Cox Plate 2012: The truly great Aussie race
Pierro has been retired from racing. AAP Image/Paul Miller
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You know a race is special when it is known as ‘the weight-for-age championship’ and ‘the race where legends are made’.
The Cox Plate has been the pinnacle of Australian racing from just about its inception.
Within 25 years of its first running in 1922, the Cox Plate had been christened by many champion winners including Heroic, Amounis, Phar Lap, Chatham, Ajax, Tranquil Star and Flight.
Run at the obscure distance of 2040 metres and at the tight Moonee Valley circuit, in Melbourne’s inner-North, the Cox Plate was destined to be great. It is defined by its uniqueness.
You can almost count on one hand the greats that have never won the Cox Plate; sprinting superstars – Vain, Manikato and Black Caviar – and those who were long retired – Carbine and Grand Flaneur – before the Cox Plate was first run. None of them competed in the race.
Perhaps Bernborough, the late-blooming Queenslander of the 1940s, is the only champion middle-distance Australian thoroughbred to have not made it to a Cox Plate.
The stallion only raced at one Spring Carnival and trainer Harry Plant preferred the Caulfield Cup, where he carried 64kgs into fifth place, over the Cox Plate.
There aren’t many champions in Australian racing who tried to win a Cox Plate and failed. In my opinion, there are none.
But I’m happy to argue that a Cox Plate victory was the only thing that stood between Let’s Elope (fifth, when relegated from second after protest in 1992), Lonhro (sixth in 2002 and third in 2003, both as favourite) and champion status.
The Cox Plate is the measure of a top-line horse. Few called Makybe Diva a champion before she won the Cox Plate in 2005. With two Melbourne Cups under her belt and a third soon to follow, she may have only been remembered as a champion handicapper if it wasn’t for victory at Moonee Valley.
The fact the mighty mare won the weight-for-age championship means there isn’t a punter or pundit who begrudges Makybe Diva of her legendary status.
Perhaps the most legendary victory in the Cox Plate came via Dulcify in 1979. The Colin Hayes-trained four-year old holds the record for the winning margin – seven lengths.
I wonder if more fateful words have been spoken on an Australian racetrack than when racecaller Bill Collins declared “Dulcify is going to win by a minute and that’s just the way he might win the Melbourne Cup”.
Dulcify started favourite in the Melbourne Cup but broke a leg during the race and was euthanised. It is one of the saddest stories in Australian racing history.
So much Cox Plate history is captured in the calls of Collins. The most famous phrase in the Cox Plate came in 1982 when Collins declared “Kingston Town can’t win” as the field turned for home.
But of course Kingston Town could win. He usually did. And he was, for a third time, a Cox Plate champion in 1982. “The King” is the only three-time winner of the championship.
Upon returning to scale, Kingston Town received a standing ovation from the packed Moonee Valley crowd. Even those in the members stood to applaud the triple champion.
I don’t know how many times a standing ovation has happened in the history of Australian racing but I’ve never been part of one. They are hardly ever, unanimously, handed out.
The best individual Australian horse race was a Cox Plate. In 1986 Bonecrusher and Our Waverly Star fought out ‘the race of the century’. For 800 metres, the two New Zealanders, lengths clear of the rest of the field, went head and head in an epic battle.
And again Collins was at the centre of it. “Bonecrusher races into equine immorality as he photo-finishes Our Waverly Star,” was his famous description.
There have been 13 multiple winners of the Cox Plate and four in the last 13 years.
The second victory of Sunline in 2000 was breathtaking. The Kiwi mare controlled the race from outside the lead before destroying her rivals by seven lengths – to equal Dulcify’s record – in a display of unprecedented speed and stamina.
Sunline attempted to level Kingston’s Town’s three Cox Plates in 2001. She went down narrowly to eventual dual Cox Plate-winner Northerly in a rough championship.
One of the best two-time Cox Plate winners is So You Think. The dual-hemisphere champion won the Cox Plate at his fifth start before defending his crown in 2010.
