06 November 2017

The Guardian | Melbourne Cup preview: cream of world racing descends on Flemington

From hangovers to foreign raiders, 2017 promises more of the same against the backdrop of stellar Spring racing...

Can Frankie finally do it? Can Aiden O’Brien finally do it? Can Sheikh Mohammed finally do it? Yes, it’s Melbourne Cup time, when the land down under goes over the top for a horse race and when the world’s racing elite ply their annual quest, before going home wondering what the hell happened, again. This is that peculiar Australian festival of wanton abandon to the punt and the plonk; a hangover from another era, that gives annual licence to a national hangover. No other national event can so conjure Australia’s historic and reckless will to party.
The scene was set for the first Cup of the Trump era on Saturday, when Australia’s foreign minister, the Honourable Julie Bishop, made her annual usually taxpayer-funded appearance on Victoria Derby Day, wearing the millinery equivalent of a spy satellite on her head. “I’d rather be a horse at Flemington than a refugee at Manus Island,” one Twitter wit cracked, referencing Australia’s international controversy du jour. It was the would-be PM’s “let them eat cake” moment as she joined Australia’s bunyip aristocracy for their annual roll call at Flemington; ladies in silly hats, gentlemen in morning coats, as if Royal Ascot had magically appeared on the banks of the Maribyrnong. Beyond the exclusive marquees, the rest of the 87,000 patrons were busy drinking themselves into oblivion. This is the coterie Australian racing mandarins are keen to court these days. It is a magnificent farce that adds nothing to the spectacle out on the track.

For actual fans of racing, it’s been a stellar Spring thus far on the Australian turf, long shots galore, interstate rivalry, a suitable modicum of controversy and of course the historic deeds by one horse and rider, the mare of the century Winx and her gentleman postillion Hugh Bowman, who combined to win a record-equalling third WS Cox Plate, Australia’s best horse race. Some UK commentators sniffed that she’s but a local champ, and what would Enable do to her? Silly stuff, comparing three year olds to six year olds, but we may get our an answer come Royal Ascot 2018.

Normally we would now turn our attention to the Cup as Australia’s richest horse race, had not Sydney racing officials rudely inserted the “world’s richest turf race” into the early Spring calendar with its $10m sprint the Everest, in a triumph of ambush marketing. The Everest created much local Sydney hubbub and backslapping, as a bigger-than-usual crowd of imbibers turned up at Royal Randwick to gasp fleetingly at the 1200m scamper. So this year the $6.2m Emirates Melbourne Cup (3200m) is casting around for other superlatives: Australia’s most famous race; the world’s richest handicap, but still Australia’s biggest major event (bringing some $400m in for Victoria’s economy).

There were no international runners in the Everest and the race itself would be only supporting event if run on Tuesday. By comparison, this year’s Melbourne Cup can boast a record-equalling 11 international runners, as the cream of the world’s trainers and jockeys descend for what remains one of the world’s truly great sporting spectacles.

And with the quality of this year’s field, the Empire has struck back. All eyes are on Frankie Dettori as he tries to cap his magnificent career with the race that has thus far eluded him. This year he gets perhaps his best chance with the ride on favourite and last year’s winner Almandin, one of no less than six runners for five-time winning owner, Lloyd Williams. Dettori was the beneficiary of a moment of madness from former champion jockey Damien Oliver, who lost the plum Cup ride after being suspended for improper riding in the Cox Plate.

The market power of Williams has never been so evident as he lines up one quarter of the field. Since linking up with Williams in recent years, Irish champion handler Aiden O’Brien will be hoping Johannes Vermeer can end his historic Group One winning season by delivering the one scalp that has eluded his illustrious career.

Godolphin principle Sheikh Mohammed is in the same category: yet to break his Melbourne Cup maiden after two decades of trying. Last year he had five runners, this year just one: his outstanding stayer Hartnell, who ran third last year after a WFA campaign, but who has been set specifically this year for the Cup by James Cummings, in his debutante year as Godolphin’s head trainer in Australia. Should Cummings win with Hartnell, it’s unclear if his late and legendary grandfather Bart, the winner of 12 Melbourne Cups, will be cheering or turning in his grave: Cummings Senior was always a staunch critic of the “overseas raiders” who had made his job of winning cups so much harder (though no less frequent) in his twilight years.

Of the other “raiders”, Hugo Palmer says Wall of Fire has thrived since arriving in Melbourne and Willie Mullins will have a strong hand with three runners this year after Thomas Hobson sneaked into the field on Saturday with the late scratching of Jon Snow. He will join 2015 runner up Max Dynamite and Wicklow Brave in the field. Mullins said at the barrier draw that champion international jockey João Moreira chased the ride on Thomas Hobson and has been booked for months.

Another notable raider is the French entrant Tiberian, an anomaly of the breeding barn in that his sire Tiberius Caesar is actually the “teaser” for sire Authorized, the stud farm equivalent of a “fluffer”. He comes into the race the dark horse, but with a wide draw, he will need all Oliver Peslier’s skill to take up a position.

First published in The Guardian.

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