Horses for cour­ses in an Aussie block­buster.

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page -

AC­TOR Stephen Curry re­mem­bers ex­actly where he was when Me­dia Puz­zle won the 2002 Mel­bourne Cup.

When star jockey Damien Oliver thun­dered first past the post at Flem­ing­ton on the Ir­ish-trained geld­ing, then ec­stat­i­cally blew a kiss to the heav­ens in one of the most en­dur­ing im­ages in Aus­tralian sport, the star of The Cas­tle and The King was at his Mel­bourne home, ‘‘ jump­ing around like a fool’’.

Like many other Aus­tralians, Curry had laid down his hard-earned cash on Oliver, in­spired by the hope of a fairy­tale end to an ex­tra­or­di­nary story.

Just the week be­fore, Damien’s brother, Ja­son, also a jockey, had been killed af­ter a fall at a bar­rier trial in Perth. The tragedy hit the Oliver fam­ily par­tic­u­larly hard given that the broth­ers’ fa­ther, Ray, had also died in a rac­ing ac­ci­dent in 1975. Damien ago­nised all week on whether he would take the Mel­bourne Cup ride he had been care­fully se­lected for by Ir­ish train­ing great Der­mot Weld – or in­deed whether he would ever race again. When the big day ar­rived, Oliver couldn’t take a trick – not even man­ag­ing a place in the long card be­fore he lined up in the race that stops a na­tion.

But wear­ing his brother’s silks and ded­i­cat­ing the ride

to his mem­ory, he out­lasted Me­dia Puz­zle’s more fan­cied sta­ble­mate, Vin­nie Roe, and a world-class field to power his way into sport­ing folk­lore.

‘‘ I didn’t even know the full story – I knew his brother had passed away,’’ says Curry, who plays Damien Oliver in the new Aus­tralian film, The Cup.

He ad­mits he didn’t know too much about horserac­ing be­fore he signed up for the lead role – and even less about horses.

He had, how­ever, rid­den on screen early in his ca­reer for The Man From

Snowy River TV se­ries, not that the ex­pe­ri­ence helped him too much.

‘‘ I only got that role be­cause at the au­di­tion they had a lit­tle ques­tion­naire say­ing, ‘ Can you ride a horse? Tick yes or no’,’’ he says.

‘‘ I am an ac­tor, so they might as well have been say­ing, ‘ Do you want this job – yes or no?’.

‘‘ So I ticked ‘ yes’, got the role and sud­denly thought ‘ oh ----’.’’

For­tu­nately for him, Curry was in good hands.

With cred­its in­clud­ing Phar Lap and The Lighthorse­men and the west­erns Quigley and Into the West on his CV, The Cup’s Aussie di­rec­tor Si­mon Win­cer knows a thing or two about film­ing horses.

So a rather ner­vous Curry headed to the di­rec­tor’s prop­erty for a crash course in rid­ing, first on stock horses and then re­tired thor­ough­breds. The ex­tended pre-pro­duc­tion pe­riod also proved to be a bless­ing.

‘‘ I was slowly learn­ing as I went there and get­ting pretty good at it, ac­cord­ing to Si­mon,’’ Curry says.

‘‘ I felt pretty good and felt con­fi­dent – they say the horse knows pretty in­stan­ta­neously if you don’t know what you are do­ing and then they take charge.

‘‘ That’s how you end up on your arse. I ended up on my arse a few times early but got the hang of it and started quite en­joy­ing it.

‘‘ Then I got on to thor­ough­breds – and that’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish. The tech­niques are still the same but it’s like the dif­fer­ence be­tween a 180B and a Fer­rari.

‘‘ You know where the wheel is and where the ped­als are and how to stop and start but that’s where it ends.’’

Curry also hit the gym and lost 15kg to more ac­cu­rately re­flect the jockey’s physique, and in the process gained a new­found re­spect for the pro­fes­sion.

‘‘ What I did was noth­ing com­pared to what they do,’’ he says.

‘‘ It’s not just about their courage and abil­ity and strength and tim­ing, it’s that ded­i­ca­tion.

‘‘ Damien and a hand­ful of other jock­eys are very suc­cess­ful in terms of wins, ex­pe­ri­ence and money.

‘‘ He has made a liv­ing out it. Nine­ty­five per cent of these blokes and girls don’t – or they live hand to mouth. And they are not do­ing any less work than Damien is do­ing.

‘‘ Ac­tors com­plain about hav­ing to get up at 4.30am once in a blue moon – that’s a sleep-in for most of these guys.

‘‘ I can’t say enough about what an eye-opener it has been to see the true ex­tent of what they go through.’’

Curry is even more ef­fu­sive about the man he is play­ing, de­scrib­ing him as ‘‘ a great bloke’’ and ‘‘ gen­uine Aussie man’’.

Oliver was an ad­viser on the script, also tak­ing Curry to race days and bar­rier tri­als. He also opened up on what is to this day a very raw and emo­tional chap­ter in his life.

‘‘ It was all on the ta­ble and he didn’t pull any punches and the gen­eros­ity of that was as­ton­ish­ing,’’ Curry said. ‘‘ He is a very im­pres­sive man.’’ Thank­fully, the real jockey liked what he saw.

When Curry watched the film for the first time he was sit­ting be­hind Oliver and his wife Tr­ish. All shed a tear as the ac­tion un­folded.

‘‘ They were re­ally emo­tional about it and af­ter­wards we had a re­ally good talk about it,’’ Curry says. ‘‘ They said it had been done in a way they re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated and his mum would re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate and that Ja­son and even his fa­ther would have loved.’’

Curry is no stranger to play­ing revered Aus­tralians.

His high­est pro­file role, and ar­guably his finest hour, came with his por­trayal of Aussie en­ter­tain­ment great Gra­ham Kennedy in the TV movie

The King, for which he won a Lo­gie and also an AFI Award.

Curry says he is a ter­ri­ble mimic and the key to play­ing a real-life fig­ure is in­ter­pre­ta­tion rather than im­per­son­ation.

‘‘ For me, rather than phys­i­cal­ity, it’s more about the per­son­al­ity and the mo­ti­va­tions and essence of who that per­son is,’’ he says.

He also says hav­ing the jockey both alive and on call for The Cup made his job con­sid­er­ably eas­ier than pre­par­ing for The King.

‘‘ With the Gra­ham thing, I prob­a­bly would have said no if he was still alive be­cause he is one of my all-time he­roes and renowned for his bel­liger­ence, among other things,’’ he says.

‘‘ The very thought of him telling me what he thought in a neg­a­tive fash­ion about what I did with him would be dev­as­tat­ing.’’ THE CUP Now show­ing at Vil­lage Cine­mas

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