Melbourne Cup Preview: A Fascinating Affair

Full field of 24 will go to post in the nation's biggest race.

By Kristen Manning

With a record number of 11 international visitors, two runners each for Australia’s two best known trainers Bart Cummings and Gai Waterhouse, two favored chances still without jockeys pending a legal battle, and two of the most impressive recent winners, there is no doubt that the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I) promises to be a fascinating affair.

The 2011 edition of the $6 million 3,200-meter contest has attracted a full field of 24, six of them balloted after acceptances Saturday evening, including 2008 runner-up Bauer. Local post time is at 3 p.m. Nov. 1.

The favorite for some time now has been last year’s winner, the French trained, Australian owned Americain , who was so impressive taking out last weekend’s Moonee Valley Gold Cup (Aus-I).

Post 15, connections feel, is not a major hindrance to the 7-year-old who broke from gate 11 last year.

History says his task under top weight is a difficult one, but there is no doubt that the son of Dynaformer races at his best in Australia. And he is due to stay there after the Cup, a new trainer yet to be chosen for an autumn campaign aimed at two group I races, the Australian Cup and The BMW.

Fellow French contender Dunaden is second favorite on the back of his recent impressive group III Geelong Cup victory, a race won by Americain last year. His trainer Mikel Delzangles is happy to have drawn post 13.

“It is a good number for him,” he said, adding that he is hoping for a strong pace. “I want a real race, not a hack and sprint home the last two furlongs.”

Suspended jockey Craig Williams is exploring legal avenues to retain the ride on Dunaden but connections are flying in Christophe Lemaire just in case.

Not so happy with his draw luck, English trainer Brian Ellison is very much looking forward to saddling two runners, Ebor Handicap winner Moyenne Corniche (post 17) and Saptapadi (22).

“It is unbelievable,” he said, having during the week wondered if either horse would sneak a run, “I am just so happy we got in. Both horses are well, they look a million dollars.”

Sydney trainer Chris Waller also has two runners, Hawk Island and The Verminator, and he echoed Ellison’s sentiments: “It is just a privilege to be a part of the big race. We are under no illusions, they are both roughies but we are proud to be here, it is certainly an honour.”

Luca Cumani knows how it feels to nearly win a Melbourne Cup, getting so close with Bauer and Purple Moon (second to Efficient in 2007) and he is happy with the progress of his charges Drunken Sailor and Manighar.

“Drunken Sailor’s form this year indicates that he is an improved horse from last year and his draw (8) suits. Manighar’s task is a more complicated one (21) but I will leave it to Damien Oliver, he will know what to do.”

Blinkers have been added to the gear of Manighar who boxed on soundly when fourth in the Caulfield Cup last start. “We are hoping they will help him find that little bit extra,” Cumani said.

Another well fancied international, dead-heat group I Irish St. Leger winner Jukebox Jury, shares similar ownership to Americain--Gerry Ryan and Kevin Bamford buying in after the 6-year-old won the Prix Kergorlay (Fr-II) at Deauville in late August.

Third behind Jukebox Jury in the Irish St Leger was Red Cadeaux whose jockey Michael Rodd drew post 16. But his rider was not fazed. “It is not too bad,” he said, “these European horses like a bit of room.”

Two horses in winning form on Derby Day, Niwot (group III Lexus Stakes) and Glass Harmonium (group I MacKinnon Stakes), and both put in very impressive performances.

“He may lack a little in class but he is hard fit, he has drawn a good gate (9), he is lightly weighted, and wet or dry, it doesn’t matter,” said Niwot’s co-trainer John Hawkes, who cheered on last year’s Melbourne Cup runner-up Maluckyday.

A horse who was off the scene for a long time with a chronic knee injury – vets declaring that he “would never again see the racetrack” – the 7-year-old son of Galileo was always traveling well in the Lexus, putting three lengths on his rivals in the run home.

“He won with a bit of authority,” Hawkes said, “that is as good as I’ve seen him race. And it sounds silly but he was better after the race than before.”

Also in peak form at the right time is imported gray Glass Harmonium, whose W. S. Cox Plate chances were ruined by a tardy start from the gates last weekend. He ran better this time around and was always in control of the MacKinnon Stakes.

Long regarded an outstanding guide to the Melbourne Cup, the MacKinnon is a weight-for-age event in which Glass Harmonium carried 59kg. He drops to 54kg but has drawn awkwardly in post 23.

But trainer Michael Moroney, who won the 2000 Melbourne Cup with Brew, has no intention of changing the 6-year-olds on-pace racing style.

“He relaxes so well when he gets to the lead,” he said. “The key to him is whether or not he gets the two miles, he is such a brilliant horse. But he travels well and breaks their hearts and I think class can take him a long way.”

An eye-catching second to Glass Harmonium on Saturday, the Robert Hickmott trained/Lloyd Williams owned 6-year-old Mourayan boasts strong form lines, having at his previous outing proven two lengths too strong for Niwot in the listed Bart Cummings.

“His run was outstanding,” said Nick Williams whose father’s passion for the Melbourne Cup is renowned (and he has won it on three occasions with Efficient, What A Nuisance and Just A Dash) – “a great Cup trial and the draw (14) is perfect for him.”

The Williams navy and white colors will also be carried by 2010 group I Epsom Derby runner-up At First Sight who ran on strongly for second in last week’s listed Bendigo Cup.

“His run was great and he is getting up to his right distance,” Williams said. “I am sure he will run very well.”

Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor is pleased with his two Cup runners, Modun and Lost In The Moment, who both fared well at the draw. “We are happy with both gates,” he said, “and with the horses. They are both 100% happy and healthy.”

It is still undecided who will ride Hollywood Turf Cup (gr. IT) winner Unusual Suspect, his jockey Nash Rawiller another fighting an untimely suspension. He will however have his share of fans on the back of a close up and somewhat unlucky sixth in the Caulfield Cup.

The Bart Cummings pair Precedence and Illo are both at double figure odds but won’t be allowed by the legendary trainer’s many fans to get out too much in the market. Gai Waterhouse followers also have two to choose from -- Tullamore (second to Americain in the Moonee Valley Gold Cup) and outsider Older Than Time.

Also at big odds is Shamrocker, the group I AJC Derby winner whose task has been made more difficult by drawing the outside gate.

And so that is the 2011 Melbourne Cup field. Never has the race seen such a variety of form lines converge. Punters have three days to figure out what is always a challenging puzzle.