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The Cup, the Diva and the call that topped them all

Legends and champions were on all minds as a cheerfully crumpled and crinkled racing crowd gathered in a basement room at an unpretentious city hotel for the launch of racecaller Greg Miles' book My Lucky Life. Among them were Father Joe Giacobbe, who rejoices still in his "punting priest" sobriquet, old sports journo and entrepeneur John Craven, the book's co-author, and Michael Duffy, still going strong at 80 after a lifetime in politics and racing. Racing people live long lives; it must be all those early nights and early mornings.

Broadcasters have a special place in the sports milieu, their words serving to score all the great moments. John Arlott on Don Bradman's farewell duck, Dennis Cometti on Kieren Perkins' impossible gold in Atlanta, Bruce McAvaney on Cathy Freeman's win in Sydney, to name but some, and most simply and memorably, Mike Williamson on the defining moment of the 1970 grand final: "Jesaulenko, you beauty!" It's partly the words, partly when and how they're uttered.

Greg Miles' name will always be synonymous with his call of the 2005 Melbourne Cup.

Greg Miles’ name will always be synonymous with his call of the 2005 Melbourne Cup.Credit:Jim Pavlidis

Racecallers have a special place among this breed. Their calling in Australia is its own genre, unique in its cadences and rhythms, rolling with the race, accelerating with the pace, live on course as well as on air. Even if you don't understand it, its meter is likely to move something in you. It was all Miles ever wanted to do, and he was not in the least deterred when he finagled entry into the ABC box one day while still a teenager and was admonished thus by the legendary Joe Brown: "Sit there, say nothing and don't move." Miles would call 36 Melbourne Cups, more even than Brown, before retiring prematurely at 57.

In a radio chat the day before the 2005 Cup, McAvaney said he was sure Miles had a line ready for Makybe Diva's third win, just as he had one anticipating Freeman's Olympic triumph. Miles' heart sank; he did not. He prided himself on preparation, but now felt he was missing a trick and was agitated about it. Back home in Williamstown, he tried on some lines, but they all sounded corny.

Then he watched – and listened to – a replay of Makybe Diva's Cox Plate win 11 days earlier, and inspiration struck.

Still, there were hurdles. For a caller, writes Miles, the Melbourne Cup "oozes pressure". A hundred thousand listening on course, millions dwelling elsewhere, unseen but a veritable presence.

Simultaneously, he had keep constant eyes on Makybe Diva and the leaders, however far apart. To miss a mishap to either would make him look "an absolute mug". He had also to countenance what others would not, that she might lose. In the running, he thought she might, except that What A Jeune got into a "terrible tangle" at the home turn. Makybe Diva's luck was also Miles'. Glen Boss' move at the 400 was Miles' cue. "Here comes Makybe Diva," he screamed (his description). "And a nation roars for its hero." So they did.

The moment: Glen Boss passes the post on Makybe Diva in the 2005 Melbourne Cup.

The moment: Glen Boss passes the post on Makybe Diva in the 2005 Melbourne Cup.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

Then, in the shadow of the post, the coup de grace. It was a Kennedy, moon landing, 9/11 sort of moment; most remember where they were. I was stranded under creaky river gums beside the Murray, digging out a bogged car, and heard it as ecstatic static, but shivered like everyone else: "A champion … becomes a legend."

Miles only just managed to gather himself up to call the remaining races, but the next few days were a whirl, culminating in a traditional post-carnival lunch at the Cricketers Arms in Port Melbourne the following Monday. Miles hosted, among many others, Makybe Diva's owner, the ever exuberant Tony Santic, and by night's end, they were drinking champagne of out of the Melbourne Cup and eating garlic off the Cox Plate. John Harms' account of the night in this paper ran under the brilliant headline (we pause here to salute a sub-editing forebear): "Just bring a Cup and a Plate." This is one yarn among many in My Lucky Life, one tale among many retold in the lower reaches of the Mail Exchange Hotel.

Legendary racecaller Greg Miles with champion horse Might And Power last year.

Legendary racecaller Greg Miles with champion horse Might And Power last year.Credit:Eddie Jim

For better worse, they are now unto death they do part: the horse, the caller, the call. Miles knows it.

"A lot of brilliantly creative proclamations are used by the nation's best sports commentators, but are not heard again," Miles writes. "My statement seems to have evolved into something synonymous with me – my signature line. Some of my racing mates reckon it should be inscribed on my tombstone. Heaven forbid!"

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