With the best month of racing for the year right on our doorstep, it is easy to look towards the many positives – for example, the sheer quality of horseflesh this spring, or the many feel-good stories that may emerge.
But an article by The Age’s Michael Lynch last weekend made the first mention of what may become the biggest issue to plague racing this Spring Carnival.
It is an issue which has been mentioned by shrewd judges on social media before, but Lynch’s article seemed to give it vindication – a very real acknowledgement that one of our great races may be spoiled by greed and ambition.
On Saturday, while the eyes of all Melburnians and most Australians were firmly fixed on the Melbourne Cricket Ground ahead of the AFL Grand Final, the first European raiders here to tackle the Spring Carnival snuck into the designated quarantine facility at Werribee.
Among this group of horses were Cups contenders Dandino, Simenon and Forgotten Voice, as well as progressive stayers Opinion and Ruscello.
They were joined by Trevieres, an impressive miler who will aim at the Toorak Handicap before a potential assault on the Caulfield Cup or the Cox Plate, as well as top Australian sprinter Shamexpress, returning from his Royal Ascot sojourn.
But the two gallopers aboard the Singapore Airlines Cargo flight with the potential to dominate the headlines this spring were Cox Plate invitees Side Glance and Mull Of Killough.
As a result of the Moonee Valley Racing Club’s extensive international drive, both are guaranteed a run in the Cox Plate as guests of the club.
It’s a matter of debate and personal opinion whether either horse is worthy of a free ticket into our weight-for-age championship.
Side Glance is a dual Group 3 winner owned in the same interests as Dunaden.
He has placed at Group 1 level twice, including a distant third to Frankel in that unforgettable romp in the Queen Anne Stakes last year – he finished eleven and a half lengths behind Frankel, but only a neck behind Excelebration.
He was also five lengths clear of 2011 Cox Plate favourite Helmet.
At his last start he finished an unlucky third to Real Solution in the Arlington Million.
Mull Of Killough was three lengths behind Side Glance that day, finishing eighth in Chicago after leading. He is also a dual Group 3 winner, while he finished fifth to Military Attack in the Singapore International Cup in May.
However, he’s yet to finish in the placings in a Group 1.
I’m all for the globalisation of the Cox Plate, but invitees should have to earn a spot in the final field of the race.
And that is where the problem lies, laying the foundations for what could be the biggest controversy this spring – if 14 Group 1 winners accept for the Cox Plate, who does the Moonee Valley Racing Club omit in order to let two Group 3 runners from England take their place?
One only needs to look at the likely field for Saturday’s Turnbull Stakes to understand how big an issue this could potentially become, one which could dwarf the Taufan’s Melody saga of 1998.
That year, Taufan’s Melody was elevated into the Caulfield Cup field despite not having the necessary prizemoney to qualify.
He was entered at the expense of Colin Alderson’s Our Unicorn, a winner of the Naturalism Stakes (at that time not offering ballot exemption) and third in the Craiglee Stakes and the Turnbull Stakes.
To make matters worse, Taufan’s Melody won the Caulfield Cup at monstrous odds after jockey Ray Cochrane knocked over half the field.
The Caulfield Cup was one thing, but the Cox Plate – our weight for age championship – is another matter entirely.
As an example of the potential ramifications, look at the Underwood Stakes field from a week and a half ago, widely considered to be the best race in terms of depth this year, if not for a number of years.
11 of the fourteen 14 were Group 1 winners – Australian Derby winners It’s A Dundeel and Ethiopia, Memsie Stakes winner Atlantic Jewel, Crown Oaks winner Dear Demi, Emirates Stakes winner Happy Trails, Australian Cup winner Manighar, New Zealand Derby winner Silent Achiever, Railway Stakes winner Mr Moet, Melbourne Cup winner Green Moon, German Derby winner Waldpark and Makybe Diva Stakes winner Foreteller.
