“The photo says it all”
It wouldn’t have mattered if Sunlight had sold for $420,000 instead of the $4.2million she fetched – Sarah Rutten’s reaction would have been the same and the tears would have flowed just as freely.
Mare of a lifetime Sunlight, the three-time Group I winner and earner of more than $6.5 million, was a lot of things to a lot of people.
But what she meant to long-time strapper, track rider and travelling companion Sarah Rutten was brilliantly captured and highlighted in an emotional and extremely moving image on Monday.
The photograph of Rutten breaking down and weeping was taken in an unguarded moment just two minutes after the Tony and Calvin McEvoy-trained mare had gone under the hammer at the Magic Millions National Sale on the Gold Coast on Monday.
Magic Millions themselves probably summed it up best when they later tweeted the photo, which went viral on social media, with the caption “the photo says it all.”
And they were right – in a time when racing has often been hammered with bad news stories like the ugly Darren Weir and Aquanita affairs – this was a moment where the pure and unadulterated love of a horse took centre stage.
Rutten, 27, told Racenet on Tuesday that her emotions had overflowed because of one simple factor.
Sunlight was her best mate. She has spent more time with Sunlight than any person over the last three years.
“I do wish more people would understand how strappers and stable staff absolutely love horses – Sunlight was my best friend,” Rutten said, her voice cracking with emotion.
“I don’t have a (romantic) relationship because I travel so much with the horses, Sunlight was my life.
“I’m obviously quite upset in that photo, which I knew was going to happen.
“People came up and talked to me afterwards but I didn’t really know what I was saying, I was still in shock as to what had just happened.
“When Sunlight left the stables they kind of prepared me five days in advance so I went and spent a lot of time with her before she left.
“When she left it was early in the morning and I was a mess the whole day.
“But it still felt a bit surreal to me – almost like she was in the paddock having a spell – so taking her through the sales ring on the Gold Coast really made me feel as though it was goodbye.
“I did say goodbye to her – I just went in and sat with her while she was eating and I think she knows how much she meant to me and how upset I was.
“I’ve had a few moments like those with her, obviously life has challenges sometimes, but whenever something has happened I have always gone and sat with her and life has suddenly felt better.”
It was obvious to all and sundry what made Sunlight so brilliant on the track, in a grand career which was sparked when she won the 2018 Gold Coast Magic Millions as a two-year-old and continued on to three rampaging Group I wins.
But what made her so special off the track?
Rutten describes her unshakeable bond with the mighty mare.
“Very early I rode her in her first day and I thought she is so quiet – I normally like horses which have a bit of fire in them,” she remembers.
“But she was just quiet as a baby.
“She had her first start at Flemington and I pretty much never left her side after that.
“She made everything so easy, obviously the pressure was always there, but nothing was ever hard for her.
“Even though she could be a bit cranky, in the times that she wasn’t she was lovely.”
Rutten’s favourite racing memory of Sunlight wasn’t one of her three Group I wins.
It came when she finished second as an unfancied $26 chance in the 2019 Golden Eagle after she had been well beaten into 10th place behind Yes Yes Yes in The Everest.
Such was Sunlight’s profound impact on Rutten, she was unable to go out after a rare Sunlight flop and remained in her Sydney hotel room after things went wrong in The Everest.
“The Golden Eagle is probably my favourite memory of Sunlight, as far as racing goes, winning the Coolmore was amazing, but the Golden Eagle takes the cake because there was negativity when she didn’t run well in The Everest,” Rutten says.
“The night of The Everest, after she didn’t run well, I didn’t leave my room that whole night even though I got invited out for dinner.
“I took it so personally, I just wanted to stay home.
“When the Golden Eagle came around and everyone said she was no chance to even run a place. I knew she was going to run well and she proved me right. I was just so happy.”
The hardest thing for any strapper is often letting go of their favourite horse but Rutten’s sorrow has been somewhat numbed because new owners Coolmore have promised she can visit whenever she wants.
She will take them up on that offer, whenever possible, and also can’t wait to see a generation of Sunlight’s babies.
“They came straight up to me yesterday and said I am welcome whenever, just to call up and they will give me a tour of the farm and I can come and see her,” she said.
“That makes me feel good because it’s not like she is completely gone.
“I thought she might go overseas and you don’t really know what happens overseas.
“But the fact that she is here and at such an amazing place like Coolmore is fantastic.”
Queensland photographer Michael McInally was the man who snapped the photo of Rutten and told Racenet about the lead-up to taking the emotional image.
McInally, working for Magic Millions, realised many hours before Sunlight went through the ring that Rutten was very emotional and knew he had to be in the right place at the right time to capture her unguarded reactions after the star mare was sold.
The picture of her in tears – one of a quickfire series he took – was snapped barely two minutes after Sunlight went through the ring.
“Sunlight came out early before she went into the ring and Sarah was full of emotion then, she might not have been crying but you could see that a couple of hours later when the horse was going to go through the ring she was going to be very upset,” McInally said.
“She has had such an incredible bond with that horse.
“I just knew I had to be here after the horse went through the ring.
“It was only two minutes after – Sarah walked back from the ring into the stall, Sunlight was in a barn right next door to the ring.
“I literally took a picture of Tom Magnier and then ran straight over to take a picture of Sarah.
“She just burst into tears and that’s when that picture was taken.”