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Legend of Bill lures entries for Jericho

Australian horse Bill The Bastard won a desert race staged to distract from a military offensive that brought down a 400-year-old empire.

It sounds like the opening to a play but a century later the Jericho Cup has been revived at Warrnambool to become Australia’s longest flat race.

The 4600m-event for highweight riders will be held on December 2 with the field running through open paddocks and on the Grand Annual Steeplechase course.

Marking 100 years since the first Jericho Cup was staged during World War I, the race will commemorate the servicemen, women and walers – the mounts of the Australian Light Horse Brigade – who served in the Middle East.

Open to Australian and New Zealand-bred horses only it is the brainchild of former Victorian trucking magnate Bill Gibbins.

He was inspired after reading Bill The Bastard, a book about the nation’s greatest war horse by historian Roland Perry.

“It was such a great story and I wanted something to remind people about the positive parts of our history and not just the negative,” Gibbins told AAP.

“We had such a huge loss at Gallipoli yet just a few years later we defeated the Ottoman Empire.”

Gibbins had no connections with the racing industry before approaching Warrnambool Race Club with his idea.

The Victorian track is the only one long enough to fit the nearly three-mile distance.

“You can’t run that distance on a normal track, the horses would all get dizzy and fall over,” Gibbins said.

The original Jericho Cup was an elaborate ruse to distract Turkish forces on the eve of the charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba in 1917.

The major Australian-led offensive is considered the world’s last, great cavalry charge and would lead to the capture of Jerusalem several weeks later.

Run over three miles of desert sand the race was won by Bill, a giant 17 hands high waler who earned his second name for the habit of throwing his riders.

He was guided by Aboriginal light horseman Jackie Mullgah, who rode bareback to avoid upsetting his mount.

The runners will start in a paddock off the course before making their way onto the track running the Sydney way, clockwise, before completing a large loop and a sharp right turn to finish off counter-clockwise, the Melbourne direction.

Gibbins has committed $1 million of his own money to the meeting over the next four years.

“I didn’t want this to be a one-off thing just rolled out to celebrate the centenary,” he said, adding he hopes the Cup will establish itself on the annual Melbourne racing calendar.

There are 36 nominations for the race with the final field to be declared on Tuesday.

The top-rated entry on 76 is the Simon Wylde-trained Gold Medals with several horses on benchmarks in the 30s and 40s.

“This was never meant to be a Group One race,” Gibbins said.”

“It’s about having a different way of celebrating our veterans.”

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