Denis Pagan throws his hat into the ring for Melbourne Cup with Johnny Get Angry

Legendary football coach turned horse trainer Denis Pagan’s Melbourne Cup dream is alive.

The 74-year-old, who trained Johnny Get Angry to a stunning Victoria Derby victory last year, had been feeling “ambivalent” about the four-year-old gelding’s form ahead of next week’s Cup.

But when champion jockey Damien Oliver took Johnny Get Angry for a gallop at Flemington this morning, Pagan decided to throw his hat into the ring for the first time.

“I asked (Oliver) after the gallop and he recommended I run him in the Cup,” Pagan told ABC Sport.

Pagan described it as a “dream” to run in the Cup.

“It probably hasn’t sunk in yet and I’ve got probably four or five more sleeps before it comes to fruition,” he said.

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen. With a race horse it can go down the next day, hurt themselves in the box so you’ve just got to roll with the punches and take it as it comes.”

Denis Pagan has a history of lifting cups, even if they are more usually of the football variety.(Getty Images / ALLSPORT: Mark Dadswell)


Pagan, who coached North Melbourne to two AFL Premierships in the 1990s, had only been a horse trainer some six months when Johnny Get Angry — the first horse he bought — made history to win the Group One Victoria Derby in October 2020.

“This time last year I was in the Derby with this horse. It was a hundred to one,” Pagan said.

“We had lunch on the Friday before Derby Day, probably stayed there a bit long, got home at half past six, wasn’t even thinking about [the] Derby.

“Got up the next morning, had two showers. Still dusty. Went to trackwork, come home, had a snooze and went to the races. And it just unfolded.

“Just amazing. I’ve never done anything like that in my life. It just worked out.”

Horses qualify for the Melbourne Cup based on wins in ballot-exempted (automatic qualification) races or the weight allocated by the VRC chief handicapper.

Johnny Get Angry’s Victoria Derby win meant he was allocated enough weight to put him seventh in this year’s Melbourne Cup order of entry — guaranteeing him a place in the field. 

Young jockey Lachie King, who rode Johnny Get Angry to victory in the Victoria Derby, will be on the back of the horse again on Tuesday.

Pagan broke the good news to King in the car park at Flemington this morning.

“it was just good between Damien and myself, and Damien explaining to Lachie about the horse’s gallop,” Pagan said.

“I think (Lachie’s) words were: ‘I’m pumped.'”

It’s not just Pagan who is out to make history next week — King’s dad Steven rode Let’s Elope to victory in the 1991 Melbourne Cup.

If successful, the Kings would join Billy and Peter Cook as the only father-son combination to both ride Melbourne Cup winners — Billy rode Skipton to victory in 1941 and won on Rainbird in 1945, while his son Peter won the race on Just A Dash in 1981.

A jockey leans forward with his hands on a bay horse's reins as he rides it in trackwork ahead of the Melbourne Cup.
Damien Oliver put Johnny Get Angry through his paces at Flemington  — and he was excited by the result.(Getty Images / Racing Photos: Brett Holburt)

This year’s Melbourne Cup field will be distinctly local with a greatly reduced number of international horses running.

“All I’m worried about is my horse being well and I can’t be too worried about the other horses,” Pagan said.

Pagan was typically pragmatic when asked about his chances of winning the Cup.

“I’ve never seen anybody make runs sitting in the grandstand,” he said.

“Que Sera Sera: what will be, will be.”

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