Fifteen years on

By Matt Stewart

The first time the Lexus Melbourne Cup dawned on me, the scale of it, the reach, came one remarkable morning down at Markdel.

That spring, I had the privilege of “ghosting’’ Lee Freedman’s columns for the Herald Sun.

It was a good spring to be a ghost because it was the spring of Lee Freedman and Makybe Diva.

After Makybe Diva won the 2015 Cox Plate, focus turned to Flemington. The quest.

Publicly, Freedman had been cagey about whether Makybe Diva would attempt to win a third Melbourne Cup.

Freedman had insisted that the Cox Plate was a major mission and that he was worried by the 58kg the mare would have to carry in the Melbourne Cup.

As his ghost, I had more of an inkling than most that only a terribly-timed injury would prevent the most famous bid in Cup history.

But the public was waiting for a smoke signal.

The Monday after the Cox Plate, the media descended on Markdel, the seaside property Freedman had developed down near Rye.

I’d manage to enter Markdel before sun-up, glued to Freedman up in his trainer’s tower as his shadow but Freedman put the place into lockdown as The Diva had a recovery gallop on the uphill horse-shoe track.

It was media madness.

The farm gates were locked. Dozens of media hung about out the front. St Andrews Private golf-course ran along the back of the farm and a reporter and a camera crew commandeered a drive buggy and found the highest hill as a vantage point for any glimpse of the mare.

It was either later that morning or on another morning that week that Freedman – who still hadn’t made up his mind about the Cup, at least publicly – took Makybe Diva to Safety Beach.

There were more reporters than sand flies that morning but they kept a respectful distance from Freedman, who sat on the steps of a beach box.

The most famous horse in the world waded nearby as dolphins frolicked just metres away.

A woman walking a dog shrieked as Freedman towelled the mare down. Freedman gave the dog walker the towel and she ran off with it, shrieking with joy.

At some point, Freedman let the cat out of the bag and the countdown was on.

The night before the Cup, Glen Boss caught up with owner Tony Santic for a nerve-settler at Crown.

Over a neat scotch, Boss told Santic that winning the Cup was pre-destined. The jockey would not imagine anything but victory.

At about 2am the next morning, Cup Day, Freedman sat bolt upright in bed. It was an “ah-hah!’’ moment.

All night Freedman remained awake, trying to come up with the perfect line for his acceptance speech. Like Boss, Freedman never imagined Makybe Diva could lose.

He delivered that line on the winner’s podium minutes before Boss told reporters that the race unfolded like a dream; every step he and the mare took, the gaps appeared as if – indeed – the result was pre-destined.

On the podium, Freedman said: “Go and find the smallest child on this course because that will be the only person who lives long enough to see something like this again,’’

Santic briefly removed his Makybe Diva mask and announced she would be retired.

It was the perfect end to the perfect Cup story.

And somewhere down near Rye, a woman who walks her dog at the beach is in possession of a precious towel that she’s never, ever washed.