Internationals eat away at soul of Melbourne Cup
Can Americain win the 2012 Caulfield Cup? Slattery Images.
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Next week a dozen of the top stayers in the world will enter quarantine in their home country to prepare for their late-September flight to Australia for the Melbourne Cup.
And a few weeks after that, another four or five are expected to land in the Victorian capital.
It continues a trend that has built over 20 years. In 1993 Drum Taps and Vintage Crop travelled from England and Ireland respectively for the Melbourne Cup.
Drum Taps could only finish ninth but Vintage Crop won the race for Dermot Weld and the Cup has been on the agenda for any owner or trainer of quality stayers since.
And until the last few years I think the positives of an international Melbourne Cup have outweighed the negatives. Between 1994 and 2009, the international contingent on the first Tuesday of November has fluctuated between a low of three in Efficient’s 2007 Cup to a high of eight in Media Puzzle’s emotion-charged victory in 2002.
These internationals created plenty of interest in both Australia and overseas and the Melbourne Cup has developed into one of the world’s most important races.
And the emergence of the ‘international raider’ has helped the quality of the Cup. Australian staying stocks have been in decline for decades and the Melbourne Cup, as a Group One staying handicap has suffered through various parts of the last 30 years as a direct result.
Internationally-trained Melbourne Cup entrants have strengthened the field to such an extent that the quality of the race now reflects the importance Australians place on it. The great handicap has, in my opinion, become Australia’s strongest race on the calendar.
To win the Cup in 2012 a horse has to be either be a progressive handicapper that will soon develop into a genuine weight-for-age performer (in the mould of 2009 Cup winner Shocking and 2011 Cup winner Dunaden) or a star that has the power and class to concede weight to their rivals over two miles (like Makybe Diva did in 2005).
And this requirement – along with international contingents of nine in 2010, 11 in 2011 and as many as 14 in 2012 – has changed Australia’s great handicap.
The Melbourne Cup has lost its soul.
For most of the last 150 years the Melbourne Cup was a true handicap – an opportunity for the battler to scrape into the field with a low weight and tackle the seasoned performers at the top.
The idea of the handicap endeared itself to the Australian people and culture. The quality of the field didn’t matter.
Any person, with any thoroughbred, hoped their horse could progress to win a Stakes grade staying race to qualify for the Cup.
And when they did, it was fantastic. One of my favourite Melbourne Cup stories focuses on a horse called Dolphin Jo.
Dolphin Jo started his career in 2005 in maidens at Horsham (population 14000) where he finished tenth and Nhill (population 1900) running fifth.
It took him another eight starts to break his maiden – in a Class One at Ballarat over 2200 metres by over three lengths. He then made the big step to win a three-year old Open Handicap at Caulfield, in Melbourne, before taking the Listed VRC St Leger over 2800 at Flemington.
That victory qualified Dolphin Jo for not only the 2006 Melbourne Cup but all its key lead-ups including the Herbert Power (where he finished tenth) and the Moonee Valley Cup (sixth).
As an 80/1 chance, he finished 15th in the Melbourne Cup. It proved a valuable experience for Dolphin Jo.
Because when he returned the following spring –having been without victory in his last 17 starts – his handicap was still high enough; boosted after running in races like the Melbourne Cup that he was able to enter key Cup lead-ups in 2007.
Dolphin Jo had improved significantly. He won the Listed Bart Cummings in October; finished fourth and sixth in the Herbert Power and Moonee Valley Cup respectively, and entered the Melbourne Cup as a 60/1 chance.
And Dolphin Jo, the battler from Stawell in Western Victoria, ran like a horse possessed to finish a more than creditable fifth.
Owner Glenis Herrmann – who appeared to be in her 70s – described the feeling after the race: “We have been involved in racehorses for 20 years and have only really been buggerising around but this bloke has given us the biggest thrill in a long, long time.”
The 2007 Cup is perhaps the most significant Cup in recent times. There were only three non-Australasian trained gallopers in the field and, as such, it can be regarded as the last largely non-international Melbourne Cup for, what I anticipate to be, many years.
I don’t think we will be seeing too many Dolphin Jo stories in the years to come. And it’s sad because they are the stories that make the Melbourne Cup special.
In two months, when the Melbourne Cup is run, I suspect a record 12 gallopers will be trained overseas; six will be imported from other countries and trained by Australians, and the remaining six will be a combination of Australian and New Zealanders.
It’s not what the Melbourne Cup is about. The obvious solution to this problem would be to reverse the decisions made by the VRC in recent years. Many races that guarantee the victor, and often the placegetters, a spot in the Melbourne Cup have been stripped of these exemptions.
By reinstating these ballot clauses, the Cup would quickly return to being a largely Australian handicap. The battler would once again be able to pit themselves against the star.
I would love the world’s great trainers to bring half as many horses to Flemington and instead focus on the Cox Plate. And if all the entrants were from overseas, it wouldn’t bother me because as a Championship race, the 2040-metre classic deserves the best it can get.
Many overseas trainers avoid Moonee Valley due to its tight-turning nature and also because the Cox Plate runs in close proximity to, what they view as more prestigious races like the Arc de Triomphe and Breeders Cup meeting.
I think there is an opportunity for the Sydney-based Australian Turf Club to make April’s BMW a truly international event. As a $2.5m, 2400 metre weight-for-age race, the BMW should be appealing to many owners and trainers.
It is situated perfectly; near the beginning of the European flat season but before the prestige of Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, and Rosehill is one of Australia’s largest racecourses. But no international has ever competed in it.
And with our thin staying ranks, it wouldn’t take a horse of the quality of Frankel to win it either.
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