This year’s Melbourne Cup stays in trend with recent renewals, with the globalisation of the race perhaps the major theme again.
Having trained the first Irish winner of the Cup since Media Puzzle in 2002, Joseph O’Brien holds the strongest hand numerically in tomorrow morning’s race (4:00am) with no less than four horses.
Aidan O’Brien is next in with three entries which makes this the strongest ever Irish challenge in the race that stops the nation. Charlie Appleby’s Cross Counter won the race last season and he is back to lead a three-strong British challenge.
In all, half of the 24-strong field are foreign-trained and the majority of the remainder were bought from Europe at some stage in recent years with the likely aim of winning the Cup. Only three horses have raced all their life in Australia.
This globalisation of Australia’s favourite race isn’t exactly embraced by Australians, more so that now foreign horses are winning often. Cross Counter led home a British-trained 1-2-3 in the race last season and the year before, Rekindling topped an Irish 1-2-3. Five of the last nine winners have come from Europe.
When Dermot Weld provided the first ever overseas winner of the race with Vintage Crop in 1993, the story was of a sensational training feat - bringing a horse across the world to win the Cup.
Weld provided the next overseas winner with Media Puzzle in 2002 - a famous renewal of the Cup not least because of the winning jockey Damien Oliver, who rode in honour of his brother who had tragically been killed in a racing-related incident a week before the race.
They were magic stories for the Cup, and offered different aspects to an already unique tapestry of history. But travelling horses across continents is no longer unique in the modern day and many feel that what was once an eternally rich source of fabulous racing stories of the small trainer and owner competing and winning on the grandest stage, has now become something of a shootout between the world elite.
As a source of winners and general racing public interest, the race is gaining more traction in Europe, namely Britain and Ireland, as the years go by. If you can’t beat them, join them could be a motto for some of the big Australian owners who are actively pursuing Europe for the perfect Cup horse. Joseph’s win with Rekindling was huge. It was Lloyd Williams’s sixth win in the race but his first with a foreign-trained horse. Now the tycoon owner’s three-strong representation (Master Of Reality, Latrobe and Twilight Payment) comes solely through O’Brien.
Joseph’s other runner Downdraft is part-owned by OTI Racing, a big Australian syndicate, who bought in to the son of Camelot after he won a seven-furlong maiden in Dundalk. It is somewhat remarkable to think that Australian owners, desperate to win this famous race, view their best chance of doing so as to employ a 26-year-old based over 15,000km away.
Downdraft actually used to be part-owned by rugby star Ronan O’Gara. He arrived in Melbourne not guaranteed a spot in the Cup but booked his ticket with a comfortable victory in the Hotham Stakes on the first day of the Spring Carnival at Flemington on Saturday.
He will be ridden by Irish expat Johnny Allen which would be a nice story in itself. Allen is from Cork and rode Dromlease Express to win the old Pierse Hurdle for Charles Byrnes in 2004. He moved to Australia to find further opportunities over jumps but was forced to ride on the flat as well. He is now a multiple Group 1-winning jockey and one of the top riders down there.
A win for Downdraft or one of Joseph’s other three would be a monumental achievement for the trainer, irregardless of the recent trends in the race. He would be winning his second Melbourne Cup inside three years fresh off the back of his first ever Breeders’ Cup win.
When Rekindling won for Joseph he was denying his father a first win in the race after years of trying, not that Aidan O’Brien would have minded in the circumstances.
It’s interesting to observe that the Ballydoyle trainer may well have changed the type of horse he brings down under these days. In years gone by it appeared that he favoured bringing proven classy two-milers like Septimus and Mahler, whereas now he is keen to race classy 10/12-furlong horses like Magic Wand and Hunting Horn. Il Paradiso is more of a stayer but he fits the recent winner's trend as a European three-year-old and is perhaps more progressive than his stable companions.
Even if it is with an import, an Australian-trained winner would be welcomed by racing fans down under. They hold three of the first four in the betting - former O’Brien inmate Constantinople, Finche and Vow And Declare. The Japanese-trained Caulfield Cup winner Mer De Glace tops the betting with most firms.
Cross Counter will bid to become the first back-to-back winner since Makybe Diva while the Charlie Fellowes-trained Prince Of Arran is aiming to go two better than his third last season and has a lovely draw in stall seven. Richard Hannon will have his first runner in the Cup with the Middleham Park-owned Raymond Tusk.
Cork owner David Spratt still retains a share in Mustajeer, Ger Lyons’s Ebor winner now trained by Australian Kris Lees, while Steel Prince is another former Irish runner aiming to win the €4 million contest having spent his early career with Patrick Prendergast.