He was a British heir. She was a country girl from Tooraweenah, NSW.
He was learning his straps in racing under the tutelage of Australia’s first lady of racing, Gai Waterhouse that would build a foundation for an exciting future and learning no one gets off on light duties in the Waterhouse stable. She was making her way in the banking industry.
He was taking Gai’s horses to the Magic Millions carnival and attending the sales. She (his future wife) was holidaying with friends on the Gold Coast. They both had a mutual English female friend and they both met in the hullabaloo of the carnival. They fell in love and became boyfriend and girlfriend.
He is Hugo Palmer, now one of the top trainers at Newmarket, England and she is Vanessa Palmer, nee Webb, a banker for Morgan Stanley, who grew up on a farm, “Dooroombah”, near Tooraweenah.
On Saturday night Vanessa had the unenviable duty of choosing a barrier for Wall of Fire in the Melbourne Cup. Barriers can make or break a horse’s chances in the race. Confidently, with little aplomb, she strode up and picked up the little cup and lifted it up. Fifteen! There were shouts of joy all round.
To actually get to the position of drawing a barrier has been a nerve wracking time for the Palmers. Hugo and his team have been on tenterhooks for weeks not knowing if Wall of Fire would make the field. At one time the horse was 30th in the order of entry, then suddenly it was 24th looking like it could get a start, then Qewy won the Bendigo Cup and shot above it in the order.
Then last Friday, Qewy was withdrawn and also Jon Snow, and Wall of Fire was safely in the field with just a day to spare before the field was declared.
“It’s been a very nervy time,” admits Palmer.
An Australian interest bought into Wall of Fire 12 months ago. Melbourne entrepreneur “Ossie” Kheir has made some wise investments in racing over the last few years. He had part ownership in Protectionist, which won the Cup in 2014. They say every time Ossie has a Cup runner his wife is pregnant and it’s happened again this time. “We’re going to have a lot of kids by the time I’m finished,” he quipped on Derby Day, when his horse Sully ran second in the Derby.
Hugo watched Wall of Fire’s first Aussie start where he made a strong finish for second. He returned to his racing operation at Newmarket where he looks after 140 horses. He then left last Wednesday in a dash back to “Down Under” as he calls it for Derby Day and the Cup draw. He had world class jockey Frankie Dettori as a travelling companion for some of the way as he returned “backwards” around the world to Australia. Dettori was on his way to watch the Breeders Cup at Del Mar in the US. (won by Gun Runner, with world’s best horse on dirt Arrogate no threat). Frankie is riding the favourite Almandin in the Melbourne Cup and he is hoping finally for a change of good luck in the big race. Almandin won last year’s Cup.
Palmer is in shock he has come so far in training in just seven years. He regularly leads back group places in England with his horses. He thought he’d win an Epsom Derby first, not be a contender for a Melbourne Cup.
He has done it the hard way by himself. Everyone says he is very humble despite his links to a British heirdom. He and Vanessa married in July 2015, with a wedding at his ancestral home, Manderston in Berwickshire, before they went back and celebrated with her family in Australia.
Now they are looking at the very real chance of winning the Melbourne Cup, surrounded by their family and friends. Wall of Fire is a 15-1 chance and now Vanessa has selected barrier 15, it seems Aussie luck is there.
Craig Williams has taken the ride, and his strength will suit Wall of Fire, Palmer says.
“It’s an absolute dream to have a runner in a Melbourne Cup. We have been planning this for 12 months and all has gone to plan.”
As for Wall of Fire? “He’s got a great turn of foot, he stays well, and gets in with a very light weight. He’s a very neat, nimble horse, not a big striding horse.”
And when Vanessa and Hugo have children? “I’m very proud to say they will be half Australian,” says Palmer.