Sirmione Upends Champ in Australian Cup

Sirmione Upends Champ in Australian Cup
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/Blood-Horse Publications
The Aus$1million Australian Cup (Aus-I) at Flemington on 8 March marked the end of a magnificent career and the emergence of a new staying superstar.

Miss Finland, the former champion 2-year-old and champion 3-year-old of Australia was retired after missing a place when, after hitting the front with two furlongs of the 10-furlong race remaining, she folded to finish fifth. She had won five group I races and over Aus$4.6million in stakes, but part-owner John Messara, who was at Flemington for the race, bowed his head and said, "she owes us nothing anymore. It's time to retire her to a life of leisure."

He juggled his emotions -- happiness as he recalled her gallant race track feats, and sadness as like everything in life, he knew this good thing had come to an end.

But the glow of Sirmione (Encosta de Lago-World Guide) overshadowed the pall of sadness created by the Miss Finland retirement. He is only a 4-year-old, but has the Australian staying races at his mercy judging by his devastating turn of foot to win by 3 3/4 lengths, and roar his purse earnings now to more than Aus$1.6million. This was his second group I win, coincidentally achieved at the same track over the same trip.

Sirmione previously won the LKS McKinnon Stakes (Aus-I) here in November, beating New Zealand champion Princess Coup, before being well beaten in the Melbourne Cup. He has matured since then and now is in awesome form. In the Australian Cup Saturday, he again beat the favorite Princess Coup (also by Encosta de Lago, who is now the leading sire in Australia) and Casino Prince (Flying Spur), who was recently purchased as a stallion prospect by Nathan Tinckler for his emerging Thoroughbred operation Patinack Farm.

Jockey Peter Mertens, winning his sixth group I race, rode Sirmione to his hollow win, completely out riding Damien Oliver on Princess Coup. Mertens took off around the outside of the field as they straightened for the three-furlong run in. Oliver, who had been level pegging with Sirmione throughout the race back in eighth and ninth place from the jump, elected to stay on the fence and ride for luck. It came -- but way too late as Sirmione had sprouted wings and dashed four lengths clear with two furlongs to travel.

Bart Cummings trains the winner, and it was the 13th time the master conditioner had won the prestigious race.

The Mark Walker-trained Princess Coup, who defeated Sirmione last start in the St. George Stakes (Aus-II) at Caulfield, managed to make up several lengths on the winner, but was still beaten by 3-3/4 lengths. Cummings' son, Anthony, trains Casino Prince ($17), who was a long head away, third ahead of Caulfield Cup runner-up Douro Valley.

"I think it was surprising how well he won. The others mightn't be as good as we thought. I don't know," Cummings senior mused of Sirmione. "I thought he'd win by half a head or half a length, but that was quite impressive."

Cummings said the 4-year-old would now go to Sydney for the $2.25 million The BMW (12 furlongs) at Rosehill on April 19. "He was a bit unlucky in the Queensland Derby (when third to stablemate Empires Choice) when he went out pretty wide and peaked a few yards from the post," he said.

In holding back his ultimate praise of his horse, he did level some at rider Mertens. "He (Mertens) does what I tell him when some of the others don't and the results have been marvelous," Cummings said of his association with the jockey. Mertens was having his third Australian Cup ride, having finished runner-up on Candy Vale two years ago.

"As soon as I got him on the outside of Miss Finland I knew he was about to win. It was a really good feeling," Mertens said of Sirmione who was heavily backed as second favorite. "When he won the McKinnon Stakes for me, that was pretty special but this one topped it. I kept a lid on it all week but it will be coming off tonight."

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