Australia Race Report: Memorable Melbourne

Australia Race Report: Memorable Melbourne
Photo: Associated Press
Ethereal and jockey Scott Seamer in the winner's enclosure.
Published in the Nov. 17 issue of The Blood-Horse
Sheila Laxon is the first woman to prepare the Melbourne Cup (Aust-I) winner -- officially at least. When Ethereal dashed down the center of a damp Flemington course to overwhelm Godolphin's Give the Slip, the Rhythm filly raced herself and her handler into Cup history. For the brothers with New Zealand's largest commercial fishing fleet, this was the biggest catch of all. And for the third-placed Persian Punch there was glory in defeat.

Thirteen was suddenly lucky. The 4-year-old carried saddlecloth 13 both times in becoming the 11th to collect the Caulfield (Aust-I) and Melbourne Cups. She's the third distaffer, the previous one Let's Elope.

Australian numbers run in weight rather than gate order. She also drew barrier 13 for the $4-million (Australian funds, $2,036,400 U.S.) Cup, moving in two slots at the start of the 3,200-meter race after veterinarians ruled out Universal Prince. Kaapstad Way had withdrawn because of a track deteriorated by constant rain.

It didn't deter 92,000, and their soggy racebooks contained the clue that Ethereal's race day stall was 13. It nearly all came to naught. Peter Vela revealed at the presentation that had the rain persisted, he planned to ask stewards for permission to scratch the 9-1 third elect. The rain stopped 30 minutes before post time.

In the afterglow of her narrow Caulfield Cup win on Oct. 20, the multi-millionaire brothers, Peter and Philip Vela, favored aiming Ethereal at Hong Kong, where her dam, the Sir Tristram mare Romanee Conti, won the 1993 Hong Kong International Cup (HK-I) as No. 13.

"People kept telling me what a goose I'd be to let the opportunity to run in a Melbourne Cup slip," Peter told the crowd. "I'm glad I listened."

Leading the pack was former top jockey Brent Thomson, Australian manager for the Velas' New Zealand Bloodstock, which conducts all New Zealand Thoroughbred auctions. The scratching belonged to Philip, with an infected leg.

Back in 1938, renowned New Zealand horsewoman "Granny" McDonald was refused a training license in Victoria and stayed home. The woman owner of Catalogue almost boycotted the Cup, in the end relenting. The horse won, officially handled by the trainer's husband, Alan. It wasn't until 1966 a woman trainer's name made the Cup racecard. Gai Waterhouse, without a runner in 2001, almost cracked it in 1993 with Te Akau Nick, scythed down late by Irish winner Vintage Crop.

This year's finish was a mirror image, Richard Hills at the rail, caught near home on Give the Slip. Local riders avoided that strip of ground all day. Give the Slip was attempting to reprise the wire-to-wire victory of his sire, a Steve Cauthen-partnered Slip Anchor in the English Derby (Eng-I). The 4-year-old was purchased by Godolphin in August as a pacemaker for Fantastic Light, who won the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at his New York sign-off, his "rabbit" unable to assist.

At the top of the 600-meter stretch, Give the Slip whooshed away as if Fantastic Light was after him. Clubhouse tactics are always 20-20, but failing to head away from the rail and conserving his mount appeared to cost more than the three-quarters of a length which separated the 30-1 shot from victory.

Hills said his mount wasn't relaxed in the back straight, "but he ran right to the line. The other horse got to me but he rallied back. He tried his heart out."

Frankie Dettori rode Marienbard, the preferred half of the Godolphin entry at 16-1 (no coupled entries in Australia). He brought superior credentials, coming off a third in the Irish St. Leger (Ire-I). Marienbard was always around seventh. Dettori believed workouts on hard ground had perhaps jarred the colt.

Godolphin manager Simon Crisford said the latest second hasn't softened the team's resolve. "Even when we win the Cup, we'll keep coming back. It's such a marvelous race," Crisford said.

Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor paid tribute to Ethereal. "She's a great horse. I thought we were going to win, but we were beaten by a better horse."

The media savaged Richard Quinn on 8-year-old Persian Punch. As it had in 1998, when also third on England's favorite handicapper, they crucified him for covering extra ground before finishing six lengths behind Give the Slip. Persian Punch is a long-strider and normally hunts in smaller fields with plenty of racing room. Quinn stayed wide on all four turns, to the instructions of owner Jeff Smith and handler David Elsworth. The one-paced veteran was three-wide and under pressure from Quinn to stay in touch with Give the Slip and Freemason at the 1,200-meter bend.

The leader's home turn sprint left him stranded. Oblivion beckoned. As he had when three years younger, the 127-pound highweight rallied, rallied some more, and rallied again. Little wonder he has a fan club at home.

Quinn probably understated things when he called it a "very brave effort."

It would have been unjust had the lightweight Karasi robbed Persian Punch of one of the best thirds in 141 Cups. Yet the Aga Khan-bred Karasi (by Kahyasi) ran his best race for fourth, his worst result in four 3,200 meters attempts. Maythehorsebewithu ran fifth for a Michael Moroney crew attempting to repeat Brew's 2000 success.

The 5-1 favorite Sky Heights, so close to Ethereal at Caulfield, was a distant eighth after getting lost early. Caitano finished 13th of the 22. The time of 3:21.08 was almost five seconds outside the record.

Scott Seamer, 33, again rode Ethereal as if he'd been in the majors far longer than six months. He settled her three-wide with cover around 12th, working her into the race near the home turn. They negotiated their way around Hill of Grace just before that mare stumbled and lost her rider Corey Brown. Both escaped with bruising.

Seamer then waited until the 300 meters before setting out after Give the Slip. He lived up to the name, but so did Ethereal, if you apply the heavenly description. She has contributed $4 million to Rhythm's earnings.

It led to Sheila Laxon thanking her "friends and enemies" for helping her to the victory dais. Her previous Cup was as support when her husband won as handler of Empire Rose 13 years ago. Uniquely, they have one each. They have remained "good friends" since he moved to Singapore to train a couple of years ago.  

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