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How and why the Melbourne Cup became a race without Australian horses

Bart Cummings, the undisputed king of the Melbourne Cup, predicted its downfall for Aussie horses. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Roar Pro
1st November, 2016
24

Thirty years ago the late, great racing writer Bill Whittaker said the Golden Slipper would destroy the production of Australian stayers.

A few years on the late, great racing writer Bill Casey said the admission of overseas stayers would destroy the Cup.

They were both right.

The Golden Slipper is the grand final for winning two-year-old colts; their stud future is assured and they seldom train on anymore.

Flying Artie, who didn’t win the Golden Slipper, is now valued at $20 million after winning last Saturday’s Coolmore Stakes. The spring three-year-old’s work is done, no matter what he does in his presumably brief future racing career.

This year’s Melbourne Cup boasted a pitiful one Australian-bred and two New Zealand-breds in a field of 24.

The rest were overseas stayers bought to race here, or northern-hemisphere horses brought out just for the cup.

The Cup has become a joke, unless you’re a B-grade celebrity getting pissed in a marquee tent or a once-a-year punter.

The last Australian-bred winner was Shocking in 2009. It may be a lifetime before we see another winner, if ever – perhaps even a placegetter.

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When the New Zealand-bred Who Shot Thebarman ran third in 2014 it felt like a win. It was an unlikely win when the Kiwi-bred Prince of Penzance won last year.

Romance apart, it didn’t start at 100-1 for nothing, though a few specked it.

There was romance when Vintage Crop and At Talaq came south and conquered in the 1993-94 Cups.

They were isolated overseas entries.

Now it’s just tragic.

How did we lose the Cup?

There was no reaction when owner and breeder Gerry Norman said a few years ago that local trainers no longer knew how to train stayers but were the best with sprinter-milers.

There was perhaps some truth in that. The greater truth is that trainers look for ready-made bargain stayers from the northern hemisphere. Those stayers proliferate and dominate now.

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The Cups king Bart Cummings expressed an even greater truth when he said the colonial-bred was once the toughest horse in the world.

He added the pointed joke that the Golden Slipper should be run at Randwick rather than Rosehill, and Cummings had won the Slipper several times, but that was in another time when the winners were tough horses that trained on and had full careers.

That was a time before shuttle stallions produced faster but brittle horses.

Now the breeding industry is aimed at early comers who can have short careers and be shuttled of to stud.

It was once common to have tough geldings like the recently-retired eight-year-old Buffering, who raced on for full careers of 50-60-70 starts. Horses like a Super Impose.

Now horses are tough if they back up in a week. There won’t be another Tulloch, who could have three Group 1 starts in a week.

Breeders aren’t interested in stallions with staying blood; stallions like an Alcimedes, Sir Tristram, Nassipour or a Zabeel.

It has been Zabeel’s son Savabeel’s lonely task to be the sole southern-hemisphere provider of stayers.

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There’s no money in staying stallions. Well, there’s plenty of money, stacks of prize money, but it requires patience, which Cummings always described as the most important quality and the cheapest.

But the lucrative breeding isn’t geared for patience. It’s geared for expensive yearlings and quick returns.

In this it has been aided by the appalling role of the racing clubs, which it has reduced once time-honoured staying tests like the Brisbane and Perth Cups from 3200 to 2400m, and the Metropolitan from 2600 to 2400m.

There are other examples.

Owner Lloyd Williams has now won five Melbourne Cups, the last two imports.

If he wants to leave a true legacy, Williams could invest in a couple of stallions and some mares with staying blood.

The Victoria Racing Club boasts the Melbourne Cup is now not just Australia’s, but the world’s leading race.

Well, given the long odds of Aussie horses competing against the world’s visitors, the VRC could have the best of both worlds.

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It could stage the Cup just for the visitors, with $2.3 million prize money, still a lucrative inducement beyond the prestige.

The $1.5m of leftovers could be used to stage a 2400m race just for the locals, visitors ineligible. A 3200m handicap might be stretch too far.