Bob Hawke was nonplussed. He’d just gotten off a typically eloquent speech in front of a claque of media, and no-one had a question for him.
It is seemingly impossible to win a Melbourne Cup with any more than 57kg, and 2014’s Melbourne Cup is unusual in that there there is no obvious topweight horse, and accordingly, no obvious favourite.
This is likely to deter international trainers from sending their horses, as handicaps will be less likely to be avoided. Carrying the top weight in the Melbourne Cup is usually an unwanted gift to any past winners.
But last year’s winner, Fiorente, has been retired and the winner prior in 2012 Green Moon, has not won since that day. 2011 winner Dunaden has also been retired.
The dilemma has trainer Ed Dunlop reconsidering whether to send dual runner-up Red Cadeaux or not for a fourth crack at the $6.2million race. Having run second twice as well as running second in the Dubai World Cup and winning the Hong Kong Vase, there is a real possibility Red Cadeaux will be assigned top weight if he comes.
Under the rules of the Melbourne Cup, the highest handicapped horse in the final field must carry a minimum of 58kg.
Once the field of 24 is announced on the Saturday night before the Cup, if the highest rated horse has been weighted with any less than 58kg, weights for all acceptors will be increased by the amount required to have at least one runner in the field carrying 58kg.
In 2013, the topweight was Dunaden with 58.5kg and finished 11th.
In 2012, the topweight was Dunaden with 59kg and finished 14th.
In 2011, the topweight was Americain with 58kg and finished 4th.
In 2010, the topweight was Shocking with 57kg (minimum top weight rule amended since) and finished 18th.
The common trend is the top weight has been a past Melbourne Cup winner which has struggled after their initial win due to their big impost. For the Europeans, coming to Melbourne is a financial disaster unless their horse finishes in the top ten.
International trainers have caught onto how to win a Melbourne Cup. It doesn’t matter how good a horse is overseas because winning the Melbourne Cup isn’t about beating the other horses – it’s about beating the handicapper.
If a horse is not allocated a manageable weight, it virtually can’t win.
The past five winners have carried 55kg (Fiorente), 53.5kg (Green Moon), 54.5kg (Dunaden), 54.5kg (Americain) and 51kg (Shocking).
Because of this, international trainers now prepare Melbourne Cup campaigns for their horses a year in advance. If their horse is Melbourne-bound, they avoid any race which may carry a weight penalty once they are confident of getting a start in the world’s richest handicap race.
It is a tactic which worked well for Americain and Dunaden’s trainers, but backfired for others.
Last year, John Gosden sent Gatewood to Melbourne for a Cup tilt but was on the edge of the field when he arrived. He subsequently won the Geelong Cup and got a weight penalty but was still on the edge of the field courtesy of a low weight.
Gatewood ultimately failed to make the final field but was a very capable horse.
Since returning to England, Gatewood has had five starts for three wins and two seconds which highlights the danger involved when taking on the Melbourne Cup handicapper with a good horse.
Aidan O’Brien has not had a Melbourne Cup runner in six years since he wised up to how difficult the race was to win. Sending his top horses year after year proved an epic failure when their large imposts left them flatfooted.
Weight stops trains and O’Brien found out the hard way when Septimus finished 18th in 2008.
It seems he may have figured out the quirks of the Cup during his six-year exile from Melbourne. He has nominated two horses for the Caulfield Cup, three for the Cox Plate of which he has already confirmed one starter – Adelaide – for the Cox Plate.
This renewed interest in the Melbourne Carnival may prompt significant O’Brien nominations for the Melbourne Cup when they are made on September 2.
While O’Brien rues being assigned top weight in the Cup, there is a loophole for he and other large stables to potentially exploit.
The only way a stable can assure a horse will not carry the top weight is to accept with something else that does.
This tactic could definitely be applied by O’Brien if he knows he has a horse lower in the weights capable of winning at the lower weight. By accepting with the top weight, he can maximise the chances of his horse lower in the weights and cheer home his topweight at $101 odds.
Lloyd Williams is another who could apply this tactic if Green Moon were to get a big weight again.
The Victorian Racing Club could potentially avoid the topweight dilemma by removing the top weight clause.
The only issue here would be a logjam of horses in the 52kg – 54kg range, which several leading jockeys cannot ride at given their size. The counterargument to that would be for horses to carry additional weight if they want a certain rider on their horse.
Locally, Green Moon is the only horse capable of being assigned the top weight but with no wins and no real form since his Cup triumph in 2012, it is unlikely he will get more than 57kg after carrying 57.5kg last year and performing poorly since.
There is no certainty we will have a top weight issue this year but it is looming as a possibility and one which trainers should consider when making Melbourne Cup nominations. A lack of local talent and a better understanding among international trainers about how to beat the handicapper may result in weights being raised when final declarations are made.
Nominations for the 2014 Melbourne Cup will be made on September 2 and weights will be released on September 16.