IDENTIFYING a horse to run in "the best race" each year is an important task for six-time Waterfront by Lyndoch Living Grand Annual Steeplechase-winning trainer Ciaron Maher.
The Winslow-raised export is now the most successful trainer in the race's 150-year history after Heberite won a drama-filled, 33-jump classic at Warrnambool Racecourse on Thursday.
Heberite, with Irish jockey William McCarthy aboard, joined Al Garhood (2010-11), Regina Coeli (2015 and 2017) and Ablaze (2020) as Maher's winners of the famous race.
"It feels the same every time - it's the best feeling in the world," an elated Maher, who trains in partnership with David Eustace, said from the mounting yard.
"It's phenomenal. I think it's the best race - it's a true test of horse, rider and trainer - and being a local, it's very special."
Maher, a multiple group one-winning trainer, said entering a runner in the seven-minute classic - a multi-directional race which tests endurance and mettle - was a priority on his busy schedule.
"I didn't have a runner one year and I vowed I'd never not have one again if I could help it," he said.
Racing is a family affair for the Mahers.
Ciaron works closely with brother Declan with the siblings inheriting parents John and Eileen's passion for the sport.
"It is phenomenal. The jumps races have been really hard fought. Willie McCarthy is a super rider and great man to have around the stable and I am thrilled for him, the owners who sent him over and my brother Dec, who is the heart and soul," Ciaron said.
"He puts everything into it and his horse (Eyes Are Blue) which was about $1million-1 ran third."
John and Eileen Maher, who celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Friday, couldn't fathom what they had just witnessed.
"We started in 2009 and this is the sixth time he's won it, it's just fabulous and gets better and better," John said.
"To have the two boys (Ciaron and Dec) with a horse in the race and they won first and third is just unbelievable.
"I would have just been happy to have a runner in summertime, the first time we had a horse. But here we are. It's hard to comprehend."
Eileen said it was "nothing short of a miracle".
"You never think for one minute, that any of your children will do something that gives you so much pleasure, it's just....," she said, at a loss for words.
"There is no stopping them, they are so determined.
"As they say there is nothing like the 'Bool. To win at Melbourne, like a Caulfield Cup, it's nothing compared to winning here, with all the locals."
John said the attention the family had received had reached far and beyond anything they thought possible.
"We're just ordinary people out of Winslow, farming people, and we've got four good boys and five good grandchildren," he said.
"It's crazy good."
Eustace couldn't be happier after the victory.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "Rapt for Ciaron, hometown, and Dec, puts so much into it," he said.
"It's great for everyone and just to be a part of it is fantastic."
While Heberite's stablemate Bit of a Lad was a late scratching, Eustace said everything went to plan for the newest Grand Annual winner.
"All in all, he got a beautiful steer from Willie," he said. "The plan was to lead and he did, and apart from not quite handling the corner a second time he didn't really put a foot wrong and he dug in when he needed to.
"He's a young horse, not having a lot of racing, so to go out and do that is amazing."
Taking their winning tally to five this carnival, Eustace said it was a privilege to do what he does.
"It's what I've always dreamed of doing," he said. "So to be able to train as many as we do and as good ones as we do, is a great privilege."
The race - celebrating 150 years since the first running - saw two of the nine starters fall.
Favourite Vanguard, which won the Brierly Steeplechase on Tuesday, was out early after losing jockey Will Gordon on the flat.
Early steward reports indicated Gordon had suffered a shoulder injury.
The second incident unfolded in front of the packed grandstand with the Dane Smith-trained San Remo and jockey Lee Horner crashing to the turf after a jump.
Both horse and jockey got to their feet after the fall.
Heberite won by 1.5 lengths from the Simon Ryan-trained Police Camp while Eyes Are Blue was a further 3.75 lengths away third, completing a home-track trifecta.
Irish jockey McCarthy, whose temporary VISA ran out before a sponsorship brought him back, said he was "blessed" after watching the 2021 race in hotel quarantine in Sydney.
"Praise God, I am absolutely blessed. Ciaron and the guys and Dec, they've been so supportive," McCarthy said post-race.
"I said to Ciaron, 'I know you're going for your sixth, the record', and he said: 'I'm not worried about that, I want you to win your first'.
"That filled me with confidence, coming out here."
McCarthy said he'd "worked his arse off" to get his weight down for the annual.
The 38-year-old, who usually weighs about 66.5 kilograms, was able to reach 64 on the back of a rigorous diet and exercise regimen.
"I'm absolutely privileged to get the opportunity," he said.
"What a performance from the horse. It's only his second time over the steeples and anybody who has anything bad to say about jumps racing, you watch that horse.
"It's his second time over steeples and to come out here and win a grand annual and jump like that, it was an unbelievable performance."
Heberite, who led for a large part of the race, was praised by McCarthy.
He said the seven-year-old gelding showed signs of inexperience but was astute enough to hold his position.
"I'm towards the end of my career as a jockey, I'm not going to get to ride in too many more grand annuals," he said.
"I'll have maybe two or three of them, so I'm even more blessed to make this one count."
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