Cleary still has Black Opal dream 20 years after Catbird has flown


This year Cleary doesn’t have any runners on Black Opal Stakes Day at Canberra’s Thoroughbred Park on Sunday.

Instead, he’ll probably watch from home – although he thought Canberra Racing might’ve invited him for Catbird’s 20th anniversary.

He’s still training – “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired, I’d send everyone mad” – but he’s scaled his operation right back, with his son Joe now leading the charge for the family.

But those dwindling numbers haven’t equated to diminishing expectations.

He’s still training horses for his good mate and Canberra Raiders patron John McIntyre, with “JR” charging him with the job of finding his next Black Opal winner.

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“I only keep three or four there at the most. I keep a couple just to keep my hand in. Joe does most of them these days,” Cleary said.

“The 20 years have gone bloody quick, all we need to do now is find another Catbird.”

Cleary recalls there wasn’t that much pressure leading into Catbird’s Black Opal run – that was to come three weeks later in the grand final, the Slipper.

His Opal pressure had been released seven years earlier when Clan O’Sullivan saluted – the first time a local runner had won Canberra’s feature race after 20 years of trying.

Clan O’Sullivan was too strong in the Black Opal, winning by more than two lengths, but fell narrowly short of repeating the victory four weeks later in the Slipper.

It was that narrow loss that was driving owner Ken Jones with Catbird in the chase for Australia’s two-year-old horse-racing crown.

Catbird cruises to victory in the Black Opal. Three weeks later he’d win the Golden Slipper as well.Credit:Martin Jones

“The build-up to Catbird’s Black Opal wasn’t too bad, but the build-up when Clan O’Sullivan was the first local horse to win it there was a huge build-up for that because no local horse had won it,” Cleary said.

“He was our first really live chance, Clan O’Sullivan, and it was a lot of pressure going into that race, but Catbird wasn’t so bad.

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“It was half expected to win it and the pressure came when we were heading to the Golden Slipper.”

The race itself? When Catbird turned for home and blew the field away in the straight before easing to the line.

Cleary recalls watching it with Raiders legend Jason Croker.

“Him and I stood together and watched it, and I said to him at the half mile when he got such a lovely position, ‘He’ll win from there’, which he did,” he said.

“Then the celebrations started.”

Having shot to stardom as a two-year-old, Catbird never really found the same heights again after that.

He only managed one place in his next seven starts before retiring.

The lure of the good life was becoming too strong for the son of Danehill.

“He became a real stallion. His interest in racing wasn’t there, all he wanted to do was go to stud. He wanted to go to the honeymoon suite,” Cleary said.

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“He wasn’t a bad stallion either, he threw some nice horses.”

As for this year’s Black Opal, Cleary liked the look of the Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott-trained Bellevue Hill, which convincingly won the preview.

Unfortunately, the colt was scratched on Friday and will instead go to the Todman Stakes at Randwick on Saturday.

BLACK OPAL STAKES DAY

Sunday: Gates open 11.30am with the first race at 1pm. Tickets available from Ticketek.

David Polkinghorne covers the Canberra Raiders, local rugby league, Canberra Cavalry, racing and cycling, along with every other sport, for The Canberra Times.

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