John Costello remembers the great chestnut who made his final public bow at Ellerslie on Boxing Day, 2003.
In the autumn of 1986, a three-year-old named Bonecrusher was being compared with Phar Lap. Six months earlier, the resemblances to the Between-the-Wars champion would have been hard to come by. Like Phar Lap, Bonecrusher was a chestnut, a gelding, and he’d been a cheap buy. That was about it. He wasn’t as big as Phar Lap and he’d certainly done insufficient to suggest he was anywhere near the same plateau in terms of ability. He’d been a promising two-year-old, but not as good as Starboard. As a spring three-year-old, he’d run placings in the New Zealand semi-classics, but looked inferior to Avon’s Lord and Honour Bright. Probably only his connections, owner Peter Mitchell and trainer Frank Ritchie, had any inkling yet of the Ferrari motor within that chestnut hide.
Then came the Levin Bayer Classic. Gary Stewart, Bonecrusher’s regular rider, was under suspension and expatriate Kiwi Jimmy Cassidy was invited over to take the Bayer Classic mount. He did so and was impressed as the chestnut powered wide round the field to win decisively.
The public took more convincing. Bonecrusher won the Avondale Guineas but only by a whisker, and after being called in third to Hot Ice and Flight Bijou in a three-way photo. Flight Bijou was sent out favourite for the New Zealand Derby, but Bonecrusher was now beginning to fill the Big Red shoes. The electrifying sprint he turned on from the home turn would have won the classic by half a dozen lengths, except that he shied at something on the inside 200m out, lost momentum and allowed Flight Bijou to get within a length.
This Doubting Thomas still wasn’t convinced that Bonecrusher was any more than the current best of the three-year-old crop, with spring star Avon’s Lord sidelined by injury.
It was Bonecrusher’s next performance, in the Cambridge Stud International Stakes at Te Rapa, that made me realize he was exceptional. A three-year-old racing against the best older horses, Bonecrusher was having his first start for six weeks. He needed the race to tune him for the Air New Zealand Stakes 11 days later. Last on the home turn at Te Rapa, Bonecrusher improved along the fence, nudged a rival out of the way to get a clear run, and flashed past the leader, Avondale Cup winner Eva Grace, at such a rate it gave her wind-burn. He won by two lengths in a New Zealand record 1:59.59.
From then, anything Bonecrusher did was simply confirming what we now knew: here was one of those exceptional horses who come along, usually, only once in a generation.
Bonecrusher duly won the Air New Zealand Stakes, though not without Gary Stewart giving us a fright by allowing him to ease down when he didn’t see Abit Leica dashing home against the rail. Then the team headed for Sydney – and the Phar Lap comparisons began.
Bonecrusher won the Tancred Stakes, under a different name these days but then and now the biggest weight-for-age race of the Sydney autumn, with that blinding turn of foot we Kiwis had seen in the Derby, the Waikato International and (until he eased down) the Air New Zealand Stakes. In the AJC Derby a week later, he demonstrated the other trait for which I’ll always remember Bonecrusher: a huge will to win.
Bonecrusher may have made the Tancred Stakes look easy, but it’s never easy beating the best horses around over 2400m. Frank Ritchie afterwards admitted the Tancred had taken more out of him than he realised. In the Derby, Bonecrusher’s dazzling finishing burst was missing; but his will to win wasn’t. Inside the 200m he was only one of a line of four or five, all fighting hard. But Bonecrusher put his neck in front, and he still had his neck in front at the line.
A four-year-old Bonecrusher was set for Australasia’s No 1 weight-for-age contest, the W.S.Cox Plate at Moonee Valley. So was another Kiwi four-year-old, Waverley Star, who had followed a very different path to Bonecrusher through his three-year-old career but had also demonstrated above-average ability. In the preface to Tapestry of Turf, the book Pat Finnegan and I produced a year or so later, Matamata training great Dave O’Sullivan described Waverley Star as the most talented horse he had trained. A virtual match race looked on the cards and for once, on that October afternoon at Moonee Valley, that breathlessly awaited match race followed the script.
Gary Stewart’s game plan was to make sure the pressure went on Waverley Star a fair way out. When Bonecrusher began to swoop from the back at the 1000m, Lance O’Sullivan saw him coming and pulled Waverley Star out to make his sprint and keep “The Crusher” one wider. The two Kiwi gallopers roared to the front as the home turn approached and settled down to slug it out. Bonecrusher gained a narrow lead on the bend into the short Moonee Valley straight; Waverley Star wrested it back 200m out. Then Bonecrusher, as the late great race caller Bill Collins so memorably yelled, raced “into equine immortality” as he called on the last reserves of courage and stamina to grab victory in the last two strides.
Who now remembers that The Filbert, another New Zealand contender, was third in that great Cox Plate and an unlucky third at that? It was a two-horse war from the 800m, and one of the all-time great races.
Bonecrusher and Waverley Star both now headed for the Japan Cup. Waverley Star won a lead-up race in Tokyo and ran a luckless fifth in the big one. Bonecrusher was lying on a bed of pain, smitten by a bacterial infection that almost took his life.
Probably only once more did we see Bonecrusher at his best. That was in the Australian Cup at Flemington, after a recovered Bonecrusher had run fourth in the Lion Brown Sprint at Te Rapa and beaten inferior rivals in the Flying Mile at Avondale. They team-rode against Bonecrusher in the Australian Cup and, by the time Gary Stewart got him into the clear, At Talaq was away in the lead and going for the doctor. A classy Northern Hemisphere-bred, At Talaq was a Melbourne Cup winner and, if there was one thing he wasn’t going to do, it was fade on his run.
Bonecrusher set out after him but for most of that long straight he was never going to overhaul the Melbourne Cup winner. He remorselessly closed the gap but the task still looked hopeless 100m out. That huge will to win came to the fore. Refusing to admit defeat, Bonecrusher lunged at At Talaq in the shadows of the post. And got there.
In later years some blamed the near-fatal illness in Japan for Bonecrusher’s failure to add more sparkling jewels to his already glittering diadem; some even suggested it was that knock-down, drag-out war with Waverley Star at Moonee Valley. Nonsense. Bonecrusher produced a performance of Cox Plate quality when he downed At Talaq in the Australian Cup.
I do believe it was that race, that gut-buster against At Talaq when he probably wasn’t at 100 per cent fitness but simply refused to be beaten, which “flattened” the mighty chestnut to the point where he was never quite the same again. A recurring back problem also abbreviated subsequent preparations. He nevertheless wound up winning 18 races all told, nine of them at Group One level. If memory serves me right he was our first New Zealand-owned and –trained millionaire and his eventual earnings, $2.54 million, were huge a decade and a half ago.
The Bonecrusher of the 1985-86 season, and in the spring of 1986-87, was truly a champion. The warm reception he has received when leading out feature-race fields on numerous occasions since his retirement is evidence that there are plenty of racegoers out there who don’t have short memories, and who remember the special magic he brought to our racedays back then.
Thanks, Bonecrusher, for many great memories but especially for that unforgettable, superb Cox Plate.