'Elvis' Wins Battle of Derby Champs; Northerly is 10th

Last time Starcraft and Elvestroem met was in the Australian Derby (Aust-I) in the fall. Starcraft won, albeit narrowly, but Elvestroem's quest for victory in the AUS$2.5-million race resulted in a disappointing fifth.

This talented Danehill son was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths, but despite several splendid performances, his autumn hadn't quite reprised a grand spring capped by a Victoria Derby (Aust-I) triumph at Flemington.

And three runs to a mile at four hadn't re-ignited the fans who chanted Elvis -- his barn name last November. The colt is actually named for Paul Elvestroem, winner of four sailing Olympic Gold medals for Denmark from 1948 to 1960, his dam being Australian Oaks winner Circles of Gold. But the throng preferred 'Elvis'.

His owner-breeders Frank and Sally Tagg, Garry and Leone Moffitt and Frank and Marie Meduri, plus their trainer Tony Vasil, maintained the faith. It was, however, becoming more difficult. Elvis' form was somewhere in the building, but proving elusive.

The group had sold him through Coolmore for $330,000 at Easter 2002, the first year X-rays were allowed at Australian yearling sales. Vets failed the colt's knees for the buyer, a trainer who had a charge finish second in the 2000 Victoria Derby. Elvestroem's earnings are currently $1.67 million.

In the Underwood Stakes (Aust-I) at Caulfield on Sunday, Sept 19, Elvestroem met the best-assembled weight-for-age field in Australia since Northerly won his second W.S. Cox Plate in the spring of 2002.

The Underwood marked Northerly's return to Melbourne in search of a third Cox, the $3 million feature going without him last year when he succumbed to a foot injury and was retired. But the winner of $9 million didn't fancy being pensioned. The 8-year-old, who had resumed his career at Perth only seven days earlier, encountered traffic problems and finished 10th. This comeback needs more than a touch of Carry Back, Seabiscuit and Australian champ Tulloch. That said, nobody would dare to discount him this far out from Oct 23.

This Underwood begged more questions than it answered after Elvestroem (7-1 ) set the pace under Nash Rawiller and came again to easily defeat last year's Melbourne Cup second She's Archie (6-1) by 1-1/4 lengths. The 4-1 elect Delzao was another 2 1/4 lengths back in third. Time for the 1,800 meters was 1:50 on a track slowed by rain.

There were a bunch of solid trials for the Cox and the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups deep into the finishing order. But the upfront question with such a grand return to form is whether the crew behind Elvestroem will stay on course for the $2 million Caulfield Cup, or be diverted to the Cox and another clash with Starcraft and Delzao. The latter colt had finished ahead when they ran the minors behind Lonhro in the Australian Cup (Aust-I) in March. Starcraft is advancing to the Plate extremely well in New Zealand. On Sept 18 he added the Stoney Bridge Stakes (NZ-II) at Hastings after an altercation with a starting gate.

The Caulfield Cup, a handicap at 2,400 meters, is run on Oct. 16, just seven days before the Moonee Valley's Cox. Vasil says it will perhaps be both. Northerly won them at six, like a Joe Louis 1-2. But he was the first since another champion, Tobin Bronze, did it in the 1960s.