Cup hope's preparation going swimmingly - 'The Age'

The Age's series, Tracking Demerger, goes off-course to a beach near Barwon Heads.

TRAINER Danny O'Brien is leaving no stone unturned to get his stayer Demerger to the Melbourne Cup in peak condition, twice having secreted her to country and beach for a week at a time as an integral part of her program.

When The Age went with O'Brien and track rider Billie-Jo Drage to 13th Beach, near Barwon Heads, the pair picked up or kicked away all protruding stones on the path through the dunes to the vast and empty sands.

"Stone bruises," was all Drage needed to say. For many working in racing stables, affection for a particular horse becomes almost obsessive, and Drage's love of "Mergie" is a badge of honour on her riding trousers that have Demerger in big letters on the leg.

O'Brien, in talking of the mare, is more measured. But his eyes glow almost as much as the mare's chestnut coat when he talks of her condition and of how much she has improved since her seven-length Adelaide Cup win over 3200 metres, the Melbourne Cup distance, in May.

"I'll be staggered if she doesn't run in the first five," he said more than a week ahead of the November 1 race on Demerger's home track.

She has a home away from home that O'Brien has kept under wraps until he allowed The Age to open it as part of its "Tracking Demerger" series. Flemington-based O'Brien spells, pre-trains, educates and refreshes the bulk of his horses at Kelvin Bourke's Drysdale property, about 20 minutes from Geelong. And he uses the sand and water of 13th Beach, about 20 minutes from Drysdale, as a further working tool.

Demerger went to Bourke's for a week after the Turnbull Stakes on October 2, returning to run in the Caulfield Cup as her final Melbourne Cup race.

Last Monday, she went there again to enjoy paddock life and keep nudging her fitness towards a November 1 peak with swimming in a horse pool, beachwork and, this trip, gallops on the course proper at Geelong on Thursday and Saturday.

The beach is heaven for Demerger and Drage, who trot, canter and wade with one of Bourke's horses, My Man Friday, a winner at Geelong last week. Hidden from the road, the only hell is the constant ringing of O'Brien's mobile phone, a device fast replacing the stopwatch as a trainer's must-have tool.

The sand is a smooth and softly firm surface that Demerger relishes as she canters the length of the beach ahead of her companion before walking and paddling back, breaking waves a relaxing backdrop as O'Brien opens up about how being in a country paddock all day breaks the monotony of stable life.

"I'm not at Lindsay Park or Rye, but I want to have that extra something," he said. "Kelvin does a good job. It's almost an extra part of my stable.

"Demerger's absolutely thriving. She's going better than in Adelaide, and she goes better at Flemington. She's just going to peak on Melbourne Cup day beautifully, which is what you're supposed to be doing."

O'Brien said Demerger took no harm from her Caulfield Cup 10th, a satisfactory preparatory run.

In his mid-30s and licensed for just over a decade, he already is among the bracket of city trainers sitting below Lee Freedman — he was third on last year's premiership with 38 wins — and is intent on building a thriving business that includes group 1 wins as well as the everyday.

This season, he has had only one city win — Ferocity in the group 2 Ascot Vale Stakes — but he said that last year, it was not until cup week that the stable got rolling.

He has watched how Freedman, Bart Cummings and George Hanlon prepare stayers and has adapted the lessons to come up with a softer approach that taxes Demerger, a five-year-old mare, no more than necessary and already has brought a two-mile, group 1 cup.

This campaign, there were minor changes to lead-up races, to suit the horse. But it seems the only hiccup so far came on leaving 13th Beach — Bourke's old float wouldn't start, the result of battery power used in raising the back ramp/door after the horses were loaded. Jumper leads got the truck going and it was a contented crew that unloaded Demerger back at Bourke's.

The mare will return to Flemington today when O'Brien will pay the third declaration fee of $2200 for the cup. She will gallop on the course proper tomorrow with other big-race runners, Drage giving up the saddle for cup rider Blake Shinn.

Check out the full article in The Age