The only horses who were yet to win at Group 1 level were Puissance de Lune, a last start second at Group 1 level, a two time Group 2 winner and the long-term Melbourne Cup favourite; Sea Moon, probably the best non-Group 1 winner currently racing in Australia on the strength of his victories in the Great Voltigeur Stakes and the Hardwicke Stakes; and My Quest for Peace, fifth in last year’s Caulfield Cup.
Hypothetically, say those 14 runners were to all accept for the Cox Plate. Who would the Moonee Valley Racing Club exclude to make way for the two internationals?
In all likelihood, My Quest for Peace would be the first horse excluded, as he is yet to place at Group 1 level. Puissance de Lune (second, Makybe Diva Stakes) and Sea Moon (third, English St Leger) both fit the Group 1 placegetter criterion, as does Side Glance (third, Arlington Million and Queen Anne Stakes).
However, from there, it gets murky, and one of Puissance de Lune or Sea Moon – or perhaps a horse like Waldpark, who ran King George winner Novellist to a head in May – would be excluded. It hardly seems right.
Of the Underwood field, Ethiopia, Dear Demi, Manighar, Silent Achiever, Mr Moet, Waldpark and My Quest For Peace are unlikely to head to the Cox Plate, opening up six spots.
But once classy horses like Fiorente, Super Cool and Sacred Falls are added, as well as three year olds Guelph, Prince Harada, Drago and Long John, it seems there will be at least one set of connections left disappointed.
Attrition always occurs, and there’s plenty of time yet. There will probably be one or two horses who fall by the wayside, but there are also likely to be some horses who target the race unexpectedly.
For example, a horse like Hawkspur could easily back up after the Caulfield Cup, as could Ethiopia or Dear Demi.
So what will the club do if there are more than 14 acceptances? If the circumstances are so, how will they justify leaving out better credentialed horses in order to have international participation?
No matter what, it’s a far cry from the days of Stutt and McEwen, hard administrators who made it their mission to preserve the quality of the Cox Plate.
During their reign, horses had to meet certain benchmarks to be allowed to start in the Cox Plate. To them, a full field didn’t matter – quality prevailed over quantity.
This saw some surprises when certain horses were not allowed to start.
Take 1984 Melbourne Cup winner Black Knight, rejected from the 1985 Cox Plate because he was “merely a handicapper” using the Moonee Valley race as a prep race for his defence of the Melbourne Cup.
Or what about Cole Diesel in 1989, who “didn’t have the form” for a Cox Plate – despite winning the Toorak Handicap and the Caulfield Cup at his two previous starts?
Just a decade ago, things came to a head when Caulfield Guineas Prelude winner Elvstroem, fifth in the Caulfield Guineas itself two weeks before the race, was denied a start in the Cox Plate because he did not meet the ‘criteria’ to get a run.
Instead, he went to the AAMI Vase, where he was beaten by Kempinsky, before turning the tables in recording a Victoria Derby victory.
His career would then take him all over the world, winning the Underwood Stakes, the Caulfield Cup, the Orr Stakes and the Dubai Duty Free.
It was perhaps the spectre of Elvstroem which saw the Moonee Valley Racing Club relax their rules regarding entries.
Just five years later, in 2008, the club allowed Raheeb to contest the Cox Plate.
Raheeb had won the Cameron Handicap, a Group 3 at Newcastle, earlier that preparation before a 13th in the Epsom Handicap and a fifth in the Toorak Handicap.
He must be the only Cox Plate runner to have never won at a metropolitan track before he lined up at the top of the Moonee Valley straight – his three wins had come at Wyong, Port Macquarie and Newcastle, although he had finished second in Group 2 and Group 3 races in Sydney and Brisbane.
The following year, So You Think – with very similar form to Elvstroem – was allowed to run in the Cox Plate, sneaking in after Epsom Handicap winner Rangirangdoo was redirected to the Crystal Mile.
His all-the-way win, which ranks as this writer’s favourite racing moment, ensured Australia’s weight-for-age championship would now be more open.
The downfalls of that policy, though, may be exposed for all to see this spring, as some of Australia’s best gallopers face the prospect of not making the cut for the Cox Plate.