The Race That Stops a Nation: Melbourne Cup
By Valerie Grash
The 150th running of the Melbourne Cup is set for Tuesday, November 2 at 3:00 p.m. (Monday, 12 midnight U.S. Eastern), and, to put it in the Aussie vernacular, it looks to be a cracker.
As is often the case, the stories swirling around the event are both inspiring and disheartening, including the recent police inquiry involving jockey Damien Oliver, who rides Luca Cumani’s Manighar, and the tragic death of Shoot Out’s jockey Stathi Katsidis. However, no story is bigger than that of legendary trainer Bart Cummings who, along with his fellow octogenarian owner Dato Tan Chin Nam, sends out what could be the next “superstar” in So You Think. Cummings’ 13th Melbourne Cup would be an apt achievement this year and, fortunately, after suffering a broken hip and then a bout with pneumonia, the ailing trainer has been released from the hospital just in time for the race.
Another major story come race day may be the weather. On Saturday the heavens opened and a rainy deluge quickly turned the Flemington track from Good to Heavy 8, and rain is possible on Cup day. Of course, track conditions will profoundly affect your handicapping, but here are a few angles to consider.
The Euro Invasion
Since Media Puzzle’s win in 2002, the increasing number of European-raced horses shipping in for the Melbourne Cup have enjoyed considerable success, including last year’s second- and third-place finishers, Crime Scene and Mourilyan.
This year Godolphin sends two runners: 5-year-old Campanologist (Kingmambo) and 4-year-old Holberg (Halling). Campanologist has won three of seven races this year (one in Dubai, two in Germany), but has never raced beyond 12 furlongs. Aussie jock Kerrin McEvoy rode him to victory three years ago at Haydock, so he’s familiar with the horse. However, Frankie Dettori comes in to ride Holberg, who won the ENG-G3 Queen’s Vase by four lengths at Ascot last year over this distance. This year he’s won two of four starts (including the listed Tapster Stakes over Melbourne Cup competitor Manighar), and his defeats include a second-place finish to Laaheb on Kempton’s all-weather track and a fifth-place finish in the G2 Princess of Wales at Newmarket behind IRE-G1 St. Leger winner Sans Frontieres, CAN-G1 Northern Dancer victor Redwood, G1 Arlington Million third-place finisher Tazeez, and UAE-G1 Dubai Sheema Classic third-place finisher Spanish Moon. Excellently weighted and with Dettori selecting him over his stablemate, Holberg looks a good chance with that form, but don’t ignore Campanologist—recovered from a nearly fatal June fall, Kerrin McEvoy would be a Cinderella story if he wins. Warning: Holberg has been suffering from a hoof injury and may be a last-minute vet scratch.
For 7-year-old Illustrious Blue (Dansili), the Cup distance isn’t even a question—of his nine races this year, the last five have all been two-mile listed or group events, and he won two, finished second once, and was within four lengths of the winner in those in which he didn’t place. However, he has never raced at the Group 1 level, so there’s definitely a question of quality, and even the advantage of having three-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey Glen Boss aboard doesn’t inspire great hope for his chances.
Boss rode Dermot Weld-trained Profound Beauty (Danehill) in trackwork leading up to the Cup and in her previous tilt in 2008 when she finished an admirable fifth behind Viewed, but it’s her regular jock Pat Smullen who gets the ride this year. She’s been in tremendous form, having won three of five races, and placed runner-up in the other two, including finishing less than a length to Sans Frontieres in the Irish St. Leger last out, but she has been nagged by injury rumors of late. The distance is a minor query, and a Slow or Heavy track would not be to her advantage. Barrier 22 is a positive, but controversy swirling about her potential lameness sends up red flags.
Also plagued by injury issues is 2008 runner-up Bauer (Halling), who didn’t race due to injury in 2009 and who hasn’t placed in two races this year. He did not prep in Australia as he did in 2008, and I just can’t place him above his 4-year-old stablemate Manighar (Linamix), who looks to be trainer Luca Cumani’s real chance if the ground isn’t too wet. Manighar placed third behind classy multiple group 1 winners Ask and Schiaparelli in last fall’s FR-G1 Prix Royal-Oak at Longchamp over this distance, and he was only a short neck behind Cup competitor Americain in the FR-G2 Prix Kergorlay going 15 furlongs before his impressive fifth-place finish behind Descarado in the G1 Caulfield Cup. Two-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey Damien Oliver takes the ride from an excellent barrier position (20).
