Group 1 racing returns to the calendar this Saturday with the running of the Winx Stakes (1400 metres) at Randwick.
This November marks 20 years since one of the most audacious assaults ever attempted in horse racing changed the face of Australia’s racing scene forever.
The 1993 spring saw two horses trained in Europe coming to Australia to contest our greatest race, the Melbourne Cup.
England’s Drum Taps, an Ascot Gold Cup winner trained by Lord Huntingdon, and Ireland’s Vintage Crop, an Irish St Leger winner trained by Dermot Weld, marked the start of a new era for Australian racing.
They were not the first internationally-trained runners in an Australian feature. Horses had contested the Tancred Stakes (now known as The BMW) in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
Nor were they the first northern hemisphere-bred gallopers to contest the Melbourne Cup, with the first British-bred winner Comedy King taking the race in 1910.
But while the Victoria Racing Club had been trying to entice trainers to bring their horses to Melbourne for the spring for a number of years, it was not possible until 1993.
And so, they came – a journey of almost 17,000km that seemed to break every rule for winning a Melbourne Cup.
History tells us that Vintage Crop, ridden by Mick Kinane, relished the wet conditions, coming with a barnstorming run down the centre to win easily from outsiders Te Akau Nick and Mercator.
Drum Taps was an average ninth.
No one can underestimate the importance of Vintage Crop’s hit and run victory, as it ensured a steady stream of horses attempting to emulate the Irish chestnut.
Every year since, horses from all over the world have tried to take the Melbourne Cup away from Australian shores. And in the two decades since, they’ve only succeeded three times.
In 2002, Media Puzzle – carrying the same yellow and blue silks as Vintage Crop – took the Cup back to Ireland for Dermot Weld, while 2010 and 2011 saw the Cup in French hands as Americain and Dunaden dominated at Flemington.
The international gallopers have brought new life to the Melbourne Cup. Some of the Cups of the 1980s were quite poor, nothing more than a glorified quality handicap.
And while the Cup was already on an upward spiral – both the 1991 and 1992 Melbourne Cups were terrific without international competition – it has given the Cup a new level of credence.
But let me pose a Sliding Doors-esque question – what would have happened if Vintage Crop hadn’t won?
Would trainers have returned in their droves while doubting it was truly possible? Would owners have been prepared to fork out the large investment required to send a horse to Australia?
The Cox Plate is perhaps an example of what happens when success is not proven immediately.
The first internationally-trained runner to contest a Cox Plate was also trained by Dermot Weld, with Make No Mistake a disappointing eighth behind Sunline in 1999.
Two German gallopers contested the 2001 Cox Plate, with Silvano a gutsy fourth and Caitano an okay seventh.
But it was 2002 which was ultimately set to make or break the future of the Cox Plate, with global powerhouse Godolphin sending one of the world’s best horses, in Grandera, to Melbourne.
Grandera had won the Singapore Airlines International Cup, the Prince of Wales’ Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Irish Champion Stakes in 2002 prior to his Cox Plate attempt.
Unfortunately, the Godolphin galloper also tackled one of the best Cox Plate fields in history, with a world class line-up assembled, and he finished third behind Northerly and Defier.
He was ahead of two Cox Plate winners in Sunline and Fields of Omagh, as well as emerging star Lonhro and good sprinter Bel Esprit.
To this day, he is the only international to place in a Cox Plate.
The following four years saw participation from South Africa (Paraca, Greys Inn), Hong Kong (Elegant Fashion, Super Kid), Germany (Paolini) and Japan (Tosen Dandy), with Super Kid’s seventh to Makybe Diva in 2005 the best result.
Meanwhile, the only international to contest the Cox Plate in the last five years has been Macau champion Luen Yat Forever, who was tailed off behind So You Think in 2010 – proving form from the Chinese territory is hardly a form reference for what is our greatest race.
It is true that more races clash with the Cox Plate, with horses sticking to races like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the Champion Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Also, the Moonee Valley course is not one that appears suitable for European horses used to spacious tracks with unbearably long straights.
But the Cox Plate will not attract any names of note from overseas until a trailblazer proves it is possible.
Still, it is also a reminder of the fortune of the Victoria Racing Club with Vintage Crop’s 1993 victory.
During a European sojourn in the depths of a northern winter last year, I took the opportunity to visit the picturesque Irish National Stud in County Kildare.
Around the world, only Lexington in Kentucky is considered as good a region for rearing horses. Gentle, green rolling hills, lush pastures – it is a horse lover’s paradise.
Remember, too, that seven of the first eight across the line in last year’s Melbourne Cup came from Ireland.
The stud, only a couple of miles down the road from The Curragh, is an eye-opener, and is one of Kildare’s main tourist attractions.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people flock to the working stud to gain an understanding of how a horse stud operates, as well as to see the extraordinary landscaping around the property.
But as much as the operations of the stud are a drawcard, the real attraction is a chestnut gelding who has retired to a paddock at the stud.
As we approach the paddock where this gelding is said to be, my eyes are instantly drawn to a chestnut hiding from the crowds in a distance.
Slowly, though, he walks towards us, as though he can pick us out a mile away.
Is this him?
The tag confirmed it – I was face to face with Vintage Crop.
He was clearly ageing – he had just turned 25 when we saw him (he’s now 26). His coat was scraggly, he looked like an old grumpy codger.
But for an ageing gelding, he looked remarkably well.
I was there with an American friend, and I had spent two hours before arriving at the property telling her all about Vintage Crop and the extraordinary role he had played in rejuvenating the Melbourne Cup.
We may have spent a mere 10 minutes with him, but it was my chance to say thanks to a gelding who changed the face of Australian racing forever.
Thanks, Vintage Crop.