Virus Outbreak Does Little to Spoil Melbourne Cup

The equine influenza outbreak has not been able to penetrate the outer shell of excellence of the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I). In fact, the Aus$5 million ($4.6million) Cup, at two miles Nov. 6, features as good a field as ever.

There are 24 runners lined up for the race that is so important to Australia that a public holiday is declared each year, and there are about 18 horses with a good chance to win this year.

The early favorite, surprisingly, is English visitor Purple Moon. He has come up the $6.90 favorite on the eve of the Cup. But overnight, there has been continued strong backing for Sirmione, who as the 88-1 shot trained by Cup king Bart Cummings, defeated a high-class field in the $700,000 LKS McKinnon Stakes, a traditional prep for the Cup.

One punter has backed Sirmione (by Encosta de Lago) to win $1 million in a single bet. Caulfield Cup (Aus-I) winner Master O’Reilly (by O’Reilly), who has worked well since his last start three weeks ago, also is strongly fancied by astute punters.

But it is the weather and not EI that is looming as the party spoiler this year. On Nov. 5, were some showers that followed a lot of rain the previous night. The weather is expected to clear by post time, but the damage may have been done if more downpours occur.

“It’s looking pretty good at this stage,” Flemington track manager Terry Watson said. “A few track walkers were pleasantly surprised how good the surface is, so we are just hoping that the clearing forecast by the weather bureau comes true.”

The track is rated a slow 6 with a penetrometer of 5:16. The rail has had an adjustment from two meters the entire circuit to the rail shifted three meters from the 1,500 meter point to the 500 meter point.

“We will do another penetrometer reading later this afternoon, and it should be better than the existing reading,” Watson said.

At best though, it looks like this year’s running of Australia’s premier race will be conducted upon a shifting/dead turf surface.

The surface should suit some and disadvantage others. Leading trainer David Hayes believes two of his five starters, Lazor Sharp and The Fuzz, will be suited by the rain. “Lazor Sharp in particular is a very good wet-tracker, and if it gets any heavier, I’d be very bullish about his chances,” Hayes said.

The interesting runner is the horse who will carry the least amount of weight and the biggest saddle cloth number of 24--Ireland’s Ballydoyle representative, Mahler. Aidan O’Brien and Coolmore have never won a Melbourne Cup and are very eager to do so. And Mahler is rated by them as a big show at the weights.

O’Brien didn’t mine words when looking at his horse and the handicap weight he received for the big race at Flemington Racecourse.

“The light weight allotted to Mahler for the Melbourne Cup was the main factor in targeting him at the Cup,” O’Brien said. “We believe Mahler will be a better horse next year, but the likelihood is that he will get more weight in a year’s time, so after his run in the St. Leger, when he was second, we decided it would be worth letting him take his chance this year.

“Our experience tells us that handicappers worldwide are usually not far out in their judgment, but with 110 pounds, we felt Mahler was entitled to come here and have a crack at the Cup.”

More than 12 million Australians will watch the race live with an estimated global audience of 210 million. It is the race that literally stops the nation; in fact, two nations, as residents of New Zealand are very much involved.

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