Grafton girl in the centre of Melbourne Cup Day action
QUEEN of Australian racing Gai Waterhouse described her as "perhaps my best horse person" in a Sydney newspaper last month and on Tuesday Fleur Blanch proved her right by taking Fiorente to a remarkable second place in the Melbourne Cup - a mere 17 days after the stallion arrived by plane from the UK.
Virtually unknown in the local market, Fiorente was at 40-1 odds to win the Cup and ended up paying about $12 for the place.
Fleur grew up in Grafton and learnt the racing trade from her dad, champion trotting trainer Kevin Blanch, from the age of 13.
She has worked for Mrs Waterhouse for 10 years, starting as a stable hand at the age of 17, promoted to foreman within six months and within a few short years a senior foreman.
Fleur's sister Alyssa (Peters) was already working as a foreman for the Mrs Waterhouse when Fleur joined the stable, but Alyssa is now concentrating on motherhood.
A decade on, Fleur is the manager of the main Waterhouse stable, Tulloch Lodge at Randwick.
As such, she was entrusted with the delicate task of taking the prized, but underrated, Fiorente through two weeks of Australian border protection quarantine.
"It's a big responsibility but it was a thrill," Fleur said.
"We realised he was quite claustrophobic on the plane and so we were quite concerned about that for the half-hour drive from Werribee (quarantine centre) to Flemington. I just got in the horse box and was with him to keep him calm the whole way."
Fleur said she instantly liked Fiorente when she saw him at the airport and understood instantly why her boss had organised a syndicate to purchase the four-year-old colt from Sir Michael Stoute's yard a few weeks prior.
"I was on the phone to Gai saying 'he's mine, no one else is getting him'," she said. "He's very well-mannered, he's probably the best stallion I've ever worked with ... you still know he's a colt but you can't fault him."
As to Fleur's experience on Cup day as she led her beloved stallion out into the yard as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwell looked on, the word of choice was "surreal".
"It's a real achievement to go from a small-town Grafton girl to something like that," she said.
Fleur said Fiorente had a big future, starting with the Sandown Classic in Melbourne next week.
"Yeah I was a stable hand for dad and I learnt the ropes from him," she said. "I had no idea about horses before that."
"It's very different in the city but it was very good grounding."
Asked her father's thoughts on her success, Fleur said Mr Blanch called at least twice a day to tell her and her sister how proud he was.
She said her dad could barely contain his emotions when he was telling her how he had cried when he saw her bring Fiorente into the parade yard on TV in Grafton.
As to the future, Fleur said she didn't have an ambition to become a trainer in her own right but it may be something on the cards for her partner Scott Henley whom, she said, loved Grafton and could see himself running horses there to build on his previous short-lived success as a trainer.