A roll call of racing’s global elite and a bevy of exceptional thoroughbred talent will collect on Tuesday to cap a vintage year with the 158th running of the $7.3m Melbourne Cup. After another winter of discontent, spring has sprung in all its glory, supercharged again by wonder mare Winx, and so a skittish nation turns its eyes and smartphones to Flemington. While “community attitudes” to horse racing are polarising in the social media era, Cup Day, a public holiday in Victoria since 1873, still signals party time in Australia, an end of year imperative to down tools, gather in groups, overindulge, and “get on the punt” in the best antipodean tradition.
We are reminded each November that this is “the race that stops the nation” – but this tiring 20th century tagline now fails to capture the Cup’s growing international status this century – and its waning local participation. Eleven of the 24 runners this year are trained in the northern hemisphere and the foreign raiders have already won a swag of key Cup lead-up races this spring, including race favourite Yucatan’s jaw dropping Herbert Power win, and that of Godolphin’s Best Solution in the Caulfield Cup, the race that is still statistically the best guide to the big one in the new millennium.
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Cue complaints from local trainers rueing the foreign takeover of the great race and the wholesale lifting of “our prize money”. The trainer in question, Richard Freedman, has his 70-1 honest stager Auvray in the field. It is owned by the China Horse Club and began its career in France. Nostalgia for the good old days when the race was contested by slow Aussie-bred pluggers, also forgets that the trophy back then was typically lifted by Kiwis or New Zealand-bred horses.
This year local hopes rest best on four-year-old mare Youngstar, trained by Winx’s mentor Chris Waller, with Gai Waterhouse’s front runner Runaway rated a top 10 hope. But it’s the Brits who have a stranglehold on the race. Confidence is soaring in the Magic Circle camp, the second favourite. Trainer Ian Williams says his Chester Cup winner “looks magnificent” and has thrived since arriving in Melbourne.
Saeed Bin Suroor is also confident Best Solution can bring the one prize that has eluded a man who can buy anything, Shiekh Mohammed. It may be the forgotten horse but Best Solution has the class credentials to take the next step to greatness, shooting for its fourth Group 1 win in succession on Tuesday.
Thirtysomething Newmarket trainer Charlie Fellowes has won hearts and minds as his handsome six-year-old A Prince of Arun forced its way into the field with a strong victory in Saturday’s Hotham Handicap. Its win franks the form of Cup favourite Yucatan, which beat A Prince of Arun easing down at Caulfield. The buzz around Yukatan is fueled by the Midas touch of its connections, five-time Cup winner Lloyd Williams and the all-conquering Aiden O’Brien – all conquering except for the Melbourne Cup. Yucatan however must overcome a wide barrier and the weight of hype – his Irish and English form had not shown anything worthy of the attention he has attracted since arriving in Australia.
John Gosden’s Ebor winner Muntahaa with his regular jockey Jim Crowley to ride looks a more likely prospect. And last year’s beaten favorite Marmelo is back, with trainer Hughie Morrison engaging Winx’s jockey Hugh Bowman.
The mood this spring is buoyant but the bravado hides nagging worries. “Gamble responsibly” is becoming the turf equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” as punters have opened their shoulders this spring to record wagering turnover. But while the crowds and turnover are up, racing is at a crossroads struggling for relevance in the broader population. The turf remains a durable if fraying social institution, still enjoyed by a subcultural mass, but it is increasingly bagged by “neighsayers” who want it shut down immediately, those who may have once brooded in silence but now organise online.
This dichotomy has been a tale of two cities this spring. The hype and loathing of Sydney’s $13m Everest – suddenly the world’s richest race, and thanks to a shock jock, the only horse race in the city’s history to mobilise a mass protest. And this year’s epic, emotional Cox Plate in Melbourne; riven by the power and poise of champion mare, Winx, the first horse and likely only horse to win Australia’s best horse race four times.
And so it was the money or the horse. Sydney or Melbourne. Marketing hype or the real deal. Winx provided the perfect answer to the punishers and straighteners demanding racing begone. But its a temporary victory. Any publicity is good publicity? If all you’ve got is public relations, the public will find you out. Good punting and may we all find the Best Solution for all.
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