Until recently, knowing the identity of the previous year’s Melbourne Cup winner would have earned you little more than a bit of kudos at your local pub quiz, but the world’s richest two-mile handicap is growing in popularity in Britain and Ireland.
The race has always been a big deal in Australia. The atmosphere builds up over the month-long Spring Racing Carnival, culminating in Melbourne Cup Day which grips the nation in a similar way to the Grand National – to the point that the day of the race has long since been a public holiday in the state of Victoria where it is held.
The Melbourne Cup is so synonymous with Australian culture that it has made it to the big screen on several occasions, most recently with the 2011 film The Cup. It depicts the story of jockey Damien Oliver, who went on to win the 2002 renewal of the race aboard the Irish-trained Media Puzzle shortly after the tragic death of his brother.
Whilst Weld initially found himself in the minority of foreign challengers for the race, European raiders have started to pay serious attention in recent years, in most part due to the rapid increase in prize money on offer - with this year’s total of AUS $7.3 million (an increase of $1.3 million from the previous year) attracting more and more challengers from around the globe.
The vast amount on offer means that the race has never been more attractive, but it is creating something of a love-hate relationship with the fiercely competitive Australian contingent, who are understandably defensive of their race.
"To be the only Australian-owned, Australian-bred and Australian-trained horse in the race, it's pretty special I suppose," said trainer Jamie Edwards about Sertorious in 2015. His patriotic statement containing echoes of the oft-heard opinion that the race is too international.
The last time an Australian-bred horse won the Cup? The Mark Kavanagh-trained Shocking, back in 2009.
The European challenge is growing
The Melbourne Cup trophy heading outside of Oceania is a relatively new phenomenon – only six runners have followed in the footsteps of the Dermot Weld-trained Vintage Crop, who became the first overseas winner of the race 25 years ago.
"This is probably the furthest anyone has brought a racehorse to win a race, and I'm sure the Melbourne Cup will now develop into the top international two-mile race in the world," said a prophetic Weld in the aftermath.
The number of foreign raiders has generally increased year on year since, and they are beginning to dominate; 11 of last year’s field of 23 runners were from Europe, eight of whom occupied the first ten places, with an Irish-trained 1-2-3 for the first time, led by Rekindling.
As unlikely as it might seem now, that impressive result could even be bettered this year, with the Melbourne Cup having a record number of international entries - the international facility at Werribee is expected to house a total of 40 horses during the Spring Racing Carnival.
Concern is growing in Australia
While the international challengers have helped raise the race’s profile, the knock-on effect has been a reduction in the Australian contingent.
Merely getting a run in the race is becoming an achievement in itself, and several of this year's fancied runners will probably need to win a race during the Spring Racing Carnival to guarantee their place.
The Lexus Stakes, the Bart Cummings, the Caulfied Cup and the Cox Plate all guarantee the winner a place in the Cup, though, with many overseas challenging for those races, many feel that isn't enough.
And there are also question marks over the inclusion of the Cox Plate. It’s 13 years since the three-time Cup winner Makybe Diva completed the double, and considering that the super-mare Winx – who is a strong favourite to achieve her fourth straight win in this year’s Cox Plate – has never run in the Cup; it's unlikely that the race will produce a competitor this time around.
Racing Victoria and the Victoria Racing Club are looking into plans to introduce two more races in May and September which would include a spot for the winner, and in theory provide more opportunities for the home team to earn a place. Early qualification would also mean a tailored campaign, rather than the worry of having to target certain races during the hectic Spring Racing Carnival.
The Victoria Racing Club, in consultation with Racing Victoria, has the final say about the make-up of the field, but the 24 berths are usually determined by two factors:
1) The weight a horse is allotted to carry in the race by handicappers; and
2) Whether that horse has won a ballot-free race in the lead-up.
The ballot-free races are as numerous as they are widespread globally, and include the Ebor, Northumberland Plate and Cesarewitch.
