Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred race has been decided in the stewards’ room with State Of Rest winning the $5 million WS Cox Plate after surviving a protest.
The Underwood Stakes on Saturday was jokingly labelled the “race of the millennium” before the race, but it lived up to its star billing as the two drawcard acts fought it out down the straight.
When Atlantic Jewel, a hotpot $1.60 favourite, entered the straight under a hold with her rivals under heavy riding, the race looked as good as over – only for It’s A Dundeel to fight on like a bulldog and grab her in the shadows of the post.
The air of invincibility shattered, thoughts turned to the remainder of the spring. What would happen now? Will they pull up stumps now she’s been beaten? Is she as good as we’d hoped? A million questions, mostly negative, ran through my head.
But as soon as rational thought had returned after the delirium of a thrilling Group 1 contest, I quickly came to the conclusion that Atlantic Jewel’s narrow defeat at the hands of It’s A Dundeel was the best result for racing fans this spring.
Not only will it ensure the connections of Atlantic Jewel have no excuses, barring injury, to test her out to her limits, it also opens up a spring full of promise and intrigue.
Let’s look at the second part first.
Quite often, good horses are made by their opposition. Take Northerly for example. Northerly’s status among the champions of the turf was enhanced greatly by his rivalry with the great Kiwi mare Sunline.
He may have met her when she was past her prime, but he still managed to beat her on the four occasions they met, and both the 2001 and 2002 Cox Plates are rated highly.
Indeed, the most memorable Cox Plates are generally those which are a genuine battle of the heavyweights, with the most obvious example that most famous of Cox Plates featuring Bonecrusher and Our Waverley Star in 1986.
I don’t expect Atlantic Jewel and It’s A Dundeel will take off with four furlongs to go, just like the two New Zealanders did in 1986, but it adds to the theatre of the race.
With our weight for age championship, we want to see a battle royale. We want to see action. We don’t want to see one act affairs, nor do we want to see our B-graders contesting the race. Last year was a good Cox Plate, as subsequent form proved, but the two renewals before that were disappointing.
This writer is the biggest So You Think fan around, and yet even I was slightly circumspect after he won his second Cox Plate as a hot favourite in 2010.
His first Cox Plate, where he wasn’t expected to lead but instead he was a bunny to chase down, was so much more exciting and thrilling.
Even more disappointing was the 2011 Cox Plate, which saw a substandard field line-up for our weight for age championship and a peach of a ride from Craig Williams determining the result.
As long as natural attrition doesn’t claim too many big name scalps, we are unlikely to see an inferior field at the top of the Moonee Valley straight on October 26 – in fact, it’s likely it will be a field even better than last year.
And the defeat of Atlantic Jewel has almost guaranteed that, barring injury, we won’t be left with an odds on favourite this year.
It’s set to be racing at its finest, a true contest which will stir the blood of every racing fan in the country.
Indeed, I hope Atlantic Jewel can notch another victory up in the Caulfield Stakes, perhaps narrowly over It’s A Dundeel.
Why? Because it would put them on more even ground than they are now. It would be something special to see both horses lining up at Moonee Valley, both clearly dominant, with their head to head record split at one a piece.
It would evoke memories of Sunline and Northerly in the 2001 and 2002 Cox Plates, and it would provide the ultimate talking point heading into Australia’s weight for age championship.
With a month to go until the race, plenty could still change, so I’m loath to get ahead of myself. But all the signs currently point to a grand Cox Plate – and racing can only be the winner.
Also, I hope the fact connections don’t have to protect Atlantic Jewel’s unbeaten record allows them to be a bit daring.
Perhaps we’re still a little bit wary after Black Caviar was protected from defeat in the later stages of her career.
Of course, they did take Black Caviar to England, where she almost lost her unbeaten tag, but aside from one start at 1400m, they were unwilling to push the boundaries too much for fear of losing unbeaten status.
Without the same pressure on the boys at Coolmore and trainer Mark Kavanagh, hopefully they are willing to test Atlantic Jewel out more than if they had to protect the tag.
For example, if she were to lose the Caulfield Stakes narrowly, I’d hope they push on to the Cox Plate regardless. She’s one of the best in Australia, and she deserves her chance in the race.
And who knows? Being owned by Coolmore, there’s every chance we could see her in Europe next year.
There’s a element of hypothetical there, and the next month we’ll start to see much of this become reality. Let’s hope, at the end of October, we’re discussing this year’s Cox Plate as being among the greatest we’ve seen – perhaps thanks to an epic duel between It’s A Dundeel and Atlantic Jewel!