Springtime in Melbourne always spurs glorious memories for the trailblazer Sheila Laxon. Her heart starts racing and her spine tingles when she thinks of Ethereal and those great bursts of finishing speed she produced nearly two decades ago to create Australasian racing history.
Such intoxicating emotions were rekindled just a few months later in 2002 when Ethereal went to test her greatness earned in those two Melbourne spring handicaps in the Tancred Stakes (then called the BMW) at weight-for-age at Rosehill.
Little did Laxon know before the race what she was about to see and what she was about to feel in the ensuing weeks and months.
The 2002 Tancred Stakes was to be Ethereal last race and it was a race that, in some respects at least, trumped even her dual Cups triumph of the previous spring.
The mare would put in a run at Rosehill that day that what prove, in hindsight, to be the grandest of finales. Right up there with Makybe Diva’s some four years later when she claimed her third Melbourne Cup and was retired moments later.
Laxon said this week that she believed Ethereal’s Tancred win in 2002 was ultimately the best of her career. It was not just because of the extraordinary manner in which the then four-year-old won the race, but also because the racing world would never see her do it again.
So, included in those range of emotions Laxon feels when she thinks of the great mare and her BMW win, is an overwhelming one of what could have been.
“Peter Vela (owner and breeder) said before the race (Tancred) that if she wins that she can go for the Arc (Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe), but then he changed his mind and decided to retire her,” Laxon recalled from her training base on the Sunshine Coast.
“I think if he had his time again it would have been very different because the horse that ran seventh in the Melbourne Cup behind her and beaten quite a long way was Marienbard and he went and won the Arc, so that truly would have been a fairytale ending.”
Ethereal beat Marienbard nine lengths in the Melbourne Cup and nearly 11 months later as she began her career as a broodmare, Marienbard held off the top Irish galloper Sulamani (who won features on three continents) as well as the champion derby winner High Chaparral in one of the world’s great horse races over 2400 metres at Longchamp.
Ethereal never got to Paris, but of all the Australasian mares (with the exception of Winx) to have been eligible for it, she may well have had the best chance of winning it.
Ethereal was an extraordinary stayer and a most underrated one. The Kiwi mare only went beyond 2000 metres four times in her life and she won them all at group 1 level.
She came to notice in 2001 when, in just her second run in Australia, she stormed to victory in the Queensland Oaks (2400m) from 10th on the home turn before that spring she held off a late-charging Sky Heights to win the Caulfield Cup (2400m).
Just 17 days later she produced that mesmerising final sprint out in the middle of a sodden Flemington track to chase down and ultimately deny Give The Slip the Melbourne Cup (3200m).
Then, after a few lead-up runs in Melbourne, came the Tancred (2400m) in the autumn. “It was an amazing win,” Laxon gushed of the mare’s 21st and final run.
“That for me was her best win because she came from an absolutely impossible situation.
“She was buried away for a run and she had Universal Prince on her outside and she had to wait and then come around him and to beat him was phenomenal.
“I could watch that win over and over again and never get tired of it.”
Laxon was born in Wales but grew up in England where she was a champion junior showjumper. She then moved to New Zealand as a rider where she married trainer Laurie Laxon.
She later went out her own as a trainer, where she will be forever credited with officially being the first woman to train a Melbourne Cup winner.
Instead of chasing the Arc, Ethereal retired to the breeding barn with a record of 21 starts for eight wins and more than $4.7 million in stakes. But she never quite reached similar heights as a mum.
From 12 foals, nine were named and while some enjoyed multiple success, only listed winner Seraphim earned black type.
These days, Laxon trains with John Symons on the Sunshine Coast and while she is dealing with lesser quality gallopers than to her champion of 20 years ago, she never gives up hope of finding another Ethereal.
“I dare say I won’t, but I’ll still keep looking,” she said.