A better-than-average two mile handicap was run in Melbourne today. A better-than-average field lined up against a champion mare who defied history and the record books to win it for the third time running, an unheralded achievement. It was a statistical impossibility, but as cliches go, records are made to be broken.
But please, Makybe Diva is not the greatest horse we've ever seen, even in the modern era.
Winning three Cups in a row, the last with a weight and age carrying record for a mare is exceptional, freakish and a great yarn. But comparisons with Phar Lap are sheer lunacy and merely the stuff of Spring Carnival hyperbole. Such speculation is all about selling the event, because the Melbourne Cup is the one time of the year that the horse racing game gets to dominate the attention of the media, and the one time of year that the racing media get a national audience. There is a tendency to purple prose to say the least. Every year must produce its big story, only this year the story wrote itself, no argument. But let's indulge in some more contemporary comparisons to put this in achievement in context.
Makybe Diva was again dominant today, but being the best horse on the day three times running doesn't mean she would she have beaten, for instance, Saintly in 1996 (for ours the best Cup winner of the past ten years), or Let's Elope in 1991. Put the mare up against Vintage Crop in 1993 and we know where the smart money goes. Makybe Diva is certainly one of the best horses to grace the turf in the past decade, she is today's champion racehorse, but is she better than Sunline? We say no. Let's segue to previous W.S. Cox Plate winners. Where would the mare have run against Dulcify or Kingston Town or Bonecrusher or Octagonal or Lohnro? Kingston Town's three Cox Plates beats the Diva's three Cups hands down in our book.
After the Cox Plate this year trainer Lee Freedman said: "I don't think this country has seen a better horse over the past 30 to 40 years." Funny, in February last year it was Alinghi that was getting the hyperbolic treatment: "She is the greatest horse I've have ever trained... Don't point to me as the trainer because you're looking at a serious champion." At least he's modest. Resurgent at his now established training Shangri La on the Mornington Peninsula, Freedman is a media pro with a beguiling ability to understate his overstatements, but even he kyboshed the Phar Lap malarkey. And as Lydia Hislop in The Times reminded us: "...when Phar Lap won the 1930 Melbourne Cup, he carried 10lb more than Makybe Diva, conceded more than a stone to the field and won by three lengths, his jockey motionless. He won on each of the four days of that meeting, once just hours after an attempt on his life. His 37 wins from 51 starts included an unbeaten run of 14."
Credit where it's due, what Makybe Diva did today may never be done again, and she is truly one of the best two milers we've ever seen. But she carries luck on her side - she's enjoyed a favourable barrier and a glorious run in each Cup - and she also carries skill in the form of Glen Boss, who despite a prediliction for theatrics is clearly one of the greatest riders of the modern era. It may be heresy to say so, but beating On A Jeune by one and a quarter lengths over two miles isn't the mark of Australia's greatest ever racehorse. Two starts back On A Jeune could only run third in the Benalla Cup. She's a great mare, and let's savour the moment. But let's leave it at that.