Melbourne Cup

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).

Sea Moon and the Mystery of Running Recoveries

Afleet Alex Preakness
Saturday 7 September, a little past 3.30pm, the Makybe Diva Stakes was giving Flemington an audience that spanned cities, states and countries. My Twitter timeline was dotted with hard-nosed punters on Puissance de Lune, Melbourne Cup palm readers, and a small British audience that had risen early to follow the passage of Sea Moon. The ex-Juddmonte horse was starting his Australian career in this newly elevated Gr1 mile, and we were all watching. Three seconds after the spring, Sea Moon blew it. Missed the kick and almost kissed the green. He beat only two horses home.

I followed the timeline very carefully after Foreteller pipped Puissance at the post. One or two said Sea Moon was ‘disappointing’, entirely missing the incident at the start. The experts discounted the run
because of the incident. They said Sea Moon had run very well in spite of it, his sectionals adding up to a very good final furlong. Most agreed that the run had to be forgiven, that a horse that sprawls so badly was excused. It got me thinking.

How brave should we expect our racehorses to be in this day and age? Should they get on with the job more when they run into trouble? Let’s take a look at some of the miracle race-recoveries I’m aware of.

First off the blocks is Shannon’s 1946 Epsom Handicap, footage of which has been kicking around on ‘Remember When’ the last few weeks. In that race, Shannon was the shortest odds-on favourite in the race’s history, and somehow the AJC starter, experienced Jack Gaxieu, let the field away with Shannon and another runner, Scotch Gift, about 12 lengths behind the line. By the time Shannon got galloping (he had to walk up to the line, stop, then set off), he and Darby Munro were half-a-furlong behind. The footage is extraordinary. With 61kg, Shannon ripped away at top speed for the entire mile, falling short at the line by a nose. Mathematically, the margin was six miserable inches.

Munro rode the guts out of Shannon that Saturday afternoon (
read every detail of this race in Chpt 27 of the forthcoming ‘Shannon’), believing he owed it to the race-going punters that had heaped their post-war pounds on the odds-on favourite. He accepted no excuses, and neither did the woeful public. Shannon had had less than a mile to run down the field, and by jesus did he do it. Two days later, he and Darb ran around in the George Main Stakes, lopping the top off the Australasian mile record by six lengths to leg-weary Flight.

In 1932, three-year-old Peter Pan staged one of the greatest ever Flemington recoveries. Running around by the abattoirs in the Melbourne Cup, he was in the leading division on the rails when he clipped the heels of the horse in front at the 5f pole. At the moment he began to fall, his stablemate Denis Boy slammed into him from behind, propelling him into the air again. Cannoned twice, he dropped back through the field some 20 lengths and disappeared from contention. Imagine how fast this colt was travelling in those final three down the straight. Peter clocked the then-fastest Cup time for a three-year-old when he dive-bombed Yarramba and won the ’32 race by a neck (documented in
chapter 10 of ‘Peter Pan’).

These are very old races, of course. Horses were different then, you might say. The tracks were different, the breeding. So let’s briefly look at one of my favourite contemporary mid-race miracles – Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness Stakes (
click here for the footage). Bursting around the turn in this second leg of the US Triple Crown, Alex is moving around the outside of the leader, Scrappy T. When Scrappy T fans into the carpark, he runs right over Afleet Alex. The footage speaks for itself. One of the greatest stretch recoveries the turf has ever seen (see pic above).

So what has this to do with Sea Moon?

Well, from an historian’s perspective, horses have come back from lesser incidents than Sea Moon’s Makybe start and fared well – often in the money, sometimes the winner. They say that a great horse needs no excuses, and in some ways Black Caviar proved that at Ascot. If she tore all those muscles in running, she didn’t let it stop her from getting to the front. Shannon, Peter Pan and Afleet Alex had their blood up to get to the line, and there are countless others you will say. Kingston Town comes to mind... ‘Kingston Town can’t win’. And it raises the weary question of what horses are made of these days. Thankfully, we don’t expect them to run twice a week anymore, and we scrutinise their welfare as we should. But has modern breeding made them softer, modern training less courageous?

In Sea Moon’s case, the experts are likely right. Sea Moon, like most of the field in the Makybe, was not wound up to Gr1 level. This race is a prep event on the long and winding road to the big ones. So we probably didn’t have a horse that was fully fit, at least fit enough to spring back from a sprawling. More than this, the Makybe was Sea Moon’s first start in Australia, and Shannon has taught me all about the challenges of horses acclimatising. Different foods, different water, different ground, it all adds up. It might take much longer than a season for Sea Moon to find his English legs. On the other hand, he might be far sharper than his Makybe suggested.

So, in the end we’re left only with questions. Is Sea Moon really as good as what they’re saying, the ‘equal-best raider to ever land in Australian hands’? Do we forgive too much in racing these days? Should we expect our top animals to be a little more battle-hardened? Then again, in Phar Lap’s era they were saying, ‘they don’t make them like Carbine anymore’, and here I am, ghosting those very whingers!