Celebrating the Melbourne Cup | All about that winning feeling

On the eve of the 2021 Melbourne Cup, we can look back to the 2015 running of the event when Prince of Penzance (NZ) triumphed – at a $101 chance.

Prince of Penzance and Michelle Payne winning the 2015 Melbourne Cup

The last Kiwi-bred horse to win was Efficient in 2007, so it was a while between wins for a thoroughbred harking from New Zealand before Prince of Penzance surprised the world.

And it was quite a moment for John Thompson whose Matamata-based farm, Rich Hill Stud, was the birthplace of Prince of Penzance (NZ) and is where the horse's sire, Pentire, is buried after his passing in 2017.

We sat down to chat with John about Pentire, how it feels to bred a Melbourne Cup winner and how exactly you celebrate when one of your stud’s progeny is thrust on to the world stage.

John Thompson with Pentire. Image credit: Teresa Hattan, Fairfax NZ

Firstly, can you tell us what it feels like to breed a Melbourne Cup winner? What was going through your mind when you watched the race?

It’s a really interesting question and one that’s quite hard to put into words. We were watching the race on the farm with the staff and it was already a bit special just having a runner, despite him being at long odds.

As he came into the straight, I remember commenting on how well he was going, and when Michelle got him out into the open, it became obvious that he was going to be right in the mix.

That got the adrenaline going at that point! To see him win was truly a great thrill.

Leading into the race, did you think he had a chance? Given he was at odds of 100-1, punters weren’t considering him the most likely of bets.

Looking purely at his pedigree, he really was bred to stay on both his dam side and through Pentire – so when a couple of people called me prior to the race and asked if I thought he was a chance, I advised them to chuck him in a trifecta off of pedigree alone – I sadly didn’t follow my own advice!

The other factor that went through my mind was his performance when he ran second at Moonee Valley behind The United States. He didn’t have the best run and it was a race he really should have won so he was showing good form heading into the Cup.

I felt it was a bit ridiculous that he was at such long odds so perhaps there were other factors that influenced that.

Was it that he had Michelle on him? Or just maybe that he didn’t have the profile that some of the other runners had?

Michelle Payne on Prince of Penzance after winning the Melbourne Cup. Picture: Nicole Garmston

How did you celebrate that night?

We had quite the party – but we were mindful that it was still breeding season and we all had to work the next day. It was great to have all of the staff there and some friends spontaneously called in to celebrate with us too.

One enduring memory is how many media calls I fielded in that first hour or so after the race.

I was consistently on the phone to New Zealand radio stations and news outlets both here and in Australia. TV1 even arranged to come to the farm the next day.

I think that was the moment for me when I realised the level of significance and public interest his win had created, through being the first female winner but also the first kiwi horse to win in some time, at such long odds.

It blew me away and I’ll never forget it.

John Thompson with his family and Michelle Payne at Ellerslie after being presented with the Breeders' Melbourne Cup at the Karaka Million.

Six years later, would it still be one of the highlights of your breeding career? What other moments have come close?

Breeding a Melbourne Cup winner is definitely still the highlight of my breeding career.

I was quoted at the time saying “I’ll die a happy man, I’ve bred a Melbourne Cup winner” which was a little bit of a tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of a quote given after a rugby game but it really does sum it up.

Do you have anything at the farm that celebrates his win?

We have the replica of the Melbourne Cup on the farm with some pictures of him. And to this day people are still interested in seeing it.