig Williams, Damien Oliver & Dwayne Dunn. To cap off his meteoric rise, McNeil rode his first Group 1 piloting Kings Will Dream in the 2019 Turnbull Stakes for trainer Chris Waller.
The day after being crowned Victorian Jockeys Premier, August 1st 2020, McNeil also welcome into the world his first son, Oakley, with partner former jockey Jessica Payne.
Coming into the Melbourne Cup carnival, McNeil was in red hot riding form in staying races, winning the Bart Cummings on Persan, the Geelong Cup on Steel Prince & the Bendigo Cup on Princess Jenni.
Son of a gun Joseph O’Brien has now firmly stepped out of the enormous shadow cast by his globally successful father, the head of the Coolmore training operation in Ireland, Aidan O’Brien.
Joseph’s success on the racecourse began as a jockey, partnering with his father to become the first father/son combination to win the Epsom Derby with Camelot in 2012. Joseph would add a second Derby to his riding honours with Australia winning the 2014 rendition.
On his way to Group 1 riding success in America, Dubai, Ireland, France & Great Britain, O’Brien also partnered with global equine superstars such as St Nichola’s Abbey, Excelebration and the Australian Hall of Famer So You Think.
In 2016, the constant wasting and trying to keep his 1.8m frame at a riding weight of around 55kg took its toll, and he gave away his career in the saddle to follow in his father’s footsteps as a trainer.
Incredibly, O’Brien’s first major success as a trainer came in the Melbourne Cup, when Rekindling was able to win the 2017 race as a northern hemisphere three year old under jockey Corey Brown.
O’Brien’s instructions to Jye McNeil pre-race were clear – to be a hope he was to try and lead, take off with 1000 metres to go and hope that the horses superior staying ability would be enough to over come any perceived class edge from its rivals.
Despite concerns over international travel plans during the COVID pandemic that has been the overarching story of 2020, eight year old gelding Twilight Payment was able to join the limited international brigade making their way to be quarantined at Werribee.
Twilight Payment had previously been acquired from trainer, owner & breeder Jim Bolger by leviathan owner Lloyd Williams and there was a strong argument to be made that, in his first full preparation under trainer Joseph O’Brien, the bay gelding was in career best form.
Twilight Payment was one of seven horses returning for another crack at the Melbourne Cup, having taken its place in the 2019 Melbourne Cup, starting $41 and finishing tenth.
Previous winner Vow & Declare, runner up Prince of Arran, stablemate Master of Reality, lightly raced Surprise Baby, Chris Waller import Finche and kiwi hope The Chosen One all joined Twilight Payment in returning from the 2019 field.
Since the 2019 Melbourne Cup, after racing returned from it’s COVID driven hiatus in Europe, Twilight Payment returned in the Listed Levmoss Stakes over 2812 metres at Leopardstown on June 14, producing a brave staying performance under rider Wayne Lordan to finish second to Nickajack Cave.
A fortnight later, Twilight Payment took an evident fitness improvement as the gelding stepped out at the Curragh in the Group 3 Vintage Crop Stakes, defeating stablemate and Cup competitor Master of Reality.
Proving this was no fluke, Twilight Payment then took out by the Group 2 Curragh Cup by a resounding 8 lengths, again defeating Master of Reality.
After a nearly two month break, O’Brien set his charge for a final hit out when starting $5.50 in the Group 1 Irish St Ledger. Search for a Song was victorious on that occasion, but only after Twilight Payment sat three wide for the journey and just missed nabbing second place on the line.
While it could be argued the stayer was in career best form, the market wasn’t convinced, sending Twilight Payment to the barriers as a $26 chance, behind the Paul Preusker trained Surprise Baby ($6.50) and Aidan O’Brien’s lightly raced Tiger Moth ($7.00).
Drawing barrier 12 in, what was to become a 23 horse field with the scratching of Adelaide Cup winner King of Leogrance, Twilight Payment McNeill was able to cruise across the field to take control of the race after as the field passed the Flemington winning post as they passed the eerily empty grandstand and usually packed front lawn for the first time.
As they rounded into the back straight, Twilight Payment found itself travelling in splendid isolation, free rolling a length to race favourite Tiger Moth under Kerrin McEvoy with a length further back to Oceanex & Vow & Declare.
