The Spring is officially in the air with the group one Makybe Stakes meeting at Flemington on Saturday.
The build-up to the Cox Plate is always special, but we probably have to go back 15 years to find something similar to the lead-in to Winx vs Hartnell, when Northerly and Sunline clashed in 2001.
Let’s have a look at each horse in the race.
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1. Happy Trails
Barrier: 10 Jockey: Ben Melham Trainer: Paul Beshara
This old marvel lines up in his fifth Cox Plate, a race he has twice been beaten less than a length in. He hasn’t won since November 2014, and in fact has only run a place once in his last 15 starts, but that won’t stop his most ardent supporters, of which there are many, having a dollar each way on him.
Happy Trails will run well, as he always does, and his liking for the Valley circuit will keep him in the conversation for a top five finish, but this field is simply too hot for him these days.
2. Black Heart Bart
Barrier: 6 Jockey: Brad Rawiller Trainer: Darren Weir
Black Heart Bart is in the top handful of weight-for-age horses in the country and pattern statisticians would put him on top here, given his runs for Darren Weir have read: 2-1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2. Eight of those have been at Group 1 level, three of them wins.
He’s already won the Memsie Stakes and Underwood Stakes this prep, but his second placing to Winx last start in the three horse Caulfield Stakes told us what we already knew – he’s a couple of lengths short of the very best.
He’ll probably run better here in a bigger field, but then so will she.
Barrier: 7 Jockey: James McDonald Trainer: John O’Shea
Hartnell didn’t show his best in Melbourne last spring, coming off a BMW-winning campaign in the autumn earlier that year, and the facts are that he has met Winx three times, never got closer than three and a half lengths, and has an aggregate losing margin to her of 18.5 lengths.
But we can say that his last three runs have been about as impressive as any three start winning streak this country has seen in a long time, and he has progressed to the point where the Cox Plate is now seen as a match-race between he and the great mare.
Beating Grand Marshal in the Chelmsford doesn’t sound like much, even if it was by eight lengths, and taking care of Who Shot Thebarman and Storm the Stars in the Hill Stakes isn’t much more impressive.
But donkey-licking Jameka in the Turnbull Stakes? Who herself then went onto to record the largest Caulfield Cup win since Might and Power? Yeah, that deserves attention.
Hartnell will go forward from barrier seven, capable of setting the speed or camping just behind, and there isn’t a speed map that sees him sitting anywhere but in front of Winx. We’ve seen that he can dominate races from this position, and as a proven performer over 2400m and 3200m, the bigger the test of stamina over the Moonee Valley 2040m course, the more he is suited.
His jockey James McDonald may well decide that he’s got too much horse to hang around from about the 800m, and that he needs to get going. It would be the right decision, albeit a move that Hugh Bowman on Winx will be waiting for.
By taking off early, he may be able to take some of the all-important sprint out of the mare’s legs, and test out her heart and lungs. From that point on, we’re going to see one of the greatest sixty seconds in the sport’s history.
Barrier: 8 Jockey: Dwayne Dunn Trainer: John O’Shea
The Godolphin second-stringer deserves his place in this field, and in another year would probably be in single figure odds after his stunning Epsom Handicap win with 56kgs. The Epsom has proven a strong lead-up to the Cox Plate in recent years, providing Winx last season and Pinker Pinker in 2011.
He has matured into a lovely five year old after putting together a non-winning four year old season, albeit being Group 1 placed three times, and there was no question he made Winx beat him when they met in the George Main two starts back. He’s a genuine place hope.
5. Happy Clapper
Barrier: 4 Jockey: Brenton Avdulla Trainer: Patrick Webster
This horse has come from benchmark 85 grade less than a year ago, to one that has run second, third and fourth in the Doncaster, Queen Elizabeth and Epsom respectively. He’s one of the most consistent and honest geldings competing in the top grade in the country.
But, weights and measures from his last handful of starts tell us that he’s going to struggle to beat any of Winx, Lucia Valentina and Hauraki home here, let alone all of them plus the likes of Hartnell, Vadamos and Yankee Rose besides.
Happy Clapper deserves his place in this field, no doubt, and he’ll give his connections a thrill, but a top five finish is the best he can hope for.
Barrier: 2 Jockey: Joao Moreira Trainer: Andrew Fabre
Vadamos is the international proposition in the race, and comes here off the interesting statistic of never actually winning a group race of any description at the 2000m distance range. He was strong at 2400m as a younger horse, and he has proven himself a world class miler in the last year, so his credentials are sound enough.
This horse has been impressing all who monitor trackwork down at Werribee where the internationals are housed, and the whispers coming out of there are strong that he is going to run a mighty race.
He may have a prominent role in proceedings too, as a potential leader depending on how things pan out in the early stages. The ratings have Vadamos as the clear third best horse in the race, and if he can live up to that billing he’ll have played his role in one of the most memorable Cox Plates we’ve have the privilege of seeing.
