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Melbourne Cup

It was in 1993 that Dermot Weld took Vintage Crop to the far side of the globe, won the Melbourne Cup, stopped a nation and changed the world.

Actually, Weld wanted to run Vintage Crop in the Cup a year earlier, in 1992, but the quarantine regulations made it difficult.  So the trainer resolved that he would endeavour to change the rules.  With the help of the Department of Agriculture in Dublin, representations to the Department of Agriculture in Canberra were successful, and the regulations were changed to allow the foreign raiders exercise at a racecourse while in quarantine in Australia, instead of being stabled in Sydney.  That was a crucial change. 

It was still a nigh impossible task, even with the relaxation in the rules.  To travel to the far side of the world, to take on the Aussies in their own back yard, in their own race, the most important race on their calendar, with their best horses primed.  It rained in Victoria on the morning of the 1993 Melbourne Cup and, under a superb ride from Michael Kinane, Vintage Crop galloped through the soft ground and into the history books.

The fact that no other European horse, no other Northern Hemisphere horse, won the Cup for another nine years after Vintage Crop’s pioneering victory tells you how difficult it was.  And the second Northern Hemisphere victory was also provided by Weld, Media Puzzle, who was ridden by Damien Oliver to a famously emotional victory in 2002, with another Dermot Weld-trained horse Vinne Roe finishing fourth.

Vinnie Roe went back in 2004 to finish second to the Australian wondermare Makybe Diva.  And the raiders kept on coming. 

Northern Hemisphere horses have fared well in the Cup in the last decade.  The Japanese had a 1-2 in the race in 2006 when the Katsuhiko Sumii-trained Delta Blues beat his compatriot and stable companion Pop Rock by a short head.  French-based trainers Alain de Royer-Dupre and Mikel Delzangles won the race in 2010 and 2011 with Americain and Dunaden respectively, while in 2014, the Andreas Wohler-trained Protectionist won it for Germany under an inspired Ryan Moore.

That’s four wins for the Northern Hemisphere and three for Europe in the last decade, and that record could get even better on Tuesday morning.

It is still not easy, but European-trained horses have a real chance in the Melbourne Cup these days.  It is 23 years since Vintage Crop’s ground-breaking victory, and the world is a smaller place than it was then.  

When the ex-Sir Michael Stoute-trained Fiorente won the Cup in 2013 for Gai Waterhouse, British and Irish-trained horses finished second, third, fourth and fifth.  When Protectionist won it in 2014, he was leading home a European 1-2, and when Prince Of Penzance won the race last year, famously, under Michelle Payne, British and Irish-trained horses finished second, fourth and fifth.

This year, the European challenge is strong, headed up by a three-pronged Irish raid.  Bondi Beach is back for more.  The Aidan O’Brien-trained colt finished down the field in the race last year, but he was only a three-year-old last year, and it is very difficult for three-year-olds to win the Cup.  No three-year-old has won it since Skipton won it in 1941.  That’s 75 years ago.

Moreover, it may be that the St Leger was Bondi Beach’s primary target last year, that the Melbourne Cup would have been a nice bonus.  This year, it is probable that Aidan has had the Melbourne Cup on the Galileo colt’s radar since early in the season, possibly since he returned from Australia 12 months ago.  It would be surprising if he did not fare much better than he did last year.

Tony Martin is set to have his first runner in the Cup when Heartbreak City lines up on Tuesday morning.  Reportedly thriving at his quarantine base at Werribee, the Lando gelding looked like a Group class performer when he won the Ebor at York in August by four lengths off a mark of 103.  He hasn’t run since, but he does go well fresh.

Speaking of heartbreak city, Wicklow Brave completes the Irish triumvirate, his trainer Willie Mullins seeking redress after Max Dynamite went agonisingly close last year.  Simenon was fourth in 2013.  Willie is getting closer.

Set to be ridden by Frankie Dettori – as Max Dynamite was last year – Wicklow Brave probably put up the best performance of his career to date on the flat when he won the Irish St Leger at The Curragh last month, beating subsequent Arc de Triomphe third Order Of St George by a half a length. 

There was a sense that Frankie stole the race from the front that day, but he may have been the winner on merit and, if you take the form at face value, he looks like a well-handicapped horse in the Cup with 8st 9lb on his back.

The local favourite is Hartnell, who was rated 110 at his peak in Britain when he was trained by Mark Johnston.  Beaten eight lengths by the latest Australian wondermare Winx in the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley on his most recent run, he is set to carry 8st 9lb, the same weight as Wicklow Brave, who is rated 118, and Bondi Beach, who is rated 115, and 4lb more than Heartbreak City, who is rated 113.

Hartnell looks like an improved horse since he started racing Down Under, but those figures tell you that, at the very least, the raiders have a chance.  Set your alarm for 4.00am and watch as a nation stops.


© The Sunday Times 30th October 2016