Cox Plate

The Internationals are here. Hurrah, hurrah!

There are certain races in the world that, according to script, spew up champions. The English Derby is one, the Arc another, and the Cox Plate is Australia’s version, a race reserved for the most brilliant of the spring, the one horse that has earned the right to lift silver. But racing doesn’t always go to script, does it? When maiden Shamus Award rolled over the line at Moonee Valley two weeks ago, the purists (and I’m often one of them, though not in this instance) rolled their eyes and bleated that the Cox Plate was in tatters. A maiden shouldn’t win a wfa championship. Imagine if it happened in the Arc!

Shamus Award’s victory left a few eyebrows pinched down here, though the story behind the horse is terrific. If his trainer wanted to sock all his critics in the eye, he did it brilliantly, for the newspapers, Twitter, they were all alight about the horse’s nomination in the first place. Of course, I wondered what would have come of Shamus Award had the ridiculous Atlantic Jewel stayed sound. Coolmore’s mare might have washed, dried and ironed the field before the final furlong, because all the big guns – It’s A Dundeel, Puissance de Lune – were starched before the final turn.

Racing is a curious business. This time last year the ragtag Puissance was the ‘it’ horse, and at the time I thought it was a big, gusty call from Glen Boss to declare the horse the next Cup winner. In a sport that rotates on vagueness, Boss’s confidence was, I suppose, great fun. But then Puissance was as brilliant in the autumn, and did little wrong when he opened his spring this year. And then the Underwood undid him a little, out of the money for the first time in six runs. He looked a sore, beatable horse, confirmed when he ran second-last in the Cox Plate.

I must admit, it took the wind out of my sails a little to see him ailing. Puissance had a grip on Cup favouritism, and he’d earned it, and amid an onslaught of imported talent, he was a ‘local’ horse (what the hell is local these days) that seemed to be all the good. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as upsetting as Atlantic Jewel bowing out. She would have given the Cox Plate field a neat, nasty lesson I feel.

So, the Cox Plate changed the playing field a good deal, and isn’t 24 hours a long time in racing. Now we sit less than 48 hours from the Melbourne Cup, the long-time favourite is gone and we have a strangely familiar chant going on – where are the locals?

Well, what is a ‘local’ horse these days?

When it comes to stayers in this country, true locals are a rarity because the Europeans just do it so much better. It’s like cycling. Every pro bike-rider doped because they weren’t competitive unless they did. The Euro imports, whether visiting or on a one-way stub, have proved again and again they are better at this staying game than the home bloods.

In Tuesday’s field of 24 (as it sits), there are five true locals, horses that are born and bred Australian – Fawkner, Super Cool, Ethiopia, Hawkspur (not the Irish one) and Dear Demi. Of the remaining 19, 10 are locally owned imports, brought in to syndicates or the far-sighted Lloyd Williams. The remaining nine are ‘invaders’, poised to steal the spoils for overseas. That means that nearly twice the number of visitors are competing than true locals, not to mention the fact that foreign-breds have overrun the field completely. These are interesting and well documented stats this week, nothing that surprises Australians any more. The internationals are here to stay, and I’m glad for it.

The Melbourne Cup has a far better footing on its claim to being a ‘great race’. It was the same with the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the King’s Stand Stakes: they became better competitions when the foreigners came for the loot. And Australia has only herself to blame really, spending far too much time gazing at the Golden Slipper instead of the first Tuesday in November. Yes, we are famous now for the sprinting genes. But we used to be a grand old dame of staying character, way way back to the great Yattendon. Star Kingdom, you have a lot to answer for, my friend.

Folks are saying this is the best Cup yet, and we might be saying that every year from now on. If we are, it’s not a bad thing. I used to think the race was a bit of a lottery, a prize open to the lucky, to be honest. But as the Cup tows itself into line with the best of the world’s races, helped along by the best horses entering, the results will follow. In other words, the best horse will win, on paper at least.

The 2013 Melbourne Cup Field
1. Fawkner
2. Dunaden
3. Green Moon
4. Red Cadeaux
5. Sea Moon
6. Super Cool
7. Voleuse de Coeurs
8. Fiorente
9. Hawkspur
10. Tres Blue
11. Brown Panther
12. Foreteller
13. Ethiopia
14. Dandino
15. Verema
16. Mourayan
17. Seville
18. Dear Demi
19. Mount Athos
20. Royal Empire
21. Masked Marvel
22. Simenon
23. Ibicenco
24. Ruscello

Footnote: for an educated insight into the changing shape of the Melbourne Cup, pick up the recently published ‘The Modern Melbourne Cup’ by Danny Power (@thethoroughbred). Available from Slattery Media Group (@slatterymedia).