ON a pleasant February morning in 2011, Yangery trainer Jarrod McLean cast an unusually anxious figure as he prepared a couple of horses for their debut over hurdles at Warrnambool’s famous racecourse.
The trials had drawn a smattering of interested onlookers but McLean was keen to avoid any questions as former Perth Cup winner Cats Fun safely negotiated the trial.
“It was good but he has a long way to go,” McLean said of Cats Fun’s performance.
“He’s very careful, he’s a bit of a squib. He’s got a long way to go but it is worth a gamble because his flat ability is long gone.”
That trial was the start of Cats Fun’s last chance at a racing career. McLean didn’t want to say at the time in case he sent the wrong message to 10 south-west people — Matthew Monk, Matthew Stewart, Brian Salmon, Adam Main, Locky Eccles, Krystal Primmer, Lee Primmer, Janine Dureau-Finn, Tania Hussey and Tim Hickman — who forked out $1000 each to buy the then eight-year-old.
McLean knew Cats Fun had ability, long-time horse owner, former Australian cricketer Simon O’Donnell, had sent him to the trainer in a bid to resurrect his injury-plagued career with training on the beach.
After missing a Melbourne Cup berth in 2009, he suffered a severe bout of colic that almost claimed his life.
He returned to flat racing in 2010 without success and it was hoped jumps might be an option. O’Donnell’s operation OTI Racing sold Cats Fun for $10,000 to McLean.
One of those prepared to part with $1000 was Laang dairy farmer Brian Salmon, a former premier league cricketer with Essendon.
He, like the other nine part-owners, heard McLean had a horse he was looking to take jumping. Apart from Matthew Monk and Matt Stewart, business partners at the time, the other eight were strangers to each other.
Together they were taken on an exciting ride by Cats Fun that culminated in them winning the 2013 Brierly Steeplechase, the feature jumps race at Warrnambool’s May Racing Carnival, and a brave second in this year’s Brierly.
As in any racing story there were disappointments, like his fifth placing in the 2012 Brierly after McLean and the owners had spent a year preparing for the race.
In all, Cats Fun won five races over obstacles, finished second eight times and was third three times, winning more than $263,000 in prizemoney.
After he finished fifth in the South Australian Grand National Steeplechase at Morphettville on Saturday, McLean called all the owners on Tuesday night and discussed the 12-year-old’s future plans where they unanimously agreed Cats Fun’s career was over.
But Salmon, who has raced horses with former caller Bryan Martin, said the speculative investment in Cats Fun was never about money. As the horse’s name suggests, it was about fun.
“It’s been sensational,” Salmon said this week.
“I’ve probably watched all his races. I would prefer to do that, it was a new enjoyment in life, a chance to get away from work.
“The Brierly was the pinnacle for us with Cats Fun because it was a 12-month plan the year before to win it in 2012. He should have won it that year. Coming down to Tozer Road he slipped and went straight instead of making a sharp right turn. He lost 12 lengths and he only got beaten by five.
“We were encouraged by it. 2013 was another 12-month journey.”
The victory was emotional for all the connections, particular Stewart because the race carried his late brother Scotty’s name.
Salmon said Cats Fun was an example of a horse uniting strangers.
“We were lucky we had a Warrnambool trainer. We could pat the horse at his stables anytime. We could take photos when we wanted and he spells at my place. The enormous pleasure Cats Fun has given all of us outweighs any income or prizemoney. You do it for the enjoyment, get among a crowd and meet a whole new group of people.”
Salmon said Cats Fun deserved a special place in Australian racing history. Out of the mare She’s Zeal, which comes from New Zealand stayer Zabeel, Cats Fun is the only horse in Australian history to have won at group 1, group 2 and listed races on the flat as well as hurdle and the bigger steeplechase obstacles.
In all, Cats Fun had 12 wins, 11 seconds and six thirds from 74 starts, earning almost $1.1 million in prizemoney.
“Anyone connected to Cats Fun will have many cherished memories, some of his second placings were as exciting as his wins, particularly in feature races,” Salmon said.
“But we will all remember a tremendous athlete with endurance and longevity, a safe jumper, a gentle big horse.
“Cats Fun’s jumps career was a wonderful endorsement for jumps racing. He became totally disinterested in running on the flat and extended his career by four years.”
McLean will never forget Cats Fun.
“As the old saying in racing went, he wouldn’t have won a maiden at Manangatang,” McLean said this week.
“He’s been here for the best part of six years and I guess come Warrnambool in May it won’t be the same.”
McLean said Cats Fun’s four May carnivals were exciting. His second in 2012 when they were confident of success in the Brierly when he finished fifth wasn’t what was planned. He backed up in the Grand Annual Steeplechase two days later and finished fifth.
“Coming back in 2013 the expectations weren’t as big as the year before. We were confident but... That’s still one of my greatest thrills as a trainer and I’m sure (brother and jockey) Brad rates it highly. You can’t describe the emotion, it was incredible.”
McLean knows Cats Fun was no king of the turf. But he said his ability to race against A grade jumpers for four years and only finish worse than fifth once in 26 starts was noteworthy.
“Credit to the horse he’s been able to compete for so long,” he said.
“He’s no Black And Bent or Bashboy but he’s a super star in his connections’ eyes. He hasn’t changed anyone’s lives financially but he’s given us some great times.”
Cats Fun will spend the next few months at Salmon’s property enjoying retirement before joining Kirsty McMahon, who knows him better than most, having cared for him and taken him for all his work. She intends giving him a pony club and showjumping career.
McLean hopes the fun times will continue for her for another 15 years.