Melbourne Cup: Subzero the celebrity wonder horse

Story highlights

  • Australia's equine star Subzero still celebrated 21 years after Melbourne Cup win
  • 'Subbie' has raised an estimated $10.4 million for various charities during his 'retirement'
  • Ex-Aussie Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's intervention saved his life back in 2009
  • Hugh Jackman and Kylie Minogue among celebrities to be upstaged by him

He has been ridden by pop star Kylie Minogue, actor Hugh Jackman has performed cabaret on him in a casino and he had his life saved by the last Australian Prime Minister.

Meet Australian equine superstar Subzero.

'Subbie', as he is affectionately known, initially entered the Australian psyche when he was first past the post in the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops a nation 21 years ago, his last ever outing.

As only the fifth grey horse to win one of horse racing's most prestigious races and the first since World War II, he was instantly a hit.

But his celebrity status has very much come in retirement, much of it down to his myriad of public appearances from TV shows to schools and charity events. In all he has raised an estimated $10.4 million for charity during the past two decades.

With the exception of Black Caviar, mention some of the most famous Australian horses to their countrymen, names such as Carbine, Tulloch or Phar Lap, and non-racegoers will stare at you blankly.

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Mention Subzero, and the recognition is immediate.

For those 21 years of retirement, he has been owned by Melbourne Cup clerk of the course Graham Salisbury, and once more the prestigious grey will be paraded at Flemington Racecourse in front of his adoring public when the 2013 version of the classic race takes place on Tuesday.

"People love him because he's a grey and that's obviously a rarity, then there's the Melbourne Cup win but then there's the fact he's such a character, he's so likeable," Salisbury told CNN.

"Basically, he's everyone's mate; he's the people's horse. He's an absolute hero in Australia."

That wasn't always the case. Ironically for such a tame beast, he used to be an edgy horse but Salisbury spent a year with him gaining his trust, and making him comfortable with the public.

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That teaching involved 'Subbie' being blindfolded and Salisbury, laden with a bucket of carrots, calling for him to come to him.

That trust was quickly built up and his owner admits he will follow him anywhere, however bizarre. And there have been some bizarre locations, from a lift at the prestigious Crown Casino to an airplane.

He is so relaxed around the Salisburys, he even takes part in family meals... on occasion.

"He's got his own three-acre paddock and when we have a barbeque, he comes up, likes to have a chat, nod his head, have some lettuce and carrots, and maybe have a stubbie [an Australian term for a beer].

"He's a right character. You ask him a question and he'll answer you with a nod of the head. If there's a seat, he'll even sit down and have a chat with you."

Part of the family

You would imagine that Salisbury would have to have parted with some serious money to take ownership of Subzero but, in truth, all it cost for him to take him for good was a solitary Australian dollar.

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Salisbury had been promised the horse for that cut price amount prior to the Melbourne Cup victory but, following that win, did he ever worry that the deal wouldn't go ahead?

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"I remember when he won thinking 'Jesus, I'm not going to get him now'," reveals Salisbury.

"But I was told I had a better chance than ever as the handicap would be too much for him. I guess I always knew it would be OK as Lee Freedman [his trainer] had made a promise of the price and he's always true to his word."

There are those that have tried to buy him since, notably two Arab sheiks, who both made separate offers to purchase Subzero on the spot while on a trip to the United Arab Emirates to coincide with the Dubai World Cup horse race.

Salisbury reminisces: "This guy came up to me and said 'right here, right now, I'll swap him for a brand new Mercedes'. I said 'no' and the guy said 'not a small Mercedes, one of the big ones' but I explained 'he's not for sale.'

"Then this other guy tried to buy him for $100,000. I explained I wouldn't sell him for any money. He's too good a mate, and anyway it'd be like selling my daughter."

Salisbury's daughter, at 19, is a newer addition to the family than Subzero, and as a result "he's very much part of the family".

There have been times when there have been fears of losing this revered family member.

'Subbie' has had some occasional bouts of bad health, including a recent one.

The prospect of the horse's possible death, forces Salisbury to tears. "Sorry, I get pretty emotional thinking about that," he says, his voice cracking. "I just hope I go before him."

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Subzero's most serious problems came in 2009 when chronic arthritis took hold on his aging bones.

Salisbury managed to rectify the problem with an American medication called SuperFlex and the introduction of it to Subzero's diet immediately rectified the problem.

But a problem occurred when the next batch of medicine was refused entry into Australia because of insufficient paperwork.

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Salisbury persevered but failed to get that overturned, his condition deteriorated and there was talk of him being put down.

It led to such a public outcry and the intervention of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

"I knew the then attorney general Rob Hulls and so mentioned it to him," says Salisbury. "Then the permit I needed appeared suddenly. I rang to thank him but he explained the Prime Minister was the one that kicked up a fuss and got it sorted."

It has allowed Subzero to return to what, seemingly, he loves best -- namely entertaining his adoring fans, of which there is a long and varied list.

"I had some lads come up to me and 'Subbie' the other day," says Salisbury.

They said they remember him coming to their school when he was kids. And then there's the sick kids in hospital whose faces light up when they see him. He's affected a lot of people's lives."

Some of Australia's brightest stars have even grown enamored after coming face to face with the equine superstar.

"I remember doing a charity thing at the casino with Jackman," says Salisbury looking back.

"I remember he said to me 'am I going to be OK on him?' I was like 'he'll be a lot better than those horses you rode in that film Australia.'

"Jackman's a big, big star but even he had to admit that he people were taking more photos of 'Subbie' than they were of his cabaret.

"It was the same with Kylie. She was with him at the Adelaide Cup some years back. OK, she wasn't the global star she is now then but she was still a massive star in Australia. She said 'I'm not used to being upstaged by a horse.'"

His brush with celebrity, in fact, has only endured one rare blip, when he ate the $600 hat of the socialite Lillian Frank.

"I've not had one problem, from having a family of four on his back, to getting on a plane or being patted by kids in a hospital, he's done it all without a fuss," adds Salisbury.

His feats have been enough to warrant his own race meeting, held in Melbourne in October, and all manner of adulation, which with his health restored looks likely to continue for many more years.

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