In 2009, So You Think became the 19th three-year old to win the Cox Plate; 18 of which are male. Surround, 1976, remains the only filly to have claimed the 2040m race.
On Saturday, a trio of three-year olds will line-up in the championship and they are some of the best colts I’ve seen. They hold the key to this year’s Cox Plate.
All Too Hard is undefeated in Melbourne, where racing is conducted in the left-handed direction. The half-brother to Black Caviar requires a lot of luck in races – usually in the form of a fast early speed – but he’s extremely talented.
Most pertinently, All Too Hard beat Cox Plate favourite, Pierro, in October 13′s Caulfield Guineas.
Proisir has only suffered defeat once and it was when he had excuses against the most exciting horse in Australasia – the unbeaten It’s A Dundeel. If It’s A Dundeel remains sound, he will win Saturday week’s VRC Derby and could be anything.
Proisir was five lengths ahead of Honorius at his latest start and the latter finished alongside the best Victorian staying three-year olds at Caulfield last week. Proisir is a chance in the championship.
And the third three-year old, Pierro, is the best young horse to have raced in my lifetime. He will attempt to become the first two-year old Triple Crown winner to claim the Cox Plate.
Pierro’s performance behind All Too Hard in the Caulfield Guineas was enormous. He missed the start, worked up the hill and faced the breeze outside the leader.
Pierro had every reason to compound in the straight. Instead, it took a very good colt to beat him in the last 50 metres of a great Guineas.
I’m not worried so much about the 2040m troubling Pierro on Saturday. What concerns me is the two weeks between his last run and the Cox Plate.
I bet Gai Waterhouse wishes she could’ve trained Pierro differently. On the Monday prior to the Caulfield Guineas, she sent the then undefeated colt to Moonee Valley for a bruising workout.
Pierro scorched the turf to record a sizzling 21.35s for his last 400m of work. There are some old and broken cars that wouldn’t have got around the Valley that quick.
The Cox Plate has been Pierro’s main aim all preparation. With the post-Guineas rise from 1600 to 2040m in the back of her mind, Waterhouse trained Pierro hard before Caulfield.
She hoped he would still be good enough to win a Guineas at less than his top. As it turned out, Pierro had a lung-burning run in defeat and it cooked the Lonhro colt.
Jockey Craig Williams jumped off the horse the morning after the Guineas and we can only assume, after Cox Plate markets were suspended, that Pierro didn’t pull-up well.
Waterhouse has smiled when she’s spoken about Pierro after the Guineas but if you close your eyes and listen to what she’s said, there is no denying the colt felt the full effect of a taxing run.
The rise in distance after such a tough race means Pierro would benefit from an extra week’s break before contesting the championship. In my opinion, he would be a moral in a Cox Plate run on Derby Day.
In saying that, with only 49.5kgs on his back and some outstanding Moonee Valley form, Pierro is still the horse to beat on Saturday.
Of the older horses, Green Moon is the most favoured with punters.
After Pinker Pinker broke her weight-for-age maiden at her first attempt in last year’s championship, the Team Williams galloper is attempting to become the second consecutive Cox Plate winner to have their first WFA victory in a Cox Plate.
Green Moon won the Turnbull at his previous start but that race provided the horses that finished sixth, eighth, ninth, 12th, 14th, 17th and last in the Caulfield Cup.
You can’t knock weight-for-age form in a Cox Plate. And four-year-old Ocean Park brings some very strong WFA performances – three Group One victories in a row in actual fact – to Moonee Valley.
He was very good beating Alcopop in the Caulfield Stakes two weeks ago and Alcopop was second in a fantastic Caulfield Cup won by Dunaden last weekend.
Group One wins shouldn’t be discounted in the championship. And More Joyous has more than any other runner– eight in total. Even though MJ is coming off a disappointing fourth in the Toorak Handicap, she’s at the peak period in her career and is the most proven galloper in the race.
There’s more to the Cox Plate than tipping the winner. But for what it’s worth, I’m going with Pierro to beat Ocean Park, Proisir and More Joyous on Saturday.
Enjoy the championship!