14 January 2023

'Racing royalty' to launch Black Opal Stakes 50th anniversary celebrations

| Katrina Condie
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Race horse

Richard and Michael Freedman’s two-year-old filly Queen Of The Ball took out the 2022 Group 3 Black Opal Stakes. Photo: Bradley Photos.

Inaugural Black Opal race caller John Tapp will be back behind the microphone to perform a phantom call of the ‘Best Ever Black Opal’ ahead of this year’s big 50th anniversary race.

He has joined legendary Canberra horse trainer Barbara Joseph and Racing and Sports’ Gary Crispe in compiling a field of the 12 best winners of the Black Opal Stakes over the past five decades.

The phantom call will be a highlight of the John McGrath Auto Group Black Opal Cocktail Party to be held at the mounting yard at Thoroughbred Park at sundown on Thursday 2 March, ahead of Canberra’s greatest horse race on 12 March.

John called the inaugural Black Opal Stakes in 1973 when Rich Reward beat Wanted Man by the slimmest of margins, and he says he’ll never forget a sunny race day with lots of hype and a real buzz about the brand new two-year-old Sunday race.

“It feels a bit eerie for me because I can remember that day as if it was last week. I can’t believe 50 years has gone by,” he added.

A young race caller in his 30s, John was working for 2GB radio alongside legendary caller Ken Howard and was thrown in the deep end to call the Black Opal because Ken was unavailable that day.

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John says the expert racing trio has come up with a “hypothetical” field worthy of the title “Best Ever Black Opal”.

“It’s a selection of the best 12 of 49 Black Opal winners and was a real exercise in hypothesis,” he said.

“We’ve settled on our mythical dozen based on forms, statistics and data around their performances at the time.

“Six or seven of the horses probably selected themselves based on their dominance in their particular era. And what they did after their Black Opal wins was also a very important barometer when choosing the phantom field.”

John said some of the horses, which will remain top secret until the cocktail party, went on to win other great races, including the Golden Slipper.

While he hasn’t called a race for 25 years, except for a few guest appearances, John said he was looking forward to dusting the cobwebs off his microphone and presenting a thrilling 70-second phantom call.

Barbara, who has been following the race for 49 years, says there’s an exciting buildup to the cocktail party and race day.

“It’s always a great day with lots of families, young people and fantastic fashions on the field,” she said.

“The event is building back up, with crowd numbers like they used to be in the early years.”

Barbara has picked up a few placings over the decades and says she would be thrilled to take out the anniversary race.

“I’m hoping to have some runners in the Black Opal. I’ve got a few on the boil,” she said.

After training horses for 46 years Barbara says she still gets the same thrill when her horses approach the finish line.

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The Black Opal attracts the country’s top two-year-olds and is a qualifying race for Sydney’s Golden Slipper.

“It’s the signature race of Canberra and was the first regular Sunday race in Australia,” Gary said.

“All the top trainers, the top jockeys and very good two-year-olds have competed at the Black Opal over the last 49 years. The late Lester Piggott, Jim Cassidy and Hugh Bowman have all ridden and won the race, which shows its great standing in the racing industry.”

Gary said it was a “major coup” to have John coming to Canberra to call the phantom race.

“It’s going to be a great night and we’re expecting a good turnout of ‘racing royalty’,” he added.

The John McGrath Auto Group Black Opal Stakes Race Day is the premier race day on day one of the Canberra racing calendar.

Presented by the Canberra Racing Club and held on the Sunday of the Canberra Day long weekend, the nine-race Black Opal Stakes Race Day is expected to be an action-packed event, with fashions on the field, DJs, premium food vans, massive giveaways and an ‘Underground Spirits Gin Lawn’.

Tickets to the John McGrath Auto Group Black Opal Stakes Race Day are now available and limited tickets are on offer for the 50th anniversary cocktail party.

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