BY PATRICK BARTLEY
One of the greatest sights of the 2020 Melbourne Cup Carnival was ex-AFL coach-turned-trainer Denis Pagan moved to tears when his horse Johnny Get Angry claimed victory in the AAMI Victoria Derby.
Denis Pagan had finally come to terms with the feat of preparing an AAMI Victoria Derby winner within four months of being licensed as an owner trainer, the vagaries of the sport then came to bring the former dual AFL premiership winning coach back to earth.
Pagan’s Derby triumph was not confined to the Australian racing sphere. It swept the sporting world as a whole.
At 72, Pagan had turned his mind to a new career that reaped rewards in a staggeringly short amount of time. Pagan spoke of how the emotion that filled him on one of the foremost days on the Australian racing calendar saw him reduced to tears as he held the trophy aloft at Flemington, one of the world’s most important race tracks.
“I’ve always been passionate about whatever I’ve taken on. In racing it’s been a little bit more again. At my age no-one thought I could do it. But with work and plenty of listening I’m starting to get there,” Pagan said.
However, the motivator who has inspired incredible individual performances from young footballers in the prime of their athletic development, is a realist. Decades in the rough and tumble world of football had taught him to expect anything. And a reality check is what he got.
“Just after we came down from cloud nine, everything seemed to turn to cow’s manure.
“I lost my good Oaks filly in an accident and then a two-year-old I had a lot of time for became very sick with colic.
“And Johnny Get Angry we won’t see again until the spring,” Pagan said.
The trainer said that Johnny Get Angry had been plagued by a small hoof problem and believed that an autumn in the paddock would be able to fix the ailment.
“He’s done so much for us already. I’ll give him a break. He’s qualified for the Lexus Melbourne Cup, a distance I think he’ll embrace.”
Pagan said it was Troy Corstens who was probably the person who created the tipping point of the North Melbourne legend deciding to take out a trainer’s licence.
“We were out visiting some horses of mine and believe me I’ve had my share of slow ones. Troy said, ‘Denis why don’t you give it a go? I know it’s been on your mind for a long time. You can sub-lease some boxes from me and a couple of my staff but I think it’s time.’
“I thought, I’m past going and buying 20 acres, building stables and then hiring staff and going through all of that book work but I’m still damn passionate to get involved. I said to Troy I’ll have a go,” he said..
Emotions ran high on AAMI Victoria Derby Day for Denis Pagan and jockey Lachlan King when Johnny Get Angry claimed victory in one of Australia's greatest races.
“I’m learning all the time. I ask questions. I listen. I don’t interrupt. Don’t forget I’m cramming 40 years of knowledge into a few months,” he said.
As a footballer, Pagan was a scrubby back pocket with plenty of determination but not much in the way of skill – a “very ordinary conveyance” – as he once described himself.
Still, during a 140-game AFL career with North Melbourne then South Melbourne he was good enough to win a Victorian guernsey in 1971.
But it was as a coach he really made his name in the game. His teams always displayed a great tenacity, and just kept winning.
Pagan took over the North Melbourne Under-19 team in the early 1980s and led it to nine consecutive U-19 grand finals from 1983 until 1991, resulting in premierships in 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1991. Kevin Sheedy, then the senior coach at Essendon, could see what a gift Pagan had for coaching and invited him to look after the Bombers’ reserve side in 1992. They, too, won the flag that year. (The pair came back together in January this year when they each coached a team for Rapid Racing Race Day at Flemington. Pagan came out on top, with his team, the metropolitan jockeys, stealing the crown.)
North Melbourne could no longer ignore Pagan’s startling record and in 1993 appointed him as senior coach. The Kangaroos went on to make seven consecutive preliminary finals, from 1994 to 2000, taking out the AFL premiership in 1996 and 1999.
Pagan later went to Carlton, and he will be remembered as one of the great coaches of the modern era. But the coach has brought all that skill, desire and passion to racing.
While at North Melbourne he would purchase books from around the world from leading coaches in a bid to gain that extra advantage.
Forty years on Pagan has turned those skills to racing. Listening intently. Reading continually, and understanding how the racehorse ticks.
“I look at everything from the best farriers to the best veterinary surgeons.”
Jokingly, Pagan said, “I couldn’t muck up Wayne Carey and I haven’t mucked up Johnny Get Angry so things are still going okay.”