One way that the Australians have tried to remain competitive is by importing challengers from abroad, and in particular Europe, a tactic that has been used to great effect by Lloyd Williams, the Melbourne Cup’s winning-most owner with six victories.
Williams’ last winner of the race to be bred in the Southern Hemisphere was back in 2007 with Efficient, and his three most recent winners, Green Moon (2012), Almandin (2016) and Rekindling (2017), were all European-bred, and the latter was European-trained, too, remaining with Joseph O’Brien after his purchase.
It is a method Williams will again utilise this year, having purchased a 50 percent stake in the Aidan O’Brien-trained Cliffs of Moher, and a full stake in his stablemate Yutacan. He also owns the Irish Derby winner Latrobe, though his participation this year remains doubtful, and has an interest in ex-Ballydoyle horses Homesman and Taj Mahal, renamed The Taj Mahal in Australia, who are now both trained in Australia.
Indeed, a host of this year’s home challenge is imported from overseas, and the first three Australian-trained runners in the betting at the time of writing, Avilius, Kings Will Dream and Tosen Basil, all raced abroad earlier in their careers. An Australian consortium has bought into the Lonsdale Cup runner-up Count Octave, who has been subsequently switched to the Chris Waller yard in Australia.
As ABC’s Andrew McGarry pointed out ahead of last year’s renewal, “It hasn't really been a case of the internationals versus the locals for quite some time.”
British and Irish challengers
The ante-post market for the Melbourne Cup (with British and Irish bookmakers) is topped by the progressive Cross Counter, who produced a big effort to win the Group 3 Gordon Stakes at Goodwood in August – recording a strong timefigure in the process. He couldn’t quite back that up when second in the Great Voltigeur but that was still a solid performance in a more competitive environment.
Magic Circle has taken giant strides forward since being purchased by Dr Marwan Koukash, winning the Chester Cup decisively in May, before forging clear in the Henry VII Stakes at Sandown two weeks later. We haven’t seen him since, but this has been the long term plan.
It’s no surprise to see Withhold towards the top of the betting, and he is no stranger to landing a gamble, having won both the Cesarewitch and Northumberland Plate as favourite. Also prominent in the betting is the highly progressive Hamada, who took the step up in class in his stride when winning the Geoffrey Freer Stakes at Newbury last time.
The Irish have a strong record in the race, though several of their big hitters will be missing this time around, with the Willie Mullins pair of Max Dynamite and Thomas Hobson – third and sixth in last year’s renewal respectively – missing out.
Aidan O’Brien has a host of entries, headed by the 2017 Derby runner-up Cliffs of Moher, but he will be without recent St Leger winner Kew Gardens and his Irish St Leger-winning stablemate Flag of Honour. Torcedor, who was with Jessica Harrington before switching to Germany, will also miss the Spring Racing Carnival; a high temperature meant he couldn’t go into quarantine in time.
British struggles Down Under
Whilst Ireland, France, Japan and Germany have all tasted success in the Melbourne Cup this century, the English trainers have fared similarly to most of their sporting endeavours in Australia in that it has generally ended in disappointment.
British runners may dominate this year’s market for the Melbourne Cup, but no horse has finished better than second– a run which was started by the Godolphin-owned Central Park, who did so as a 50/1 outsider in the 1999 renewal under Frankie Dettori.
Red Cadeaux finished second on three occasions (2011, 2013 and 2014), endearing himself to the Australian public in the process, while Trip To Paris and Qewy finished fourth in the 2015 and 2016 renewals respectively, whilst Scotland’s first ever runner, Nakeeta, was fifth in last year’s renewal.
The majority of the Flemington crowd will be praying for an Australian winner on Tuesday November 6. The Herald Sun’s Andrew Webster described England’s 3-1 Ashes win Down Under in 2010/11 as “slow and painful torture” – an English win in Australia’s most prestigious race might be too much for some to bear.