Five-year-old Kentucky-bred Americain (Dynaformer) is the only other mainly European-raced horse besides Manighar to have a prep race in Australia, winning the G3 Geelong Cup to extend his current win streak to four races. Originally campaigned in France, he arrived in the U.S. last year where he failed to even come close to hitting the board running in the G1 Sword Dancer, ungraded Bowling Green Handicap, and G3 Sycamore. He won last year’s FR-G2 Prix Vicomtesse Vigier over this distance, and three of his wins this year back in France have been over 15 furlongs. His regular jockey Gerald Mosse rides for his new Australian owners, who purchased him just for this race. That said, I have a feeling that his American races are a good indication that this horse won’t handle the Aussie pace style at the highest level. His barrier 12 hasn’t won since 1949 either.
Since Buccellati (Soviet Star) has raced four times in Australia this year, I wouldn’t call him an “invader”—and neither would I call him a chance in this race with his current form.
The Asian Connection
In 2006, the Japanese effectively launched a raid on Flemington, with Delta Blues and Pop Rock finishing 1-2. This year’s two Asian imports are nowhere near as accomplished. Two of 8-year-old Tokai Trick’s (El Condor Pass) three lifetime wins occurred this year, but it’s been three years since he’s placed in G1 company, and his Caulfield Cup prep hardly instills confidence in his fitness. On the other hand, Hong Kong-raced Mr. Medici (Medicean) finished a decent sixth at Caulfield, and he won the G1 Hong Kong Champions & Chater Cup this year over a rain-drenched turf, so an off track might not be the issue for him—the distance, however, is a major query, as he’s never raced beyond 12 furlongs.
The Kiwis’ Staying Power
Forty New Zealand-bred horses have won the Melbourne Cup in its history, a tribute to that nation’s strength in breeding stamina.
Last year’s winner Shocking (Street Cry) is an Aussie who could very well repeat, but Kiwi contenders Master O’Reilly (O’Reilly) and Harris Tweed (Monjeu) who finished fourth and fifth respectively last year, appear much more problematic to back this year after suffering recent colic attacks and in no way matching the form of So You Think. Zavite (Zabeel) finished 19th last year, and, despite winning the NZ-G1 Auckland Cup back in March over this distance, just doesn’t appear in the same class as others; with blinkers on, don’t be surprised to see him on or near the lead—just not with enough gas at the end. Red Ruler (Viking Ruler) has never placed in five Flemington starts and is unlikely to break out here.
Far more promising is Bart Cummings’ other entrant Precedence (Zabeel), who is in excellent form off a win in the 13-furlong G2 Moonee Valley Cup. Admittedly, he finished last of eleven when attempting this distance in the G1 Sydney Cup back in April, but the 5-year-old came back stronger after a four-month break—and the master trainer is well-known for his patient and methodic planning in guiding horses toward a goal. If his stablemate So You Think doesn’t fire for some reason, lightweight Precedence can still give Cummings his 13th win.
The other intriguing Kiwi is the lightest weight in the field, Maluckyday (Zabeel), who defeated fellow lightweight Melbourne Cup competitors Linton (Galileo) and Once Were Wild (Johannesburg) in the G3 Lexus Stakes on Saturday. Actually, all three of these have tantalizing promise, so it’s hard to write any of them off.
And although he’s not a Kiwi, don’t forget about 9-year-old Zipping (Danehill) for a place chance. In three previous Melbourne Cups, he’s run fourth twice (2006, 2007) and ninth in 2008, then missed the race last year. This year he ran second to So You Think in the Cox Plate after winning the G1 Turnbull over Shocking and Shoot Out, so he’s in excellent form. A place chance for sure.
The New Sheriff in Town
And his name is High Chaparral. This young sire has four excellent entrants, all G1 winners. A win by AJC Derby winner Shoot Out after tragically losing his regular rider would be heart-wrenching, but back-to-back fourth-place finishes behind So You Think in the Cox Plate and Mackinnon make a place chance more likely. Similar to the other High Chaparrals, staying two miles is something he’s never been challenged to do, but his damsire Pentire gives promise that he can. Gai Waterhouse sends out her Kiwi-bred Caulfield Cup winner Descarado, who is rock-hard fit and proven as a mudlark. The rather forgotten threat is Monaco Consul, whose Victoria Derby win last October came over 13 furlongs. Personally, I won’t be leaving any of the High Chaparrals off my exotics tickets.