Some cheaper sectionals then between the 2400 & 1800 metre marks saw Finche, under James McDonald, begin to try and make a mid race move to sit out side the leader at the halfway point of the race.
From the 1400 metre marker though McNeil decided it was time to begin to reapply the pressure and as the field began to string out it became obvious that most of the field was quickly losing ground.
As Twilight Payment passed the 1000 metres to home, McNeil clicked up again and it was time to boot for home. Finche battled on bravely but as the field entered the famous Flemington straight Twilight Payment was booting for home.
Passing the clocktower Tiger Moth looked the only danger as The Chosen One ground on bravely and Prince of Arran flew from the pack, but Tiger Moth could only manage a length margin as Twilight Payment saluted, as Matthew Hill on the call so astutely described “What a ride, what a win in a Cup we’ll never forget!”
To put the bravery of Jye McNeil’s ride into perspective, Cup field into the straight at the same pace year over year, he would’ve led the 2019 race into the straight by 26 ½ lengths.
“I’m overcome with emotion at this moment” McNeil said post race. “It is a lifelong dream and to get to this moment and this winner it’s still surreal.
“He jumped with them but he was a touch slow to really find his rhythm. I encouraged him to go forward and that was the plan and then he found just a lovely tempo. He got into a fantastic rhythm, breathing really well and then it was a matter of ‘amping’ the tempo up at the right stage.”
Part owner Nick Williams was full of praise for the ride. "Joseph and Jye had spoken about the tactics three or four times over the last four or five days and I think they got it right.
"I couldn't be happier during the race, it probably went as smoothly knowing the plan for that horse as any Melbourne Cup we've had anything to do with.
"It took a lot of courage for Jye to follow through on those instructions, he did a great job."
After McNeil’s success in the Cup, Deane Lester was full of emotion speaking on Melbourne’s RSN Radio about McNeil. “It’s fantastic. He’s a great mate, he’s a decent human. I actually got him the ride, and I knew that he would have to do something like he did today and if it comes of it will look like it did today, if it doesn’t people might criticise him.
“He was brave. He was braver…than I could ever be.”
While not overly favoured by the market, there were some lucky punters who were able to cash in on the day. The TAB reported a bet of $5,000 on Twilight Payment at the $26, with one astute punter landing a $130,000 windfall as a result. Another punter took the $34 on offer earlier in the week, plonking down $2,500 to net am $85,000 return.
One lucky punter also turned $24 into a $64,418 result with a first four. Other punters weren’t so lucky, with multiple bets in excess of $30,000 being placed on disappointing race favourite Surprise Baby, while one corporate bookmaker fielded a $75,000 wager on the Danny O’Brien trained Russian Camelot.
The Beaten Brigade
Of those that chased home the winner, Kerrin McEvoy was fined $50,000 for overuse of the whip on runner up Tiger Moth, a decision later drastically reduced on appeal. Tiger Moth showed itself an exceptional staying talent to hang on in such a high pressure race at just it’s fifth race start and no doubt will be providing the Coolmore operation with feature race success in the future. Sadly, it’s stable mate Anthony Van Dyck sustained an injury throughout the run and was humanely euthanised.
Charlie Fellowes trained 5 year old Prince of Arran was brave in running third, which along with his second in last year’s race takes his earnings past the $4million mark.
Murray Baker & Andrew Forsman were thrilled with the brave effort of The Chosen One to follow up it’s placing in the Caulfield Cup with a brave fourth, and iron horse Persan proved to be just as brave as it had been over the last twelve months in running 5th.
Chris Waller trained Verry Ellegant was perhaps the flashing light run of the race, while the race shape didn’t suit on the day was uber impressive as the best of the closers in the race. A crack at the Prix Arc De Triomphe is now on the table for Australia’s best race mare and if the world famous race is run on a rain affected track, the daughter of Zabeel might be a real show of matching So You Think’s brave fourth in the race.
Race favourite Surprise Baby could only manage a disappointing 13th, leaving trainer Paul Preusker to perhaps rue some missed opportunities in the 12 months between it’s fourth place finish in 2019.
All these thoroughbred stars, however, will this year have to settle for being background players in the story of Twilight Payment’s 2020 Melbourne Cup triumph, under the masterful ride of a future star of the Australian turf.