Few people can say that they combine their life’s passion with their work, but I’m one of the lucky ones who can. As I led Aristia (Lonhro) through the Flemington mounting yard as an owner and part of the First Light Racing team after winning the VRC Oaks, I turned to Damian Lane and told him it was the best day of my life. He agreed, and we both meant every word.
It had been a long time coming for me. It was in a sea of pink in 2004 that I watched Aristia’s sire, Lonhro, win the Australian Cup and I knew that racing - and that horse - was a part of me, forever.
When I found myself working for First Light in the Spring of 2017, I fell in love again. This time it was with an unnamed Lonhro filly who was showing 'plenty' at trackwork, and with a nod and a wink from her track rider Tash Boucher, I knew I had to have her.
A few weeks later - once she was swiftly named and registered as Aristia - I watched nervously as she ran third on debut over 1000m as a 2-year-old at Moonee Valley. We had a special filly on our hands, and trainers Simon Zahra and Mat Ellerton knew the best was yet to come.
"With a nod and a wink from her track rider Tash Boucher, I knew I had to have her." - Belinda Meyers
Twelve months later, going into Derby Day with the best maiden in Australia (placed twice at Group level) was daunting and the nerves were off the charts. I’d put several friends into Aristia’s ownership and the pressure was on to get them a result. Winning the G2 Wakeful Stakes with a perfect ride and a perfect run was the perfect way to do it.
We celebrated in true FLR style for what seemed like days, then back at the office we sweated on the barrier draw for the Oaks and analysed our chances until we had nothing left to give.
We recorded our weekly podcast and I refused to tip her (superstition only), but I knew she’d win. The phone didn’t stop all week, as I repeated what had become my mantra: “She’s the best horse in the race with the best jockey on her back.”
“She’s the best horse in the race with the best jockey on her back.” - Belinda Meyers
The night before Oaks Day, I was trying to convince my colleague Tim Wilson to join me for a drink at a local pub. He simply replied: “Go home, you’re winning a Group 1 tomorrow.” And come the next day, for once, I wasn’t nervous.
The big day
Simon and Mat were bullish that Aristia had improved off Saturday’s run, and there was no doubt in my mind that the Oaks would be hers. In all the excitement shopping time had eluded me (probably too much time at the aforementioned pub), so I raided my wardrobe for an outfit and threw on my ‘lucky’ headpiece from Derby Day. I was relaxed and confident, like never before.
The rest of the day is a blur of the most magnificent kind. A joyful jumble of memories all rolled into the most exhilarating, emotional and life-changing day. One minute we were chatting tactics with Damian in the mounting yard and then we were back in our ‘lucky’ seats from Derby Day. We held our collective breath as she slightly missed the start, sat a little wide and then slotted into that magical 1-1 position. We cheered as she hit the straight, then hit the front. We screamed and we cried and we hugged as she crossed the line, daring to believe it had happened as Matty Hill roared with delight: “ARRRRRRISTIAAAAA!”
" We screamed and we cried and we hugged as she crossed the line, daring to believe it had happened as Matty Hill roared with delight: “ARRRRRRISTIAAAAA!” " - Belinda Meyers
I’m told the roar from the owners’ deck was equally impressive, and the raucous soccer-style chant that followed the trophy presentation is just a taste of the celebrations that ensued.
The time-honoured tradition of drinking out of the winning trophy has been done to death, and we’ve kissed it, danced with it and even thrown it around like a football. Every chance I’ve had, I’ve replayed the now-famous vision of the race, our celebrations afterward and jumping Jake Costas, her beloved strapper, to anyone who would watch.
Soaking it up
By Monday I still had hundreds of unread text messages, emails and unreturned calls, but I woke up with the VRC Oaks trophy next to my bed and smiled at how lucky I was.
Aristia was off to the paddock, but not before a quick visit to bid her farewell. Oh, and a few cheeky photos with the two winning trophies. Of course. I’m biased but looking at her dappled coat and her easy strut on Monday morning, it’s hard not to think that she’ll just get better from here (did someone say Cox Plate?)
A few days later Jake sent me a text: “I miss Aristia already”. And it hit home that I might not be the only one who loves her as much as I do.
Through joining FLR and jumping aboard the Aristia train, I’ve shared an experience every racehorse owner would kill for with some of my closest friends and made new friendships that will last a lifetime. Winning a Group 1 with a horse that means everything to me wasn't as good as I thought it would be… it was better.