7. Awesome Rock
Barrier: 5 Jockey: Stephen Baster Trainer: Leon and Troy Corstens
Awesome Rock fits a similar profile to Happy Clapper in many ways, as a horse that has defied expectation and continued to improve, and can be judged on his merits as worthy in this sort of company.
He was first past the post but robbed on protest in the Australian Cup earlier this year, beating the very much in-form Preferment, and his strong win in the Dato Tan Chin Nam Stakes over horses like Jameka, The United States, Tosen Stardom and Real Love secured his place here.
He’ll be out-classed and out-matched, but not digraced.
Barrier: 3 Jockey: Hugh Bowman Trainer: Chris Waller
Winx is carrying on a long line of wonderstar mares from the last 20 years, led by Sunline, followed by Makybe Diva and taken into the land of sprinters by Black Caviar.
These champions broke and held many records between them, and Winx now sits comfortably in their company off the back of her remarkable run of wins, including eight at Group 1 level and this race last year.
This campaign alone, Winx has beaten the likes of Hartnell, Black Heart Bart, Hauraki, Vanbrugh and It’s Somewhat, all of which have either gone onto or were coming off strong wins in good company.
She won the Cox Plate last year by five lengths, beating subsequent international star Highland Reel, dual Autumn Group 1 WFA winner Preferment, as well as her match-race rival here, Hartnell.
Winx idling in a race is faster that most rivals at flat stick, and rarely is she asked to extend or do too much. She is a precious commodity with effortless acceleration.
She’ll likely be camped behind Hartnell in the run, no more than a length or two off him, probably midfield in the third pair. Hugh Bowman will be tracking his main threat and, just like everyone watching from the stands or on TV, will be wondering just how much of a race he is going to get as the halfway mark of the Cox Plate approaches.
You wouldn’t miss it for all the whiskey in Ireland.
9. Lucia Valentina
Barrier: 9 Jockey: Kerrin McEvoy Trainer: Kris Lees
Lucia Valentina has always been a Group 1 filly and mare, taking out the Group 1 Vinery Stud Stakes and placing in the ATC Oaks at three, through to winning the Turnbull Stakes and placing in the Caulfield Cup at four, and winning the Queen Elizabeth at five.
The Queen Elizabeth is the richest Group 1 WFA race in Australia, and one of the richest in the world, but it must be noted that neither Winx nor Hartnell were there when she won it in April earlier this year.
Lucia Valentina was behind both of those horses first-up in the Warwick Stakes, and was alongside He or She in the Underwood Stakes behind Black Heart Bart in the Underwood Stakes second-up. This form was proven absolutely true in the Caulfield Stakes behind Winx, meaning Lucia Valentina can be dismissed as a winning threat, but her quality means she is a live place chance.
10. Yankee Rose
Barrier: 1 Jockey: Dean Yendall Trainer: David Vandyke
A Cox Plate containing a three-year-old always gains from the experience. We can think of maiden Shamus Award winning in 2013, So You Think and Manhattan Rain providing the quinella in 2009, Miss Finland getting buffeted around in 2006, or Viscount getting squeezed between Northerly and Sunline in 2001.
Yankee Rose takes her place as a three year old filly here after an eventful and unorthodox seven start career, which has included Group 1 wins in the Sires Produce at two and Spring Champion at three, as well as second placings in the Golden Slipper and Flight Stakes. These performances establish her as a top class filly, and she brings the x-factor to the race.
The boys have never frightened her either, with only one career start coming against her own sex, so taking on the older horses holds no fears for connections.
The best three year old Cox Plate performances tend to be after on-pace efforts, where the younger horse can stay out of trouble against their seasoned rivals, and make better use of their light weight, but Yankee Rose’s best efforts have always been when settling back and charging home.
We’ve already sprinting three year olds like Extreme Choice and Star Turn dominate strong fields, and while Yankee Rose runs into a hot one here, it’s going to be exciting to see what she brings.
Cox Plate: The race to come summary
There are times when a so-called match-race doesn’t live up to the billing, but it’s hard to see how this one will disappoint, given the awesome form of both Hartnell and Winx, both of which have had their form franked at the highest level.
The supporting cast all have their own stories and paths to get here, from the young star on the rise to the battle-hardened veterans, to the battlers made good.
You don’t have to think about this race for too long or too hard before a smile crosses your face, along with a giggle of anticipation. Let’s hope we see the race we’ve all been waiting for.
As a value chaser, Hartnell has to go on top for me, which is not to decry Winx in any way.
Hartnell will also be in front of the mare in the run, which can only be an asset, and as a horse proven over longer distances and also being trained for the Melbourne Cup, the tougher the race, the more he should like it.
Let’s hope for a timeless Cox Plate.
Selections: 1. Hartnell 2. Winx 3. Yankee Rose 4. Hauraki