IT'S often said, 'It's not about the destination, but about the journey.'
And what a remarkable, emotional and rollercoaster journey it has been for harness racing owners and breeders Norm and Margaret McCloy and their daughter Julianne Morris with their aptly named three-year-old filly Whata Journey.
There was barely a dry eye among family members and more than a few harness racing fans elsewhere when the daughter of Rock N Roll n Heaven, out of the mare Whata Avenue, broke through for her maiden win at start number three at Tabcorp Park Melton last Friday, driven by Bendigo's Jack Laugher.
Trained at Strathfieldsaye by Julie and Glenn Douglas, Whata Journey was named by the McCloys in honour of their daughter Julianne's brave and years-long battle against multiple cancers.
A teacher at St Therese's Primary School at Kennington, Morris was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2019.
It was the latest in a long line of health issues the 51-year-old mother of three has faced throughout her adult life.
As a 25-year-old she was diagnosed with brain tumours and Cushing syndrome, a condition where the body is exposed to too much of the hormone cortisol.
Undergoing cutting-edge surgery, one of three tumours and three-quarters of her pituitary gland was removed, leaving two tumours.
About six years later, and following various surgeries on her knee, gall bladder and kidneys, she was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg.
Morris recalls vividly the day her health took another turn for the worse.
"It was Bendigo Cup (gallops) day in 2019, I woke up that morning and had a shower and found a lump on the top of my right breast," she said.
"I wasn't too stressed at the time because when mum has had them they've all been benign, but I thought I better get it checked.
"My doctor is at Riddells Creek and luckily I could get in to see her straight away, so I went down and saw about it and they got me straight in for an x-ray.
"I had the x-ray and then a biopsy soon after and they found it was breast cancer by early-November. It was triple-negative breast cancer, which is obviously the worst type."
A quick trip to her oncologist revealed the full and shocking gravity of her condition.
"The oncologist told me, 'you are a very lucky lady - had you have come to me in two weeks' time, you wouldn't be alive'," Morris said.
"Lucky I went down when I did."
Following another surgery to remove the tumour, Morris received her first dose of chemotherapy on her birthday - December 18, 2019 - which continued together with radiation treatment into 2020.
While her treatment has ceased, Morris continues to suffer from lymphedema in the right breast and has developed neuropathy, causing numbness and pain in her hands and feet.
"It's pretty horrible, unfortunately, but as I tell everyone, I'm alive to tell the tale," she said.
"That's more than I can hope for."
She acknowledges the next five years will be critical in her return to health.
"Triple-negative is a hard one, if it's going to come back, it could be anywhere in my body, and if it does, it will likely be in the next five years," Morris said.
"If it doesn't in five years, there's more than a slim chance it won't come back. Not to say it won't.
"I still see my oncologist every couple of months, so fingers crossed."
While her neuropathy means Morris is unable to drive a motor vehicle, there are some positive developments on the horizon.
After returning to the classroom part-time at St Therese's during 2021, she is aiming to go back full-time in 2022.
Another bright spot emerged last Friday in the form of a breakthrough win by the horse inspired by her brave health battle.
Morris, the mother to Dana, Hugh and Mia, admitted to being genuinely overwhelmed by not only the win, but the gesture of the horse being named in her honour.
"It was amazing to watch. I was one the edge of my chair and as soon as she went across the finish line, I burst into tears," she said.
"It has been a long journey for me, but hopefully we are on another long journey with the horse.
"I was meant to go, so I was a bit upset not to be there, but it was still amazing.
"As soon as she gets her next race, I hope to be there.
"I said to my children, mum might go out and get a t-shirt printed with Whata Journey on it."
Choking back tears, Norm McCloy declared Whata Journey's victory as the proudest and most significant in his long involvement in harness racing, which stretches back more than 40 years, and at one time included interests in about 120 horses - racehorses, mares and stallions.
"We named the horse after Julianne because she has had a hell of a journey," he said.
"We've been in horses since 1977 and I tell you that nothing any of them have done could replace Friday night at Melton.
"I have never screamed or yelled at a horse so much as I did on Friday night. I was actually hoarse.
"If they take away the rest of my life, they could not have given us any more joy than that.
"For this to have happened is just unbelievable. To be honest, if she never won another race I couldn't give a shit.
"Nothing will ever replace this moment."
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The win was an early birthday gift for Morris, who turned 51 the day after the filly's victory.
McCloy gave plenty of praise to Longlea trainer, breeder and farrier John McDermott, who did the bulk of the early work with Whata Journey, and was at the helm for her first two starts at Swan Hill in July and last month at Echuca.
Another daughter Katie was similarly instrumental in the three-year-old's early development.
Adding to the sense of occasion was a set of pink hobbles, specially made for Morris, and worn by Whata Journey on race night, while permission was granted by stewards for Laugher to wear a set of pink silks.
Both father and daughter were literally tickled pink with the reception given to Whata Journey pre-race following a heartfelt introduction by racecaller Dan Mielicki.
"We've known the Caldows - Maree and John - for a very long time and they came second to our horse (with Azterian), but after the race Maree went up to dad and said, 'Norm, if I ever wanted to come second to a horse or family it would be you'," Morris said.
"She said, 'I'm so glad the horse won for Julie'.
"Dad admitted to being pretty overcome by the reaction as the horse came down the straight."
As someone not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, astute horseman Glenn Douglas said he and wife Julie could not but help get swept up by the emotion surrounding Whata Journey's maiden win and they were chuffed to have played their own small part.
"The journey Julianne has had makes everyone else realise how lucky they are," he said.
"For us to do our little bit - and it's only a little bit of course - to bring a bit of joy with a win was a little special.
"When you see owners win a race and become a little emotional, as Norm and the family did, it gets you too. You'd have to have no heart to understand what's going on around you.
"And when you understand the story behind this horse, it has been quite the journey."
Douglas said for all Whata Journey's raw talent, she remained a definite work in progress.
But he insisted it would not be long before the Julianne Morris-inspired filly returned to the winner's circle.
"She's at a point where she's still improving - she probably hasn't been worked 100 per cent here (at Strathfieldsaye), we are still marrying each other up and learning each other's traits," he said.
"She won the other night just on raw ability, so I do think as time progresses she will be a very handy horse.
"Mentally she's very immature. She probably raced before she was ready and that's no one's fault other than the fact she has so much raw talent and was able to head to the races early.
"But she will learn from the other night and certainly learn more over the next few weeks and be the better for it."
One thing for certain, if Whata Journey can show even a semblance of the courage and persistence displayed by the woman she is named after, the rising four-year-old is in for a long and hopefully positive career.
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