By Kristen Manning
The history of the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I) is one of evolvement.
From day one it was special, the legend of Archer—winner of the first two who for many years was thought to have been walked from Sydney to Melbourne for the big race—firm in local’s minds.
Always large on prizemoney, the The Cup from those very first days attracted competition from around the country—quickly growing in reputation and prestige.
But it was a handicap, and as time went on weight-for-age races became more respected, as they are the world over. But still everyone wanted to win The Cup and it was a dream not impossible to fulfill—its winner's list scattered with slow maturing stayers from unlikely backgrounds.
Battlers and millionaires alike have dreamed of The Cup success and have achieved it.
But has the race become a victim of its own popularity? It is now worth $6 million and it's serious business to win it. Ever since Irish galloper Vintage Crop streaked to victory in 1993, trainers and owners from around the world have cast their eyes on Flemington.
Naysayers in 1993 predicted that an Australian horse would never again win The Cup—that the visitors would always be too strong. But it took another nine years for an international challenger to succeed, Vintage Crop’s stablemate Media Puzzle.
The following three years were dominated by superstar Makybe Diva before a Japanese quinella of Delta Blues and Pop Rock in 2006.
It wasn’t until last year that a visitor was again in the winner’s circle, that horse—the eye-catching Americain , who has won many fans on his handsome looks alone. He outstayed 22 rivals including favorite (both price and sentimental) So You Think, who finished a gutsy third.
Fast forward 12 months and Americain is again the favorite, having taken the grade II Moonee Valley Gold Cup in impressive fashion Oct. 22.
He and his fellow international guests dominate this year’s Cup to such an extent that the media has been talking to every big name trainer in the country about their thoughts on the decline of the Australian stayer.
There are many theories put forward as to why so few will make this field (and most of those who will were not even bred here but rather in New Zealand)—some laying the blame at the feet of raceclubs (many of our traditional staying races cut back in distance and blacktype in recent years), others at trainers, owners and breeders.
Whatever the cause, has some of the romance of the Melbourne Cup been lost this year? Gai Waterhouse asserts that Australians love staying races, that they love to punt on them and to follow the fortunes of a horse they’ve followed through several preparations.
This year, however, the focus is on dissecting international form with much of The Cup media reports centering on how those at the Werribee Quarantine Centre are faring. Horses not too many local racegoers have even heard of.
But they all know Americain and the horse who started at 12-1 last year is only 3-1 this time around.
Always travelling well in his lead-up at Moonee Valley, the 7-year-old looked as spritely as ever racing away by 2.3 lengths and impressing even his connections who are confident that he is better than ever.
“It was hard to judge him in France as he was racing without any luck,” said trainer Alain De Royer Dupre’s assistant trainer, Stephanie Nigge. “But I think now that maybe he is better this year.” She added that his recovery rate after the Moonee Valley Cup was quicker than when he won last year’s Geelong Cup.
“He seems to have pulled up very well and he looks great. He likes it in Australia—he is ready to go!”
The fact that Americain lines up in this year’s Melbourne Cup is somewhat of an achievement on its own. Demanding of its competitors, the two-miler sees the previous year’s winner back up again on an average of only once every three years.
Thus it is not an easy race to win more than once and only five have achieved the feat—Makybe Diva, Think Big, Rain Lover, Peter Pan and Archer. Not even the mighty Phar Lap could do it.
Also against Americain is his weight (58 kg)—not since Comic Court (strapped by none other than Bart Cummings for his father Jim) in 1950 has an original topweight won the race. In fact ,it is a pretty hard race for those up in the weights to win—only Think Big (58.5 kg) and Makybe Diva (58 kg) successful with that sort of handicap in the last four decades.
Plus the Moonee Valley Cup has not proven a great guide to Melbourne Cup success. It was 1990 the last time the double was taken by Kingston Rule, who was trained by Bart Cummings.
So Americain’s task as favorite is not an easy one, but maybe it is a fruitless exercise looking at history considering The Cup is a different race this year. A record number of 13 internationals still remain in the race, with 10 in the top 24 order of entry.
They have different form lines, different histories from horses who have won the big race in the past. Before the internationals the Geelong Cup was rarely considered a guide, now it is a highly respected one with Media Puzzle and Americain taking it out in the lead-up as did narrow runner up Bauer four years ago.
Another interesting thing to consider is the strike rate of the visitors. Their successe earns plenty of well deserved attention but it has not been simply a matter of fly down and win. Eighty-two overseas (not including New Zealand) trained horses have contested the race and only four have won.
Compare that to the strike rate of Bart Cummings who has had 84 runners and 12 winners (and throw in a remarkable five quinellas).
And so the Melbourne Cup, while definitely a different type of race to what it once was, is still intriguing. So many questions as always—can an Australian horse win it, can Bart win a 13th, which overseas horse is the best, which visitor has thrived the most, can the favorite overcome all that is against him?
In less than a week we’ll know.